What's behind the jolt that performers get from being onstage? The necessity, the difficulty, the possibility of connecting with the audience.
Sam Pressler knows that the connection is everything, and is a master at helping people, specifically those with military backgrounds, make connections.
His nonprofit group, Armed Services Arts Partnership, helps veterans connect with their communities through the arts. If the distance between performer and audience can seem insurmountable, and the performer feels badly outnumbered, that isolation is a fraction of what some veterans feel when they rejoin their communities after service. For a performer, it feels good to connect to an audience; for veterans, the stakes are much higher.
Pressler was a student at William & Mary a few years ago when research in one of his classes on government led him to consider challenges for veterans with mental health issues and the gap between service people and civilians.
He started a writing program for veterans, saw the therapeutic value, and then connected with another student, Ryan Goss, to start Comedy Bootcamp. Pressler said it was the first program of its kind in the country, helping veterans adjust to life after service, including in war zones, and deal with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress.
Comedy Bootcamp remains a part of ASAP, and Pressler has added classes and workshops on storytelling and improv. ASAP also offers visual arts instruction, working with the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art in Virginia Beach, and its writing program includes classes at the Muse Writers Center in Norfolk.
Every time Pressler connects with another arts group, veterans have a new avenue to connect with the arts. One of his latest ties is with Zeiders American Dream Theater in Virginia Beach, which is hosting its first Veterans Open Mic on Jan. 25 for veterans, service members, military families and caregivers. Comics are welcome at the ASAP open mics, and so are musicians and storytellers.
An open mic lets comics share their stories in a way that's not stigmatized, Pressler said. "It makes you feel good when you form that connection with the audience. ... It's fun to make people laugh."
For musicians, it also "creates that space to let people in to participate and engage," he said.
"If you're a vet, service member or family member coming to watch, maybe you'll find some solidarity with people or be inspired to perform yourself. ... If you're not military, it gives you a chance to get a different perspective."
The open mics are regular happenings in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia, where ASAP also operates. People can register with ASAP to get advance notice and sign up if they like.
Pressler said he learned the healing power of laughter as a boy in northern New Jersey. After an uncle committed suicide, he used humor to help himself and others cope with the shock. He also was influenced by the 9/11 terror attacks. When his elementary school was let out early, he went to the home of a friend who lived close by. The friend's father had been in one of the towers in New York, and had gotten home before the boys arrived. The event struck home.
When he learned in college about the trouble that veterans can have, "Like any rational 20-year-old, I thought that the solution would be stand-up comedy," he joked.
Though he's certainly a high achiever, he's not looking to get on the stage.
"I'm more in the nonprofit management side. I just tee it up." ___
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