If All the Sky were Paper

Wartime stories are told through soldiers’ letters. The play premieres Thursday.

The untold stories of war-torn lives are pieced together in the world premiere of “If All the Sky Were Paper.”

The College of Performing Arts hosts this original play based on books by New York Times best-selling author Andrew Carroll. Director John Benitz, assistant professor of theatre, collaborated with Carroll to create the play, allowing 18 students to become the performance’s original cast.

Student actors reenact people affected by wars, reading actual letters from around the world during different periods of war. The play opens this Thursday, Veterans Day, with a gala reception for donors and trustees, and the Saturday performance is free for veterans and their families.

In 2008, Benitz contacted Carroll after learning of his journey collecting wartime letters in National Geographic Magazine. He worked to make Carroll’s experiences and collections into a documentary theatre piece. Benitz was also interested in Carroll’s personal journey.

“For me, that’s a very theatrical, and I’ll call it heroic, story,” Benitz said.

After losing his family’s correspondences in a fire in the ‘90s, Carroll began the “Legacy Project,” which preserved the stories of American soldiers. More than 70,000 letters spanning 350 years were collected, and hundreds were compiled into two books: “Letters of a Nation: A Collection of Extraordinary American Letters” and “War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars.”

On Saturday, invited guests will enjoy a pre-show reception and symposium with Patrick Quinn, dean of Wilkinson College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Don Will, associate dean, Carroll and Benitz.

“We’re getting a lot of response from wives whose husbands are serving in Afghanistan,” said Pamela Ezell, director of Panther Productions, who promoted the show.

The premiere is close, but cast-member senior Katie Gunderson is prepared to be a part of what she calls “unconventional” theater.

“The cast hopes to not only perform the letters, but also to honor these real people and to preserve their legacy,” Gunderson wrote in an e-mail.

Benitz and Carroll added a narrator to the play, which represents Carroll leading the audience through the letters’ themes. Each actor will read a few different letters, which will span different countries and times.

The actors have a relationship to the characters because many of the letters were written by 18-year-olds with no choice but to go to war, Benitz said. The show gives a clear perspective of where the U.S. has come from, he said.

“There’s something kind of amazing about people who don’t consider themselves writers … It’s inspiring,” Ezell said.

“If All the Sky Were Paper” runs from Nov. 11 to 13 and from Nov. 18 to 20 at 7:30 p.m. with a 2 p.m. showing on Nov. 20. It is $20 for general admission and $15 for senior citizens and students. Tickets are discounted on Saturday, Nov. 13, where senior citizens are $5 and all students are $10.

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