Sun., April 19, 5:30-9 p.m., at The Studio at 620, St Petersburg
Wed., April 22, 8-10 p.m. at Cribari Bar, New Port Richey
Sat., May 2, 8-10 p.m. and Sun., May 3, 4-6 p.m. at Silver Meteor Gallery, Ybor City
It's very rare to see the military combined with comedy. A few TV sitcoms, like the classic MASH or the critically acclaimed but cancelled Enlisted, have tried, but most often war and the military are depicted as serious, bloody, almost romantic affairs.
This romanticism is just one of the cherries that Laura Westley hopes to pop in her new one woman musical-comedy show: War Virgin, which tells her own true story about sexual repression as a teenager and as a cadet at West Point and how eventually the War in Iraq liberated her even more, perhaps, than the Iraqis.
I sat down with Laura recently to talk about her show and her experiences and she was just as funny and honest as I'm sure she will be onstage. You can read the interview for yourself below and check out War Virgins, produced by the Gypsy Stage Repertory Company, playing April 18-May 3.
SP: Where did you get the idea for the show? What in your mind was like “I need to do this?”
LW: Well I started writing a memoir a few years ago, it’s not finished yet, I’m hoping sometime this summer. I’m working with a freelance editor to help me get it done because it’s such a daunting thing, but I have been working on it for six years and I found that when I would tell people my stories that I’d just have them in stitches because I had the craziest set of stories about my life, about West Point, about the war and it had been brought to my attention “maybe you should tell that on stage” so about four years ago I started doing live storytelling on stage and it would start with little five or ten minute stories and I always try to do it with a military or war kind of theme, and you know these are non-fiction stories, and this was in the Boston area, which is actually where I live right now but I’m moving back to this area after I sell my house in the summer. Yeah so somebody was like “you should do a one woman show” so in the fall of 2012 I created a one woman show, I did a couple different series of it and I’ve been performing that all over the Massachusetts area for the last couple of years and then I did it down here last fall at the Gypsy Stage Repertory Company and then the director of that said “I want to take this further, I want to combine what you’ve done with War Virgin and I have a theater company so let’s join forces and augment this into a play format” so that’s kind of like how it’s morphed throughout the years but also like why I did it or what compelled me is because I want to educate the public about what really goes on because I almost want to help create a genre of literature because I find that a lot of war memoirs are about the all-American man that storms the hill—
It’s very romantic.
Yeah, and these wacky, peculiar things that happen are more common than you might think and when I tell my stories people can’t believe it and I want to inspire more people to come forward and educate the public and I also really want to equip people who are choosing to embark on a military journey — let me equip you with this education so you are better prepared in these situations more than I certainly was.
It’s not always romantic. It’s kind of weird.
It is. Very weird, yeah.
So now that you’ve performed it in several places what has the reception been like? Has it been all rave reviews or have people thought it was a little weird?
I mean for the most part rave reviews like “it’s hilarious.” I mean there’s definitely some content — even some friends of mine are like “you know it’s very sensitive content.” I wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post that was split fifty-fifty because some of the stuff I talk about is controversial because I’m kind of disarming these leaders who have a public persona and I’m kind of dispelling the myth of how they really are so there is some controversy, but when people do come to the show I only hear good things. I’ve even performed it at private events like a psychology school, at a veterans’ conference, I’ve performed at a women’s veterans’ retreat and for veterans it’s a very cathartic experience even though there’s a lot of sexual content in the show, women that were victims of sexual assault in the military, it’s like a form of release for them, they really enjoy that I go onstage calling people out for how they’ve misbehaved.
You posted a lot of stuff on your website and I watched some of the videos, it’s pretty hilarious I have to say. The “Like a Virgin” parody, that was great.
Thank you. I take that even further because I talk about a bullet proof vest in there and I take that even further in the show. It’s almost like an invitation to Donald Rumsfeld like “F—- you for putting me in harm’s way and here’s what I have to say about that.”
