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Acting on their beliefs

The students' play about the Iraq war was halted before it could premiere. Old enough to fight in it, they were being silenced and it didn't seem fair.

June 22, 2007|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

Wilton, Conn. — SHE could not look at her principal. The words coming out of his mouth infuriated her.

There would be no play about the war in Iraq, he told the drama class at Wilton High School: The topic was too controversial, too complicated.

Sitting in the front row of the campus theater on a March morning, Erin Clancy squeezed another drama student's hand and tried to hold back tears. They had been preparing for the production of "Voices in Conflict" for two months. One student sitting onstage began to yell and curse. The performing arts department head ordered her to address the principal with respect.

Erin didn't want to offend him either. In her four years at Wilton High, she had grown to like the principal. But this play meant more to her than others she had acted in, like "West Side Story" and "Grease." She had to say something.

Her voice trembled. She was 18 -- old enough to fight in the war, Erin told him, and old enough to vote for leaders who send people to war. So why couldn't she perform in a play about it?

It was not open for debate. Principal Timothy Canty told the students his mind was made up.

He left, and the students swarmed their drama teacher. It had been Bonnie Dickinson's idea for them to research the war and come up with monologues based on the words of U.S. soldiers culled from documentaries, books and articles. Dickinson had stayed quiet during the principal's talk. The students asked her: What do we do now?

Dickinson told them she didn't think there was anything they could do: He was the principal, and he made the rules.

The students talked of writing letters to the local newspaper or protesting the principal's decision. There had to be something they could do to change his mind.

It didn't seem fair, Erin recalled telling her father in their family room later that evening. There was a war going on, and she wanted her classmates to care about it.


IT started as an end-of-the-year project.

Dickinson, 53, a drama teacher at Wilton High School for 13 years, wanted her students to perform something with substance. She thought of a former Wilton High student, Nicholas Madaras, who had joined the Army after graduating in 2005. He was killed in September by a roadside bomb. Dickinson had not followed news about the war closely but figured she could learn about it, along with her students, by creating a play.

She began collecting sources in which soldiers had talked about their experiences. The goal, she told the class, was to present different viewpoints. They would piece together a series of vignettes from real-life characters.

One of several documentaries students watched for their research was called "The Ground Truth," in which veterans condemned the war and their treatment by the military after returning home from Iraq. Many supporters of the war consider it a biased film. To balance the students' references, Dickinson found books and articles in which soldiers talked proudly of their job, and the importance of fighting for freedom.

The veterans in "The Ground Truth" touched some of her students. James Presson, 16, could not get Navy veteran Charlie Anderson out of his mind. In the film, Petty Officer 2nd Class Anderson, 30, talked about suffering from post-traumatic stress, and how his life fell apart after fighting in Iraq.

James was named after his uncle, who died fighting in the Vietnam War. He watched the news daily, and couldn't understand why his teachers did not discuss the war in his social studies classes. He often noticed yellow ribbons, American flags, and "Support Our Troops" banners in Wilton, an affluent community of 18,000 about 50 miles northeast of New York City. But he seldom heard anyone talk about why the troops were fighting and dying.

Watching the film, James wondered how Anderson must have felt to come home to a daughter who didn't remember him and a marriage that fell apart. He thought about what it would be like to go from being a proud U.S. soldier to a lonely veteran who could not find a job.

James wanted to act Anderson's story.

Erin, who loves wearing high heels and anything pink, was surprised she identified with soldiers who had shot people and lost limbs. She empathized with the young woman who joined the military to pay for college and ended up agonizing over starving children in Iraq.

Something Anderson said in the documentary stuck with Erin too. He talked about coming home from the war and trying to relate to his friends:

"It's just that our priorities were different," he said. "It was hard finding friends. People were boring to me, not that I was that interesting of a person. I just always thought they talked about stupid stuff."

Before working on this play, Erin used to listen to reports about Paris Hilton. Now she pays attention to news about soldiers killed in Iraq. Her friends outside of drama class didn't understand her preoccupation.

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