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Combined Efforts Theatre presents ‘Shell Shocked,’ a new play by Janet Schlapkohl




Johnson County Fairgrounds — opens Friday, Dec. 15

Long before the idea of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) entered the public lexicon in the 1970s, doctors studied a multitude of stress disorders, often found in soldiers returning from war. Perhaps the most familiar term among them is shell shock, coined in World War I to aggregate symptoms — both physical and psychological — of trauma caused by proximity to explosions. Janet Schlapkohl, founder of Combined Efforts Theatre, told Little Village in an email that her newest play was born of a talk that she presented on shell shock to the Society of Medicine in Iowa City. Combined Efforts — an inclusive theatre for actors of all developmental abilities — opens Shell Shocked on Friday, Dec. 15; it runs through the weekend. Tickets are $5-10.

Schlapkohl’s play is “an amalgam of several stories,” she said. The characters she created are fictional, but the plot is based in fact. When she started digging into the subject, her curiosity was piqued.

“As I researched the original documents about Shell Shock (using Hardin Medical Library and The Lancet medical journal’s online publications) I discovered a cover-up by the military.”

This became the central conceit of the show. From the synopsis: “A group of nurses and physicians in an expeditionary hospital in France in the winter of 1917-1918 come up against British military authorities agenda to hide the truth about brain damage caused by blast forces.” The central character of Shell Shocked, Corporal John Leland, is under court martial for cowardice and desertion — if the condition can be proven to result from blast force injuries, then it is the fault of the enemy; if it is fear and emotional trauma, then the military can classify it as a weakness or intentional dereliction of the soldier.

Schlapkohl’s attraction to the subject is personal as well as professional. The connection began in her family.

“My great-grandfather served in the German army during WWI,” Schlapkohl said, “and suffered mild TBI [traumatic brain injury] from blast force injuries due to shell exposure near Terrest, Belgium.”

Shell Shocked is not Schlapkohl’s first time using theatre in an interdisciplinary fashion. She has written plays for the Iowa Women’s Archives and for the Center for Worker Justice, a play about disability and World War II (My Sister) and, recently, a commission for the University of Iowa about German immigration in Iowa, called Here I’m Hank.

“It is something I enjoy,” she said. “You are more likely to write an authentic voice and perspective, when you have done research and select a perspective outside the mainstream.”