New show reflects on healing power of storytelling


A Flemish actress who lived through the turbulent days of 9/11 as a young adult adapts untold war stories for the stage

A transformative experience

We tend to associate “war” with universal images of conflict and devastation, lifted from the news, that often tell seemingly exchangeable stories about bombings, casualties and losses. But in reality, every war story is unique, coloured by witnesses’ individual experiences and memories, and their points of view and states of mind.

Or, as famous American war correspondent Martha Gellhorn once said: “War happens to people, one by one. That is really all I have to say, and it seems like I have been saying it forever.” 

It’s a sentiment that Jessa Wildemeersch (pictured) agrees with. In Days Without Dates, her new mixed-media performance, she attempts to explain the uniqueness of everyone’s war stories and the impact of these conflicts on communities.

Wildemeersch is a Flemish actress with a strong affection for the United States. After taking classes at the acclaimed Herman Teirlinck theatre school in Antwerp, she completed a Master’s degree in acting at the Actor’s Studio in New York, currently headed by two figures with Godlike status in the theatre world – Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel. She was also awarded a lifetime membership at the institution in 2005.

Wildemeersch’s world – along with many others – was turned upside down when, while, she was in New York, the two planes flew into the World Trade Center, and the US suddenly found itself under attack and later at war.

Ground troops were sent to Afghanistan and Iraq and, for Wildemeersch and countless other New Yorkers, war was suddenly no longer something you read about in history books or saw on the news. War suddenly felt close.

Narrative healing

Ten years after the attack, when it began to feel like the wounds of Americans were healing, it occurred to Wildemeersch that so many stories remained untold –not just about 9/11 but about conflicts from different locations and times.

“I then realised how much the 9/11 attacks had changed me,” she says, looking back. “How it changed my views on the world around me and, not least of all, my place in it.” 

For some people, it was the first time they were telling their stories

- Jessa Wildemeersch

At the time of the attacks, Wildemeersch was just 20, and, like many young students with the better part of their lives still ahead of them, she was a rather individualistic person. “But by experiencing the attacks and what came after, I became more aware of my environment. It influenced my decisions in life and genuinely changed me,” she says.

She began to wonder: “If it changed me so much, how big of an impact must war have on people actually living it, at home or on the battlefield?”

The idea for Days Without Dates was born. Over the next year, Wildemeersch travelled to war zones to persuade nurses, refugees, veterans and mothers of war veterans to tell her their stories. She even talked to people with what is known as "secondary trauma", a trauma they inherited from their relatives who lived the war up close.

The stories she relates in Days Without Dates come from Syria, Vietnam, Iraq, Rwanda and Guinea, and some even focus on memories from the First and Second World Wars. “For some people, it was the first time they were telling their stories,” she says. “Some were relieved that they were finally able to vent. Others were reluctant and found it difficult. The Vietnam veterans found it particularly hard to talk about it."

This has to do with public opinion, she explains. “People were very much against the Vietnam war – and the soldiers fighting it were even more guilty than those who made the political decisions in Washington. These people learned to keep their stories to themselves.”

In her new show, Wildemeersch tells the story of a New York postman and Vietnam War veteran. He initially refused to sit down with her and talk. “So the only way I could get his story was by going on rounds with him, delivering the mail,” she explains. “He started talking and went on and on for hours. He actually told me the whole, breathtaking story.”

A communal experience

Wildemeersch gives the example of a traditional Native American custom where warriors returning from the battlefield had to go through a sort of cleansing ritual. In this rite, the men were isolated from the group and forced to talk to each other about the traumatic events they’d seen and experienced.

Given that so many war veterans fail to adapt to their normal lives when they return home, Wildemeersch thinks it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have people experiencing modern warfare go through a similar type of process.

“Some people I spoke to were simply discouraged from ever talking about their experience abroad,” she says. “They carry the burden of the war by themselves. If they were able to tell their stories, people would better understand the impact war has on all those who lived it. War would become something we have to process as a community; it would no longer be an individual load.”

True to her attempt to give voice to the parties involved in conflicts, Wildemeersch was careful not to judge who was right and who wrong, who was the victim and who the attacker. “The story of the victim who had to flee his home is no more valuable than the story of the soldier or the aggressor,” she says. “Because in essence, the spirit of every story is the human aspect of it. It shows how destructive and devastating war is for all those involved, regardless of whether the story comes from the one who had to fight, the one who had to take care of the wounded, or the one who had to leave everything behind.”

21 February 20.30, Bij de Vieze Gasten, Ghent
24 February 12.40, Bozar, Brussels
25 February to 1 March, OPEK, Leuven

Jessa Wildemeersch also performs Days Without Dates at the Atlas INTERSECTIONS Festival in Washington, DC, on 6 March

Photo by Julie De Clercq

More performance this month

Dancer and choreographer Lisbeth Gruwez and composer and musician Maarten Van Cauwenberghe top the must-see lists of many an arts maven. With both currently artists-in-residence at Jan Fabre’s Troubleyn, expectations for this contemporary dance production are high. If narrative stories resulting in ecstatic laughter and set to impressive soundscapes is how you like your dance, you might want to buy a ticket. (In Dutch) Until 7 March, across Flanders

Lazarus and t,arsenaal
Saying “no” is easy. Saying “yes”, now that’s tough, because it’s a commitment with varying consequences, many unforeseen. That’s the message of Jawoord (I do) by Lotte Heijtenis and Pieter Genard, a rewrite of Ingmar Bergman’s classic Scenes from a Marriage. Co-produced by Mechelen’s Lazarus and t,arsenaal, the result is a critical, funny and philosophical show. (In Dutch) Until 3 April, across Flanders