War: What is Good for? Well, Lots of Words

Andrew Carroll calls them "the world's greatest undiscovered literature," and anyone who's seen Ken Burn's monolithic documentary The Civil War would certainly agree. They are letters written during war-time, primarily those sent from soldiers mired in the blood, mud and, often, boredom, of the front lines.

War-time letters are the focus of Carroll's new play, If All the Sky Were Paper, which ends its world premiere run at Chapman University this weekend. Based on letters published in two books compiled by Carroll, along with unpublished letters discovered by Carroll's 12-year-old Legacy Project the 100-minute play, which features an 18-person cast either reading the letters, or narrating their context, seems well-suited for history buffs and fans of oral history theater projects.

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According to a blog posted on Chapman's website, John Benitz, an assistant professor of theatre at the school, read a story in National Geographic several years ago about the Legacy Project, an all-volunteer project started in 1998 by Carroll that seeks to find and preserve wartime correspondence,

Benitz was so taken with the story that he thought a stage play could present the emotional power and frank honesty of the letters dramatically. He contacted Carroll, and a collaboration was born.

The play is based on letters published in two of Carroll's books: War Letters and Behind the Lines, as well as letters found by Carroll's Legacy Project. That all-volunteer project has collected more than 85,000 previously unpublished letters, and e-mails, from every major conflict in U.S. history.

Garrett Schweighhauser serves as Carroll, the narrator of the play. He describes why certain letters, whether written by or to soldiers grabbed his attention--usually due to their poignancy or immediacy--followed by members of the 17-person cast, portraying everything from idealistic farmboys to Civil War Wives, who recite the words.

Many of the actors are the same age as the letter-writers, which emphasizes the emotion conveyed in the letters, which range from the drama of battlefield experience to the humor found in everyday life on the front lines and the home front.

"There's something of the essence of the letters that are believed and lived with an actor on this stage with you," Benitz said in a panel discussion that followed last Saturday's performance.

Chapman University's Waltmar Theatre, 1 University Dr., Orange,  (714) 997-6812.  Fri-Sun., 7:30 p.m., and Sat., 2 p.m. $15-$20. Tickets are free for all veterans and active-duty military personnel. www.chapman.edu/copa/calendar/ticketSales.asp.

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