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Helping veterans pursue their Hollywood dreams

Sydney Hoffner waited anxiously outside the Actor’s Gang Theater in Culver City, surrounded by a group of actors dressed like the denizens of a Gold Rush frontier town.  

"I feel kind of like a kid on Christmas," she said. "I’ve never had my words performed. Especially in front of a live audience. So I’m super excited for this."

In a city teeming with Hollywood hopefuls, Hoffner is an aspiring television writer with a twist. She put herself through film school thanks to her service in the U.S. Army, where she was a mechanic, including a 2005-06 stint at Forward Operating Base Duke, near Najaf, Iraq.

The U.S. Veterans’ Artists Alliance held its New Works presentation on Tuesday, a chance for participants in its writers workshop to see their scripts, screenplays and television pilots performed on stage. 

The Artists Alliance is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit founded in 2004 with the mission of helping veterans pursue creative endeavors, including theater, film, television,and photography.

Executive Director Keith Jeffreys said he wanted to help make the arts a viable option for more transitioning veterans.

"We were getting used to the eye roll when we mentioned veterans and the arts," he said. "They weren’t making the connection."

This is the fourth year of the Artists Alliance's writing workshops. Many of the participants also take part in a weekend-long writing retreat put on by the Writers Guild Foundation.

"When you serve in the military there’s a good possibility that you will encounter experiences that are so different than anything else you’ve ever seen or read about," said Jeffreys. "You almost feel like you are compelled to tell this story."

Sydney Hoffner talks about Bootleg, a TV Western, with Sylvia Bowersox and Brian Hanson at the USVAA New Works Presentation.
Stephen R. Fisch/USVAA
Sydney Hoffner talks about Bootleg, a TV Western, with Sylvia Bowersox and Brian Hanson at the USVAA New Works Presentation.

Not all the works are war stories. Hoffner’s pilot, Bootleg, is a one-hour historical drama set on the Montana frontier. It’s inspired by the story of Josephine Doody, nicknamed "The Bootleg Lady of Glacier Park."

"I think my attraction is badass rugged women who are independent," Hoffner said. "And that is sort of the story that I tell. I’ve been self-sufficient since I was 16 years old."

The writers in the program meet once a month for a table read of selected theater, television and movie scripts-in-progress. Professional mentors provide criticism.

"Being exposed to different cultures and different lifestyles gives them a wealth of experience that they can bring to their writing," said screenwriter and producer Timothy Wurtz, also an Army veteran, who volunteers as a mentor with the Artists Alliance. 

"You know, there are a lot of people in this town that the whole journey of their life is going from Beverly Hills to Century City," he said. "The veterans have more going for them than that."

Sylvia Bowersox wrote This War Can’t Be All Bad for the stage, initially as an answer to her son, who asked where she went during three tours in Iraq. Bowersox was an Army journalist who reported for various military news networks. 

The work is a monologue weaving together the experiences of everyday life--dining, lodging, and socializing in the Green Zone--with the stark violence the Iraqi people and American soldiers were enduring.

"We lived behind the palace in trailers. But we had rockets coming across the Tigris [River] two and three times a day," Bowersox said. "We got to meet all of these people who came to visit us. But my translator got shot in the head on her way home from work."

Bowersox said she was surprised by her own emotional reaction to hearing actress and Navy veteran Stephanie Maura Sanchez perform the piece in rehearsal for the first time.

She said she waited until she got back to her hotel room, and she cried.

"I had never heard my work. I had never heard someone else reading it," Bowersox said. That was emotional."

Stephen R. Fisch/USVAA

Sanchez is an accomplished TV actress, having appeared in shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Agents of Shield and Valor, and she stays active in the L.A. veteran community. 

"That sounds, maybe, like a contradiction. Because when people think of Hollywood, they don’t think of the military," she said. "But there’s actually a lot of military people here." 

There are elements of sardonic humor in This War Can’t Be All Bad, something Sanchez recognized from her own service.  

"You’re trying to make light of a situation, because that’s what we do as humans for survival," she said. "You don’t act like you’re at war when you’re at war."

That theme of humor under fire is evident in Andy Wellens’ feature film script, Sky Pig.

Wellens wrote the story based on his experience with Navy intelligence during a 2001 collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet.

"And it was this big standoff between the U.S. and the Chinese government. We wanted to get our plane back. There was a debate about whose fault it was," said Wellens, a USC film school graduate. He was careful not to comment on the political context of the crash.

"I will say that China has both black boxes. If they ever want to clear the record, they have the power to do so," he said. 

The veterans writing workshop gave Wellens a trusted space to polish his script, and a resource developing writers are hungry for: advice from pros who have been there.

"I can tell you, lots of hard work has gone into this," he said. "My heart beats for this story." 

Like most writers, Wellens knows his chances in the industry may depend on who sees his script. Groups like the Artists Alliance are trying to amplify veterans’ voices in the cutthroat civilian environment of Hollywood boardrooms.