Stephan Wolfert hadn’t planned to stumble drunk into a Montana theater in 1991 for a performance of a play by Shakespeare. The jaded Army veteran also didn’t expect to connect with the medieval character of a crazed, homeless woman up on the stage, or to eventually share the healing he found there with other veterans in New York City and North Texas.
The chance meeting was the beginning of a new path for Wolfert, then in his 20s. It led him back to college to explore the idea of using live theater to help veterans and others deal with the lasting effects of trauma. The result was De-Cruit, a program that mixes the techniques of Wolfert’s classical actors training with input from researchers in psychology and brain trauma.
De-Cruit has started this week offering free, 90-minute, online classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It was initially brought to Fort Worth a few years ago with help from Tarrant County veteran Robin Ludwig and Kathleen Culebro, artistic director of Amphibian Stage Productions.
“We were recruited and wired for war,” says the program’s website, “but never de-cruited and unwired from war.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the program’s performances took place at Amphibian as well as Samaritan House, a facility run by a nonprofit community group that provides housing and other resources to those with major health problems.
At Samaritan House, veterans like Ludwig would bare their souls. A University of Texas at Arlington graduate and former high school English teacher, Ludwig has spent more than 17 years as an Air Force reservist, responding to hurricanes and other natural disasters. Speaking onstage before an audience can be frightening, she says.
“It automatically activates all of those internal stressors that [happen in the brain] with PTSD and other traumatic events. So you are creating, in this very safe [theatrical] environment, a trauma — something your brain recognizes as scary.”
While performing one of her sonnets at Samaritan House before live performances took a hiatus, Ludwig said, “I am the one who raised my right hand. Do these breasts disqualify my service?”
Ludwig, of North Richland Hills, got involved with De-Cruit after hearing about a one-man show, performed by an Army veteran and paired with Shakespeare, which was coming to Fort Worth. The show Cry Havoc! was Wolfert’s personal monologue.
At the time, Ludwig didn’t think that she needed help. But, “Basically, I had a catharsis sitting in the front row,” she says. “Just seeing [Wolfert] tell his story, it just undid me in a very real and a raw way.”
Since then, Ludwig has worked through issues, she says, by putting her resurfaced feelings into a narrative, and as a teacher in De-Cruit, she is helping others.
“The military trains us in a very specific way, but there’s no retraining to go back into society,” she says. De-Cruit helps people “rewire their brain so their neuro systems kind of have time to reset and they’re not always at a heightened level trying to respond to a threat.”
Military service didn’t take Wolfert to official war zones when he left college to join the Army, but it took him through plenty of trauma. While training “under the radar” in Central America, the Wisconsin native says, he was shot at and shot at other people. And back in the United States, a close friend was killed during a military exercise while training for desert warfare after the first Gulf War, he says.
“He was killed right in front of me,” Wolfert remembers of his friend's death. “I was there visiting and hanging out with him and as soon as they were done, we were going to go out partying.”
After his accidental foray into the Montana theater, Wolfert left the Army as soon as he could. He wandered for a year, living in his truck. Eventually, he went back to college to study theater and earned his master's of fine arts. Wolfert says the actor’s training he received — including grounding breathing techniques — helped him heal and also became part of the basis for De-Cruit.
The play Wolfert saw at that Montana theater was Richard III. As he watched, he realized that some of the characters showed symptoms of the strains of war.
One character, Margaret of Anjou, “becomes the equivalent of a penniless, homeless veteran,” cursing at other characters. Since then, Wolfert believes, he’s found PTSD-like symptoms in many of Shakespeare’s characters.
Shakespeare lived during the Hundred Years War, Ludwig says. “He would have had a very close working knowledge of people who were dealing with what we now know to be PTSD.”
Another online program, Shake it Off, which is based on De-Cruit, also launches this week. Mitchell Stephens, an actor and Texas Christian University graduate who’s taught De-Cruit to veterans in the Tarrant County jail, will instruct the free, online classes available Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights. According to a press release, the sessions are for “anyone looking for community, perspective and guidance during these strange times.”
Veterans in the program can “dig into the text and see these experiences transcend race, gender and class and time,” Ludwig says. They also write personal trauma monologues, which they interweave with scenes from Shakespeare.
Ludwig noted that while performing her monologue, previously at the Amphibian, it was as if audience members helped carry the trauma.
“They were able to bear that burden with me and make it lighter,” she says. “It became a shared experience.”