MADISON, Wis. — “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” — William Shakespeare
A handful of Airmen from the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing challenged that time-honored adage recently, taking to the stage Sept. 13 to convey to their fellow Airmen the message that they can recognize and prevent sexual misconduct and bounce back from adversity.
According to Lt. Col. Brian Parker, the 115th Fighter Wing’s chief of safety, sexual harassment and sexual assault are difficult topics for mandatory briefings during the fighter wing’s annual Wingman Day.
“Each year we perform [awareness] training, but it is usually generic, or presented as someone else’s problems,” he explained. “It was critical the message came from unit members.”
Parker said trainers at the fighter wing decided to align sexual assault awareness with resilience training, and looked for an effective way to communicate the message.
“The topics are so heavy that we needed some levity and humor to manage such difficult discussions,” Parker said. “Skits seemed like a good way to approach the concepts.”
Parker contacted his cousin Holly Walker, a high school theater instructor, to lead the troupe that would become known as Team Truax. She said she treated the assignment as if she were leading a theater class.
“I treated everyone as actors, taught some basics right away — stage directions, mime, tableaux, movement, plus theater warm-up games,” Walker said. “This was to give us a common vocabulary and tools to use when making a skit — and fostering a safe environment for the actors to take some risks when thinking creatively and feeling comfortable with one another.”
Work began at the end of June, with Team Truax holding two-hour rehearsals two to three times a week. The rehearsals would reach three hours before ending in early September. Cast members also had personal rehearsals outside of the regular meetings.
Parker said the concept of acting in front of an audience of their peers was intimidating.
“Add in the topics we were trying to tackle, and it increased the pressure that much more,” he said. “The developmental stage of the skits was extremely challenging, but the cohesiveness of the group made the entire process flow smoothly.”
Staff Sgt. Crystal Maldonado, an executive assistant with the 115th Mission Support Group, agreed.
“The amount of energy and time that goes into something as short as a 20-minute show is insane,” she said. “We all worked really hard to try and make the show something that was going to be both entertaining and informational. The initial ideal of going up and performing in front of all my friends and coworkers was pretty intimidating, but I’m so happy that I did it.”
Cast members collaborated on the skits for more than 100 hours during the summer, drawing from personal experiences to make the point that sexual assault and sexual harassment are inconsistent with Air Force values, and will not be tolerated.
The skits also addressed depression, suicide, the “drinking culture,” and military stressors on family life. The cast took questions from the audience and discussed the message behind the skits.
The audience proved not to be the only beneficiary of the skits. Tech. Sgt. Matthew Wilson, an aircraft armament system specialist with the 115th Maintenance Group, said he gained an outstanding group of friends and colleagues as a result of the many hours of collaborating, rehearsing and performing.
“The multiple perspectives of each conversation helped to open my mind to a more diverse range of viewpoints,” Wilson said. “The process flew by, each rehearsal and conversation was engaging, and everyone came away pumped about the idea and glad to be a part of it.”
Fellow cast member Master Sgt. Melanie McDonald, the career management noncommissioned officer in charge with the 115th Mission Support Group, said being able to portray important topics in a way that connected with an audience of their peers was the best reward.
“It made people think about things in their life,” she said. “In the skit on depression, we wanted to get the message across that depression does not look the same on everyone, and how a person may act or feel on the outside is not always what they’re feeling on the inside. With the difficult topic of suicide, [we wanted to communicate that] no one is alone and they don’t have to carry the burden themselves.”
In addition to a standing ovation and positive post-performance comments, Parker said he got a sense of unity in the organization he hasn’t felt in a long time.
“The skits put everyone on a common ground to move forward and make our organization more cohesive — and ultimately more prepared to accomplish our mission,” Parker said. “The topics for Wingman Day were from the heart of each team member. This led to empathy for one another, which spread to our audience.”
Parker said many expressed appreciation that the skits addressed tough topics professionally but with empathy. Others commented how the skits helped them relate to the topic of resiliency.
“The overwhelming majority thought it was such a nice change of pace,” Wilson added, “and said it was a great way to discuss the issues in a fun, yet appropriate manner.”
Walker said she also gained something from the project.
“What I learned from Team Truax is the 115th Fighter Wing is their family, and they have each other’s back,” Walker said. “They care about everyone, and the performance gave them the opportunity to show that.”