The result is a play, How to Leave a Battlefield, which will be performed on campus
Wars tend to be remembered for their battlefield glory or decisive military action, not for soldiers’ recovery and reintegration into civilian life. A CU Boulder senior, however, is using theatre and veterans’ own words to change that.
When Sean Guderian was a freshman, an English class writing assignment propelled him on a four-year search for answers he found by interviewing military veterans. He recorded many hours of interviews with veterans of wars and conflicts. As he listened to their combat stories, he asked them what happened after.
“I wanted to know how soldiers come home as veterans and live out the rest of their lives after living through the most extreme dangers and responsibilities life can throw at you,” said Guderian, who is majoring in theatre performance and journalism.
The culmination of his work is How to Leave a Battlefield, a stage play Guderian wrote using transcripts from some of the recorded interviews in the hopes of shining a light on soldiers transitioning to civilian life. His play will be presented April 16 and 17 at 7 p.m.; and April 20 at 2 p.m., in the Loft Theatre, in the CU Boulder Theatre Building.
"I think that what most people don't realize is that for war vets, the real war doesn't start until after they leave the battlefield. Which is the fight for their own existence."
Erik Lincoln Stevenson, infantry machine gunner and Marine scout sniper, United States Marine Corps, 1996–2000
"Yeah, I find that people who go through trauma and heal and help repair themselves are really . . . awesome human beings."
Robert Sampson, infantry, 196th and 198th Light Infantry Brigade, Vietnam, 1971–72
Guderian was studying English when the project began. His writing group at the time, the Literary Buffs, visited Frazier Meadows, a Boulder retirement community, to entertain the residents with essays and short stories. During the visit, he met with two World War II veterans who shared stories about their experiences in combat. These stories gave Guderian a glimpse into the extent of what they encountered—“both incredible and horrific.”
Hearing their wartime experiences gave Guderian the idea for a theatre project that focused on the veterans’ return to civilian life rather than their time spent in combat. Not everyone was willing to have their raw stories open and bare on the stage. After speaking to about 30 veterans, he wrote a play using the testimonials of seven.
“I didn’t want to focus on the pain of war,” he said. “And while it did come up, and there’s some of it in the play to place things in context, it was important that we didn’t dwell on that. The message in the show is healing and how the veterans felt they were supported after they came back.”
“How do you leave a battlefield?” was always the primary question, and the answers Guderian received varied. Many of the veterans he talked with will never leave the battlefield in their minds. Others were more optimistic.
“It’s so easy to generalize a soldier,” Guderian said. “Here’s someone who signed up, gone to war, and when they returned are hurt by that. I was interested in the relationship with their service and how they live today.
“For as bad as things were for them, I’ve had veterans say they don’t regret joining and serving, because of how much they learned through the experience. In juxtaposition of that, there are situations where they carried out orders they regret,” he said. “They have to find a way to live with that.”
Guderian is framing his play based on the style of playwright and actor Anna Deavere Smith, widely recognized for developing a form of theatre dedicated to social change.
Guderian was introduced to this style of testimonial theatre in a class taught by Cecilia Pang, associate professor in theatre and dance at CU Boulder. Pang, who is Guderian’s faculty advisor, served as Smith’s assistant on the 1994 premiere of Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 about the Los Angeles riots.
Drawing on her own experience with this specialized type of performance, based on the testimonials of real people, but presented by actors on a minimal set, Pang coached Guderian on how to conduct interviews for this documentary-type theatre performance. She also taught him how to “conduct, transcribe and enact the interviews” in Smith’s style.
“It’s fascinating to see how the veterans opened up to Sean,” Pang said. “His script is genuine. It’s about authenticity. This show is a new technique for our students, because it’s not covered in CU’s curriculum. The experience has been a truly worthy endeavor for Sean. What has impressed me so much about Sean is that he has a vision, initiative and followed through with it.”
For his project, Guderian received a grant from CU Boulder’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. UROP helps students develop their own projects under the mentorship of a faculty member. Guderian’s grant will go toward paying the student actors and crew.
This will be Guderian’s first stage show that he produced and directed.
“Sean is very clear on this show,” Pang said. “It’s his single-minded pursuit of a dream.”