Interview with the Sarge of Bunker 13

By roy

Roy here.

Bunker 13 is an improv group from Seattle that is coming down for the Improvised Play Festival. They do a completely improvised show set in the midst of the Vietname War. Fatigues, cammo, explosions, and letters from home are the order of the day.

In anticipation of their upcoming show, I asked Mike Christensen, the creator of Bunker 13, some questions. As the director, it’s only fitting that in the show his character is “Sarge”.

ROY: How did Bunker 13 get its start, and what was the motivation behind it?

MIKE: Bunker 13 sprang from my experiences in the military, my fascination with the Vietnam War, and the current wars in the Middle East.  I wanted to create a show that focused on the smallest level of men at war; – the squad.  I was hoping to create some insight into the lives of soldiers deployed overseas and how they deal with the monotony, fear, grime, the Army and each other.

My inspiration and model of sorts was Bassprov – but I also wanted the theatricality of flashbacks and trips downrange into the jungle, along with a flow of characters in and out of the bunker.

We produced Bunker 13 at the Wing-It Theater in October and November 2009 as a full-length improvised play.   What surprised me was how popular the show was with women.  They saw beyond the locker room humor and really became attached to the characters in the show.   I was pleased with the characters that evolved during the rehearsal process, very organically.  In the end, I think the show continues to provide a gritty slice of life of the regular Army grunt, Vietnam War, or any war.

ROY: To what degree does the show reflect your own experiences in the military? Are there elements that wound up in the show/structure that wouldn’t be there without your own history to inform it?

MIKE: The experiences I had in the Army influenced the show a great deal.   Soldiers interact with each other in a completely unique way, part locker room, part board room, part junior high sleep-over; all framed in this olive drab world tinged with menace, or danger.   The language is coarse and profane – with lots of slang, some of it handed down from the occupation of Japan or earlier.

Even in peacetime, the tasks and training are difficult and dangerous – weapons, explosives, large vehicles and lots of things happening at night with little or no sleep.    I had a chance to work on the DMZ in Korea, carrying live ammo and knowing that I was being watched from observation posts in the North.  In addition, many of the NCO’s I served with in the Army were Vietnam vets, real characters with plenty of hairy stories to tell.

The devil is in the details, and only soldiers would know to place a C-Rations spoon in their pen holder slot on their pocket to have it when ever needed, or hang a P-38 can opener on their dog tag chain so you always have access to it.

All of this helped bring a sense of realism to Bunker 13, for us and the audience!

ROY: I find the ultra-specific details you just mentioned fascinating. Do you ever have to fight the urge to direct from within the show, and say “No, that’s not quite right” or “Actually, it was like this?” And do you find it a challenge to maintain that sense of tension and danger up in the midst of an improv show?

Mike: There is a little Director’s voice that you need to suppress – in early rehearsals I remember that voice popping up occasionally, but it didn’t take long for the cast to gel and for the show to flow very naturally.

The sound effects are there to remind the audience (and the actors) of where we are – jets fly over, choppers thrum by, artillery (incoming and outgoing) thumps in the distance and occasionally a machine gun, both ours and theirs.

It all helps to build atmosphere and keep the tension up.

Bunker 13 plays Saturday at 9pm. We fully expect the show to sell out, so get your tickets here.

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