Mum, Me and the IED – Lisa chats with James Balian and Roger Vickery. (Theatre Interview)
Lisa chats with Roger Vickery
LT: What made you want to write about PTSD?
RV: There were three ‘triggers’; all personal. Most of my stories and poems spring from experiencing an emotional jolt of some kind.
- A happy-go-lucky country kid, whose family I knew well, was diagnosed with PTSD after serving in Afghanistan. His mother felt obliged to lever him free of the military because his treatment was being undermined by messages, subtle and overt, that real men don’t crack up. Once he was ‘saved’ from that environment he was pitched, nerves skinned, into civilian life. The shockwaves continue to inflict him and his family.
- Stories handed down in my family about the mental damage caused by wars on veterans and their family. Bill H. stands out. He served side by side with my grandfather on the Western Front. Bill was a university trained engineer; a rarity in the 1920’s. He retreated to a farm, kept away from the world, slept in his garage so his wife and child weren’t disturbed by the swearing and screams that inflicted this quiet man’s dreams. On Anzac Day he stayed in his barn and wept. My grandfather was a man for tomorrow, his lights were always on high beam. His best friend’s were always on dim. Why the differences?
- Interviews/ reports about how many PTSD sufferers re-live traumatic events as a result of a stimulus that could be as minor as a loud noise, a smell or a weather pattern. I have disturbing, often violent dreams where there is no reality other than my need to fight or flee my way out. Experiencing the dark night of the body’s remembered crises while awake is an appalling prospect. Observing them in someone you care about must bring its own form of trauma. Those carers, to my mind, could be likened to combat medics.
LT: How do you feel about the way PTSD has been represented in literature?
RV: Like many prominent mental disorders, it has been recounted and dramatized in ways that appear to be compelling and authentic and equally, it has been exploited and used an excuse for superficial melodrama. (In too many television dramas a character’s PTSD is an excuse to justify overwrought flash backs.)
I have been impressed and touched by the memoirs from the First World War, Sassoon and Graves, in particular; as well as Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. Elaine Hudson, who plays our protagonist’s mother, has been digging out primary and secondary sources from that period. The social patterns underneath shell shock, as PTSD was called then, are intriguing. Enlisted soldiers were more likely to display marked physical symptoms, such as uncontrollable spasms and mutism than officers, although the latter were arguably just as traumatized in many cases. Why the difference?
LT: Did you need to do much research on contemporary theories about PTSD in military personnel to write Mum, Me and the I.E.D.? Which theories did you favour?
RV: I didn’t base my story on any theoretical construct. In a past working life I had to drench myself in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) and learn about patterns and causes of mental illness. Like Omar Khyam after his visits to philosophers and saints, ‘Of times I came out the same door where in I went.’
I was influenced by three obvious premises.
Constant floods of adrenaline re-shape the nervous system, possibly permanently. (Training can allow the body to manage in the short to medium term only.)
People in a war zone carry the fault lines and coping mechanisms from their early life.
Military personnel have a higher than average inclination towards affiliation and control, according to personality testing instruments, such as the Myer-Briggs and the MMPI. Arguably, they are seeking a family environment they may never have or wished they had known. If that family rejects them, or they are unable to fulfill their role in that unit, their sense of loss is likely to be huge.
In addition I have had some military experience, and for two years I worked side by side with army personnel, most of whom had been in war zones. The former, if not the latter, taught me that the fear of failing those around you could be greater fear than threats of death or injury. I also learned first-hand that wounded people are likely to wound others.
Finally, Katie Pollock, our dramaturg, was able to provide some very valuable insights as a result of her close involvement in a project to investigate and give voice to people suffering from personal trauma.
Lisa chats with James Balian
LT: What was the most difficult aspect of translating this story to a play?
JB: Evolving a story from prose to drama demands structural changes to the unfolding of the events so that you create an interesting conflict, especially when the original story was a first person narrator internal monologue.
Like our last collaboration on A Nest of Skunks, this play also started life as a short story by Roger.
I loved the short story, so it was for me, for both of us really, always essential to remain true to Roger’s original story while making the adaptation.
I created the initial draft with its structure first by drawing on the events the protagonist, Rob, talks about in the short story and then by creating some new scenes, even characters, and events to bolster the narrative while remaining true to Roger’s original intent.
After that, Roger and I worked together for the next few drafts and expanded the initial 40 page draft to some 75 pages. We then asked the accomplished writer Katie Pollock to dramaturg for us. Katie’s input helped us see some things that we had missed – opportunities to extend the narrative and the development of characters and their arcs.
Kevin Jackson joined us as director when the play was on its 18th draft. Since then we have done a couple of play-readings and another 8 drafts. Some drafts had very minute, you could say ‘nuance tweaks’, and other drafts had some major reworking of existing scenes and several brand new scenes added, discarded, kept and cut back, until we settled on the final version, which is what we took to rehearsal.
It was a difficult process in a very pleasurable way because we were being pushed by the story we were creating and we were responding to its demands.
Roger and I bring different strengths and backgrounds to the project. As with our last collaboration, Roger has a principle we use without fail, “cage fight love”. It means we don’t hold back on responding honestly to what’s on the page and making the necessary changes.
LT: Memory (even repressed memory) lives in language. How did you use language to convey the essence of PTSD to an audience that may not have lived through it?
JB: For me, for this play, it was a balance between actually addressing the term PTSD directly – no tip-toeing around the subject matter – and then showing it in action. Verbal language and body language are at least two conduits to this show and tell. Repressed memories are not as deeply buried as we’d like to believe or told to believe. The tragic effects of PTSD on veterans and essential services personnel attests to that.
Our characters are all affected by the PTSD of the protagonist, Rob, so there is a certain tension between speaking cautiously and losing control for all the characters.
On a basic technical level, this can be through incomplete sentences and thoughts, blatant lies to cover up internal turmoil, moments of explosive reaction and surprising responses. The lies are not just to others, but themselves to suppress their own memories of the truth. So we created a lot of set-up and pay-off situations where a piece of information at an earlier part of the play is completed later to reveal whether the original information was true or a self-protective suppression.
LT: Do you have a favorite film or play where PTSD has been treated very well? Why do you like these examples so much?
JB: There are a few films I can think of immediately. The first three are almost a cliché but I can’t deny that they made a huge impact on me at the time and took the understanding of War and its effects beyond the headlines.
Full Metal Jacket – for the way it didn’t shy away from the brutalization of the recruits and the final horrendous act of Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onfrio). One of our actors, a former army officer, was told by his sergeant to watch those scenes, because ‘they were the real thing’.
Apocalypse Now – for the oppressive atmosphere it creates which is like walking through a PTSD-landscape full of characters unhinged because of their war experiences.
M.A.S.H. – both the movie and the series, especially the series. Even though it was about the Korean War and got sentimental and schmaltzy sometimes, it actually spoke to a time when returned Vietnam Vets were looked on with derision and suspicion. It tried to create an understanding of those experiences for the target audience.
Maria’s Lovers – which was a small film from the USA about a Japanese POW camp survivor who is clinging to some normalcy by returning to his sweetheart Maria. Their subsequent marriage only highlights his PTSD. It is a beautiful and gentle film that deals with a very difficult subject.
There are so many more, but I’ll stop there.