VetRep Celebrates Veteran Artists in the Hudson Valley

Photos courtesy of Veteran’s Repertory Theater

VetRep, a theater company based in Orange County, celebrates veteran artists through its playwriting competitions, staged readings, podcast, and blog.

By Matt Moment and Deborah Skolnik

West Point is home to the U.S. Military Academy, renowned for producing future members of the U.S. Army. But drive just 20 minutes northwest, to the town of Cornwall, and you’ll reach another, lesser-known institution with strong ties to the armed forces: VetRep, a theater that connects past and present members of the military with distinguished stage performers. Together, they create plays that just may conquer the competitive world of the performing arts.

VetRep was founded in 2021 by Christopher Meyer, its president and artistic director. A former Army officer, he opened the theater soon after returning from Afghanistan in 2020. Though that might seem like an abrupt pivot, Meyer hails from a long line of performers. “My grandmother was an actress and model, and my grandfather was a radio actor. He played the original Tonto in ‘The Lone Ranger’ on the radio,” he says.

Meyer’s mother, a Broadway actress, was the lead dancer for Bob Fosse’s “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” and later appeared on “The Guiding Light.” Her son followed in her footsteps, performing professionally after college, and finding time for improv theater while in the reserves. Ultimately, the lure of the stage proved too much to resist: “I was six years away from collecting retirement, but I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to do this,’” says Meyer.

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Who Is Christopher Meyer?

Christopher Meyer is part of the third generation of working actors in his family. In addition to his grandparents and mother, mentioned above, his aunt was a soap opera diva and his cousin attended Julliard for drama. “I really wanted to do something different than everyone else,” he says of his early career. At first, Meyer tried to cut his own path by focusing on standup and improvisation until he finally “faced the inevitable,” which meant following his heart (and his family) into the theater, particularly as a director.

Meyer recalls his directorial debut in New York with considerable clarity given his assertion that the play itself “wasn’t anything to brag about.” It was a comedy. On opening weekend, the audience was lively, and Meyer felt hopeful of what was to come. Then, that Tuesday morning at 8:46 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. “The play never opened again,” says Meyer. “It’s safe to say my life took a few sharp turns after that.”

VetRep

As fate would have it, on the morning of September 11, 2001, Meyer had jury duty at a courthouse catty-corner from the twin towers. The day prior, the sitting judge had given a spiel about his distaste for tardiness; any offenders would be fined $500, no ifs, ands, or buts.

Getting off the train on Tuesday morning, Meyer noticed the station was unusually packed, even for rush hour. As he ascended the stairs to exit onto the street, a passerby told him a plane had hit the World Trade Center. “What kind of idiot pilot doesn’t see the World Trade Center?” he thought to himself, still determined to avoid financial penalty.

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Meyer made a beeline to the courthouse, even as chaos unfolded around him. “I walked into the courthouse, and there’s nobody there,” he remembers. “I’m like, ‘Oh, well, they’re all gonna be paying $500.’ I get my stuff, walk right through, go the courtroom, pull on the door. The door’s locked. F— it, I’ve got five minutes before court’s supposed to start; I’m sitting in front of this door so they cannot say I was not here. The court officer comes down in full body armor, shotgun, everything, and he’s like, ‘The f— you doing here?’ I was like, ‘I got court!’ Then he’s like, ‘Yeah, court’s cancelled.’”

His day now free, Meyer decided to join a sea of onlookers, still unaware that the destruction above was not the work of an incompetent pilot, but a terrorist organization. People in the crowd were ogling, laughing, and speculating. “Then, you started to see the people drop,” he says. “At the end, when both buildings had come down, we were pushed all the way back to Canal Street. I remember looking around. There was a Rastafarian bike messenger, this young waspy couple, Wall Street businessmen, construction workers, all these people, all different socioeconomic statuses, different races, everything. Everybody was crying. There was a part of me that was like, ‘That’s the first time I’ve seen all New Yorkers in the same emotional space.’ There was something really sacred about that.” In the wake of what he witnessed, Meyer’s career in entertainment seemed trivial. Foregoing a life in the theater, he followed his heart once more, going on to serve in the military from the mid-aughts until Biden withdrew our troops from Afghanistan.

What Makes a Veteran Special?

“All the world’s a stage,” declares Jaques in act two of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “And all the men and women merely players.” Still, the theater industry can be quite homogenous. Criticism of underrepresentation on Broadway isn’t new, but it is more often pointed at disparities in race and gender than veteran status. As a veteran himself, Meyer and the team at Veterans Repertory Theater, based in Cornwall, give a voice to this demographic with a program entirely comprising works written by veterans or their immediate family members.

