The girls whisper forlornly as they pace around the stage.
“Where are my sisters? Where are my sisters? Where are my sisters?”
The response, which they call out to each other as they link hands, is one of comfort and solidarity.
“I’m here. I’m here. I’m here.”
These lines are part of the opening scene of “On Her Shoulders,” an original work based on the experiences of nine female military veterans and performed by local high school students. The students deliver monologues based on the veterans’ stories, as well as monologues describing their reactions to those stories. Video clips of the female veterans who helped shape the production are also featured.
On Saturday, there will be two performances of “On Her Shoulders” at Steamer No. 10 Theatre, at 2 and 8 p.m.
The experiences of the featured veterans run the gamut, from sexual assault and homelessness to the stress of working in a combat zone.
At a recent rehearsal, the actors shared bits of their stories, reciting emotionally powerful and heartbreaking lines, such as “When I came home, my daughter didn’t remember me,” and “I came home from a world where everything was structured, where everything was black and white.”
Fifteen-year-old Vaughn O’Connor, a sophomore at Saratoga High School, delivers two of the monologues. One is based on the experiences of a woman who joined the Navy, despite her fear of water. The other is based on the experiences of a veteran who secretly counseled gay service members.
Vaughn has a background in theater and has participated in plays and musicals in the past. But she said “On Her Shoulders” is different from anything she’s ever done before. “You can’t call it a show,” she said. “It’s people’s life stories.”
She’s learned a lot about the military from the play.
“I had no idea what it was like to be in the military, much less what it was like to be a woman in the military,” she said. “I was completely clueless.”
She said she thought the female veterans would be cold and intimidating. Instead, “they became like big sisters.”
“On Her Shoulders” is the brainchild of director Noelle Gentile and the Workforce Development Institute, the Albany nonprofit organization presenting the play.
A 1996 Albany High School graduate, Gentile recently moved back to the area after a 12-year stint in New York, where she worked as an actor and, more recently, a theater educator in the public school system and for organizations such as the Brooklyn Arts Exchange. Much of her work as a theater educator involved creating socially relevant works of theater with high school students.
After returning to the Capital Region, Gentile, 34, met with the Workforce Development Institute to discuss creating an original theater piece. The organization suggested she develop something in collaboration with local female veterans and high school students, and the project grew from there.
In late March, Gentile hosted a daylong workshop at the Stratton VA Medical Center with nine veterans, three active-duty Marines and the teenage members of her cast. In the morning, the veterans shared their stories, which were videotaped. In the afternoon, the cast members met one on one with the veterans. Gentile and local playwright Amelia Whalen crafted the monologues from these sessions, with some help from the girls.
The veterans interviewed for the production came from Guardian House, a home for homeless veterans in Ballston Spa, and the women’s wellness center at Stratton.
The Workforce Development Institute provides employment assistance and training, but also sponsors a number of programs that encourage workers to share their experiences through photography and writing. Victoria Kereszi, the institute’s cultural program coordinator, said the goal of these programs is to give marginalized people a voice. She said she’s impressed with what she’s seen of “On Her Shoulders.”
“The performances are so real and so raw,” she said. “You can really feel the respect the girls have for female veterans.”
Ed Murphy, the institute’s executive director, said the experiences of female veterans don’t receive a lot of attention, and the opportunity to give voice to those experiences made “On Her Shoulders” an appealing project, as did its intergenerational aspect.
“It’s been fascinating to see what the younger women are learning from the older women, and what the older women are learning from the younger women,” said Murphy, a Vietnam veteran. He said portrayals of female veterans tend to emphasize their sexuality or their experiences with rape and sexual abuse. What “On Her Shoulders” does is highlight the diversity of experiences women have in the military.
Maria Maxwell, 47, a Navy reservist from Rome, shared her experiences with Gentile and the cast members, and said she’s excited to attend the play Saturday.
Maxwell said the women who participated in Gentile’s workshop told very different stories but were united by their common desire to serve their country.
“I always wanted to serve,” she said. “I always wanted to do something for somebody else.”
Maxwell served as a mental health professional in Germany from 2007-08, treating soldiers traumatized by their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. She said she remains haunted by what she heard. “There weren’t bombs going off over my head, but the war still came to me,” she said. “The soldiers I talked to are never going to be the same. Their lives have been changed forever.”
Gentile said “On Her Shoulders” showcases her areas of interest: social issues, empowering youth and giving people a voice.
“It’s the culmination of my dream for my life’s work,” she said.
Prior to the project, “I had limited exposure to veterans,” Gentile said. “Working with them was humbling and eye-opening.”
“On Her Shoulders” stars teenagers from throughout the Capital Region.
One of them, 15-year-old Danielle Sloan, a sophomore at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School who learned about the production through an announcement in The Daily Gazette, said she was interested for two reasons: Her brother recently joined the Marines, so she was interested in learning more about the military, and she enjoys reading and writing.
Danielle’s monologue is based on the experiences of a homeless veteran.
“Most of us live in a world where we don’t think about being homeless,” she said. “And then there are people who have sacrificed so much, who end up being homeless. It was a really different point of view for me.”
Seventeen-year-old Brianna Carter, a junior at Columbia High School in East Greenbush, will deliver a monologue based on the experiences of an Operation Desert Storm veteran who was sexually harassed by her fellow soldiers. She said “On Her Shoulders” has taught her “things you can’t learn in school.”
Brianna said she’s considering joining the military, and plans to join the Reserve Officers Training Corps next week to learn more.