Iraq's Drama: An Easier Sell On The Stage? Iraq-war movies always seem to flop: Stop Loss, Redacted, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah — all were box-office disappointments. But several plays about Iraq have been hits. Why does Iraq work on stage but not on screen?
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Iraq's Drama: An Easier Sell On The Stage?

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Iraq's Drama: An Easier Sell On The Stage?

Iraq's Drama: An Easier Sell On The Stage?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Movies about the current war in Iraq have been box office flops. "Stop Loss," "Redacted," "Rendition" and the "Valley of Elah." Even "Body of Lies," with the star power of Leonardo DiCaprio, failed to draw the expected audience. Most critics don't like these movies, either. But a number of plays about Iraq have been both critical and commercial successes. NPR's Neda Ulaby wondered why Iraq works on stage but not on screen.


NEDA ULABY: I'm in a village in the Iraqi province of Anbar, embedded with a group of U.S. soldiers raiding houses in search of insurgents.

ULABY: Go. Go, I need you to search him.

ULABY: Actually, I'm in a play, an interactive drama called "Surrender." It's playing now off-off Broadway. Audiences are given military fatigues and undergo basic training.

ULABY: This is called the front-leaning rest position, also known as the push-up. Everyone knock out 10. Just go ahead...

ULABY: The sergeant, an actual Iraq war veteran, explains how to handle an M-4 weapon and drills the audience on clearing rooms and searching the bodies of prisoners of war. Then the real action begins. It's kind of like an Iraq war-themed haunted house. Actors playing officers lead squads of audience members to a series of dark, cramped rooms filled with dead Iraqi men and screaming Iraqi women.


ULABY: "Surrender" is one of at least seven plays about Iraq invading New York theaters this season. They include "Beast," "In Conflict," "Geometry of Fire," and a hit play from the National Theater of Scotland.

ULABY: Welcome to this story of the "Black Watch." At first, I didn't want to do this.

ULABY: The play "Black Watch" follows a famous Scottish military regiment during war zone hell in Iraq.


ULABY: "Black Watch" saw rapturous reviews when it played in New York last year. So producer Susan Feldman brought it back for a second run this fall.

BLOCK: It sold out in three days. You know, it sold - you know, like 3,500 tickets, 4,000 tickets in three days.

ULABY: It's possible that plays about Iraq have found more success than movies because their audiences are more affluent, better educated and less risk givers, but there may be more to it. Producer Susan Feldman says "Black Watch," for example, could never work as a movie.

BLOCK: I just don't think it's doable as a naturalistic representation. You'd have to show a real battle, you know, and then you have to show the limbs being blown up and then it gets too literal, and people can't really watch it that easily.

ULABY: Theater is abstract and metaphorical. That might make it easier to confront such a painful topic. And it's easier for theater to explore points of view often overlooked by Hollywood, like the lives of Iraqi women.

BLOCK: Leave Iraq?


BLOCK: No, I could move. I suppose.

ULABY: Playwright and performer Heather Raffo(ph) is Iraqi-American. Her play, "9 Parts of Desire," is based in part on the experiences of her family in Baghdad. It sold out for months in New York and toured for the next three years. Raffo played nine characters, ranging from a despairing exile to an excitable teenager.


BLOCK: I hate my mama. Papa, my father said I am smart but Mama, she say I'm stupid. I have not been to school since America came because you're stupid, she say. You don't need to go to school. But I think she doesn't like the soldiers. They came to our school. They look like NSYNC - mostly Justin Timberlake - and they made all the girls to laughing really hard. And since that day, she won't let me go to school because I wave to them.

ULABY: Right now, "9 Parts of Desire" is the fifth most-produced play in the United States, according to American Theatre magazine. Raffo says it's been particularly popular at colleges. They divide the roles between student actors.

BLOCK: Which is thrilling because then you have nine, 19-, 20-year-old girls all doing the research, becoming an Iraqi woman.

ULABY: Theater is by its very nature more intimate and immediate for actors and for audiences. "Surrender" is an extreme example. That's the Iraq war simulation now playing in New York. After their tour of duty, the audience finds itself in the Kuwait International Airport. There's rock music, strippers and beer.

BLOCK: It was terrifying and exhausting.

ULABY: Audience member Brigit Huppock.

BLOCK: And touching and unnerving.

ULABY: That's exactly the response the creators of "Surrender" hoped for. Jason Christopher Hartley is a 19-year National Guardsman, who played the drill officer at the beginning. He hopes to communicate the paradox he experienced while serving in combat in Iraq.

BLOCK: I want to be a good person; I don't want to hurt people. I want to be a good infantryman, and I want to destroy my enemy - and as many as I can. Now, because I've searching for some kind of warrior philosophy, how can I be a good person, and how can I be a good soldier? And I've come to that point and stop, and I'm still continually trying to understand it. And I would like people to be able to kind of come to that same point, even if it's only on an intellectual level in theater.

ULABY: The theater company producing "Surrender" is called International WOW. Its mission is to create understanding between cultures. In this case, says artistic director Josh Fox, that's between artsy downtown New York theater-goers and military culture.

BLOCK: Unless the two sides know a little bit about how each other work, then there's no way to bridge that gap.

ULABY: Fox is also a filmmaker. He says one reason why this war has not been successful on film is because so many studios have closed their indie and art-house divisions. It's really hard right now, he says, for indies to get financing and distribution.

BLOCK: Film is in trouble...

ULABY: Josh Fox says maybe it makes sense that theater is now the space where a culture processes its reaction to something as primal and complicated as war. After all, he points out, it's more or less in theater's DNA. The oldest surviving play in theater history is called the "The Persians," by Aeschylus. It's set in the Middle East, and it's about a military defeat that took place 2,500 years ago. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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