Soldier On: From Knowing to Doing
"It’s not rocket science. When you take structure away from people, they’re not used to it, and they have difficulty putting that structure in place themselves."
It feels a tad inappropriate for someone as guilt-ridden as me to even darken the door of Hammersmith’s Church of the Holy Innocents, but for journalistic purposes I must. Upstairs a company of professional actors and military veterans are rehearsing a play about a company of professional actors and military veterans rehearsing a play – namely Soldier On. Amongst them is former Corrie actor Thomas Craig, who graduated from Wandsworth’s Academy of Live and Recorded Arts almost 30 years ago. During a break, he informs me this is the first time he’s worked in the theatre with non-actors. What’s it like? I say. “Interesting,” he replies, saying that the veterans bring to the project stuff that he can’t – “all their knowledge of being in the army” for one.
We’re shortly joined by one of the veterans, Mike – now also a professional actor. He’s come to be interviewed at my request, but still politely asks whether we’d like him to leave us to our conversation, to which we promptly welcome him to become a part. He was medically discharged from the army, I learn, and later got involved with a group of veterans who were acting. “One thing led to another,” he says, “and I went to drama school. That worked out really well; I was physically active for three years – that helped me get better.”
He speaks about what it feels like to leave the forces. Firstly, he says, when you’re medically discharged you don’t know how or when you’re going to get better. Add to that the loss of sense of self, and the anxiety that comes with losing your job.
“I suppose you lose all your pals as well,” Thomas says to him. “You don’t see your mates anymore?”
“You lose touch,” Mike confirms. “Eventually you have to forge a new life and get on with it.”
Soldier On is an important story, he says, one that should help people understand what the military community go through. PTSD is a large part of the production, and Mike has served with people who have killed themselves as a result of the condition. “There’s still a lot we could be doing to help people,” he claims, then saying this production should raise awareness of PTSD, which could in turn help those suffering from it.
Roughly 20 years ago, he used to watch Soldier Soldier, a television series about the military that both Thomas and Soldier On writer and director Jonathan Lewis acted in. What’s the latter like as a director? “He can dictate sometimes but he’s not a dictator,” says Thomas.
“He’s just really open and collaborative,” Mike adds, “a pleasure to work for.”
Soon after I meet the man himself, and he lets me know where Soldier On came from. A few years ago Theatre Royal Plymouth partnered the Royal British Legion’s Bravo 22 Company in staging Boots at the Door. Based on Jonathan’s writing, this depiction of military life was performed by members of Plymouth’s armed forces community. Afterwards, having done a lot of research for the project, Jonathan “felt that there was more to say” about the subject. He was invalided out of the military, he tells me, but its themes “have kind of followed me around”. He ended up writing Soldier On, which Amanda Faber (from The Soldiers’ Arts Academy) read. “About a year ago,” the writer recalls, “[Amanda] said, ‘I’d like to produce it.’ So we’ve spent the last ten months trying to make that happen, raising money, workshopping the play, and gathering a cast that can do it.”
He thinks more could be done to support those who leave the forces. For some the process is alright, he says, but for others it’s a struggle. “It’s not rocket science. When you take structure away from people, they’re not used to it, and they have difficulty putting that structure in place themselves. Engaging veterans in storytelling seems to do some rewiring in the brain,” he resumes, before telling me the ancient Greeks knew about PTSD. “After a battle they would light a big fire, and they would talk about what happened; they would create a shared narrative of the conflict. The brain has lots of boxes, a filing system, and you file away memories of what you’ve done. But trauma doesn’t have a box, so it keeps coming to the front of the brain. Creating a narrative, processing the trauma as a group, creates a box to put it in. That’s one of the theories going around, and that fascinated me – how you could use a narrative to engage veterans in a way that affirms and creates meaning to what they’ve done.” The important thing, he continues, is this engagement is a shared experience.
He says Soldier On actually almost has a theme of the Greek chorus about it, for he’s attempted to build “something that is very ensemble”. 18 performers will inhabit the stage, he points out, and it’s a task to get an audience to care about that many individuals. But with this “very touching but also very funny show” he reckons it’s a challenge to which they’ll rise.
The aim is to get people talking about the issues faced by people leaving the forces, he says. It’s important to him that the conversation grows, and that actions are taken to help veterans. “We’re all much more aware of PTSD now, but you have to move from knowing about it to doing something about it.” Handing out antidepressants and offering some therapy, he states, is just putting a plaster on the problem. To his mind, the underlying healing that needs to take place can be achieved in the arenas of theatre, art and dance. The sense of self-worth, the positive affirmation, and support veterans can get from this, he says, is huge.
Soldier On plays at The North Wall 19-20 April, 8pm
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