You're in the Army now
Audacious auteur Josh Fox gets his war on in the interactive Surrender.
Tue Oct 21 2008
Photograph: Spencer Gordon
An incredible number of books, films and plays have grappled with the current conflict in the Middle East and its far-reaching effects, but nothing has addressed the war in Iraq—or war in general—quite like International WOW Company’s Surrender. In this interactive, three-act epic, the audience dons fatigues, straps on weapons and goes through basic training, simulated combat and homecoming over the course of three and a half hours.
Created by the company’s artistic director, Josh Fox, and Iraq War veteran–cum-author Jason Christopher Hartley, this production sounds like a grueling undertaking—and it is an intense workout that sprawls over the Ohio Theatre. (Fox hopes to attract “the Crunch and Chelsea Piers crowd.”) But the feelings it kicks up may not be what you expect. Surrender aims to be a visceral experience; as the soldier-spectators clear rooms and lob grenades, their opinions, viewpoints and politics might get blown up too.
“This piece is completely apolitical,” Fox—a longtime activist and founding member of THAW (Theaters Against War)—insists without irony. “I hate to generalize, but a lot of this protest stuff seems totally gay if you’re in the military, and a lot of the military stuff seems totally immoral and evil if you’re on the protest side. And both sides are utterly wrong. So I’m standing here in the middle, trying to be a provocateur.”
Ideally, Fox, 36, hopes to spark a conversation between two sides that rarely speak, although he realizes that his audience probably won’t include a lot of vets. Still, he thinks all participants will come out learning something about themselves and human nature in general. “When you get in this training, you transform,” he says. “It plugs into survival instincts that you don’t think you have. You cannot possibly fight them.”
Fox began developing the piece two years ago while shooting his first feature film, the war-themed spring-break flick Memorial Day. Hartley, 34, who served in Iraq in 2004 and published the ’05 memoir Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq, was working as an advisor on the movie when Fox pitched him the idea for Surrender. “I love the taboo,” says Hartley, who’s in his 17th year in the Army. “There’s nothing that I enjoy more than stuff that makes people uncomfortable. Taking people off the street and having to train them on how to kill—that’s immediately kind of awkward.”
Lest anyone think the show is just a dark variation on Tony n’ Tina–type entertainment, Surrender features the trademark theatricality of the International WOW Company (The Bomb, Limitless Joy), or as Fox puts it, “People hanging from the ceiling and covered in blood and great images and dance sequences, all those kinds of things that people expect from us.” While there is room for improvisation, the structure is tight. In Act I, Hartley and his squad leaders (all actors personally schooled by him) take the audience through a crash-course boot camp. At each performance, 63 spectators are broken into squads of nine (including two actors as squad leaders). During Act II, the troops go through a ten-room installation in three-minute segments, attempting to achieve various military goals. Some soldiers will die, or get wounded, or accidentally kill civilians, but by intermission, everyone will have a beer in their hands and be on their way home.
Act III is slightly more traditional, with audience members in seats and performers acting out various homecoming scenarios—a couple’s reunion, recovery at Walter Reade, a funeral. But the audience isn’t off the hook: As spectators’ names are called, they come up on stage and read their lines from a karaoke scroller screen.
Despite its heavy subject, Surrender can be a blast, which doesn’t surprise Hartley, who says his time in Iraq was “fucked up but fun” and characterizes the military as “an addiction.” Fox understands his feelings. “This is like going to a rave without the drugs,” he says. “It’s its own high. This stuff is incredibly fun, which is something we don’t like to look at.” And while Fox continues to oppose the war in Iraq, working on Surrender has opened his eyes. “I had some hard-core pacifists say to me that we don’t need a military and that I shouldn’t even work with them—which is ridiculous,” he says. “If we’re living in that kind of zone, we can’t possibly make progress. How can we refuse to look at this and go, ‘Oh, I wish we didn’t have war.’ That’s just not realistic.”
Surrender is at the Ohio Theatre Sat 25–Nov 16.