Reflections from 'Force: A Change' workshops

Posted on: 05 November 2018

Written by: Tom Davies

Citz Project Producer Mark Pollock writes from the rehearsal rooms of Force: A Change - Cardboard Citizens' project with Armed Forces veterans, supported by the Royal British Legion:

In the build-up to the 100 year anniversary of the armistice of the First World War, Cardboard Citizens were given the opportunity to develop a Forum Theatre piece about veterans' experiences of homelessness and housing. Having previously spent time working in hostels, I’d always been shocked by the amount of ex-service people finding themselves caught in a cycle of homelessness upon leaving the Forces. I’d hoped the chance to co-facilitate this project would give me a greater understanding of what sadly seems to be a well-trodden pathway from the military to the streets.

As we began to talk to the servicemen and women through initial outreach sessions with our partners West London Mission and Stoll (charities who provide housing and support for veterans), the sheer breadth of what it means to be a ‘homeless veteran’ became apparent.

Our eventual cohort ranged in age from early 30s to mid-seventies and covered a breadth of former specialities from the TA to artillery and tank regiments. Likewise, their reasons for leaving the Forces were diverse; everything from redundancies to medical discharges. Despite their differences, our participants had common threads - experiences of mental health difficulties, and a lack of knowledge of ‘Civvy Street’ at the point of exit.

As facilitators we accommodated for the diversity of the group by taking things slowly. The usual ‘crash bang wallop’ drama games were substituted with more gentle chats where the group shared experiences and built trust amongst the group. Once games did get going, we noticed a shared aptitude for problem solving and group tasks, something the guys readily admitted harked back to their military training.

We knew that getting on our feet and acting out stories would likely bring up some issues, particularly around PTSD. The distancing effect of Forum Theatre - and the common ground the group shared - allowed the process to get underway smoothly. Participants have particularly relished the opportunity to step into the shoes of the unhelpful doctors, housing workers and landlords they have come across outside the Armed Forces.

As I write, we are half way through the project, but even at this stage, we've discovered some key learnings:

  • Our veterans are all extremely confident actors. Perhaps this represents a kind of freedom after years of ‘being told what to do’.
  • The experience of black and minority veterans adds another dimension to the challenge of both enlisting and leaving the Armed Forces.
  • Physical stereotypes are a big deal – being classed as a ‘big tough squaddie’ limits your employment prospects and often singles you out for trouble in moments of confrontation.
  • There is a sense that the Armed Forces could be doing more for its soldiers before they leave. There is plenty of help on offer but many only find it when they have already had to be housed by charities.

Overall, I’m extremely impressed by the way the group has allowed for each others' individual experiences and challenges. I hope that when we perform next Friday, that this sense of empathy and solidarity will be conveyed to our audience, and perhaps even to some of the people who can force a change within the services.

The event on Friday 9 November is now full. For more information, click here »