Veteran successes through Shakespeare


By Debbie Gregory.

Fifteen years ago, former Pfc. and military police officer Jerry Whiteside had two masks tattooed on his left bicep, one smiling, and the other frowning.

Little did he know that more than a decade later, he would be symbolically reunited with the images imprinted on his skin.

After serving in the Marine Corps from 1972 to 1976, Whiteside left his native Chicago and headed for Los Angeles.  He struggled for 30 years with drugs and alcohol.

After completing a detoxification program in 2011, he was referred to the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles (SCLA). He got a job working on the set of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. He was living his dream to be in the theater.

Thirty other veterans of the Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam and Gulf wars joined the work crew. They worked together building the set and doing odd jobs for the production.

SCLA is a 501(c) non-profit organization whose primary mission is to enchant, enrich, and build community through professional theatrical traditions that are accessible to all.

SCLA’s artistic director Ben Donenberg said employing veterans stemmed from another of the company’s outreach programs. “Will Power to Youth” hires young Angelenos to study and perform Shakespeare plays. After seeing alumni of the program serving in the armed services and later seeking jobs at home, the company decided to extend its employment program opportunity to veterans, beginning last year.

SCLA’s new initiative, “Veterans in Art”, represents an innovation in veterans programming that explores how the arts can contribute, in a meaningful way, to the efforts of assisting veterans recover and reintegrate into mainstream Los Angeles civilian life.

The program represents a proposed partnership between the Shakespeare Center of LA, Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks, veterans associations at both the Southern Californian and national levels,  and the Los Angeles philanthropic community.

SCLA’s intent is to modify and build upon the “Will Power to Youth” model of arts-based and Shakespeare-inspired job training. The design will encompass a spectrum of issues related to veterans’ past experiences and future hopes, dreams and aspirations.