R.B. Breese

is creating Theater

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Les Fantomes

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Bi-weekly photos form my trip to the Marne battlefields with context explanation.




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About R.B. Breese

Foremost, thank you for reading about my campaign: ‘campaign’ being the operative word for a project that borrows its themes from battlefields. Either Side of Zero is the working-title of a play that has been alive in me since I was a kid in New Jersey watching World War One veterans marching in Memorial Day parades. My grandfathers fought on opposite sides in that war, and I suppose I was trying to make some sense of their experiences and also the meanings of war. What was it like to be on the battlefield? Would my grandfathers have hated each other if they’d met then? There are other battlefields in the play as well, between personalities, faith, un-belief, men and women, and most significantly the battlefields within oneself.

Later, I began exploring other juxtapositions, particularity between creativity and destruction. There were many soldier-poets and soldier-artists in the First World War, and the volume of writing by all participants in letters home, journals and verse was the greatest ever recorded up to that time. As they fought they tried to make some sense of life and death, and their own purpose between these beginnings and ends, in situations that frequently seemed to have little meaning.

I am a writer and artist, and I have also been an airman. As a child I made things out of wood and clay, painted and wrote. In high school I won a state young-writers prize, but these pursuits were not regarded as career-worthy in my culture. Instead I pursued an education, joined the US Air Force and hoped to do something useful. I always gravitated toward the arts, philosophy and theology—thinking that I might be most useful as an Air Force chaplain, but - fortunately -circumstances placed me in other fields taking care of my comrades and their families. Later I earned a Master of Fine Arts degree. Creativity is simply part of my blood.

Either Side of Zero is a convergence of this journey, a dramatization of the questions, many of which remain unanswered to some degree. I want to take an audience on that journey, bring them to the same felt place of questioning.

To date there has been considerable interest in this project. In autumn 2016 I read a scene with Indy Neidell and the crew at “The Great War” YouTube channel in Berlin, and on 14 July 2018 the first two scenes will be performed at the Norman Rockwell Museum, as part of a weekend commemorating the First World War.

My goal now is to bring the complete play to the stage, through your support. For a more in-depth backstory, information on how you can be involved, and the rewards, please read on. But regardless of how you sign up for this campaign, thank you for reading this far.

* * * * *

Both of my grandfathers fought in WW1, on opposite sides. My American grandfather drove a tank in the US tank corps; his brigade commander was Lt. Col. George S. Patton. My Hungarian grandfather fought with the Austro-Hungarian infantry; his military records were lost in the 1950s when the communist government recycled all the First World War records to make paper for their bureaucracy. My grandfathers only realized they had fought each other, so to speak, when they met for the first time shortly before my parents married; apparently after a stunned silence, they laughed and had a beer together.

My grandmother who married that tank driver, was an immigrant from Poland very early in the 20th century. She worked as a housekeeper for a retired ambassador who lived just outside New Brunswick, NJ. She told me that when she’d walk home to New Brunswick she would frequently pass the poet Joyce Kilmer on the sidewalk. My grandmother was a poet and songwriter, and she knew who Kilmer was from the newspapers. She was pretty fearless, so eventually she would stop Kilmer on the street and talk with him about poetry.

I served twenty-three years as an Air Force officer. My father served on the USS Missouri as an electrician’s mate during the Korean conflict. His older brothers fought in the Second World War, one in the Pacific onboard US Navy ships, the other landed on D-Day at Omaha Beach and fought all the way into Germany. I’m a product of that “American century” through which my blue-collar family fought and loved, sometimes nearly starved and almost always suffered.

But I’m much more like my grandmother deep within than any of my “fathers.” She never gave up creating somehow, some way; I never stopped painting or writing while in the military. She had a few poems published, she had a short-lived music company, she bred flowers and did experimental organic gardening long before it became ‘a thing,’ and she always loved telling me stories, with a happy, breaking laugh I can still hear. Her husband became alcoholic after the first war; her D-Day son became a little sadistic after the second war - when he returned home the first person he saw was his younger brother; without a word he beat the piss out of this brother who was too young to go and fight. Once my grandmother’s husband got drunk with his buddies, sat in the basement reading her poems, laughing at them, tossing them in the coal furnace one after another. These are all war casualties, the kinds you don't really see or hear about on internet click-bait .

My grandmother’s youngest son, my father, never felt he achieved enough in his career with the Navy and defined himself in these terms. But there were other far-more lasting achievements. He grew concerned about the well-being of boys in his home town and became the Scout Master of a boy scout troop to give them something purposeful to do. During these years an annual Boy Scout calendar always featured a painting by Norman Rockwell. My uncle, who was the national art director for the BSA, was involved in this yearly project and my father provided him trusted insights into scouting themes for Rockwell’s work. I modelled for two of these paintings. In the first I was a ten-year-old Webelo. In the second I was a fourteen-year-old flag-bearing boy scout, with my father as the scoutmaster calling others to join.

That was 1972 and 1976. Three years later I became an Eagle Scout. I remember my father pinning the medal on my uniform pocket. Despite the ups and downs, anger and traumas of adolescence, I know he was proud that day: I achieved Eagle Scout; he had “only” made it to Star Scout. I also know he was proud many years later when I took a call from a young Air Force Lieutenant who had been a cadet and student of mine during my last assignment as an AFROTC instructor at Cornell. My father and I had just pulled onto the carport when the young man rang to thank me for helping him as a student when he was screwing up, and how that care saved his new military career. My father overheard the conversation, his face filled with unspoken satisfaction. I think that in addition to being proud of me that he might have realised is own purpose had been realised, his duty as well.

Questions of purpose and duty find voice in this play, as does the mysterious nature of creativity. My grandmother, Lt. Col. Patton, Francis Duffy (the priest who went onto the battlefield with Kilmer and the 165th) and Brooke’s Polynesian lover, Taatama, are part of the play to embody these themes.

But back to you. If you have followed the background story all the way to here, I thank you and invite you to be part of what I might call the third act in the unfolding of this project.

The way you can become part of the premier and other performances, beside your patronage, is this. I am looking for family photos of men and women who served during WW1 from every side of that war. I want to construct a rear-projection “slide show” on a scrim that shows these images at different times – and in the playbill I want to show the names of these ancestors connected with your name, I want to make this history personally alive and universal. So, if you contact me I’m very grateful to talk with you about this collaboration also. And, if you are a writer yourself, some of my rewards can help toward your own creative goals.

My campaign video is here: 

Thank you again for your interest, support and patronage! R.B.Breese 

$13.35 of $150 per month
This will go toward a specific production need in two years.  Gloria Wiele is a fabric artist in Hamburg, Germany; at the Berlin Maker Fair in 2016 she taught my daughter how to crochet.  My grandmother crocheted, and Gloria is a very, very fine fabric artist!  She and I discussed having the costume dresses worn by the two female characters crocheted; Gloria loved the idea.  It's an appropriate honor to my grandmother and her presence in the play.  $3500 USD is the initial goal toward this work.  
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