The West L.A. VA hosts a star-studded run of “Henry IV” that helps veterans find careers in the arts
By Christina Campodonico
The stars sparkled last Friday in the premiere of the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ production of “Henry IV” in the Japanese Garden of the West Los Angeles VA campus.
Joe Morton, better known as the devious Papa Pope on ABC’s dearly departed “Scandal,” played the title role with the same verbal force and regal majesty. “The New Adventures of Old Christine” alum Hamish Linklater imbued prodigal son Prince Hal with a boyishly anxious charm. And Academy Award winner Tom Hanks — donning a fat suit and a Gandalfian gray hairpiece — shined as Sir John Falstaff, the loveable and rotund rogue of Shakespearean lore, in his L.A. stage debut directed by Tony Award-winning director Daniel Sullivan.
“For a lot of people, it wouldn’t be the role you would think of when you think of Tom Hanks,” Sullivan said over the phone on his way to an onstage rehearsal two weeks ago. “But he’s taken to it delightfully.”
L.A. critics agree. “A Falstaff for the ages” enthused Entertainment Weekly. “Worthy of applause all around,” wrote the Los Angeles Times, “… theatergoers seemed rapt by this Shakespearean vision, animated by acting royalty.”
Indeed, watching Hanks turn from bumbling drunkard to forlorn fatherly figure over the course of a star-studded evening was like watching a master class in Shakespearean acting. Henry IV may be king, but Hanks’ Falstaff is the ruler of this production.
Supporting his star power were a towering set of arches, a freshly manicured slope to serve as backdrop and a sturdy peninsula stage that was built, landscaped and assembled by 34 veterans in the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ Veterans in Art program.
Part job skills training and transitional employment, part compensated work therapy and vocational rehabilitation, the effort by SCLA and the Employment Services office of the VA brings in professionals to train veterans in the technical side of theater arts and helps them transition into full-time, civilian work. “Henry IV” marks the return of the program to the West L.A. VA campus after a four-year hiatus, during which the program relocated to Santa Monica College, where vets can still enroll in technical theater courses underwritten by SCLA and participate in apprenticeships and productions there.
But SCLA founder and artistic director Ben Donenberg says the roots of the center’s work with veterans stretch back even further — to the company’s early theatrical work with disadvantaged youth who’d often enlist in the armed services, and its on-again off-again relationship with the VA over 30-plus years.
“It started, really, in 2008,” says Donenberg of the center’s current relationship with the VA. “We had a couple of champions who really loved Shakespeare and loved veterans and understood the power of immersing veterans in an art project.”
Among those champions he lists the late U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge and World War II veteran Harry Pregerson, Vietnam War vet Jay Morales, production services vendors that have donated labor and equipment to “Henry IV,” and more broadly Hanks and his wife, actress Rita Wilson.
Hanks and Wilson have been fervent supporters of the center and its causes ever since SCLA precursor Shakespeare Festival L.A. cast Wilson in the late 1980s, and they’ve hosted its annual Simply Shakespeare benefit — a reading of Shakespeare with a celebrity cast and live music — since 1990. Bur for this year, it was Hanks who suggested putting on a fully staged production instead.
“Tom is a great actor and company member,” says Donenberg. “He has a wonderful generosity of spirit that inspires everyone to bring their best game to the endeavor.”
Hanks talks about his work with veterans and the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles in a promo video released by the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health on Wednesday.
“I just love being able to answer any question they have, take any picture with them and help them move on to perhaps doing this for a living,” says Hanks in the video, which shows him mingling with veterans on the set for “Henry IV” on a recently documented visit. “Wouldn’t it be great if some of them went into this very line of work, the same one I’m in?”
Former Marines radio operator Shawn McKelvey came to L.A. to become an actor after being discharged and joining the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program.
“You had to take classes … and one of the things was acting classes. I was like, ‘This is crazy. You’re going to send me to L.A. to go take acting classes?” McKelvey says during a break in set construction during my visit to the Japanese Garden in late May. “So I came to L.A. to be an actor, to be a movie star.”
That career path didn’t quite work out as planned, so McKelvey took classes in stagecraft through SCLA’s 2016 summer theater program for vets at Santa Monica College, where he learned how to run lights for productions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Twelfth Night.”
With that experience and connections he’s made by working on “Henry IV,” McKelvey now has his sights set on joining a concert tour as a crew member or stagehand.
