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Talking Military Women, PTSD, and Making a Play with the Ladies of Ithaka

The military is something we don’t talk extensively about in Canada, and even more so, the topic of women in the military. In exciting preparation for the upcoming play Ithaka about precisely those things, director Jessica Anne Nelson and artistic director and cast member Stefania Indelicato chatted with me about women in the army, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and producing a play about an unfamiliar subject.

Ithaka by Andrea Stolowitz is a theatrical Canadian Premiere about a Marine Captain, Elaine Edwards, who has just returned from her latest tour in Afghanistan but this time things are different—home doesn’t feel right and nothing makes sense. After a blow up fight with her husband propels her to skip town, she undertakes an Odyssean journey through the American landscape battling her monsters, trying to find her way home.”

Working as independent producers juggling regular jobs with a budget raised by the community, Indelicato says: “There are certain elements of this play that pose very challenging creative decisions to be made, and as much as we work really hard ... [and] had reasons for all the choices we made ... we’re taking a lot of creative risk. That’s exciting and also terrifying.”

Jessica Anne Nelson, Director

Nelson and Indelicato, who identify as anti-war, were faced with the added challenge of not having a background or much experience with the play’s military subject matter. Nelson remarks that despite having distant relatives and family friends who have gone overseas, military issues feel “slightly removed from us all the same.” So, to understand the story they were telling, they did a ton of research, “A lot of watching things about people in the military,” says Indelicato, for example, “whether it’s fictional interpretations of military things or if it’s documentaries.” She credits Unsung Heroes, a documentary about female soldiers, and Soldier Girls, a book that traces the military lives of women, as part of the project’s intensive research.

The play’s theme is also something rather uncommon in Canadian conversation. “I feel as though in Canada, it’s almost more important for us to even hear this story,” says Indelicato. She refers to the fact that supporting the military is very much ingrained in American culture, while in Canada we focus more on peacekeeping and don’t converse - or know - too much about our troops. Nelson recalls knowing someone who suffers from PTSD who, after returning home, simply did not want to mention it, “sweep[ing] it under the rug for themselves.” Indelicato also recalls the time she met a navy doctor who claimed PTSD was “bullsh*t.” It seems like our society’s lack of conversation on these issues creates a rather unsupportive environment to talk honestly about PTSD.

Nelson believes what civilians misunderstand the most is anyone can go through a traumatic experience and suffer PTSD, “It’s a mental illness, and it deserves the same kind of support and help that we hopefully try to give to other mental illnesses.” She believes it’s unpredictable how each individual will react to an experience. As part of their project research, a team from Ithaka went to the gun range to hold and shoot guns for the first time. “I couldn’t handle it, I freaked out,” Nelson admits. “I had a little emotional breakdown, and it was completely unexpected.”

Stefania Indelicato, Artistic Director and cast member

Still, Indelicato thinks the play having a female protagonist makes the story “incredibly unique.” In fact, “whether or not a woman should [be] on the front lines as a Marine” is “still a debate in the U.S. military.” A simple Google search on “woman marines” yields dozens of debates on whether women should even hold certain positions in the army. Additionally, Indelicato thinks the idea of a woman “aggressor” is “an interesting idea to put forth.” At the end of the day, what makes this play “incredibly refreshing” to her is “having a female protagonist in a play speaking about something that doesn’t have to do with babies and marriage and dating.”

Indelicato discovered the play and asked Nelson to co-direct with her. Nelson describes Indelicato as “inspiring” because “she’s so fiercely passionate about these things that it makes you want to tell this story with her.” Nelson admits that military issues weren’t something in her daily life and mindset before reading this play, but after coming to it, “feel[s] compelled to recognize what’s going on.” There’s also a lot of comedy in the play, because “life is like that,” says Indelicato, “life is constantly tragedy and comedy at the same time.” She believes the play has the right balance between heavy and lighter subject matter, which keeps audiences engaged.

“This is a story that also links us as female,” says Nelson, referring to the female-heavy production team; “we feel very strongly about telling it in a certain light and a certain way with a certain point of view going into it.”

Charmaine majors in Creative Writing and English Literature. Like most other university students, she denies her coffee addiction, embraces her TV addiction, and totally overanalyzes everything because she doesn't know what to do with her life. (But it's all for science, you see, because at the end of the day all she needs is something interesting to write about.) She also loves vinyl collecting, guitar-shredding, and snowboard-shredding the local Vancouver mountains.
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