Were you ever nervous at all sharing these experiences with people?
No, I feel like I’m called to do this and I feel like it’s important to be vulnerable. I think that, especially too many West Pointers, even when they become civilians they still have a filter on them to project a certain persona. I think that it’s very important to connect with other human beings in the most vulnerable way possible and that’s through raw honesty, authenticity, and humor. Humor and sarcasm are a great way to bond.
Oh I agree wholeheartedly and it’s fun. I know in your show you talk a lot about sexual repression and keeping your “sparkle” and I wonder what made you stick to that principle?
It definitely started with my father. Like when he would tell me these things, sometimes I would kind of believe it and kind of not believe it, but I truly believed, even though he would claim to be prophetic, I just still felt that there was some kind of thing that he would be able to tell if I was getting into trouble. I was so consumed with having to be perfect — and he wanted a son — and kind of portraying the son he always wanted, but I knew that that was so untouchable. There were also other institutions that were in place to help make sure — like the various churches that we would go to and then West Point just followed on to be the perfect environment to keep that in place because I mean there are definitely people that go off to West Point and they act like college kids and they have sex, but there’s so many rules and they’re scared of getting caught, but then I was also heavily involved in the church at West Point.
Lots of deterrents.
Yeah lots of accountability, lots of deterrents, even when I had a boyfriend at West Point, Bible study leaders would watch you like a hawk and make sure you weren’t doing anything wrong. It’s just kind of funny because I felt like, looking back there were so many more important things we could be talking about in church at West Point like genocide, hunger, poverty, and as future leaders in the military maybe we could focus on these things. Instead they were obsessed with not having sex — it seemed like sex was the number one topic discussed in the church setting.
Do you think that’s a problem in America: people expressing their sexuality and sex in general?
Yeah, I’m really curious — like I’ve traveled to other countries, I work with a lot of people from other countries and I haven’t explored or researched this topic fully, but my opinion is that Americans are raised to be very uncomfortable with expressing their sexuality and so there’s a lot of repression and this might be different in other countries. Of course, it’s a lot worse in other countries too, but it would be nice to see if there was a more open dialogue and people could be more accepting and tolerant and also just teaching other people, like how do you learn how to have sex, how do you learn how to relate — and there are a lot of things I didn’t learn until much later in life and there’s even like — as far as intimacy and relationships — like I didn’t learn that until after I was married and on the brink of divorce, so if we talked about this more and make people more comfortable with it, then maybe there would be less issues.
In addition to doing this show you are also a veterans’ advocate. What is it that you advocate and what is it that you want people to know more about as far as veterans go?
I was heavily involved with the West Point LGBT community. I was a staunch advocate for repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Lieutenant Dan Choi kind of spear headed the movement within the military. He came out on the Rachel Maddow Show and subsequently was discharged from the military. I mean he went so far as to chain himself to the White House and get arrested publicly. He was a good friend of mine and I took care of him when that whole movement was going on—like he had some mental health issues and I was his primary care taker during that time and I marched in the DC pride parade and just making it known to the West Point community that it doesn’t matter if I’m heterosexual I’m gonna make a stand for these people because I have a lot of friends — a lot of them came from the church choir which I was the president of — I felt really bad because they were kicked out of the military and lost their careers and these were true patriots — a lot of them belonged serving in the military a lot more than I did — I just felt that there’s so much of an injustice that they couldn’t continue serving just because of their sexual orientation so I was really heavily involved with that. There’s so much more work to be done, but now that that’s subsided I feel like now I like to speak out about mental health issues. I’ve struggled with depression and I had my own suicide attempt so I feel like it’s important for me because I’m so gregarious publicly — I have this public persona—to start explaining how — you know how people were surprised about how Robin Williams committed suicide — and I have another friend who was a comedian and a veteran who committed suicide about a month ago so I’m starting to speak out a lot more about that. I spoke at a psychology school last year basically training mental health providers on what to look out for, if there’s any unique issues for women veterans, and in my shows here I’ll be collecting money to donate to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in memory of my friend who committed suicide recently.
