Documentary Turns ‘Healing Wars’ Performance into Cinema

National Civil War Project’s dance performance inspires a film.

Healing Wars Documentary
Dancer Ted Johnson films a scene for a documentary about 'Healing Wars.'
June 03, 2013

By Julyssa Lopez

In six hours, a rehearsal room inside Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater was converted into a fully functioning film studio. About seven crew members shuffled from corner to corner, adjusting lights and moving microphones. An Arena Stage publicist walked into the space and gasped: “This place looks completely different!”

Nina Seavey, director of the George Washington University’s Documentary Center, is the mastermind behind this setup. She organized her film crew for a documentary about the upcoming theatrical dance piece “Healing Wars,” choreographed by 2002 MacArthur fellow Liz Lerman, M.A. ’82. “Healing Wars” is one of several projects conceived as part of the National Civil War Project, which joins GW and Arena Stage for creative collaboration.

George Washington University is one of four universities participating in the National Civil War Project, which also brings together the Alliance Theatre, the Emory College Center for Creativity & Arts and Emory University; the Baltimore Centerstage and the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center; and the American Repertory Theater and Harvard University.

In “Healing Wars,” Ms. Lerman looks at the experiences of people tasked with healing physical and psychological wounds of war. Ms. Lerman auditioned dancers to represent medical professionals and soldiers from the Civil War to today. She also conducted interviews with GW nursing students to gain perspective about the subject matter. The show premieres on June 6, 2014, and will feature television actor Bill Pullman as a narrator.

An experienced documentarian, Ms. Seavey has made films that explore everything from medicine to bullfighting. She was quickly attracted to Ms. Lerman’s idea and thought a film about the show would present a unique challenge: how to translate a theatrical performance into a cinematic experience.

“Liz is stretching herself into history, science, medicine and all kinds of interesting places,” Ms. Seavey said. “But only live audiences will see that. So I thought, ‘What if we take this idea and reach mass audiences by making it into a movie?’”

The concept is easier said than done, Ms. Seavey explained. She shadowed Ms. Lerman for several months, following her process of working collaboratively with dancers in choreographing sequences. The two selected several scenes they thought embodied the spirit of the show for a short trailer that Ms. Seavey is currently producing. Ms. Seavey began figuring out how to make those pieces work before a camera lens.

“I need to create new paradigms for the screen as opposed to the stage. Documentary-making is usually about observation, but this project crosses into both observation and a stronger directorial hand in creation. It’s not a retelling of Liz’s version of ‘Healing Wars.’ It’s a remolding of the material for the screen,” Ms. Seavey said.

Ms. Seavey added one of the project’s difficulties is how to make it an interactive, engaging movie instead of a simple recording of performances.

She solved this crux by shooting a few short scenes starting on May 24, utilizing the university’s partnership with Arena Stage to secure a space for filming. The room was reconfigured into a shadowy, intimate stage. Ms. Seavey and her crew captured a performance with Mr. Pullman, who is part of the show’s ensemble. They also shot several choreographed dance sequences and a song performed by dancer Ted Johnson. Ms. Seavey interviewed all of the dancers about their roles in “Healing Wars,” hoping to immerse audiences into the minds of performers and explore underlying themes of the show.

 “There’s so much duality in this piece—the duality of old and new warfare. There’s the notion of war and destruction, and the impulse toward medical advancements that war engenders,” Ms. Seavey said. “The final version of ‘Healing Wars’ will cross so many disciplines, ideas and creative forms.”

Much work lies ahead. Ms. Seavey estimates shooting the film into next year, coinciding with the show’s premiere at Arena Stage, and hopes it will ultimately receive wide distribution. She’s made tremendous headway already, surprising many performers and Arena Stage collaborators. She recalls their reactions when they first realized the scope of her project.

 “At first, they looked at me quizzically and said, ‘Oh, you’re just going to bring in a camcorder and record, right?’ And I said “No, no, no, no! We’re going to make a movie!’”

Healing Wars


GW Documentary Center Director Nina Seavey collaborates with Gary Grieg, director of photography, while shooting 'Healing Wars' documentary.

GW Documentary Center Director Nina Seavey works on 'Healing Wars' documentary with actor Bill Pullman.