“I’ve met guys here, specifically the rigging guys. They’re on the road with bands all the time, and I could actually get into the KISS tour starting next year for 18 months going around the world,” he says. “It sounds far-fetched, but the guy was like, ‘No, you can really do that.’ That is looking more and more like my path, I think.”
Hanks’ connection to the production is also a major résumé booster.
“It’s amazing — and not just like in a groovy kind of way,” says McKelvey, “but to see the power that the guy has to attract attention and, frankly, money to the whole thing. It’s a real testament to star power. It really changes everything. When I talked to my mom about it — ‘I’m doing a play’ — it’s like, ‘All right, whatever.’ When you say, ‘I’m working with Tom Hanks.’ ‘Wow, okay!’ You get everybody’s attention. It’s really cool.”
Working on “Henry IV” has given other veterans a newfound sense of purpose.
“I was excited to be part of this and to work every day and be a part of something, a community,” says Heather March, a shy Navy vet, as she takes a pause from painting one of the stage’s steps. “I like that I get to see everybody every day. I get to do stuff with my hands. It’s a very supportive community.”
She brightens up when I mention Hanks, one of her favorite actors.
“I’m excited to meet him. We’re going to do a meet-and-greet to get our picture taken with him,” she says, rattling off a few of her favorite Hanks movies, including “Big” and “Splash.”
“He’s really funny. He’s got great timing,” she says, getting back to painting.
Like life in the military, there’s little time for dilly-dallying at this active construction site led by foreman Chad Rowlett, a Navy veteran who runs a tight ship.
“I give the guys a plan today and they accept that mission and complete that mission. Simple as that,” says Rowlett, who was a builder in the Navy. “Our motto was ‘We build. We fight.’”
As site leader, Rowlett taps that “can do” spirit to get things done — though he doesn’t have to do much to motivate this crew, he says, because of their shared military training and experience.
“This group of guys already has that in them, since we’re all veterans. From day one we already have that brotherhood and that camaraderie, so it’s real easy for these guys to take orders and give orders. So it makes things very smooth. There’s no arguing, there’s no fighting. You tell these guys to attack a hill, they’ll attack that hill and they’ll get it done,” he says. “We’ve done everything from landscaping to plumbing to building new handicap-accessible walkways.”
“This was just an empty field with overgrown grass and a lot of gopher holes,” Donenberg says of the Japanese Garden before the veterans’ crew arrived in May.
“It was just a jungle,” adds McKelvey. “We cleared all this out and we had a few mishaps. We had a water line break over here … just to add some excitement to the day. The gophers are another thing. They were everywhere.”
Now the Japanese Garden (sans gophers) is a veritable oasis from the hurly-burly of L.A. A brook babbles under a freshly painted red bridge and newly laid brick walkway. Downy little ducks frolic in the pond. There are freshly sanded and stained picnic tables for audience members to dine on before the show, and a just-built open-air gazebo where theatergoers can mingle during intermission or buy concessions.
“It’s such a beautiful place,” says Donenberg. “And it’s so intimate. There are very few distractions. Finding a venue that doesn’t have all the distractions of traffic and helicopters and all kinds of things is really a challenge in Los Angeles. We’ve been at this for 30 years, and this really has been the most beautiful and intimate space that we’ve ever presented in. So just artistically this is the place that I think is perfect for Shakespeare.”
And for veterans to begin anew.
“We want to do our work where it makes a difference — not just do our work and make it aesthetically beautiful,” adds Donenberg. “There’s a purpose of this employment that goes beyond just putting on a show. This is meant to set the stage, if you will, for them to believe in themselves, so that they can go back into the job market.”
As I’m about to leave, I chat with a white-haired veteran in a wide-brimmed hat who’s been painting one of the arches with particular care. His name is Dan Hain, and he was a carpenter before two shoulder replacements and a set of bad knees forced him to retire. I ask him what it means to be able to work again. His answer is simple.
“It’s done a lot for my spirit. … It’s good for the soul.”
“Henry IV” continues its run through July 1 at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays in the Japanese Garden of the West L.A. VA Campus, 229 Patton Ave., West L.A. (Peter Van Norden replaces Tom Hanks this Saturday and Sunday, June 16 and 17.) Tickets are $49 to $500, but veterans and active military are eligible for free tickets. Call (866) 710-8942 or visit henryiv.org.