Yeah, I know, my dad served in Afghanistan in ’03 and he when he came back that’s one of the things he struggled with so I know what you’re talking about.
So see how it connects even — I’m assuming you haven’t served —
No I haven’t.
You’re so impacted by that. It definitely brings — it allows a connection and it raises awareness and maybe people can get more help that they need before it’s too late.
Yes definitely. In what ways did the War in Iraq change you?
I completely changed my perspective on life. Up until that point I would do everything as far as how I should please people, to be the perfect—perfectly behaved — I mean I had started in the regular army once I left West Point I kind of saw this goody two shoes Jesus freak isn’t gonna fly in the army; these are the soldiers I’m gonna have to go to war with. So I kind of started scaling back on how publicly I would proclaim to be a Christian. I started swearing a lot more, which is definitely in my vocabulary now, but also being over there I could die a virgin and I’d never done anything crazy with my life and I need to stop living for what other people tell me I should do and really start living for what feels good and be authentic. I definitely had some war buddies over there who influenced me. They taught me that if I embrace my sexuality it could be a very powerful thing. They didn’t necessarily teach me in the most polite way — it’s a very testosterone charged, crazy environment — I definitely came back feeling more liberated. I joke that Saddam Hussein liberated me.
That’s very ironic. If you could go back in time would you change anything?
A lot of people ask me if I would go to West Point and the short answer is no — hell no — I wouldn’t go to West Point if I could do it all over again. I feel like I should’ve been doing something else and I wish when I was a child I could’ve explored other talents, but then had I not done that I wouldn’t have this story and I feel like this is a huge part of my life’s purpose and so it was a necessary thing to happen. So I try to make the most out of it, process it, and express it in the most unique way that’s unique to me and where my heart is wanting to reach out to the public. But I really wish I could go back and tell my younger self that “you don’t have to listen, your father’s wrong, he’s not raising you properly” maybe reach out and have another adult influence in my life because we were pretty far away from our family — we were pretty isolated from our extended family — and to tell myself to relax at West Point and not worry about so many things, not worry about trying to be perfect and just start living my life well before I really did.
So what do you hope the audience will take away when they see War Virgin?
I hope they laugh their asses off, I hope that they can escape from whatever it is and just laugh their asses off, and I hope that they can be like “wow” and have a completely different perspective on what really transpires in the military other than what they see on the news and what they see in a book or read in a newspaper. I hope that it compels them to have an interest in other human stories and to seek that out. I hope that somebody — maybe an agent — will take interest in my book, wherever that might be located. I’ve worked with one before but it didn’t work out. I am working with a freelance editor, but I’d really like for this to catch on and I want this to expand and I’d really like to take this show on the road. So I’d like for there to be interest, whether it’s somebody that comes from the audience or sees this through what you’re writing and to be like “ok what can I do to help War Virgin be bigger?” It’s known nationally just because of my West Point community — or internationally because we’re scattered all over the world — there’s people in Afghanistan that watch my videos online — but I really want it to be this big thing and inspire other people to come forward and share their stories because I’m not the only one. There’s plenty of other stories out there, but I want to make people feel comfortable with doing that. So if there’s audience members out there that can help — like with the Gypsy Stage Repertory Company. They were my audience, they saw my show, and they were like “alright let’s do it.” So If we could do that on a bigger scale that’d be great.
This last question you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to, but who was it that finally got your sparkle?
It was my high school boyfriend. It was somebody safe [laughs].
Laura Westley graduated from River Ridge High School in New Port Richie in 1997 and graduated from West Point in 2001 with a BS in chemistry. She was commissioned an officer in the army that same year and stationed with the Aviation Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division based out of Savannah, Georgia. Her unit participated in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Laura received an MBA in 2004 and currently works as a technology consultant for a global company that manages clinical trials.