7th Sense Theatre Company bring a moving, gritty new drama to the Camden Fringe this year with Memory Soldier, a play which looks at the impact of PTSD not just on those returning from war, but their loved ones too. Memory Soldier will play at Camden People’s Theatre 13th – 15th August so I caught up with the company, made up of Rachel Thomas, Phillip John Jones, Ryan Osang, Tom Cracroft, Lynn Felton, Emily Wickham and Simon Robins…
Let’s start with the company name – how did you come to be 7th Sense Theatre Company?
Rachel: Rather fittingly, there are 7 of us in the company! But truthfully, the company name comes from something we strive to put at the heart of all our work which is the 7th sense – love. That driving, beautiful thing that has the power to make the other 6 senses, nonsense.
As a company ‘committed to creating and writing real, unfiltered stories with honest, truthful characters’, what exactly drew you to a play like Memory Soldier?
Phillip: Soldier stories have always fascinated me. Their bravery and courage in doing ‘heroic’ acts for others, and how that can somehow still leave them broken at a very basic level.
Ryan: That first and foremost it’s a story about people, not PTSD or the army – the fact we’re taking a human approach to an issue that can be so easily political or alienated.
Emily: Personal experience of PTSD and a curiosity to explore human relationships
Simon: I’ve recently taken an active interest in the concept of masculinity, and the difficulty men face when talking about their problems and mental health. With a mind towards the military, PTSD seemed a natural option to explore.
Memory Soldier is ‘Inspired by personal experiences’ – how have you found and included personal experiences and whose experiences have become the fabric of your show?
Phillip: Two members of our company, Simon Robins and Tom Cracroft, have close friends or relatives serving in the military, so these accounts have played an important part of informing the story as we’ve gone through development. A few of us also have our own experiences of mental health problems and Rachel Thomas has worked as a mental health campaigner, so on a background level first hand accounts and knowledge of the mental health system have also woven themselves into the wider fabric of the show.
As a new work created using verbatim accounts and improvisation, does Memory Soldier now have a script and a writer or is this very much an ensemble piece created by the whole company in equal measures?
Emily: Elements of verbatim coming from Simon and Tom’s brothers and their friends, but it’s not a verbatim play as such! We’ve had a lot of first hand research and accounts from soldiers themselves which have informed the play, and keeping these in mind, the resulting script is one which has been devised and written as a full company. The characters and their specific story is fictional and unique, but their situation is something experienced by hundreds of families on a daily basis, and we’ve been very careful to keep in mind the first hand accounts we’ve received during the development and writing process.
Would you say you have as a company enjoyed the autonomy of writing and performing your own work about your own life more than the more traditional route of performing in productions written by others?
Rachel: We’ve enjoyed the freedom afforded to us by creating our own text/script/story as we can explore whatever we want whenever it comes to us, but the story of Memory Soldier as it stands isn’t about our own lives. None of us have our own PTSD from the military, we have our own experiences of PTSD and close relations to those who serve in the military, but as artists we have been exploring and understanding more about this topic…
The play looks at a returned soldier existing ‘between two realities’ – is there an aesthetic element to the way you present this on stage or does Memory Soldier rely on performances alone?
Lynn: Majority of the contrast between the two realities has its heart in the performances, particularly from Phillip who plays returning soldier Henry, but elements of this are aesthetically represented through the set and costume too. The set, including a slightly shoddy table, stays mostly unchanged throughout the play. This forms the main aesthetic embodiment of two worlds colliding by visually blurring the lines between home and the front line, representing the distance between what’s ‘real’ and the way Henry sees the world once home. You’ll have to come and see the show to find out how!Do you feel a sense of responsibility to tread carefully with this kind of subject matter and do you consider Memory Soldier to be a respectful account of one man’s experience as opposed to any kind of morbid fascination with trauma?
Ryan: We feel there’s a very important difference to make between doing honest justice to an issue that matters, and treading on eggshells around it, and therefore we don’t think we’ve approached the subject as something to handle with any higher level of increased responsibility or care than any other show. Theatre that matters is full of subjects that could easily be handled like glass, but when that happens we distance ourselves from the truths of these characters, and risk not doing justice to the narratives at stake. Instead, we’re focusing on looking past the public stigmas of PTSD and violence, and trying to shine a light on what may really be happening by diving headfirst into the area. The ultimate goal is that Memory Soldier should always be at it’s heart a tale of human relationships and experience. It’s not ‘The PTSD play’ in any way.
How have you gone about truthfully depicting a soldier with PTSD on stage?
Rachel: We think we’ve achieved as truthful a realistic representation of PTSD as it can be on the stage. It isn’t always table flipping and bottle smashing whilst screaming ‘you don’t know, you weren’t there’. For people with PTSD, the struggle happens in the invisible war zone of their minds and souls. Whilst we strive to show both sides, it’s the resulting inability to communicate and express their pain and anger that breaks their relationships, and that’s the truth we focus on most in this play. The threat, anger, fear and frustration is there, but isn’t an action flick, it’s a truthful story.
In your view, in what ways does the play do justice to the experiences of the loved ones of an individual living with PTSD?
