What motivated your mother, Donna Miller, to leave Indiana for Vietnam in the middle of war-time?
Strangely enough, this question is essentially the story of my play. What seems like the logical explanation actually had its foundation laid years earlier. Let’s say you meet your fiance at a dinner party thrown by your friend, Bob. You might say Bob is responsible for you meeting your beloved. But you never would have met Bob if you hadn’t known his sister, Kate, in college. Then you realize that you wouldn’t have met Kate if you hadn’t taken that 2nd year biology class where you were assigned to the same lab group. And you wouldn’t have even taken that particular biology class, except at registration you overheard a guy you had a serious crush on mention he was taking it. So you could say a random crush a decade before led you to your fiance, and while that wouldn’t exactly be the whole story, it wouldn’t be technically inaccurate either. Along those lines…It was a wonderful amalgam of random events, encounters, and people that nudged my mom along the path which eventually led to Vietnam.
What are some things that you’ve learned during the process of getting into your Mother’s character?
I heard some stories my mom had never spoken aloud, never told to another person. Many of them are beyond fiction, in that you couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried. I found out details about her- profound, important things- that I hadn’t known. I gained a completely new kind of respect for the woman who gave me life.
Vietnam seemed very far removed from me when I was a child. My parents split when I was very little, and Mom didn’t talk about her experiences in Vietnam very often. There were 2 or 3 anecdotal stories she’d roll out repeatedly, but they didn’t explain anything. I didn’t understand why we didn’t have a television or go to movies. On the rare occasions we did see a film in the theaters, god forbid there be a trace of violence in it. Even a trailer for a violent movie, especially a war story, would send her into this weird shell-shocked, choked-up state. She would get up and leave the auditorium until the violent part was over; sometimes she’d be so upset we’d have to leave altogether. It was confusing, the disconnect between her light, funny stories and her obviously overwhelmed moments.
During my research and writing, I watched documentaries and read a ton of books about the war. After seeing so many interviews with vets, it hit me out of the blue: my mother has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It was like this lightbulb just went on. Everything made sense finally. When I posed the theory to my mother, she admitted she had long suspected she might have PTSD but said, “I don’t have the right. I didn’t have to fight. I didn’t have to kill anyone. I didn’t suffer the way my brother and so many others did.” She had seen and done so many things, yet she was denying herself the right to grieve. It was kind of heartbreaking, but at the same time, it explained so much.
Why did you decide to take on this story yourself?
In 2009, I toured the Winnipeg, Calgary, and Edmonton fringe festivals performing in Inviting Desire: A Theatrical Aphrodisiac. Before that, I had no idea the fringe festival circuit even existed. When you do a fringe, you’re in a strange town for two weeks and aside from your own performances, you have nothing to do but go to other shows. Over the course of that summer, I saw over 50 shows. Solo, spoken-word, storytelling, ensemble, improv, dance, multimedia extravaganzas, burlesque…It completely changed my concept of what theater is and can be.
This coincided with someone asking me a question akin to the first question you asked me: how did my mother get to Vietnam? I realized I didn’t know the answer. And I thought that was kind of strange. So I came home from tour and called Mom and said, “gird your loins. I am going to write a play and I want to write it about you and Vietnam.” We did a series of hour-long interviews, once a week. We couldn’t go for longer or do it more often, because they were extremely difficult for her and brought up a lot of stuff. It took three months to get the stories on paper, but it was definitely worth it. This is by far the most challenging and rewarding thing I have ever done.
One of the reasons I am so excited to be a part of the first Atlanta Fringe Festival is because this play probably wouldn’t exist if not for the fringe circuit. I wrote it because I wanted to tell the story, yes. But I was motivated to write because I knew I would have a venue to tell my story and, hopefully, earn enough to pay my bills while I’m on the road. There are very few avenues out there for individual, independent artists to earn a living from their creative endeavors, but the Fringe is one of the best and most accessible. Art gets made for and because of fringe festivals like this one.
What is the meaning of the show’s title, Threads?
In part it refers to what I touched on before, how it is often many people, places, things, and events that make us who and what we are. A million different threads weave together and form the fabric of our experience. The title also refers to a specific experience my mother had with someone in Vietnam, an interaction which appears in multiple scenes. To explain any further would be giving it away, so let’s just say it’s a moment that will grab you.
You can find Tonya’s show schedule here.
Next: Wake up from Kevin J. Thornton’s Strange Dreamz