Brian Delate, a New York City-based actor, playwright, director, Vietnam Veteran, and Veterans Advantage HeroVet, has recently returned from Vietnam, where he performed his play, Memorial Day, in September. Delate stars in the main role, which revolves around a Vietnam veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress (PTS), and is on the brink of suicide during a Memorial Day celebration.
Veterans Advantage interviewed brian after the performance. When we asked him what it was like to perform in Vietnam, he said that "It represents a different kind of fear. It's not like going up against NY critics and paying audiences, which is not at all easy, but feels frivolous compared to this. I'm doing more than entertainment -- Memorial Day is a play, but it's a play that is more in line with what the ancient Greeks did -- dynamic ritual might be a good way to put it. There is a lot of power in the work, the impact of which opens people up, particularly veterans (from any conflict or any generation).
Brian told us that what usually follows any performance of his is a unique dialog that contributes to his mission to create "War Literacy" coined by Paula Caplan as the healing vocabulary he wants to encourage in order for veterans to better bridge with each other and then with the community at large.
"Most vets and most civilians don't know how to have this conversation -- about war and its aftermath," Brian says. "Doing the play in Vietnam has many layers to it -- much of the play is based on my own experience as a combat veteran and the fact that my experience took place in Vietnam and that that experience is based on life and death scenarios with them, the Vietnamese people, the work a gravity unlike anything I have ever experienced."
Next, we asked Brian if performing the play in Vietnam delivered a sense of closure. His answer moved us.
"Yes there is some closure, but what is incredibly revealing is what is possible in terms of a deeper fulfillment or understanding on both the American and the Vietnamese sides, which allows for an unthinkable Compassion and the possibility of real Forgiveness and a true and lasting Peace," he says. "I feel this could only happen there, on the soil where the events of the war took place and directly with the people that those events took place with. Please know that I never imagined doing this play in Vietnam -- I created Memorial Day for American audiences. It was after Dr. Edward Tick (noted psychologist and author of the groundbreaking book on PTSD, War and the Soul) saw the play and said to me, 'you should take this to Vietnam.' 'No.' I dismissed the idea initially until other veterans who had returned to Vietnam and then saw the play said the same thing -- all said to me that the Vietnamese were genuinely curious about the American point of view. 'Really!?'"
We also asked Brian what he would you like to tell his fellow Vietnam Veterans about present-day Vietnam who have not been there since the Vietnam War.
He told us that, "Vietnam today is the same country but it feels different because there isn't any war there now and two-thirds of the people there were born after the war. What can be a challenge for many veterans of that conflict is having known the Vietnamese combative side. We were in the business of killing or being killed -- that doesn't go away. But one of the best ways to address an old and difficult memory is to replace it with a new memory. I don't believe that can happen as effectively unless you return to the source of the events. I know veterans who swear they will never return to Vietnam and I'm not going to be a poster boy for them returning, but if a combat veteran wants to unearth his own experience, bring that experience into the light and maybe create a transformational experience to alter old perceptions into new possibilities for living, then they might want to consider returning."
Brian had some great advice for Post-9/11 Veterans. He encourages them to tell their story as a form of healing, not unlike what he has done with his performances.
"Last year after having performed MD in Los Angeles for a single night, I ran into a young man named Ruty in Hollywood who saw that I was wearing a hat that read 'Vietnam Veteran' (and I wear that hat to invite the very war dialog I've been speaking about). He said to me that he was a veteran of two tours of the Iraq War. I asked, "What did you do there?" "Oh, I was a Medic." I then asked, "Have you shared your story with anyone?" He answered with what I used to say, "I really don't have a story." I said, "Please Ruty, with all due respect, I bet you have a story and when the time comes or when your story wants to come out, please share it with someone you can trust.'"
Brian had another story that he said he simply had to share with our readers.
"Almost a year ago I did a couple of performances of MD at a small theatre here in Manhattan. I was seriously contemplating letting go of doing the show for awhile. Then there was one night when two veterans of the Afghanistan conflict came to the show -- one had seen it the year before. I met with both of them very briefly following the show (which deals directly with PTSD and Suicide). Two days later the young veteran who had seen the show contacted me to say that his friend, while walking down the street right after the play, stopped and said to him that he had been contemplating suicide for over two months and didn't know what to do. They were going to the VA that day to get him some help. My jaw dropped and I knew in that moment that I had to carry on."
Next, we asked Brian about a video that we had seen where he mentions Ellen Burstyn and Harvey Keitel. He told us a little more about their role in helping him with Memorial Day and his craft in general.
"The Actors Studio, where I am a lifetime member, has been my artistic home since 1987," Brain told us. "Now I serve on its Board of Directors. Ellen Burstyn and Harvey Keitel are our co-presidents along with Al Pacino. Ellen is our Artistic Director. Harvey has been a champion of the play and myself and is also marine corp veteran from just prior to the Vietnam War; and Harvey is a strong veterans advocate. But with Ellen Burstyn it has been a true mentorship -- she has given herself to the work both personally and professionally. She has stood inside the work with me."
Brain continued, "When after 9/11 (that morning I was underneath the first plane that plowed into the Trade Center), I first began to bring in fragments of my stories for acting sessions at the Actors Studio, she Ellen, challenged me to delve as deeply as possible into those stories. Then, as I began to take note of the veteran’s community and also to trust Ellen and the rest of the Actors Studio, the play was beginning to take form. My stories would become references to serving the play as it evolved. My main character Bret started off as someone like myself, who ends up in the arts. But the play needed an everyman character that more people could identify with and so Bret changed and became a regular guy with a regular job; and with a severe case of PTSD. I also carry PTSD and I found myself more able to be objective and at the same time I could fill the character's reality with my reality or of elements of it. If my work in the play helps even one veteran decide not to put a gun to his head, I have succeeded. The warrior/soldier is usually the first to be forgotten and I am here to make people remember. Even as I write this and having just returned from Vietnam, Ellen Burstyn will be present tonight and will introduce Memorial Day to a special one-night presentation at the Actors Studio."
At the end of our interview, Brian wanted to add that "It is places like Veterans Advantage and Scott Higgins that continue to make a difference. Thanks for listening."
Thank you to Brian for his service, and for bringing Vietnam Veterans and the epidemic of veteran suicide to the forefront through artistic expression.
Image Credit: https://www.rider.edu/events/special-performance-memorial-day-brian-delate