Coming Home: Theatre with Military Veterans and Families
A man enters, crosses the stage slowly. He carries a holdall, stops, places it on the floor, looks around him and sits on a chair. Slowly the space fills as five more veterans enter, each carrying a bag or suitcase. No words are spoken. The emotions are palpable; loss, fear, anticipation. One man hesitates as he puts his key in the door, changes his mind and rings the bell instead. Another puts his head in his hands. The scene ends with each man sitting alone on a chair, looking into the distance.
This was the opening scene of a performance from the first stage of our Coming Home programme with military veterans and families. A group of eight veterans and five family members worked with Re-Live practitioners and guest practitioner, Andy Watson, Artistic Director of Geese Theatre Company, exploring experiences of coming home. Despite significant differences in age and military experience, themes emerging were similar. The youngest veteran in the group described his recent experience:
“I stood on the tarmac as I was leaving Afghanistan and I thought to myself “How do you come home from this?”
while another veteran took us back thirty years, to coming home from the Falklands War to a young family, feeling like
“a shell of man…alien… with no words to describe the things I’ve seen, heard, done”
There is a long history of returning soldiers using the arts to communicate the horrors of their experience. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have seen a new wave of literature, film and theatre emerging as combatants, families, artists and writers strive to make sense of the impact of war and post-traumatic stress. There is growing interest, in the clinical world, in how the arts can contribute to recovery from traumatic experiences. Trauma expert, Bessel van der Kolk dedicates a chapter of his new book, “The Body Keeps the Score” (2014), to theatre with veterans and civilians who have been traumatised. In many parts of the world, theatre practitioners are working alongside clinicians, developing ways to help people release, reflect on and reshape traumatic experiences.
The Coming Home programme aims to create opportunities for veterans and families to develop an ongoing engagement with the arts and through that engagement, to access new ways of regulating and expressing complex emotions.
A man sits, restless, flicking through TV channels. He gets up, splashes his face in water at the sink, looks in the mirror and shouts at his reflection “Come on!” Slowly he is joined by the other veterans who voice the thoughts in his head as he stares at his reflection in the mirror. Several men articulate thoughts of suicide and question their ability to live with this mental pain. The scene culminates with one veteran, Chris, asking:
Care? Does anybody care? Do you?
Chris is a veteran in his early 40’s, living with chronic mental illness, self-medicating with prescription drugs and alcohol. Chris avoids veterans events and services, and dreads the question “Where did you serve?” For him, this question is a trigger for shame and confusion, for Chris’s military trauma is not a result of bombs exploding on a battlefield. His trauma stems from relentless bullying and “beasting” in the army barracks, coming on top of a traumatic and troubled childhood. In a workshop, he re-enacted the moment he was “kicked out of the barracks” onto a London street, a long way from home, carrying only a black bin bag. He portrayed the scene silently, his body and facial expressions telling the story for which he does not have words.
Chris first engaged with our creative work in 2012. In a recent interview about the Coming Home programme, he said:
“This is bringing out a part of me which was locked away, which I thought was gone, before I started my military training. It’s taking me back to when I was younger….back to my roots. It’s the first time I’ve felt good about myself in a long time”.
Most participants are, like Chris, from Welsh working class families where several generations of men joined the military, and many had fathers and grandfathers who fought in the World Wars. Lesley, who is in her seventies now, has been reflecting on her childhood and the impact of her father’s World War Two experiences on her family:
Every time my father came back my mother would say: I don’t think I can do this anymore. But she could. And she did, somehow. I was a nervous child. I worried all the time, about my sisters, my mother, about which one of us he was going to hurt. I found out years later he’d been in Burma and Japan, a prisoner of war. Like us all. (extract from script)
Through reflective writing, storytelling and improvisation, a tapestry of family stories is emerging, which was recently shared with an invited audience. Though these stories contain suffering and trauma, there is also a strong message of redemption and forgiveness. Participants have been working with objects which link to significant events in their past. For Lesley, an object of great significance was her father’s army coat; a symbol of both comfort and distress
When my father’s home we sleep under his army coat. It’s the warmest thing in the house, the one thing the war and the army gave us that didn’t hurt. Four sisters sleep under that coat, hiding from the war going on inside my father. We lie in bed, pretending to be asleep, waiting for him to come home from the pub.
When he goes away again he takes his army coat with him.
At the end of the performance, Lesley picked up the army coat which she had earlier placed symbolically on the floor onstage, held it in her arms and said
We looked after my father in the end. I loved him in the end. You can forgive and you can love. At some point you’ve got to let go. You can’t move on if you keep looking back.
For many of the veterans involved, the possibility of letting go of the past is not yet within their reach. Van der Kolk talks of veterans who “felt fully alive only when they were revisiting their traumatic past” (2014: p18). Some of the veterans seem compelled to return to the familiarity of the old, painful stories. As this work develops, one of the challenges will be about letting go of the past; finding new stories to tell, and new memories to create together.
"I've spent the 16 years since I left the military trying to be small, trying to hide away. Here, I'm starting to feel like I can let it out. Let go" (Veteran)
Alongside the theatre work, we have developed the Coming Home Choir, where members of the local community sing with veterans and family members. Initial feedback suggests this has real potential as a way of reconnecting veterans and families with their community. The emotional release of group singing and creating something beautiful together has been powerful; in the words of one participant, Terry,
The arts can rebuild and restore. The Coming Home programme is connecting people, as Terry says, with those parts of themselves they thought had gone forever: humour, spontaneity, fun. It is building trust, co-operation and compassion too, not least for the self. Perhaps above all, it is allowing people to play. At its best moments the rehearsal room has not been full of nervous, wounded soldiers and their families, it has been full of human beings playing together and letting go.
We are delighted to be sharing some of our creative work at the Mental Health Arts Festival.