Rachel: The entire focus of the play is on those around the sufferer and how they’re affected by PTSD coming into their lives, and we’ve placed a huge amount of importance on the fact that these characters should be people with their own lives, voices, hopes and passions outside of just being a foil to the PTSD aspect of the story, which we think is incredibly important. We did a lot of research into real first hand accounts from wives, girlfriends and family members living with loved ones with PTSD, and these have informed the development and creation of these characters in our play hugely.
Objectively speaking, it’s entirely valid to say that in Memory Soldier, the character with PTSD is actually the least interesting character, it’s how the ripples from that person affect the loved ones and force them to change their lives that’s powerful. The characters in the roles of loved ones in this play are strong, independent, honest, human, and though clearly affected, never a passive doormat for the PTSD narrative, and we’re really proud of that.
Does Memory Soldier have any significant personal resonance for any cast members – by this I mean are any of the cast connected with past or present serving soldiers?
Tom: A few members of the company have direct personal connection to serving soldiers. Simon has taken part in basic military training himself, so has a lot of friends in the army and other forces (RAF Navy Royal Marines) including a family member, and Tom has a brother in the army.
Any work focusing on wars and their impact has the potential to be controversial – do you consider this play political in any way?
Rachel: We don’t think so. There’s an argument to say that any play that touches on war is ‘inherently political’ as it’s a morally divisive topic, and we’re of course aware of this – but at its heart, that’s not what Memory Soldier is about. This isn’t a play about war, let alone whether it’s right or wrong. We’re far more interested in telling stories than political plays.
Any work that approaches any topic has the potential to be controversial, and every decision made in a play can have a political connotation – if we’d specifically set this in Cardiff, that would say one thing about how one kind of family in one place has more to say than a family in another area. Any decision you make has the potential to make a political statement, but we’re not interested in political plays, we’re interested in stories.
What would you say are your core intentions as creators of a play like Memory Soldier?
Rachel: To explore an area that has a lot of grey mist covering the red mist that lies underneath it. We want to break the usual ‘war play’ stigma, but most importantly to create a story and tale with honest, lovable characters that are invested in and cared for. To make audiences pause and think about something new or in a different way, and perhaps to reflect on themselves or their own relationships.
If an audience takes just one thing away from seeing Memory Soldier, what would you like that to be?
Phillip: To take away a story they’ll remember, and maybe a different perspective to the one they already had.
Ryan and Emily: The mundanity of everyday reality when you live with a mental health issue.
Simon: That there is healing to be found through simply talking, and even the strongest need support at times.
Now for the Quick Fire Round!
Who or what has inspired you most in theatre?
Simon: Hook from the 2016 RSC production ‘Peter Pan and Wendy’
Rachel: Mark Rylance’s Iago in the current Globe production of Othello is an absolute masterclass in acting! But previously, Andrew Scott’s performance in Seawall and Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Frankestein/Frankenstein’s Creature in Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein – it still leaves me completely gobsmacked every time the NTLive Screening comes around. In terms of playwrites, the works of Stoppard, Beckett, Alan Bennett, Simon Stephens and Sam Shepard.
Favourite theatre genre and why?
Simon: Musical theatre, who doesn’t love a good song and dance!
Rachel: I don’t think I can pick a genre! One of the most fascinating, exciting, bizarre and brilliant things about theatre for me is going to see something on a whim or that I don’t ‘think’ is my kind of thing, and being blown away by it or discovering something completely new. I don’t think I could ever compare them.
Etiquette debates – worthwhile or futile? Where do you draw the line?
Rachel: Theatre’s for everyone, but no matter where you’re from, don’t use a phone. Don’t take away from others enjoyments. Definitely worthwhile! We draw the line at keeping respectful for everyone around. So long as theres no flash on the picture i’m not sure we mind about photos, but don’t sit there and chat, don’t eat, don’t be rude, and don’t sit on your phone! Theatre is a place where the audience pay to be drawn in to a world and story, and chatting, noises and phones can very easily shatter the illusion of the world created on the stage, as well as being disrespectful. If you’re at the theatre, we think you should show respect both to yourself for the money you’ve paid to be there, and to the people who are working hard to create that world – don’t spend that money on your screen or crisp packet! (or open the packet before the play starts!). It’s just common curtesy really.
If you could bring change in terms of opportunities in theatre to London right now, what would it be? What does London need?
Phillip: Equality is the big thing. Gender and racial equality in theatre is beginning to shift for the better, but it’s an area that still needs attention. Additionally a huge number of disabled actors especially are still finding it incredibly hard to find work, even for playing characters who have disabilities. We also think that the more London theatre can reach out to and engage with young people in other ways alongside fringe festivals and new theatre, the better! It would give the industry a boost of bright colours, new perspectives and ideas, and provide the sparks for some really exciting, fresh and boundary-defying new work.
Finally, to close, sell your show to readers in just one sentence.
Phillip: No political agenda, just characters speaking for themselves and no one else.
Simon: A sensitive depiction of when mental illness becomes the third person in a relationship, be that family, friends or significant other.
So there you have it! Remember: Memory Soldier plays the Camden Fringe at Camden People’s Theatre 13th – 15th August 2018 and you can find tickets here.