18th March 2021
In 2016 Macrobert Arts Centre played host to 5 Soldiers, a dance piece by the Rosie Kay dance company which told just some of the stories of those in the British Armed Forces. As part of this many community projects were also delivered with schools, local military families and veterans. From this our current offer for Armed Forces Veterans was born.
In 2017 I started working at Macrobert Arts Centre, having just moved back to Scotland I was looking for projects which caught my imagination. That year we began working with Stand Easy Productions to deliver a year-round drama programme for local veterans and their family members. Stand Easy Productions are a community theatre company working in Dundee and Stirling. They run a variety of projects for Veterans, their families and, most recently, emergency responders. Their work focuses on working with individuals who are wounded, injured or sick (be it mentally or physically) and centres around the use of drama-based methods to aid recovery.
In February 2018, our partnership began with the offer of a 3-week devising project. A small group of just five participants and two student volunteers worked with drama and music artists to devise a short piece telling the story of a veteran struggling to cope in the civilian world. From the very early meetings with Stand Easy to the first day of workshops it was clear that there was something special happening. Participants clearly lit up when they arrived in a room full of their peers, where people knew their story and understood their journey.
Since then, the group has grown, we now have 12 participants who regularly engage in sessions. I run weekly sessions (currently online) and the group have performed at Macrobert Arts Centre, Edinburgh Napier University, the Scottish Parliament and at local schools.
“It’s changed my life”.
The aim of the project is firstly to support individuals who may be struggling with their well-being or mental health. Through engaging in a range of drama and improvisation exercises they can begin to build their confidence and utilise long forgotten skills such as teamwork, discipline, focus and the ability to think on their feet. We use the Warwick Edinburgh Mental Well Being scale to assess our success in this area. We consistently see that participants’ well-being improves over the course of a project or term of workshops.
Anecdotally participants talk about their increased confidence and the difference the project has made to their lives – they are able to reconnect with family, meet new people and, most importantly of all, they feel like themselves again.
“You walk in here and it’s like coming back to your family”.
Secondly, we aim to create a community of peers who support each other. A family they can turn to in times of need. We recognise that we all need to care for our mental health, and we will all have days on which we struggle, and what we aim to do through the project is to create a community who care about each other and who lift each other up when they are struggling.
Community and trust are of vital importance in the military and is often one of the things which veterans miss once they leave. They are no longer part of that extended family, no longer surrounded by people who previously supported them. Instead, they can sometimes find themselves in world which they don’t feel understands them.
Through the project we aim to build a family. A family which is more important than me or any one single participant and which continues to exist outside the four walls of the drama workshop. We see this happening time and time again within the group.
“Apart, but not alone”
Lockdown has changed the way in which the group operates, we moved from weekly sessions to twice weekly online zoom sessions, one focusing on checking-in and one focusing on drama activities. We have lost some vital parts of the provision over lockdown, our much beloved tea breaks, and the opportunities to get out into the community. However, we have also made gains because of lockdown. Rather than disbanding and dissolving we have grown closer, we’ve seen small glimpses into each other’s homes and lives that have brought us together in new ways.
Some of our participants have experienced bouts of extreme mental ill-health in their lives, these have often manifested themselves in a kind of self-imposed lockdown. For these individuals, the threat of lockdown and the subsequent isolation threatened to overwhelm them. However, thanks to the support of the group they have managed to navigate these difficult times with more ease than expected.
Finally, I will leave you with the words of some of our participants:
“I was at the breakfast club [Falkirk Veterans Breakfast club] the other day, it was quite busy, there was lots of people. Lots of people I knew quite well, so it wasn’t like I was with strangers. But I didn’t feel myself. Suddenly I was sitting on my own and even though I was smiling I just felt like the loneliest person in the world. Like no one could see me… I felt invisible...and I had to leave then. I got outside...and I burst into tears… I called Davie [another participant] … I knew that he wouldn’t judge me, and he’d listen to me. I don’t even really know what was wrong, but I felt so alone and terrified”.
“Really I got into this by accident. I’d gone to a help for heroes breakfast and there was this lady there trying to recruit folk to take part in some drama project. No one so I’d have plenty of time to think of an excuse. That’s what my life was like then, making excuses to get out of things. But then that week I get a phone call. Am I still interested in the Stand Easy project? Big, brave me, I say “aye, when in May does it start?” he says, “it starts on Monday and I’ve arranged transport for you”. So I went along and I won’t lie, I felt terrible the first couple of days. But something made me stay and... really it changed my life. I’ve met new friends; I get out of the house. I look forward to the sessions. I even performed at the Fringe. But most importantly, I feel happy”.
“The Zoom sessions are essential for our well-being...a great relief. It is great seeing everyone and to talk together, off load any tensions we have, and support each other. From my point of view because my lifestyle is chaotic, I don’t sleep a lot… so coming in here is like going into a playground with other like-minded adults”.
Written by Hannah Uttley
Lead Artist, Macrobert Veterans Group