COLUMBUS, Ga.—Whether it’s hiking 12 miles in a thunderstorm or cramming for a make-or-break exam covering 230 years of Army history in eight days, the soldiers of Fort Benning’s Officer Candidate School (OCS), Alpha Company, know a little something about drama.
While most of their theatrics have unfolded off stage, these soldiers are channeling their dramatic energies as the newest group of volunteers at Columbus’ historic theater, Springer Opera House.
Over the past few weekends, teams of officer candidates have rolled up their sleeves at the downtown venue helping build props, move furniture, clean, and take down backdrops as part of a new collaboration between Springer and the officer candidate school.
While soldiers get to cathartically exorcize academic dramas through their volunteer work at the opera house, they also get to attend the landmark theater’s productions and dress rehearsals on a space available basis.
“Volunteer hours and volunteer labor are what drive a nonprofit,” said Jamie Fagerstrom, Springer’s director of operations and finance. On a recent Saturday morning Fagerstrom welcomed the inaugural group of officer candidate volunteers with a hearty batch of homemade cookies.
Without volunteer support Fagerstrom said Springer would have to dole out thousands for manual labor annually, money that can be better spent elsewhere.
While Springer has two to three hundred volunteers come through its doors yearly, Fagerstrom says the collaboration with OCS has brought the largest military participation she’s seen at the theater in her 15 years there.
For OCS Alpha Company commander, Capt. Alexander Victoria, the venture is a one-two opportunity to both expose his students— who are being groomed to assume positions of Army leadership— to the arts, and have them serve beyond Fort Benning’s main gate.
“I see an exposure to the arts being highly beneficial to my officer candidates in several ways: it provides them with an opportunity to give back to the surrounding community, teaches them the importance and history of the Springer Opera House; broadens their horizon of being exposed to historical plays, and enables them to encourage others to support community entertainment.” Victoria observed.
Taylor Criswell, an officer candidate and the president of Alpha Company’s student council from Huntsville, Alabama, grasps the value of art and outreach.
An Army band euphonium player, Criswell initially approached the Opera House about the partnership as a way to introduce his peers to Columbus’ thriving arts scene from the inside out.
“I think the best way of getting an appreciation of something is when you see it from start to finish,” said Criswell who dutifully swept a large push broom across Springer’s main stage one Saturday in February.
“A lot of these candidates probably haven’t participated in theatre,” Criswell added, “Through volunteering they can get an idea of what goes on behind the scenes, what sort of work, the type of personalities that go into making a show come to fruition, the dedication that does into their craft and the attention to detail. There are some parallels there to the Army.”
Officer candidates are already gaining a heightened sense of cultural awareness from their collaboration with the Opera House.
When Springer volunteer and officer candidate Mark Nolte saw the play “A Raisin in the Sun,” performed at the theater in January, the Raleigh, North Carolina national guardsman said it was culturally “eye-opening.”
“It opens your eyes up to things you might not have experienced in your hometown growing up,” said Nolte who had not heard of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic drama about a poor African-American family that experiences a $10,000 windfall in 1950s Chicago. “It gives you alternative perspectives,” Nolte added.
It is eye-opening, perspective-shifting moments that Springer’s director of operations and finance hopes officer candidates walk away with during their collaboration with the theater.
“Theater, performing arts like ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ touches on social commentary; it exposes people to those things,” Fagerstrom observed. “It’s not just entertainment, it ties into leadership. Understanding [social issues] and having a free and open dialogue is crucial,” she added
Fagerstrom and Capt. Victoria are looking forward to a long-term partnership that will extend past the current Alpha Company officer candidates who graduate and commission as 2nd lieutenant officers in mid-march.
“This is a great opportunity. I hope to continue this working outreach for years to come,” Victoria said.