Reflections on Service to Stage

Fiona Tomlin and Elaina Stephenson

Last Tuesday seventeen years since the 9/11 attacks, about 150 people showed up to DC Improv for a night of storytelling.

Each year, September 11th remains a sorrowful commemoration of those we lost in the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. But it has also become a day of service.

In 2009, Congress designated September 11th as “National Day of Service and Remembrance,” rooted in the idea that serving your country, your community, and fellow neighbor can be a powerful tribute to the legacy of those who perished on 9/11 and in the wars since.

Following the shock and horror of the 2001 attacks, our country banded together in unity. It seemed overnight we rediscovered our shared values—realizing that our shared identity as Americans binds us together much more than any label can divide us. Service exemplifies that notion, and will continue to as long as our republic stands.

VFAI set out to capture the universality of that spirit through “Service to Stage,” a storytelling event in association with Armed Services Arts Partnership, Service Year Alliance, and Story District.

As the lights dimmed at DC Improv, six amateur storytellers waited backstage: Three veterans—from the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, —a Peace Corps alum, an AmeriCorps volunteer, and a Special Immigrant Visa recipient who served alongside the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

Each performer laid bare their highest highs and their lowest lows, with service as the common thread. Our emcee, the wonderful “actor-vist,” Melissa Fitzgerald, also shared with the audience stories of her time as a veteran advocate and of working to aid child soldiers in Uganda.

The idea of “service” may seem vague and reserved for certain people, like those in the military, or in the Peace Corps. Oftentimes, smaller acts of service can seem insignificant, but, as our first storyteller, Matt Fraterman, eloquently put it: “sometimes service is just showing up.” And anyone can do that.

Navy veteran Charles McCaffrey spoke of service being an act of healing for him following the death of his partner in combat: “One thing the military taught me was how to move forward. Even when you have no idea where you’re headed, you just put one foot in front of the other and keep going.” The message stood as a proud reminder that we did exactly that as a nation after 9/11—we put one foot in front of the other; neighbors helped neighbors, strangers helped strangers, regular people served one another in an attempt to heal.

As the night went on, I found myself alternating between tears of sadness and of laughter. I cackled when Marine vet Michael Desmond joked about hitting rock bottom after he left the military— “You know when you’re blaming the President for your problems in therapy, something has to change.”—then blinked back tears when Mansoor Mansoor told us of how he had to tell his wife that he was receiving death threats for his work with the U.S. military.

The show wrapped up with the group coming together on stage with Melissa. She asked each how they would recommend the audience get involved and serve. Storyteller and AmeriCorps alumna Maisha Leek stressed that people shouldn’t feel intimidated by service, that all we need to do is take two hours out of the year and start somewhere. “Work to create communities we can be proud of,” she said. “and always remember to make people feel like they matter.”

To close the evening, Melissa recited a moving quote from Martin Luther King Jr that brought the house down:

Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s “Theory of Relativity” to serve. You don’t have to know the Second Theory of Thermal Dynamics in Physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.

It was a fitting end to a memorable evening. The words of Dr. King perfectly summarized my feeling of awe at the depth of the storytellers’ service and the countless sacrifices they endured. It made me think, I could do that