BELIEVING IN DOG: Unicorn transforms one-man ‘short’ into full-length drama
Anyone who has owned a pet understands the ineffable bond that can form between human and animal. But what if your pet were instrumental in saving not only your life but the lives of hundreds of others, and had done so dozens of times? Perhaps only those who have served as military Search Dog Handlers can grasp the trust that forms between soldier and Specialized Search Dog, to use the official term.
For local actor, playwright, and U.S. Army Veteran Logan Black, the experience of sniffing out explosives for a year and a half in Iraq with Diego, his own SSD, was so life-changing that he decided not only to adopt the yellow Lab after leaving the service but to write a play about his experiences.
A 40-minute version of Bond: A Soldier and His Dog won the Best of KC Fringe in 2015, and in 2016 Logan expanded it into a 60-minute version for performance at the National World War I Museum and Memorial. Even in its brief form, the play had enormous impact on viewers, as Logan recounted the real-life adventures of a dog credited with having sniffed out some 250,000 pounds of explosives.
Now, with the help of Cynthia Levin, the Unicorn Theatre’s producing artistic director, Logan has built Bond into an entirely new 80-minute drama that receives its world premiere this April 24th through May 19th at the Unicorn’s Jerome Stage.
Logan’s was only the third American unit in a highly effective program developed by the British, in which soldier and animal train together: virtually from the time the dog is born. “When I first got Diego he was only nine months old,” Logan said. “He didn’t know any commands. Not sit, stay, come, anything. He was just a pup.” Logan had enlisted in the Army right out of high school (“I thought, Oh, I can jump out of airplanes and stuff? That’d be cool!”), and a decade into his military career he realized that war was starting to be a drag.
But then along came Diego. “I served from 1996 to 2007, and the only time I was happy was the year I was in Iraq, because I was there with Diego.” The British program urged handlers to spend pretty much every waking hour with their animal, so it seemed inevitable that a bond would form.
“It was very common for people to put their dogs in the kennels at the end of the working day, and then get them out the next morning for exercises,” said Logan, who from 2006 was part of one of the Army’s most successful bomb-sniffing units. “Diego didn’t spend one day in the kennels. He was in my room, in my trailer, always.”
The bond they formed was so meaningful that after 11 years of military service, Logan was one of the fortunate few who was able not only to locate his SSD but to adopt him. “It’s extremely, unnecessarily complicated,” he said of locating search dogs post-service. “The hardest step was just finding out where he was.” Through luck and perhaps a bit of grace, he found Diego at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio where, significantly, he was being used as a training dog to teach other handlers.
Fast-forward a decade or so, and civilian Logan was about to mount the second, 2016 version of Bond. Diego, whose brief appearance in the first version had an almost indescribable impact on the 2015 audience, was now in failing health. (“To call this show affecting is an understatement,” Robert Trussell wrote in The Kansas City Star of the Fringe performance. “It was instantly clear that Diego has mastered the ability to do something all actors dream of: to win over a crowd by doing virtually nothing.”)
And although Diego did manage to get through the 2016 production, he died of cancer shortly thereafter. Suddenly, the future of Bond was uncertain. Meanwhile, Logan continued having the nightmares and traumatic flashbacks, which had been part of his reason for writing the play in the first place. Yet with Diego gone, it would have seemed disingenuous to replace him with some other random Lab.
So when Cynthia took interest in the project more than a year ago, she suggested working with Paul Mesner Puppets toward “re-creating” Diego. This opened up new vistas for the play. “I didn’t want to lose this story because of the passing of Diego,” she said. Logan wanted to keep telling the story, too: In fact he had begun to envision a work that could take on a life of its own, perhaps even be performed around the country. “But we were both in total agreement,” Logan said, “that if it wasn’t the actual Diego, we needed to find a different solution.”
Cynthia is no stranger to embedding puppets into plays, most notably (in recent years) for Sarah Ruhl’s jarring The Oldest Boy, where one of the central characters is an eerie puppet of a young boy. “It’s amazing what you can accept from a puppet,” she said. “I’ve found that after the first five minutes or so … we let ourselves believe, possibly for an hour or two, that this is real.”
The up-side of using a puppet is it allows Diego to interact with Logan throughout the play, rather than just making a “cameo” appearance after his master’s long, chatty monologue. “It gives us that theatrical ‘styling’ that we want,” Logan said, “to separate this from just a lecture about one guy’s experiences in Iraq.” (Mike Horner, artistic director of Mesner Puppets, has created a remarkably lovable Diego puppet, to be operated by puppeteer Erika Baker.)
Logan said he had approached this whole project with skepticism from the outset, until fellow actor Robert Brand urged him, in 2015, to tell his story. “I thought it was going to come across as boring and self-serving,” Logan said. The public’s reactions startled him initially, especially those of veterans who had battled with their own monsters. “I had one gentleman come up to me, a Vietnam-era vet, and he pulled me aside and gave me a hug and just whispered to me: ‘I wish somebody had told this story from my war.’ And then he said: ‘If they had, I wouldn’t have been wandering in the darkness for the last 30 years.’ ” That one comment, Logan said, “was better than any grant or award or accolade you could get.”
Even so, earlier versions of the play excluded some of Logan’s more painful stories, which took years to process to the point where he felt he could share them. (Some experiences he had even forgotten, repressed some might say, until he began writing the play.) “The affirmation, that this was in fact a story that people wanted to hear, really helped me make choices of what stories I could include: that I was able to include the really worst things I had experienced over there.”
While he doesn’t describe himself as fearless, Logan does believe that the danger he learned to live with has helped him in many aspects of life, including his stage career. “I certainly learned that I can handle myself under pressure.” Actors are often having to imagine themselves in situations where they are about to kill or be killed: a common conceit in Shakespearean tragedies, for example. That challenge is quite different for someone who has actually been there. “I don’t have to imagine that. … So as an actor, that gives me resources.”
One thing you will not find in the Unicorn’s play is political discourse over the morality or strategic wisdom of Operation Iraqi Freedom. “We didn’t want to alienate anyone,” Logan said. “We decided we didn’t want to make a statement on the validity of the war itself. We just wanted to say: This is my particular experience in the war. Take that knowledge and do with it as you will.”
Nevertheless, Logan does believe it is important for Americans to realize the highly personal cost of war. It is no exaggeration to say that Diego saved Logan’s life: not only during his military service but also afterward, when the faithful Lab helped his friend through dark times of recurring nightmares of post-traumatic stress.
“There’s always a cost … a cost that only the person who has served over there pays. We have a tendency to forget about that. … I will have dreams about Iraq for the rest of my life. We kind of talk about that in a very clinical, matter-of-fact way: Oh yeah, this soldier’s going to deal with this forever. And then we let it go. … But people who served in combat are changed by that experience … changed throughout their lives. I guess that’s the biggest thing I want people to take away. This war will be with us for a generation.”
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