Shakespeare Workshop Helps Veterans Heal

By Trevor Keller | November 10, 2016


Milwaukee actor and therapist Nancy Smith-Watson and her husband have always loved Shakespeare.

“Shakespeare tells the best stories. He tells them in the most beautiful, poetic language, and that really offers a place to put big anger, big grief, big joy, big anything you’ve got, and gives it a place to go,” Smith-Watson said.

Together they founded “Feast of Crispian,” an organization providing three-day Shakespeare intensives for veterans at Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee.

Most veterans who participate are in the hospital for treatment programs ranging from drug addiction to post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We’re really invested in them being comfortable back in civilian society and in their life again,” Smith-Watson said.

The program was founded in 2013. Veterans participate on a volunteer basis. The three-day intensive has veterans act out short Shakespeare scenes selected by Smith-Watson and her husband. Professional actors stand at each veteran’s shoulder, feeding them one line at a time until a scene is complete. Smith-Watson says this allows the veteran to use the line in a way that’s best for them.

“They can tell us something about the experience of their own personal stories, without it being their personal story,” Smith-Watson said.

Army Veteran Omar Kebir suffered multiple injuries in combat, including a gunshot wound. He became addicted to opiates during his recovery from subsequent back surgeries. He says the program worked for him because he’s always felt like an actor.

“Nobody’s Rambo, nobody’s Chuck Norris in those movies,” Kebir said, “Every day you learn to act. Every day you learn how to put on the tough guy persona.”

Veteran Melvin Ridgenal, Jr. joined the Air Force in 1961. After leaving the Air Force, he also fell into drug addiction and began abusing marijuana and cocaine. It wasn’t until 2008 that he was diagnosed with PTSD and began to seek help through programs like Feast of Crispian.

“It gave me an opportunity to see how far I’ve come in terms of my emotions,” Ridgenal said.

Smith-Watson says that’s the goal of her program. She says many veterans with PTSD become emotionally numb to their condition.

“A lot of things get expressed that they haven’t gotten to express before,” Smith-Watson said.

Kebir found the entire experience to be therapeutic. 

“She knows how to connect with the part of your brain, the part of your mind, that you’ve stashed all this stuff in,” Kebir said.

Feast of Crispian has expanded beyond the weekend workshops to hold full theatrical productions with veterans. The actors for those performances come from the three-day intensives, and that’s where Smith-Watson says the real metamorphosis happens.

“We’re pretty devoted to this work because of the high of watching that,” Smith-Watson said, “Watching some of the transition that happens, some of the transformation that happens in some of these people.”

This story is part of Veterans Coming Home, a collaborative, multi-platform public media project between Wisconsin Public Television and Kindling Group in partnership with local stations and other national organizations. Veterans Coming Home is made possible with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Trevor Keller

Trevor Keller

Trevor Keller is Executive Producer of “Wisconsin Life” for PBS Wisconsin. He loves photography and is always looking for a new Wisconsin park, trail or scenic overlook to explore.

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