A Guide to the Aftermath

Jon Bernson, singer/guitarist of Exray’s, recently wrote and scored a one-act play called A Guide to the Aftermath based on an investigative news piece called “Her War: The Invisible Crisis of Women Veterans,” by Mimi Chakarova. You might not have ever heard of a play being based on a news article, and that’s kinda the point. A Guide to the Aftermath was part Storyworks, an innovative collaborative project between the Tides Theater and The Center for Investigative Reporting, whose aim is nothing less than “Changing the Way We Experience Journalism.”

I had the pleasure of catching a performance (also spotted in the crowd were members of Thee Oh Sees, Mwahaha, and The Sandwitches) and found the play very affecting in a visceral way. The eerie soundscapes Bernson crafted for the play had a lot to do with that.

Those soundscapes fit the play well. A Guide to the Aftermath was certainly grim in ways, as there’s no way to depict the struggles of homeless women veterans any other way. “What really affected me in Mimi Chakarova’s story were the stories about female vets who were raped while they were serving in the military,” Bernson says. “Now they’re home, trying to cope with sexual trauma and PTSD without reliable aid from the country that sent them to war.”

The music was an integral part of the experience, conveying the desperation and frustration of the characters, even though it was used sparsely.

“I didn’t hear much music when I was writing the play, which surprised me,” Bernson says. “I ended up having about six short pieces of music in the whole play. I didn’t want to tell the audience how to feel. I wanted them to sort things out for themselves. There’s a lot of dark humor in the play and I wanted them to struggle with the same depressing absurdity that I felt when I was first exposed to these stories.”

So how did he approach writing the score to the play? And how was that different from, say, his songwriting for Exray’s?

“I’ve scored about a dozen plays and written songs for a dozen records,” Bernson says. “In many ways they’re similar. The music on an album needs to serve the song. No matter how good the ideas or performances are, they won’t work unless they serve the song. The same thing goes for scoring. The music tells the audience how to feel when they’re watching a movie or a play. If it doesn’t send the right message, then you do more harm than good.”

Here’s the opening montage that Bernson put together to set the scene:

A Guide to the Aftermath is no longer running, but KQED is running excerpts of the play and interviews with Bernson and several other folks involved in the project in a show called “Life After War: California Veterans”, which airs this Friday at 7:30pm (it will air several other times as well, check here for the full schedule).