Adam Driver’s place in the 2021 pop culture firmament is assured because of his role in the “Star Wars” sequel trilogy, his four Primetime Emmy nominations and his two Academy Award noms — and being the actor everyone in Hollywood wants to star in their projects.
Twenty years earlier, he was a fresh-faced 18-year-old who joined the U.S. Marine Corps, motivated by political and personal bravado after the events of 9/11. Somewhere in between, Driver and his future wife Joanne Tucker co-created Arts in the Armed Forces (AITAF), a nonprofit organization that presents theater and film to active-duty service members.
Effectively merging the disciplined world that trained Driver with the artistic calling that lay in front of him, AITAF has since become a program not just to entertain military personnel but also offer a conduit for some of the emotions they may otherwise not be encouraged to express while reckoning with the sacrifice they have committed to make.
“If it was a need that I wanted to fulfill, I certainly wasn’t conscious of it,” Driver says. “I was just struck by how the performing arts helped to articulate my experiences I had just had in the military, and the first people that came to mind were the guys I served with, specifically enlisted people.”
He and Tucker founded AITAF in 2008 when they were studying at Juilliard. Together, the two of them quickly recognized how important — and therapeutic — it was for the artistic and military communities to be brought together. “We developed the format together based on our audition process for Juilliard, which is that you learn four monologues and are asked to do two to four of them in your audition,” Tucker says. “For the military it was exposure to a new means of communication, and for the arts community it was realizing the military wasn’t only ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘MASH.’”
While Driver and Tucker shared the title of artistic director, the organization’s growth was precipitous, almost unexpectedly mirroring Driver’s career as he landed a role on HBO’s “Girls,” and soon thereafter, in projects with a murderers row of collaborators including the Coen brothers, Jim Jarmusch, Steven Soderbergh and Martin Scorsese.
AITAF incorporated just a few years later, and its board grew while Driver and Tucker’s roles shifted more to focus on the administration and fiscal health of the organization, necessitating the full-time hire of Lindsay Miserandino in 2018 as executive director.
Miserandino has since followed their lead, focusing on flagship events like their annual Veterans Day performances in New York, the latest of which is set for Nov. 8, while coordinating military base trips and events throughout the year. Since 2008, AITAF has been to 23 bases in six countries for a total of 53 events, ramping up from four per year in 2016 to 15 in 2019. Meanwhile, in addition to a student veteran internship program, the organization subsequently established, the Bridge Award for Playwriting in 2018 and another for Screenwriting in 2020, both of which award a $10,000 prize to a creative individual in the military.
Driver is quick, if reluctant, to observe the benefits of his professional success on the organization.
“Celebrity is always helpful in drawing a crowd,” he says. “When we first started out, reading plays was a hard sell to bases, but as things in my career progressed people were more open to taking a chance on us. Plus, it helped in asking for money, which I wasn’t comfortable with at first.”
But Miserandino notes that the feedback they have received indicates that AITAF is making connections between artists and the military that are undeniable, even if they weren’t deliberate.
“There’s actually a realization I’ve heard be made in the audience about how it seems like your process is similar to ours in the military,” she says. “The stakes are completely different, but there’s practice and there’s an end mission that you’re all going towards together as a team with one leader who’s a director or a unit leader or commanding officer.”
Tucker adds: “We just wanted to provide a space for people to experience the arts and then be able to talk about it afterwards and build community, because sometimes if you have a shared experience, like an audience that’s witnessing something together, it naturally breaks down walls to help people connect. But whether you’re laughing or crying at the same things, you feel less alone.”