The realms of theatre and military service might seem worlds apart, yet a research-based play has brought them together in a way that’s positively impacting both veterans and audiences in Canada and internationally.
Dr. George Belliveau is a professor in the Department of Language and Literature Education at UBC, specializing in Theatre Education and an international leader in research-based theatre. Research-based theatre is an innovative mode of knowledge sharing that aims to educate and spark dialogue to address critical social issues.
Dr. Belliveau explains: “Research based theatre has to honor the research context that we’re bringing to life on the stage, it has to be faithful and ethical to that context. But it also has to bring elements of the theatre to that event.”
Contact!Unload was co-created by Dr. Belliveau and Dr. Marv Westwood with the help of Movember Canada, UBC’s Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, and the not-for-profit Veterans Transition Network four years ago and was developed by a group of more than 30 participants, including counsellors, veterans and artists. The play explored the stress injuries that soldiers suffer post-deployment, and was largely performed by Canadian combat veterans who had gone through the UBC-founded Veterans Transition Program.
The stories told on stage are all based on the veterans’ experiences, supported by research data on soldiers, ensuring that authenticity is at the very heart of the performance. As one of Contact!Unload’s original performers Major Chuck MacKinnon of the Royal Westminster Regiment explained in 2016: “If a veteran watches this performance, and it's not real, and the language is not real, and what we would do is not what we did, he will discount it. And if he discounts it, then he's going to discount the counselling. We can't have that happen.”
This concern around authenticity chimes precisely with Luke Bokenfohr’s, Retired Royal Marine Commando, involvement with the play. Luke participated in the Veterans Transition Program after returning from ten years of service in the British Armed Forces, including deployments to Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan. When he was introduced to Dr. Belliveau through the program, acting was the last thing on Luke’s mind but knowing he could lend an authentic voice to the play and sensing the value it could have in bringing awareness to mental health initiatives for military veterans he decided to participate.
An essential consideration when developing the play was the presence of Counselling Psychologists at every rehearsal and a ‘check-in’ that would take place before anything else got underway. This was a vital component in ensuring that none of the very real experiences covered in the script ran the risk of re-traumatizing the performing veterans. For the non-veterans involved who had a more traditional theatre background this was a totally new experience, but Dr. George Belliveau credits this slower approach as being “a great learning curve for the artists”. Creating a safe and supportive space and dedicating as much time as required to these ‘check-ins’ was essential to facilitating the meaningful dialogue and knowledge sharing that would shape the play.
Luke’s experiences, alongside the experiences of his fellow veterans, are indisputably the reason the Contact!Unload has so successfully connected with and stimulated important conversations about mental health among veterans and audiences in Canada and internationally. Data collected from interviews with veterans and audience surveys shows that the play has had a significant positive impact on both participants and audience members.
Since its initial inception different versions of the play have been staged, and over the past four years it has reached more than 3000 people through 40 performances with various veterans performing. The play has been performed in Ottawa (Parliament Hill), Kingston (Royal Military College), Toronto (Invictus Games), Sydney, New York and London, UK where it included a performance for Prince Harry on Remembrance Day 2015.
Dr. George Belliveau and Luke Bokenfohr are continuing to work alongside one another in the latest version of the play, Unload, which expands on the experiences of veterans explored in the initial iteration while also incorporating the lived experience of civilians carrying trauma.
The impact of the play exemplifies the unique ability of research-based theatre when it is co-created with research participants to make societal change and encourage dialogue about challenging subjects.
Find out more about George and Luke’s experience of knowledge exchange in this conversation facilitated by Dr. Minelle Mahtani, Associate Professor at the Institute for Social Justice at UBC from the event Candid Conversations - The Importance of Dialogue in Generating Impact held by the UBC Knowledge Exchange Unit on May 15, 2019. At the event, George and Luke also performed the debut of Unload developed and written by the UBC Research-Based Theatre Collaborative.