Inside the Gates: 'I Will Wait' takes on military spouses' here and now
An Anchorage Army wife's play takes an honest look at the lives led by service members' spouses, from the power of shared service to the strain it can place on a marriage.
Amy Uptgraft met her husband, Jamie, in high school in Indiana during the 1990s. She didn't start dating him until college and they were married in 1999, after Jamie graduated from West Point.
She married him knowing he was serving in the military, but never saw herself as a long-term military spouse -- until the Twin Towers' fall in New York City changed everything.
"Jamie was in the Army before 9/11 happened," Amy said. "I think he and I both thought that he'd go in and serve his five years and be done and we can go out and do other things; I could continue my career. Then 911 happened -- I think I knew in that instant, and so did he, that he wasn't going to get out; he was going to stay."
The Uptgrafts' future quickly changed due to Jamie's consecutive tours of duty, leaving Amy struggling to adjust.
"By the fourth deployment I felt like, 'Is this forever?'" Uptgraft said. "'Is the war never going to end? Are the deployments never going to end?' After that fourth deployment I had a really hard time."
By that time, she said, they had four children and had moved seven times in 11 years.
"I just had a hard time," Amy said. "I had a lot of resentment and depression. I wondered, 'How did we get here?'"
Amy found herself in a very dark place. She started receiving therapy, and her therapist suggested she write in a journal.
Having a theater background, Amy decided to do something bigger: She was going to write a play. She brought up the idea at a bar with college friend Gregory Stieber in Fort Wayne, Ind.; he was instantly on board, and together they wrote "I Will Wait."
Steiber said they chose to focus on spouses, as a counterpoint to the military's emphasis on soldiers.
"We went through an interview process with people in their 90s to people who are 18 -- World War II all the way to our current conflict -- to get the experiences of people who serve our country," Steiber said. "What it's like when they leave and when they come back. What (effect) does all of this have on a relationship, a family and ultimately the spouse?"
As Uptgraft and Stieber wrote the play, they ran into a musician who was fascinated by the project and wrote all of its music. The play was performed in Fort Wayne, even though Amy and her family continued to live in Colorado.
"It was more of just a workshop kind of feel," Uptgraft said. "We just needed to put it up in front of an audience and have actors say the lines and see what we have, see if it's any good."
As soon as Amy and Greg started to see what they had made, they instantly knew they had something quite powerful.
"We knew this was special," Uptgraft said. "It was impacting the people involved in it. It impacted the people seeing the production. It impacted the people's stories we were telling. It was just really important."
Then Amy's husband received order to move to Alaska. Lt. Col. James Uptgraft is now a battalion commander with Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson's 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division -- the Spartan Brigade, or simply the 4/25.
Amy thought that was the end of her project, until she started talking about it with her new neighbors in Anchorage including Lea Johnson.
"When Amy and I met here in Alaska she told me about this play and how she wanted to produce it again, but she didn't know what it would look like," Johnson said. "The more we talked and brought other people in, we really started to believe this play could have national potential as a nonprofit organization."
The women decided they could give the performing arts portion to communities, and a performing arts workshop to veteran spouses. The Veteran Spouse Project was formed and "I Will Wait" was put back on the map.
"It was important to us that it was very travelable," Johnson said. "That being said, we needed a principal cast that can move around as we move around. As military spouses we move every couple of years; we don't have the luxury of having that one place."
About a dozen members of the cast and the band from Fort Wayne, along with Stieber, were flown to Alaska early this week. They landed on Sunday and got to work quickly.
"The amazing thing we have here that we didn't have in Fort Wayne is the participation from military members," Stieber said. "We knew we had to get this play together quick because of the limited time we have with military members on base. Having them in the play adds so much more to it. It really adds a whole new and powerful dimension to the show."
The Veteran Spouse Project was able to raise enough money to provide tickets to military families for Thursday's soft opening, a military night.
"I Will Wait" was quickly slated for two performances at the UAA Mainstage Theater at the Fine Arts Building, at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday night. Tickets can be ordered online.
"The stories are amazing," Uptgraft said. "It made me feel like I wasn't alone. All of us feel this way. We just don't feel like we have a place to say it. Some pretty incredible people have walked this path before me, and I got a lot of strength from that."
Besides Indiana, Alaska is the only other state the play has been performed in. Staff hopes the play and the project take off nationwide. They have a meeting in Washington D.C. scheduled on Sunday for a reading for Americans for the Arts, who are interested in a possible partnership.
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