That’s what the Los Angeles Times wrote about Tom Burmester’s “Gospel According to First Squad,” currently on stage at UC Davis.
It’s high praise for Burmester, who grew up in Davis, and is now making a name for himself in theater in Los Angeles and other places where his works are presented.
“Gospel” is the third in what ultimately will be a four-play “War Cycle.” Burmester is working on the script for the fourth play, while considering the current show still a “work in progress.”
I asked how a kid raised in a nuclear-free town, a city of all things right and relevant, developed such an interest in writing about war. While he would not pinpoint his interest on his upbringing, he explained that “a lot of it came from my dad,” Dave Burmester, now retired and a beloved former English teacher at Davis High School.
“I took as many of his classes as I could when I was in high school and I remember a fascinating unit on war literature,” Tom Burmester said. “Some of that probably rubbed off on me.”
The Gulf War was being waged when Tom was a senior in high school and he saved every article he could find from the San Francisco Chronicle “just because I had a sense that there was something significant happening and I was going to want to look back on that time and remember.”
In 2004, after graduating from UCLA, he and other out-of-work professional and non-professional actors founded the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble, which formed partly with funds raised during a Ghostlight Theatre Festival here in Davis.
The Ensemble ultimately became “The Powerhouse” after the group took over an old Southern California Edison building in Santa Monica. They performed there for several years until the lease expired and the landlord hiked the rent so high that even with box-office income and grants from Santa Monica, the young company couldn’t make it.
The first thing the Ensemble did was a production of Burmester’s thesis project from UCLA, but it was a two-person play and, realizing that it’s hard to build a group around two people, they decided to “create something.” A socially conscious group, they wanted something relevant and decided to focus on the war in Iraq.
He explained, “We were at war, but none of us felt like we were at war.” He was working for a group called Rock the Vote, and doing research for a paper on the issue of bringing back the military draft.
“When you have a universal draft, you can’t ignore the war,” he said.
The bill didn’t pass, but the members of the ensemble took this issue on, and decided to have a season that examined the overlooked.
“The news was into this idea of the counter of how many had been killed. It was ticking up to 2,000,” Burmester said. “That’s not really overlooked, but what is overlooked is the wounded. When you are wounded it not only changes your life, but the lives of everyone around you.”
They started doing research into that, but since no members of the group had been to war and none of them had been wounded, they knew they had to go to the source. Burmester tried to connect with people in the Army. He wanted to go to Walter Reed Hospital, but was not able to get past the bureaucratic barriers.
Then help came from an unlikely source. Through Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” cartoon, Burmester learned of a nonprofit organization, Fisher House, that serves the military. It maintains homes on military campuses that are specifically for severely wounded veterans and their families. The philosophy is that healing takes place more holistically and faster when the patient is surrounded by loved ones.
“I flew out there and spent a couple of days and they were happy to have me there,” he said. “Once Fisher House had me as a guest, I was able to get into Walter Reed.”
Burmester then talked with a lot of veterans, but concentrated on three — a combat medic named Joda whose eyes had been blown out in an explosion, Bill Pepper (on whom a Doonesbury character is based), and Tammy Duckworth, who lost both of her legs, and is currently the congresswoman from Illinois’ 8th District.
“They were generous with their stories,” Burmester said. “For me it was definitely a transformative experience. I interviewed them and they gave their permission to use their stories.”
He explained that this would be a fictional story, but their stories would lend verisimilitude to the project.
“We felt accountable to these people whose stories we were borrowing. The script is grounded in reality so that there is an honoring of their stories. We’re not trivializing anything.”
The first play was “Wounded,” which had one performance in Los Angeles and then was performed here in Davis.
” ’Wounded’ cuts much deeper than I expected,” wrote Don Shirley of LA City Beat. “It’s not a pity-the-poor-cripples, curse-the-Bushie-bureaucrats play. It looks unsparingly at the choices that face the soldiers in Iraq, the wounded who return, their families and friends — and, by extension, the American public and their elected representatives.
“Conceived by the ensemble, it has been shaped by writer-director Tom Burmester into a gripping edge-of-the-seat experience.”
“Wounded” was performed in Los Angeles and it did so well that the group staged it again the next year. The 2007 production also was successful but they thought “We can’t keep doing it over and over again.” Yet they still felt the responsibility to tell stories about the war, to hold themselves responsible and culpable for the lack of awareness.
