TRACERS – A Vietnam Veteran’s Odyssey

July 2, 2021 | John DiFusco
Cast of Tracers

It was 1974. I’d completed four years in the USAF (including a year in Vietnam) as a security policeman and four years of college as a theatre major. I was ready to follow my dream wherever it took me. I hit the streets of LA in search of a theatre company. I auditioned for the prestigious Company Theatre. The director gave me an address and suggested I meet Ron Sossi, who had just rented a building in West LA. I was new to LA and it took me an entire afternoon to find the address (no GPS in the 70’s). A big square rundown structure with a faded sign that said, ”Used Office Furniture.” I walked into the gutted cavernous building and found Ron Sossi seated behind a desk with a lamp, a phone and some books scattered about. We had a lively chat about spirituality, theatre and his grand plans for the transformation of the space. It was to become the westside alternative to the downtown commercial theatres. All of us who’ve been involved with the Odyssey over the years would agree “Mission Accomplished.”

I joined the company and fervently threw myself into Ron’s workshops. I loved his whole concept of risk-taking and physicality in theatre. I made my professional debut in Ron’s sprawling, multi-cast production of PEER GYNT, and continued to appear in plays at the Odyssey over the next several years.

I was inspired by groups like The Open Theatre and The Living Theatre. Groups that created their own original work. In the mid-70’s Michael and Andy Griggs, from the PEER GYNT cast, formed a group called The Bear Republic Theatre. Through the group process, they created the play SIGNALS — a piece about the changing roles of men in a changing society. I joined the second cast and went on tour with them. This was the seed of TRACERS.

My Vietnam experience was always close to the surface, but I never talked about it. It was not a popular subject and I felt ‘different’ around my fellow actors because of it. I studied the creative process and began to think, “What if I could find a group of actors who were Vietnam vets? What a treasure trove of stories might come of it!”

In the Odyssey production of THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE, I met the very talented Vincent (Vinnie) Caristi. In a backstage chat I told him my idea. He got excited. “I was drafted. I was in Vietnam. I’m in, man!” He was the first actor/Vietnam vet I met and the first actor in the original group. This gave me confidence in the idea and confidence that there might be more of us out there. The idea would not go away. In 1980, after losing my younger brother in a motorcycle accident, I had this flash about the fragility of life.

I ran an ad in the Drama-Logue (Backstage-West) for actors who were Vietnam vets to participate in a workshop leading to the creation of a play. I got about thirty pictures and resumes. Auditions were held and I selected six actors: Vincent Caristi, Richard Chaves, Rick Gallavan, Harry Stephens, Merlin Marston and Eric Emerson. Sheldon Lettich, a Vietnam vet writer, was also a member of the group. I conducted workshops in an abandoned dining hall at the old Sepulveda Veterans Administration. Material came fast. We did a work-in-progress performance at the Odyssey on July 4, 1980. I didn’t know if anyone would even be interested. Turns out, there was a rousing standing ovation and lots of positive feed-back. We went back into workshops , and three months later I directed the opening at the new Odyssey three-theatre space on Santa Monica Blvd and Bundy. The first few weeks we had to paper the house with Vietnam vet groups. Then we got LA Weekly’s ‘Pick of the Week’ and some really good reviews. The show caught on, and we ran for almost a year.

During that year a U.S. Vietnam vet movement sprang up and we found ourselves in the middle of it. Demonstrations were taking place all over, bringing more interest in TRACERS. Media coverage, stories in the press, and awards.

I met a lot of important people. There were promises made about the future. Eventually after we closed those promises waned except for one. Gary Sinise of the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago doggedly pursued me for about a year. I kept saying no because I wanted the cast to be veterans. I finally decided to give him the rights after he flew me in to see their production of BALM IN GILEAD. I agreed and was kept on board as the writer. I did re-writes with Gary’s cast. They were a hit and got a great deal of support from the local vets. Gary says the experience was what sparked his interest in veterans’ issues. He wanted to take the show to New York, but I said no, again citing the fact the I wanted the cast to be veterans.

I’d been communicating with Vietnam vet Tom Bird, who had a veterans’ theatre group in New York, VETCO. Vinnie and Richard from the original cast had moved to New York. I had a list of producers who’d said, ‘Look me up if you’re ever in New York.” I went to New York and started going through my list. When I contacted Tom Bird, he said he could try and get a meeting with Joseph Papp at The Public Theatre. We met and made a deal. Vinnie and Richard were in the production and the rest of the cast came from VETCO and open auditions.

I directed, re-wrote and re-structured, and in January 1984 we opened to rave reviews. The play ran for six months, garnered more awards, and was published in Ten Best Plays of 1984-1985. Subsequently I staged it in London, Australia and on numerous tours.

TRACERS continues to be produced nationally and internationally. It is the idea that took over my life and the lives of those who do it and those who experience it. I am ever grateful to Ron Sossi and the Odyssey Theatre for giving us our first shot.
I recently signed a deal to make a documentary about the whole TRACERS experience. Stay tuned.