Giving Voice To Men of Honor

An Interview with Stephen Lang about Beyond Glory

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Stephen Lang standing with Senator Inouye

Stephen Lang and Senator Daniel Inouye (Hawaii) at a special performance of Beyond Glory at the U.S. Senate in May 2005. Photo: Steven Purcell.

Veteran actor Stephen Lang adapted his one-man show Beyond Glory from Larry Smith's book Beyond Glory: Medal of Honor Heroes in Their Own Words. As part of Operation Homecoming, Lang toured Beyond Glory to U.S. military installations abroad and also led Operation Homecoming writing workshops.

NEA: How did you first become interested in adapting Beyond Glory for the stage?

STEPHEN LANG: Larry Smith is a friend of mine, and he told me about Beyond Glory. I didn't read it with the intention of adapting it for the stage, but at the time I was looking to find something for myself that I could write and perform. I read the whole book in one afternoon. The voices were so genuine, so unaffected, so ungussied up -- I read it out loud. For the adaptation, I took 30-page chapters and condensed them to a bouillon cube of drama and information. I've taken dramatic license in some places, but never with the intention or spirit of the story.

NEA: What kind of preparation went into creating the roles in Beyond Glory?

LANG: I play eight different Medal of Honor [recipients]. A lot of the preparing was just learning the words. As I did that, the voices emerged and the physical life. A lot of acting is patience, waiting, allowing the role itself to fill you. There's an element of impressionism in the piece -- I play black men, Asian men, men who are older than me. I'm really asking -- who is Daniel Inouye as played by me? The number of times people have said that it was close to the real guy, it's very gratifying.

NEA: How did you become involved with Operation Homecoming?

LANG: The NEA became aware of Beyond Glory due to its success at a theater in Arlington [Virginia]. Jon Peede [Director of Operation Homecoming] saw right away there was a synergistic possibility between Beyond Glory and Operation Homecoming. The first thing I did was perform at the press announcement for Operation Homecoming. The NEA asked if I would do a few pieces because this was writing by soldiers. It started a very good relationship with the agency, and I found myself in front of people who might not have seen the show. People in government and the military started coming to the show. Then the NEA asked me what I wanted to do vis a vis Beyond Glory and Operation Homecoming, and I said I wanted to perform for the troops.

NEA: Why was performing for the troops important to you?

LANG: I feel like they are in a situation in which they'll have an immediate appreciation and apprehension of what the show will do. I wanted [Beyond Glory] to be useful, not just entertaining. The show directly gets at the fundamental reasons they got involved in the military in the first place. I wanted to do something to support our troops beyond saying it and giving to worthy organizations that supported them. I have a fascination, a respect for the whole military ethic. So many of the concepts -- courage, leadership, loyalty -- are themes really worth exploring.

NEA: What was it like to teach an Operation Homecoming writing workshop?

LANG: I had a unique perspective I could share with most of the people in the workshops. I'm not a writer by trade. But if there's something I want to write, I write it. These folks were in the workshop because something was on their mind. In the workshop, I would take the participants through my own logic of how and why I wrote my show. Then I'd tell them, "We're going to write and write for 10 minutes" and give them a prompt like ‘boots.' I'd pick something that was mundane but common to everyone there and as fraught with meaning as you want it to be. Then everyone would share their work. I'd do a shaping or an examination, not a critique. I'd talk about where the piece was going, what it could lead to. I did a lot of workshops, at least 15 to 20, with groups from six to 150 participants.

NEA: You've performed Beyond Glory at U.S. military bases around the world -- what was that experience like?

LANG: It was pretty exciting. You get a real sense of the vastness of our military network and how longstanding it is in some places. The tour was me and a trunk -- theater at its most elemental. It was the kind of tour I'd always wanted to do. I was doing three performances in one day in some places. It was taxing and gratifying. It's always gratifying to bring theater to people who don't always see it. And for me, it was an exposure to a whole way of life different from mine. I performed in the hangar bay of the USS Carl Vinson. There were two F-18 hornets with their noses pointed right at the stage and a 40-foot U.S. flag behind me. As I stood in between the F-18s, I was on the most expensive set ever in the history of theater!

Stephen Lang on stage, in a chair

Lang portrays Medal of Honor recipient James Stockdale in a performance of Beyond Glory. Photo: Diane Williams.

NEA: What's next for you?

LANG: I'm going to bring Beyond Glory to New York this coming season. I feel like it's played successfully everywhere from Washington, DC to Bahrain, so it's time it came to New York.