Jonathan Rockwood Hoar loves the effect theater can have on people — especially veterans. He’s the artistic director for Veterans in Performing Arts (VIPA), a Portsmouth-based nonprofit that puts veterans on stage and behind the scenes in local theaters. When veterans return home from service, their needs aren’t limited just to housing, jobs, and other necessities. “You need something else,” Hoar says. “You need to learn a skill, you need to socialize, you need to work on your soul somehow.”
And that’s what VIPA does, according to Hoar. For the last two years, the company has been staging productions throughout the Seacoast, with shows at the Rochester Opera House and the West End Studio Theater. The group’s latest show, “An Evening on the Homefront,” will run Friday to Sunday, Dec. 19-21, at WEST.
The idea for VIPA came to Hoar during a National Guard drill weekend. A fellow Guard member was “quoting movie after movie,” Hoar says, “getting into the nitty-gritty character details in a way only an actor would. … I said, ‘I’m going to get you involved in theater,’ and a bunch of us decided we should form our own group.”
Hoar was born and raised in Portsmouth and performed in productions in Prescott Park when he was a teenager. “When I was a kid going through homelessness, theater is what kept me going and kept me afloat,” he says.
“The theater and the military do mix, but you’ve got to do it right,” he says. “It’s not a panacea and it’s not good for everybody, but getting these guys and girls involved with theater has helped them with issues of isolation.”VIPA put on its first show, a production of “A Few Good Men,” at the Rochester Opera House in 2012. Only six people turned out to audition for a show with more than 30 roles, Hoar says. But, since then, VIPA has grown to include more than close to 20 veterans who regularly perform and work backstage. Some of VIPA’s members are still on active duty, Hoar says — one member is being deployed in February. Hoar himself was honorably discharged from the National Guard in 2005.
“It’s not a panacea and it’s not good for everybody, but getting these guys and girls involved with theater has helped them with issues of isolation.”
The goal with each production is to create a community for veterans and to help them integrate back into the larger community. “We want to get those people who are isolated, who feel like a broken piece of equipment, who feel like they no longer have a community, who feel like they’re no longer appreciated,” he says. The group also gives veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder or the effects of traumatic brain injuries a place where they can be themselves.
“Only vets really get what other vets are going through,” Hoar says.
VIPA members like to push each other when it comes to the creative aspects of a show, but are careful to respect boundaries. The idea is to give veterans both a creative outlet and a community. One of the company’s members recently needed a new car after his suddenly broke down, and Hoar says other VIPA members quickly rallied and gave him a new vehicle. There are other benefits, too — Hoar’s found that returning veterans don’t always know the full range of benefits they should be receiving through the Veteran’s Administration and the GI Bill. “We’re able to point that out,” he says.
Air Force veteran Stacy Lynn Brown got involved with VIPA during their October production of Neil Simon’s play “Biloxi Blues.” The group is open to all veterans, no matter what prior experience they’ve had in the arts.
“That’s one of our bigger goals as an organization, to let those who may feel isolated know that there is a place for them, whether they like the arts or not. We’re willing to teach them tech stuff, or to act if they want to act or if they want to sing. We’re letting them know we’re all in this together,” she says.
Above, VIPA members perform in Biloxi Blues.
VIPA’s latest show, “An Evening on the Homefront,” is a collection of sketches and monologues with a holiday theme. It’s going to be a “very light” show, Hoar says, but with moments that will be “emotional and powerful without being depressing.” Among the sketches, songs, and scenes, are a piece by David Sedaris and a song from local playwright Billy Butler’s musical, “Missing: Wynter.” Along with VIPA performers, the cast also includes some professional actors and youth performers.
The group officially became a nonprofit this fall, and Hoar says that, along with producing shows, VIPA’s next step is doing more outreach and hosting classes for veterans in the Seacoast and beyond. “We welcome almost everyone … we’ll take people who are first time actors and we’ll take people with Broadway experience,” he says.
“An Evening on the Homefront” will be at West End Studio Theater, 959 Islington St., Portsmouth, Dec. 19-21. Tickets are available at vipaehf.brownpapertickets.com or at the box office.