The second in the cycle, “Nation of Two,” which opened in 2010, focused attention on the grief of a family preparing to scatter the ashes of their son, killed in Iraq, one year after his death. The idea came from a Christopher Hitchins article in Vanity Fair about a man named Mark, who had joined the ROTC while a student at UCLA, became a lieutenant and was deployed to Iraq, where he was killed.
“I was particularly interested in the widow,” Burmester said. “She looked nothing like my idea of a war widow. She was in her early 20s, young and hip. We developed a relationship with her and the rest of Mark’s family.
“As they shared their stories, I learned that each deals with grief in a different way. There was a difference in the way they wanted to remember Mark. It’s the story of the family, but the central character is missing.”
Actor/director Danika Sudik, who later became Burmester’s wife, came onto the scene at this point. As a war widow herself, she had a special interest in this story, especially the conflicts that can erupt among the survivors.
“I understand things a lot better than I did in 2008,” Sudik said. “Working on the development of this play was a lovely way to look at things in a way that I probably never would have otherwise.”
The group started looking again for what to do and realized they had yet to deal with actual combat. There was a photo spread in Rolling Stone by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger that featured portraits of soldiers in the Korangal Valley in Afghanistan, and Burmester was struck by the images.
“There was so much storytelling in the photos themselves that it became a launching point,” he said. “We managed to connect with a few folks who had served in combat in Afghanistan. It was important that they had been in combat, so they could explain that experience to us.”
Added Sudik, “The thing I remember most about them was how reticent they were to actually say the words. They were holding back and skirting around the topic, but it seemed like they really did want to talk about it all.
“Finally we told them they could say anything and we were not going to be offended or judgmental. They were relieved and the things that came out that are in the play — things that they were embarrassed to talk about, like sexual dysfunction and psychological issues that happened to them while they were there, and after they returned home — that really stuck with me, as a woman.
“They’re in this place where there are no women and how much that affected the way they were talking and acting with each other.”
“That’s a lot of what ‘Gospel’ is,” Burmester explained. “The guys are deployed in a very remote location. One of the things they talked about that stuck with me was that the farther away you are from the generals and the colonels, the more out in the field you are, there’s more of a sense of omnipotence. A gun gives you power. There’s more of a sense of not needing to adhere to rules, but being the ones that make the rules.
“We were also fortunate that one of the cast members in our original cast had served in Afghanistan in combat, so he was able to check us. When we were in our original run in L.A., occasionally a veteran would pull me aside and say, ‘You might want to look at this. … There’s a little detail here that’s not quite right.’ ”
One difference in this production is that since Sudik is pursuing a master of fine arts in directing, “Gospel” has an all-female production team.
““It has been awesome to get all these different perspectives and they’re so young, too, so they are going through their own interactions and everything is super-hypercharged,” Sudik said. “The things that they are noticing and are drawing out in the story are strengthening it so much.”
Burmester added, “It’s about this culture that we’re creating and that we are condoning. This is our American face as seen by part of the world. What does that mean? What are we creating for these men to come home to?
“So much of this play is about ideals and what we say is important to us. And then what actually happens to a person when the rubber hits the road? And how that changes, and how you justify your choices,” he continued.
“One thing I’m proud of — ‘Gospel’ is not glorifying the war. The media that we consume is about the hero story. We latch onto that and we have the American hero in our corner. But the issues are so much more complex than sound bites. We’re defining ourselves by our tweets. What does that mean?”
But that is a subject for another play.
“Gospel” is a reunion of old Acme Theatre Company alumni. In addition to Tom Burmester, Steven Schmidt, the tech director for the B Street Theatre in Sacramento, is doing tech direction for this show, and Chad Fisk, another Acme alum who went on to become an actor in the Bay Area, is doing fight preparation.
“This show has a lot of brutal hand-to-hand combat,” Fisk said. “There is one huge melee where there are six people fighting simultaneously — which involved lots of note-taking. Many in the cast are new to acting and new to fights, so I’m teaching them how to do it safely. When fights look too polished, I made them look more raw and ugly.
“It’s a great show with an amazing script,” Fisk promises.
Nearly 20 years ago, Tom Burmester realized he wanted to put a face to “the overlooked” — and with this war cycle, he certainly has done that.