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Paying tribute to Britain’s wounded war veterans

Jenny Sealey, director of This Is Not For You, shares with us her experience of running the first 'storytelling intensive'
Posted by Sian Williams

This Is Not For You from Graeae Theatre Company is a new piece of theatre, supported by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch). The epic outdoor performance pays tribute to Britain’s wounded war veterans, men and women whose contributions to history often go unnoticed. The piece is directed by Jenny Sealey, written by Mike Kenny and performed by Blesma, The Limbless Veterans, professional performers and local community choirs.

Part of 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary, the piece is a story of veterans’ fight for respect and remembrance, told with heft, beauty and wry humour, both on the ground and off it, with audio description and sign language as integral parts of the production. Graeae, the country’s foremost disabled led theatre company, with National Centre for Circus Arts and The Drive Project, is training 25 disabled veterans in performance especially for the piece.

The director, Jenny Sealey, shares her experience of running the first storytelling intensive, in which she worked with veterans to develop the script and build confidence in telling the story.

This was our first exploration of Mike Kenny’s latest script with seven veterans.

The aim of the week was to explore the themes, the physicality and emotional landscape of the piece.

For our first exercise, we lined our veterans up, and explored different ways of introducing themselves by name, rank and serial number. As their words started to speed up and overlap, this started to reflect the intensity of battle – the marching and the noise of numbers and the idea of fighting to be heard.

Next, we explored outside childhood games like Knock Down Ginger, conkers, arm-wrestling, tag and the ways in which these games are adapted for people with different impairments. The use of the childhood games was a reminder that when in the forces, you lose your innocence very quickly.

This exercise was followed by a read-through of the script that created some emotional responses, not least the feeling of hopelessness when coming back from war disabled, and the battle adjusting to life as a civilian, fighting for benefits and pensions. It wasn’t just the emotional reunions the veterans recognised, but also the battle of trying to readjust into society, mourning the limbs and minds that have been lost, as well as the complexity of trying to describe the shock of what you have witnessed.

They discussed:

What is the point of war?

War is there to create industry.

High expectations for the outcome of war but reality does not meet this.

Promises washed away.

The Angel character in the play is a prominent figure – benevolent, a shining new light, offering hope not glory.

There is no glory in war.

Everyone loses in war.

Who put glory in war?

War creates wealth.

We always do what we are told. A soldier receives nothing. They say jump, we ask how high.

Christopher Holt, a voice coach, took on some of these intense provocations and enabled the participants to give voice to their emotions and thoughts. They tackled a new composition, The Marching Song. It was a poignant moment realising our composer Oliver Vibrans (a wheelchair user) would have been one of the ones left behind in this room, but now full of disabled men. They were a collective, they belonged to each other.

Freddie Opoku-Addaie, our choreographer, joined us to explore the physical landscape, using their comfort zone of marching, discipline, uniformity and rigor. He then pushed the idea of the individual, the fragmented and the abstract and ways of creating images and story, mixing linear and non-linear ways of working.

For a group who are non-professional performers, they totally ‘went for it’, placing a lot of trust in the process of the unknown.

We proceeded to create three set pieces named Patrol, Crew and Prosthetics Present. The latter used the idea of the taking off of prosthetics as an army gun drill, using the same barking way of giving orders but referring to limbs:

Grab prosthetic

Sleeve back

Release limb

Prosthetic off

Prosthetic down

Stand at ease.

This led naturally to a section of work with choreographer Tina Carter, also from a military background. Using a series of chosen movements, they each created a short piece exploring PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). These were beautifully executed with emotional authenticity and poignancy; one veteran undergoing intense work around his own PTSD asked if he would like time out, but he said ‘No Jenny, I have to do this. It will be good for me. I have to do it’. And he did.

The week unearthed not only a commitment to learning new skills while exploring ways to inform and honour the script, but also real creative honesty and openness.

Following this, we went into our intensive sessions with 10 veterans who started their weekly circus training six weeks ago. The strength, agility and skill of adapting their specific bodies with performance equipment was already paying dividends, giving us the confidence to introduce them to elements of the design to be used in the show – 6ft steel cuboids!

We had three cuboid prototypes each with different numbers of bars for climbing. The cast got into teams and with ingrained military problem-solving minds and means of communication, they moved the cuboids across the space in a diversity of ways, rhythms and pace.

They were then given time to explore their individual approach to transferring their hoop/static trapeze skills into the domain of the cuboid, making decisions to have their prosthetics on or off, and in the case of those with one arm, exploring how to use the other bodies in order to climb onto the cuboid.

The material gathered over the two days has laid a strong foundation for us to build the physical narrative of the piece. It has confirmed our belief that the veterans own the story and their place within it.

This Is Not For You is performed at Greenwich+Docklands International Festival on 30 June and 1 July, and at Stockton International Riverside Festival on 2 and 3 August.

For more information, visit www.tinfy.org

 

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