George Capachio in performer mode.George Capaccio in performer mode.

Among our many-faceted residents

You might say George Capaccio’s performing career began by accident. His wife was performing at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, which was producing Brendan Behan’s play "The Hostage," and a last-minute stand-in was needed to play a small role. Nancy Capaccio volunteered her husband, and a star was born.

Capaccio discovered he loved acting and embarked on a path that would lead him to roles with the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, a TV show for kids and storytelling in city classrooms.

The Arlington resident has also taken on a different role, one in real life that has brought him to Iraq nine times and into the lives of Iraqi refugees. In the 1990s, he grew concerned about sanctions against Iraq and their effect on the Iraqi people.

With help from the Friends Society in Cambridge, which he attends, he traveled to Baghdad to learn more, returning to let others know what was going on. When trips were no longer safe, he began helping Iraqi refugee families who have settled in Lowell, providing them with clothing, furniture and whatever else they may need to adapt to life in America.

Unexpectedly drawn to stage

Capaccio, 66, never expected to be traveling either of these paths. He had long dreamed of being a poet, holding a host of day jobs to support himself while writing, including taxi driver, bus driver and short-order cook. He even delivered blood supplies for the Red Cross.

"I didn’t study acting in college, and I never thought about performing," he said. "It was the furthest thing from my mind."

After the Cambridge Center experience, everything changed.

"I began to study acting and started getting more and better roles in local theaters," he said. "I got into commercial acting, performing in commercials and training videos for corporate clients, while also acting in Boston’s 'off-Broadway' theaters."

He also began performing in children’s theater and discovered he had a gift connecting with children. He spent several years with a various children’s theater companies, writing and directing plays performed by adult actors for children, running creative acting working workshops for children, and directing kids in school productions.

He formed a partnership with a pianist to do storytelling and music for children. He quickly discovered he enjoyed doing research about stories from many cultures and combined his acting work with his newfound career as a professional storyteller.

"Everything we understand is through stories"

"Everything we understand is through stories," he says. "The story of creation, stories of modern science, stories in the Bible, the stories that are shared around the kitchen table. Parents are telling stories all the time. It’s so engrained in our genome to organize our experiences in terms of a narrative: this happened and that happened, and she said this and he said that. We want to know what will happen next. How will it end?"

A turning point came in 1990, when he was hired by the Monitor Channel (the short-lived cable TV division of the Christian Science Church) to co-host a children’s show. He also continued working in Boston elementary and middle schools as an artist educator, using storytelling to support and enrich the curriculum. "I could see how much children enjoyed hearing stories; it fired up their imagination and their engagement in the story was the reward for me."

Questions about Iraq

It was also in the 1990s that a long-simmering concern about human rights began to grow stronger. The first Gulf War, which started in January 1991, got him thinking more critically about America’s role in the world and the justifications given for waging war against Iraq.

"I started asking questions that I realized were not being raised on Sunday morning TV news shows, for instance. The more I understood about my country’s foreign policy, the more I questioned reasons given by President George [H. W.] Bush and Colin Powell [chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the 1991 Persian Gulf War] as to why the United States had to go to war."

Thanks to the Internet, George learned about the plight of Iraqi civilians in the aftermath of the first Gulf War and the ongoing effects of economic sanctions. His growing awareness and concern led him to write an original one-person show about an American couple who honeymoon in Iraq and are transformed by what they see and experience. He performed the show for adult audiences in various New England venues before actually going there.

In 1997, Capaccio made his first trip to Iraq as a delegate with an organization called Voices in the Wilderness. The purpose of this trip was for concerned American citizens to witness first-hand the effects of economic sanctions on Iraqi civilians and public institutions, mainly hospitals and schools.

Upon returning to the U.S., delegates were expected to educate fellow citizens about the harm sanctions were causing and to advocate for lifting them. George wrote articles about his experience in Iraq and gave public presentations in schools, libraries, and community and religious organizations.

"It was a profound experience that forced me to reevaluate my life and the work I had been doing," he said. "For me, it was a matter of deciding how I could best serve the cause of peace and social justice, and at the same time, advocate on behalf of the Iraqi people — not their government."

During his visits to Iraq, George got to know many Iraqi families, playing with their children and enjoying their hospitality. One of the girls was quite young in the late 1990s and knew no English. Now she’s a college student and Capaccio corresponds with her via email, in English.

The last time he was there was in 2003, a few months before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. But through emails and phone calls, he has managed to keep in touch with several of the families, all of whom live in Baghdad. Each time he asks them if they think the time is right for him to return, they invariably urge him not to come. "It’s not safe," they say. "There are car bombs going off every day."

Although he hasn’t returned, he began a donor-supported fund, in 1998, for the families he met and has been sending them financial assistance on a regular monthly basis ever since.

"They took me into their homes and their hearts, and I wanted to do something for them. I was an impassioned anti-sanctions activist. I felt this government had taken so much from the people of Iraq that I wanted to find a way to give back. Providing a small amount of money each month is one way I can do this."

Collects clothing for local Iraqis

He also collects household items and clothing for Iraqi refugee families in Lowell: In the summertime it was air-conditioners; now it’s warm clothing and blankets.

"They don’t have much when they arrive,” he says, “and they don’t know what our winters are like."

"They don’t have much when they arrive," he says, "and they don’t know what our winters are like."

He continues writing – he has published numerous books for children – as well as working on a new idea, a one-man show about Albert Einstein. While funding cuts in schools have made it harder to sell his storytelling programs, he continues to look for opportunities to share stories with audiences of all ages.

Another project he’s working on is a book of nonfiction stories based on his experiences in Iraq from 1997-2003, his interviews with Iraqi refugees in Amman, Jordan, and his friendships with families resettled in Lowell. Getting this book published would be a dream come true, he says.

View roles Capaccio plays at his website

Mail him at 11 Lennon Road, Arlington, Mass. 02474, or call 781-641-9846.

This story was published Monday, Oct. 28, 2013.