A Different Kind of Theater of War

November 10, 2017

Helping to re-stage long-lost World War II musicals gave one GC student a glimpse of what life is like for veterans.

Jennifer Joan Thompson performed in Blueprint Specials in January.

War is the impetus for many things, including theater. Graduate Center Ph.D. candidate Jennifer Joan Thompson (Theatre) learned this firsthand earlier this year through the production of Blueprint Specials, the critically acclaimed revival of long-lost World War II musicals composed by Frank Loesser - of Guys and Dolls fame - and choreographer Jose Limon.

In the summer of 1944, the U.S. Army commissioned Loesser and Limon, both privates, to develop a series of Broadway-style musicals to ship overseas for soldiers to perform. After the war, Loesser went on to real Broadway success, while Limon loomed large in the American modern dance movement. Yet their Army musicals remained largely unknown, reduced to footnotes in their biographies.

Tom Ridgely, artistic director at Waterwell theater company, stumbled upon just such a footnote in Frank Loesser's Wikipedia entry and grew intrigued. He invited Thompson, with whom he had collaborated on other projects, to help research the plays and recreate them.

Thompson, an accomplished actor and playwright with a deep interest in ways that the state and society shape theater, was game. Turning to the Graduate Center Library, she helped hunt down four of the plays. She then collaborated with Ridgely to stitch them together into Blueprint Specials, which was mounted at New York's Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum - a converted U.S. Navy aircraft carrier - to much fanfare. The New York Times and The New Yorker covered the historic production.

Besides helping to adapt the show, Thompson performed in it alongside Tony nominees Laura Osnes (Cinderella, Bonnie and Clyde) and Will Swenson (Hair) and a slew of other actors, a number of whom were veterans.

Never before had Thompson spent so much time with so many veterans, an experience she described as "one of the most rewarding and interesting aspects" of the show. A number of the service-members opened up about the importance of doing something joyful in the midst of war and appreciated the show's humor, as dated as it was.

"The women talk about getting men and nylons, and you're thinking," This is not so feminist and was not reflective of the experience," Thompson said. Yet, she appreciated that these were pieces from a different period, intended for a different audience. That is one reason that she worked hard to organize post-show discussions, including one with Professor Elizabeth Wollman (GC/Baruch, Theatre).

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The opportunity to continue working as an actor and playwright is something that Thompson especially appreciates about being at the Graduate Center. "That's been really encouraged in our program," she said.

Not that she is neglecting her studies. With funding from the Graduate Center and the Social Science Research Council, she has traveled twice to Chile to conduct research for her dissertation on how democratization and related changes to Chile's cultural policies have shaped the country's contemporary theater.

This fall, she received a $33,000 Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad award, which she will use to fund eight months of fieldwork in Santiago, Chile, where she will conduct archival research; interview artists and cultural policy workers; and attend shows, theater festivals, and rehearsals.

"It's been really, really wonderful," Thompson said of her Graduate Center experience. "For someone working in theater, the great thing is being able to combine the practice of theater with studying its theory and history."

Photo by Ryan Jensen