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Milwaukee VA Medical Center


Healing through Shakespeare

Mental health patients can find solace in writing, singing, or even acting. The “Feast of Crispian,” using works of Shakespeare, sounds like acting but it’s not.

"Feast of Crispian" took place on the weekend of Oct. 4-6, focusing on the use of the works of William Shakespeare to allow veterans to tell their story.

By Antony Kamps
Wednesday, October 16, 2013

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me, Shall be my brother; be ne’er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition.” – William Shakespeare (King Henry V)

There are many ways of treating mental health conditions; creative arts are used by the Milwaukee VA as a form of treatment. Mental health patients can find solace in writing, singing, or even acting. The “Feast of Crispian,” using works of Shakespeare, sounds like acting but it’s not. 

The healing process is a long, and difficult, road for those dealing with depression and drugs and alcohol addictions. Traditionally people take part in group therapy or one-on-one sessions and talk about their issues. “Feast of Crispian” defies traditional treatment, instead using words from the works of William Shakespeare to deal with their issues. 

“I’ve been in hours and hours of therapy, nothing ever reached me at the level that this did,” said Tomra Gorski, a veteran and participant in the program. “I was still hiding behind my walls; if you just let it work it’s an amazing journey.”

Nancy Smith-Watson, a professional actress, and one of the three facilitators of the program, talked about how the program is about therapy not performing.

“The core work is meant to be therapeutic and not performative,” said Smith-Watson. “We don't want any pressure put on the participants about talent or quality.”

Smith-Watson and her husband saw how well it worked for juvenile delinquents in Massachusetts. Hearing a report about the enormous needs of veterans in the mental health department they decided the need is more prevalent for our country’s heroes.

“They’re looking for a way of expressing emotions of their own, they’re looking for a way of healing,” said Smith-Watson. “It’s a way for them to tell their story without actually telling their story.”

No participant is ever asked to share their story of why they are there. The program wants to tap into the emotional side of the struggles the participants are dealing with, believing this breaks down the walls they put up, walls which are preventing them from actually starting the healing process. 

“I’ve gotten more out of those couple days then I have in months talking to my therapist,” said Stanley Perry, another veteran participating in the program. “An eye-opening experience, opening up your soul and your heart because you feel so comfortable, it just breaks you down.

“When I say break you down it’s not like they break you down, you break yourself down because it’s so comfortable and at ease you open yourself up before you even realize it.” 

Dustin Whitworth, Navy veteran, has struggled to deal with his addictions and homelessness. Those addictions cost him his family, something he continues to struggle with. 

“I think we’re all actors anyway, especially addicts as we all lie a lot,” said Whitworth.

During one session Whitworth is given a line from Hamlet: “Give me my father?” Unbeknown to Smith-Watson and the rest of the group, Whitworth was only 6-years-old when his father abandoned him and his family. It becomes even more poignant now with being a father himself. 

“We're working with him on that, and (Dustin) finally said ‘I don’t have a relationship with my father, so I don’t know where to go with this’,” said Smith-Watson. “The fact he is a father, he had to start thinking about that in terms of being a father and that relationship.”

The line struck a chord.

“I felt pretty broken and pretty vulnerable,” said Whitworth. “All you’re doing is saying lines but you don’t have time to lie to them, or lie to yourself.

“Pretty powerful and intense,” he added.

VA officials say need for help in the mental health department for veterans is at an all-time high.  Many are too proud or have gone through the traditional therapy, feeling it has failed in their road to recovery, making it even more difficult to sign them up. Progressive therapy groups face this problem, and need to find a way to get past it.

“I have never seen something touch people the way this program does,” said Perry. “I am as stone as they come with a wall, but I cried like a baby most of the weekend.”

Whitworth quickly followed that up by saying, “He was like a waterfall.” 

“I have seen a medicine. That's able to breathe life into a stone. Quicken a rock, and make you dance canary. With spritely fire and motion, whose simple touch is powerful to araise King Pippen.” – William Shakespeare (All’s Well that Ends Well)

For more information on Feast of Crispian, or other mental health programs contact Shep Crumrine at 414-384-2000, ext. 42433.


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