The story behind the story – Missing In Action

Posted on 7th May 2020
Director and CEO of Proteus, Mary Swan, explains why making Missing In Action now available to watch in full online, became such an important project for the many lives it touched, and why, 8 years on, this play continues to be a reminder to us all of the reason theatre can make a real and positive difference to individuals and communities.

When we talk about why theatre is important ─ this is why.

Missing In Action was developed from a large participatory project we created working with service personnel and their families in and around the South during 2011/12.

In 2010 I had become interested in the, then (and to be honest, still now) hidden issue of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in ex-service personnel and those returning from service. My interest had been piqued in 2010 when working on the Punchbag project.

We worked in refuges bringing together professional artists with women escaping domestic violence to make work reflecting their experiences. Some of these women were escaping partners who had become violent after returning from active service, their partners almost certainly suffering from undiagnosed PTSD. In the face of little awareness or help and often with young children living under the same roof as an individual highly trained for warfare, for these women there was little choice but to leave.

PTSD is a key issue in homelessness amongst ex-service personnel.

I felt strongly that there was not enough awareness of the issue, that this complex mental illness was not widely talked about. At the time, physical disabilities of those returning from Afghanistan were top of the agenda, yet the internal agony of so many others were either ignored and misunderstood. PTSD is a key issue in homelessness amongst ex-service personnel. Indeed, we have had a couple of those individuals pass through the shelter of the car park at Creation Space over the years; sleeping rough because their anxiety mixed with a high level of training means they can never switch off – easier to be in the open than a closed room with no escape…

I asked Brendan Murray to begin talking to PTSD sufferers, accessing them through various routes including the charity Combat Stress; he then proceeded to interview them and gather research for the piece.

I meanwhile devised a project working with Nick Ash from Scratchbuilt, writer Kefi Chadwick and photographer Martin Reid to work with families in military communities and gather common experiences from the wives and children.

All of this research informed the show and we had visits in rehearsals from serving military personnel to drill the actors and ensure authenticity, but also to provide invaluable insight into their battles with PTSD.

If I never make another piece of theatre…I will always have the knowledge that a piece I was lucky enough to be involved in, made a real and positive difference to an individual and a wider community.

We toured the show in 2012, to Village Halls and studio theatres. The response was stunning, and in particular when we played communities in traditionally military areas. Everyone in those audiences recognised the deterioration of the main character, whether because of someone close to them or an acquaintance. One night I will never forget took place in a tiny village outside of Salisbury. The venue held less than 100 people, and at the end the audience gave a heartfelt standing ovation. As the audience sat back down, one man remained standing. He then told his own story, one he had never told his friends or neighbours before, about his own battle with PTSD.

If I never make another piece of theatre, and let’s face it, the current Covid-19 crisis will make it much harder in the future, I will always have the knowledge that a piece I was lucky enough to be involved in, made a real and positive difference to an individual and a wider community. When we talk about why theatre is important ─ this is why. The communal experience enabled that person to feel their struggle was accepted and understood, he could feel the audience reactions; not possible in any other situation, not provided by watching a movie at home, no matter how good. This is why we need to be in a room together, why we seek to congregate and tell stories, to understand, to empathise with those we do not share a common journey with, and for them to really feel that empathy. It is testament to the incredible talent of Brendan Murray that this play managed to do that without preaching or becoming mawkish, nor too tough to allow full engagement. It is funny and sad, never harrowing, but should make you feel both empathy and anger at the end. His script is contained in a collection of his works, Big Theatre In Small Spaces; and if you are looking to read some seriously great plays during lockdown, I urge you to start there.

We filmed the show with the intention to tour it again – so like all the other previous plays we are posting, this was intended as both a record of the piece and for venue programmers to ‘see’ the show. Sadly the re-tour never happened, funding was not available and with such a big cast we had to give up on the idea. I’m always sad it didn’t reach more audiences, but perhaps here it can.

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