As 2014 marks the centenary year of the start of World War I, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has formed a unique partnership with the Sydney Theatre Company to present an experimental dramatisation – The Long Way Home.
The theatre performance, by multi award-winning writer Daniel Keene and British director Stephen Rayne, is an amalgamation of personal first-hand accounts from ADF servicemen and women who have returned home from military and humanitarian operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and East Timor.
Out of the 19 cast members, only four are actors, with the remaining members being real soldiers who have returned home with physical and psychological scars after experiencing traumatic events while on deployment.
The play aims to give the servicemen and women a chance to share their stories as a form of rehabilitation and therapy to help them on their path to recovery. Workshops spanning five weeks were conducted late last year, where servicemen and women could share their stories with Keene and Rayne as well as play improvisational games and be taught the basics of acting.
“It was emotional,” Private William Bailey confesses, “but it was also a lot of fun.”
Baily, 26, was rehabilitated in Townsville after being shot in the ankle during his deployment to Afghanistan in November 2011. He is acting alongside his friend, Private Kyle Harris, a fellow serviceman he met while in rehabilitation, and explains that trust played an important role during the workshops.
“We first gave Daniel the stories but as we began to trust him we opened up a bit more on certain things.”
However, despite the trusting nature of the workshops Bailey affirms, “There’s some stuff you’ll never talk about”.
With “zero” stage and acting experience, it took approximately six months for Bailey to agree to be a part of the production.
“It’s a new challenge – let’s put it that way”, Bailey laughs.
“There are 900 seats and I’m standing there thinking, ‘holy shit!’ But if you gave an actor a gun and told him to walk around Afghanistan he would be like ‘nup, fuck off’. What we’ve been trained to do is different, so it’s hard, but it’s a new challenge and a new experience. It definitely pushes the boundaries for me, which is what I need,” he says.
What Bailey initially considered “scary” became a good avenue for him to help returning soldiers ease back into society and overcome some of the psychological issues that they were left with.
Bailey explained that the workshop and rehearsal phases were made a lot easier as director Stephen Payne was both empathetic and understanding of just how difficult some of the soldiers’ situations were.
“If you said to Stephen ‘yeah mate, I didn’t get much sleep last night’, instead of saying ‘oh well, why didn’t you go to bed earlier?’ he understands and says ‘I won’t push you too much today’ because he knows what goes on at night time for some of us guys.”
Payne, who was a part of a similar project funded by the Royal British Legion in the UK, was encouraged to come on board and collaborate with the ADF and Sydney Theatre Company here in Australia. He learnt a lot while he was directing and cooperating with the British soldiers, so when it came to directing The Long Way Home he understood how to approach and work with the Australian servicemen and women.
“You have to have a lot of patience, compassion and understanding. Things don’t really happen in a normal linear way, it takes a while. They’re learning new skills and none of these people have ever been on stage before,” Payne explains.
“You’re dealing with people who have quite severe psychological problems and who are taking quite a lot of medication to cope so that becomes a daily struggle for them as well as me. You have to tread very carefully.”
Payne emphasises that the rehearsal and workshop process is equally as important as the final performance.
“We’re trying to do this project to help people get back into society, give them confidence and give them skills to enable them to take more personal responsibility while fitting back in to society.”
Both Bailey and Payne hope that the audience will get a much better idea of what it’s like to be a soldier facing the constant struggle of every day life and coping with the physical and psychological scars that remain from deployment.
The Long Way Home opens at the Sydney Theatre in early February and will be followed by a national tour. (EC)
Feb 7-15, Sydney Theatre, Pier 4, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay $27-45, (02) 9250 1777, sydneytheatre.com.au
BY ELISE CULLEN