In recognition of Veterans Day, November 11, Willa J. Taylor, Walter Director of Education and Engagement and Alden Vasquez, Production Stage Manager currently in his 35th season of stage managing A Christmas Carol share how being a part of the U.S. Armed Forces shaped their lives and their work in the arts.
Alden Vasquez: The first time I was recognized as a veteran was by Henry Wishcamper when he took over [directing] A Christmas Carol. He would acknowledge the veterans in the cast and he would bring a cake. Ron Raines [former Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol] was a veteran. Allen Gilmore [Ebenezer Scrooge Alternate in A Christmas Carol] is a veteran, I was a veteran. I think there were three of us, and every year that he directed A Christmas Carol for seven years he always had a cake for us [on the 11th] and everyone clapped and acknowledged us. People would ask me what I did in the service, and I would tell them. And it’s funny because the last two years of my enlistment I worked at the White House as a communications specialist.
Willa J. Taylor: Oh wow!
AV: So I would tell people that I had two years in California in Travis Airforce Base as a supply guy, and then I got the special assignment at the White House. But I would tell people that and then by the third or fourth year for some reason…you know how people talk…some new cast members would come and say, “I hear you’re in the CIA in the military.” I’m like, “No…” Then someone else came and said, “I hear you were a White House guard.” And I’m like, “No…” All these stories would come out, but I would set them straight. And there was an interest, you know. They were like, “Wow!”
WJT: So then how did you get to Chicago?
AV: I interned here in ‘83 and then came back and did A Christmas Carol in ‘85. And then when Hayloft Theatre went under in ‘86, I called Joe Drummond [former Goodman Production Stage Manager] and asked if I could have a job. He said “Come over! Come over and be on staff.” And that’s how I ended up in Chicago.
WJT: And how long were you in the Air Force?
AV: Four years, 1975 to 1979.
WJT: What made you go in?
AV: I had no ambition after high school. My parents were like, “what do you want to do?” I’m like, “I don’t know…” My brother went to the recruiter to join the Air Force, so my dad said, “take your brother with you and make sure he joins.” And that’s how I ended up [joining]. I didn’t want to go to college, and my dad was in the Air Force. He had orders to Madrid, Spain at the time. He said, “we’re not going to take you, because what are you gonna do in Madrid? What kind of job are you gonna get? You’re 19!” So he made my brother take me to the recruiter and he said, “just get him in. Get them out of the house.”
WJT: So did your brother go in as well?
AV: We both went in together. Basic training, and then we were stationed at Fort Travis together. He became a colonel—a full blown colonel and retired after 32 years. I left after four years, which I’m glad I did. The military taught me about discipline and teamwork. And it made it easier for me to be a stage manager without the college training because I came in with those skills. It was easy for me to adapt to being a stage manager because I was organized, I knew how to work in a team setting and I was disciplined.
WJT: I joined the Navy because I was invited to leave college. I didn’t know what I was gonna do and I knew that if I sort of stayed on the trajectory that I was on, I’d either be dead or in jail. I had always loved Esther Williams movies, so that’s why [I joined] the Navy as opposed to anyplace else. The Navy was the first place that I ever stage-managed anything. When I was overseas, I worked on USO shows, and so a lot of the stage management I learned just from doing that. And then I got a real stage management job—no money, but a real, like, at-a-theater stage management gig—when I got out, in DC at Source Theatre. But mainly because I was the only person the director knew that had any kind of stage management experience, right? Her stage manager’s cat died the night of first preview and so she needed somebody right away, and she called and asked me to do it as a favor. But all that I learned, I learned in the Navy. I stayed in for 12 years and loved almost every minute of it.
AV: I loved every minute of it. The reason I left was…I grew up in the military. My dad was in the military and I didn’t want to live in a bubble. I wanted to explore lots of different things. You know, I wanted to explore being in theater. I got out of the service and moved right to New York City with no job. I was wild. I mean, I ran the streets. I wanted to experience life outside of the military. And also, you know, being a gay man—it was back in the ‘70s—we didn’t have Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. We were closeted.
AV: I didn’t want to live in a closet for 20 years in the military. That’s why I left. It was a little bittersweet, but it is something I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to experience different things and not be in a military bubble.
WJT: When I was in Greece, there was a massive, sort of witch-hunt for anybody who was gay. They called us in and made us take a lie detector test—the whole bit. I think seven or eight people got kicked out because of it. And honestly, I think the only way I got through that was because I was just a really, really good liar. But it was…it was horrible.
AV: Yeah, and you know, after I left the White House [during the Jimmy Carter administration], Ronald Reagan came in and they went through another witch hunt within the White House Communications Agency. Actually, my ex-boyfriend got kicked out. I didn’t want to live in that pressure and live in that fear, you know?
WJT: Agreed. As bad as it was when we were in, I think about people who came before us. What that had to be like, right? How very, very secretive you had to be and how careful. I just can’t imagine living my life that way.
AV: Yeah, that’s why I got out.
WJT: Do you miss it ever? I miss it.
AV: I miss it, yeah. But I’ve moved on.
WJT: I miss the perks. Like being able to get a hop and be someplace for 10 or 15 bucks. I have to say I miss the discipline too. I miss the rules that everybody followed. Whether you agreed with them or not, it just made things orderly in a way that’s not nearly as messy as civilian life.
AV: And they took care of us, you know? You got little notices when you’re supposed to go to the dentist or for an eye exam. If you got sick you just went to the dispensary and they took care of you.
WJT: And all of it was free!
AV: Free, yeah. You went to the mess hall and ate whatever you wanted, and it was good.
WJT: I was at some duty stations where the food was just top-notch. It was kind of all you could eat and there was always soft-serve ice cream at the end of a meal. It was terrific.
AV: The best part of being in the White House was they had a little mess hall in the West Wing and I could eat lunch next to this National Security Adviser and President Carter’s Chief of Staff. Of course I had to behave myself, but it was like, “ I’m eating lunch with history.”
WJT: I was a poor kid from Dallas, Texas. I grew up in segregation. I never would have gotten to travel in the way that I have if I hadn’t gotten in the Navy. I mean there’s no way I would have lived in Greece.
AV: I also miss the uniform. You know, dressing up in a uniform and saluting. I just liked the atmosphere of the military. It really did me good because, like I said, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. It gave me that discipline, teamwork, and total organization—I had to be organized to do a job. Being in the military opened my eyes that I wanted to do something else.