On any given night in Los Angeles, there are probably dozens of open mic events for musicians and comedians. One night this week, Shannon Corbeil took the stage at Molly Malone's, an Irish Pub in West L.A. She's an actor and singer, but described herself as a "baby guitar player."
"I have no business being on this stage," she told the crowd, "and you guys are OK with that, so that’s nice."
On the surface, the scene resembled a lot of open mics around town — a performer with the jitters, a supportive crowd. But there was an even more intense bond among this audience. Corbeil served in the Air Force and almost all of the other performers are also veterans.
"This is the only place in town where you can come out and see the talent that’s in the veteran community here," said Michael Broderick, an actor and Marine veteran, who hosts the open mic.
The event has been running for almost a year now on the second Wednesday of every month. For the veterans, it's a kind of therapy.
"Veterans Day is one thing, but when you’re a veteran, it’s not just once a year. We need our brothers all the time, especially after we've left the military," said co-host and comedian Thom Tran. He served as a Special Operations soldier in Iraq and survived a gunshot wound to the neck.
"So at least once a month I know I can come here and be with other great people – other great veterans."
This is just one of the activities put on by Veterans in Film and Television – a networking group for veterans working in the entertainment industry. The group was founded in 2012 and now has nearly 3,000 members in Los Angeles.
"Los Angeles, the entertainment world, is a difficult place to try to make your way in, it's a very lonely place," said Karen Kraft, an Army veteran, filmmaker and chair of the VFT board. "Even though there’s millions of people, they're all aspiring for different jobs, there's [not] one set path. What Veterans in Film and Television provides is a home."
Tucker Smallwood, a Vietnam vet who's made a living as an actor, is one of the regulars. He comes to the open mic to sing the blues.
"The nature of war doesn’t really change, it’s traumatic," Smallwood said. "So whenever we can find something that we can do in common, whether it’s a softball team or a music night, I think that’s a very positive thing."
Army veteran Mark Valley, echoed that sentiment: "I think sometimes it’s hard for veterans to sit around and experience things on a deeper emotional level."
Valley is also a regular at the open mic. He’s a square-jawed actor you might remember from "Boston Legal": "We all have emotional depth, obviously, but it’s a little harder to access for a lot of these people, myself included. So music is a way to – I don’t want to pathologize it or anything, but it’s a lot of fun for us to come out here and play music and take chances in a safe environment."
For emerging artists, this can be a venue to meet people in the industry and possibly even get discovered. Jessica Young, who performs as Young The Great, lived in L.A. for three years before she got the courage to perform her own music. After her first performance, someone at the VFT open mic saw her and offered to sign her to a small label.
When organizers first put this event together, they thought about having it at a veterans center. But they decided to hold it in a civilian space. Part of the aim is to bridge the civilian-military divide. And it seems to work; anywhere from 30 to 100 people show up each month.
"Most people out in the public would think that we just come back from war and we may have construction job or a police or security job," said Raymond Lott, an artist who goes by TMR – The Marine Rapper. "But we actually have individuals who are in the entertainment side of things. So it's just a unique atmosphere of support and confidence."
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