Meyer’s plan was straightforward: Identify talented current and former members of the military via playwriting competitions, and then develop their works. Not only would VetRep help those it mentored, but it would also help Meyer. “Dealing with live performances and live audiences is what’s closest to my heart,” he explains. Since he hadn’t acted in years, he “just felt like I was a foreigner to that world unless I could bring the veteran community with me.” Meyer decided that law-enforcement officers and members of the fire department would be invited to throw their hats into the ring as well, along with EMS workers, intelligence and foreign service agents, and others connected to them.

Still, Meyer’s focus on this demographic doesn’t spring solely from affinity. “Veterans offer a lot in the artistic space,” he says. “They’ve had significant emotional events relatively early in life, in a relatively compressed period of time. That gut-level understanding of the extremes of the human condition is drama.”

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Veterans, in Meyer’s view, are inherently equipped to pen compelling works of drama. “What makes them unique is a high volume of significant emotional events in a relatively compressed period of time, early in life. That creates an experiential wisdom of understanding humanity at the extremes. Conflict, life, and death,” he states, adding, “Well, that’s f— theater.” The theater company, abbreviated as VetRep, “assesses, develops, and mentors” these writers through playwriting competitions and staged readings. “Veterans can offer a lot to an arts culture that can often seem increasingly provincial, close-minded, one-sided, self-important, and lacking perspective,” Meyer reckons.

Meyer’s decision to headquarter VetRep in Cornwall speaks to his pride as a local. He and his managing director, Lilla Faint, “are very partisan Hudson Valley people,” he says. “We wanted to make our mark and say, ‘Hey, this is our Hudson Valley theater, here on this side of the river.’” While the site that VetRep purchased isn’t ready yet, Meyer and Faint have organized staged readings in a rental property across the street. Additionally, the VetRep team is committed to keeping the cost of live theater low, frequently offering free or pay-what-you-wish tickets to ensure that the price tag is never a disqualifying factor for those interested in attending a show. By contrast, single tickets for Hamilton fetched upwards of a grand at the height of the show’s popularity.

VetRep performance

The Parlor, as that space is called, has just 16 seats. “We have these ridiculous, intimate performances there every Saturday night from April to December,” says Meyer. Last year, he opted to go with already published plays, performed by professional actors. “I wanted to make sure the plays we were doing were really great, and that if they weren’t it was because we messed up, not because the writing wasn’t great,” he explains. This year, attendees will also see “curtain warmers”—10-minute, vet-authored plays that will precede the main performance.

To find compelling vet-produced material, VetRep published notices about its competitions online. The first contest, launched on July 4, 2021, called for both 10-minute and full-length plays. But soon realizing they were awash in long-form submissions and had all they needed, Meyers and Faint changed the rules; now, only short works are considered.

singing

Anton Sattler, a former Marine who lives in Queens, won second place in the long-form category of the inaugural competition. His play, “Local Gods,” centers on a woman who’s returning home from the war in Iraq. “She’s trying to navigate not just her own past and things that she was carrying with her from her service, but also a lot of the things that her family and friends went through while she was gone,” shares Sattler. VetRep held a stage reading of the play last October. “We had a question-and-answer discussion afterward with great input,” adds Sattler. He’s continuing to refine the work, in hopes it will eventually be produced.

New York Army National Guard member Jason Pizzarello, of Stamford, Connecticut, took the top prize in the long-form play competition with his entry, “Brat.” The work, about a mother and son who both fight in Afghanistan, draws on Pizzarello’s own eight-month deployment. For his efforts, he received a $10,000 prize; the second-place winner received $7,500, and third took home $5,000. The funds, which come from seed money via a privately operated foundation, are channeled well, feels Meyer. “We don’t spend much on anything, but we’ll spend money on the playwrights because we value them,” he says.

VetRep rehearsal

VetRep’s efforts aren’t confined to the stage. Their road show, Savage WonderGround, creates pop-up events featuring veterans showcasing their poetry, visual artworks, and music. The last one was held in the D.C. area last year; future events may be closer to home. Additionally, VetRep fans can tune into Savage Wonder’s podcast and literary blog.

There will also be acting and playwriting courses offered this year—VetRep has partnered with the Mental Health Administration of Dutchess and Orange counties to make instruction available to veterans. But don’t call VetRep therapeutic. “We’re here for the audience,” says Meyer. “Sometimes, we look at veterans as victims that need help instead of as a resource that can add a lot of color and dimension to the artistic picture. And that’s where we want to be.”

In addition to VetRep’s regular season, Meyer runs Savage Wonder, a podcast and literary blog which mirrors VetRep’s mission to share stories of veterans in the arts. However, Meyer makes it clear that these initiatives are not meant to merely “help veterans,” but to bolster the art world with the singular brilliance that veteran artists can offer. “We have established a creative hub and a local institution that merges the sacrifices, the wisdom, and the accumulated experience of our veteran community with breathtaking civilian artistry,” he says. “And with your help, we believe we can produce funny, shocking, heterodox, surprising theatrical work, both locally and nationally.”

Related: 52 Reasons to Love the Hudson Valley

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