Firefighters deal with a tremendous amount of stress and see horrible things on the job, but they seldom talk about it with their families. Even among their brotherhood, they rarely talk about it.
Students from Cal Poly Pomona’s Community Based Theatre class collaborated with Los Angeles County firefighters at Station 151 in Glendora to create theatrical pieces about the firefighters’ experiences, including scenes, songs and hip hop.
The Cal Poly Pomona class allows students to explore a given community and bring to light its issues and ideals by creating and performing dramatic works. Students spent hours interviewing firefighters, transcribed their interviews, and then created theatrical responses to what they had heard. They gave them to the firefighters to review and offer feedback and then performed their works.
“This is a powerful process; the firefighters shared their experiences with us including the stressful situations they encounter regularly,” instructor Paula Weston Solano says. “We were curious how they deal with these horrors both emotionally and otherwise; we found that their strong sense of brotherhood along with humor seemed to help them cope. The students and I were in awe of these men; we were all changed by these interactions.”
The experience proved therapeutic for the firefighters, who became invested in the project, Capt. Eddie Lozano says.
“We don’t get a chance to express what we really feel. It’s hard to tell your family that you were almost killed today or about the horrible things that you see,” he says. “This is the stuff we keep inside.”
The collaboration came about during the winter quarter after Solano acted in an on-campus performance of “The Guys,” a play about a journalist’s efforts to help a New York City fire captain write eulogies for the men he lost on 9/11. The theatre department had invited firefighters from the Los Angeles County Fire Department to the performance, including Lozano, who found the play moving.
Solano and Lozano met after the performance and started talking. The fire captain invited the cast to tour his fire station and then agreed to help with the theatre class Solano was teaching the next quarter.
“He was a champion even though he didn’t know what he was getting into,” Solano says.
The firefighters’ participation grew from agreeing to be interviewed, to giving the students feedback on their works, and then finally to performing the pieces enthusiastically with the students on campus.
The students’ works ranged from vignettes about life in the firehouse during the holidays and recollections of their first experiences on the job to dealing with grieving family members who blame firefighters for not saving their loved one. Another piece was a dream-like sequence in which a man imagines what his life as a firefighter would have been like if he had not died in an accident.
For their final exam last month, the students performed their works at Station 151, amid ringing bells, the squawking of the PA system and the rumble of vehicles headed out on emergency calls — the everyday sounds in a firefighters’ life.
Anthony Rutowicz, a third-year theatre student, says he learned a lot about doing community-based theatre, and he gained a greater appreciation for what firefighters do.
“Firefighters have seen many people die in front of them, and yet they remain on the job,” Rutowicz says. “They encounter so much.”
(Photo: Fire Inspector Mark Tyler and Cal Poly Pomona student Catherine Campbell take part in a community-based theatre project in collaboration with Los Angeles County Fire Department Station 151 in Glendora.)