"I will only understand a tiny smidgeon of experience," said Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel, in a recent HowlRound conversation with Wilma Theater Artistic Director Blanka Zizka. "I can't represent it. I have no right to represent it. But the fact that I want to understand it is sort of my primary charge." This intellectual curiosity served as the jumping-off point for a two-year exploration of the war veteran experience, undertaken by Vogel and Zizka with substantial input from individuals who have lived through recent wars in the Middle East and their aftermath. The result was Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq, Vogel's world premiere play, directed by Zizka. Delving into prevalent issues of post-traumatic stress disorder and sexual assault in the military, Don Juan has been described in reviews as "emotionally and intellectually challenging" and a "brave exploration of the moral conundrums of modern war." It was also the final act of a bold experiment in theater-making as a collaborative journey—a journey that began for Vogel and Zizka in 2011, after the discovery of a shared love for Ödön von Horváth.
Horváth, a Weimar era playwright and contemporary of Bertolt Brecht, served as the initial inspiration for Vogel's script, specifically his 1936 play Don Juan Comes Back from the War. As Holly L. Derr explains in Ms. Magazine, "Horváth's play is based on the question: Who would Don Juan be after serving in World War I and returning to an economically devastated Germany where fascism was on the rise? Likewise, Vogel asked: Who would Don Juan be after multiple tours in Iraq?" To find out, Vogel and Zizka embarked on a series of workshops with American veterans to learn from their experiences and to incorporate them into an as-yet-unwritten script. Participants not only discussed what they had been through at war and coming home, but were also encouraged to write their own short plays, which were presented on stage at a free Wilma event. As A.D. Amorosi described in the Philadelphia Inquirer, "Their spoken and written versions of hell on Earth were funneled into Don Juan." A group of actors also participated in their own collaborative sessions, contributing ideas and their own writings, which led to the play's casting. It was only after these sessions that a script emerged—an unusual approach that Vogel calls "an extraordinary shortcut."
The two-year development process afforded Zizka the time and flexibility she sought in order to create an immersive theater experience, one that reaches beyond the production's cast and crew. "Writers write in isolation, actors are hired for a job at the last moment, and mostly they are typecast," she said. "Theater is an art form, but no art form can push forward if we don't invest time into development and experimentation." Vogel also embraced the idea of moving beyond the "factory model of efficiency" that results in a finished, polished script prior to a play's production. "This collision," she said, "this wonderful creative collision of voices in the room—I've never in my life worked like this. For the first time I feel like a company member. And I'm working for people whose voices I'm hearing."