Serving Veterans Through the Arts
By Nic Bernstein, Guest Contributor
In High School, many years ago, a friend asked if I would join him working on the spring theater production. I did, putting together the audio cues, and running the sound board. I was hooked. I went to college for an EE degree, but ultimately switched to theater.
After college, a decade or so of lighting & set design for a number of local theater & dance companies provided a useful distraction from my necessary work-a-day life. But I reasonably concluded there was no way a job in the arts even existed for me, let alone one which could sustain me. Shortly before I married I closed my last production, and settled into a life in business, an IT professional with enough experience with accounting and general business to help manage a company.
Fast forward to 2010 and I was asked to bring my business skills to bear, helping form a new arts incubator, The Battery Factory. Two years later we helped launch a new veteran-focused group, the Feast of Crispian, using Shakespeare's words and specialized acting techniques to help trauma sufferers and others facing reintegration issues.
Now it's 2022 and in looking back on my working life I can easily say that my proudest moments have come working with Feast of Crispian. Was it producing our popular and well attended shows Julius Caesar, or Othello: Deployed, or And Come Safe Home? Was it presenting the First National Veteran's Theatre Festival in 2019? Those were all great efforts, full of wonderful moments, of course. But they only provided a convenient stage for what were truly my proudest moments.
Those moments were taking the stage at the Milwaukee Rep, or at Next Act Theater, or in front of the crowd at a Wisconsin Veterans Chamber of Commerce meeting, and saying these words, "I am Nic Bernstein, Executive Director of Feast of Crispian, Shakespeare with Veterans."
While nothing in my business career prepared me for the special demands of helping lead a dynamic arts non-profit organization, it was the work of doing so which has given me the greatest satisfaction of my career. Sure, my understanding of accounting, gleaned long ago, served me well shepherding the Feast from a budget of zero to over a quarter million dollars, in just a few short years. And of course my years of client contact in the business world helped me in recruiting board members, approaching donors, and tallying their gifts. But it was also those earlier skills, those learned working long nights with actors and dancers, designer and directors, who taught me that the greatest gift is sometimes to shut up and help someone else realize their dream; achieve a shared goal.
I've recently stepped down from the role of Executive Director, ceding that title and responsibilities to someone younger, driven, and determined. Still treasurer, and member of the board, my work with Feast will continue, sometime soon even those roles will fall away. But the pride I've found these past ten years will last me a lifetime.
What about you? Have you left behind dreams of a life in the arts, or helping solve the problems of the world? Are you using the polished skills and innate talents you possess to help others? Wondering where to start? Do this: Reach out to your Chamber and ask them if they know of any non-profits in need of your talents! The Chamber is a perfect place to bring your talents, ideas, dreams and can-do spirit. There are dozens of Chamber member organizations in the nonprofit sector, and any one of them could probably use your help. Not ready to serve on a board? Not sure you've got the chops to serve as treasurer, or some other office? That's okay, join up as a volunteer and see where it goes.
Believe me, you will not be disappointed by the choice to serve in this way. Sure, you might get frustrated with obstruction, lack of funds, fractious organization, but over time you'll be in position to make real change. And one day, at a Chamber event, or some other venue, during introductions, you'll get to feel that thrill as you announce what you're most proud of.
And if you're good with books, and interested in being treasurer of a quarter-million dollar a year veterans non-profit, give me a call. I'm stepping down in a year or so, and need a good successor!
Feast of Crispian strengthens the personal emotional resources available to military veterans, their families, and others who are navigating trauma using the practice and skills of theatre combined with the timeless themes and imagistic language of Shakespeare. The heart of this resource is gained through experiential exploring and expressing personal stories through the words of these plays and utilizing the collaborative practice of theatre to deepen the emotional resources needed for healthy relationships and a satisfying life.