THERE was a surreal moment talking to Marine Cassidy Little and Darren “Swifty” Swift when they began comparing notes about being blown up, and discovered it happened on almost the same day 20 years apart.
Swift joined the Royal Green Jackets (now 2 Rifles) in 1982, after leaving school at 16. A tracker dog handler, he was in a terrorist attack resulting in the loss of his legs in 1991.
“If you see a British-made film and see a guy who’s blown up and got no legs, it’s probably me. Mostly film and TV,” he says. “Band Of Brothers, war films, horror films, I’ve played monsters and stuff like that. I rarely get any lines, just ‘aaahhh, urgggh’,” he explains.
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“I fell into theatre. I got a call from the National Theatre one day saying they wanted me for an audition. It was four lines, on a trolley playing a little Jewish guy. I had no idea what the National Theatre was, never been on a stage before.”
That role in Travelling Light brought him on tour to Newcastle Theatre Royal where he’ll return as part of the company for The Two Worlds Of Charlie F.
Marine Cassidy Little has been a performer, having trained as a ballet dancer and been a stand-up comic before enlisting in the military after losing a bet. He was wounded in a IED (improvised explosive device) blast while serving on his second tour in Afghanistan in 2011 as a marine (medic). “I lost a leg, two friends, an interpreter and a little bit of my sanity,” he says.
Humour is an essential part of both men’s persona, but both are deadly serious about their involvement in the Charlie F project has meant to them. Little was born in Canada (he’s a naturalised British citizen now) whose father is a retired brigadier general. “My first time on stage was when I was eight. I believed I played a tree – and a damned fine tree, too, I’d like to point out,” he says.
“I decided when I was ten years old that I wanted to learn to dance, so I started studying dance. I gave up all sports so I could be part of the drama and improv clubs, and eventually went to drama school in Missouri. Then I got a scholarship to study advanced ballet at university.
“For a couple of years, I had a great time. Unfortunately, I injured myself and had to return to Canada for surgery. From that point, I started bartending and doing a little bit of comedic theatre on the side.
“I saw American comedian George Carlin on stage and came away thinking I could be as funny as that guy. My stepfather, who is English, said put your money where your mouth is, come over to England, I’ll give you a job in a warehouse and you can do stand-up in the evenings. So I did. That’s how a young military brat ends up a ballet-dancing royal marine commando.”
Both see similarities between being in the military and being on stage. “You learn to trust everybody on stage,” says Little. “You learn to trust that when you lift a dancer, she’s going to take some of her weight, and when you’re going to do a manoeuvre in somebody’s direction, they’re going to move out of the way so there’s no collision. That camaraderie, that trust, that companionship is very similar across the performing arts.”
Swift says that, bearing in mind he’d been out of the army for 20 years, moving into theatre was quite a leap. In his film and TV work, he’s an extra (“in the background getting run over, playing dead, whatever”), but he feels the stage is peculiarly similar to the military way.
“Alice is our CO, the director is our sergeant major. It goes all the way down the ranks. We couldn’t do the job without the sound and lighting guys. We all have to work together, which is exactly the same as the military, where we all work together as a team,” he says.
Little takes up the theme, believing the physical and psychological demands mean a brotherhood develops naturally. It’s the same with rugby and ice hockey teams.
“That camaraderie exists where things become extreme. And theatre is extreme. A lot of the famous actors won’t say that because they’re professional and composed and it’s their job. But the truth is, it is extreme. If you’re performing every night in front of 1,000 people everything is on the line – your ego, your reputation, your lifestyle. With one slip-up, that could all go wrong.”
Little was sent along to the Charlie F Project by a captain who knew he’d done stand-up and found himself cast in the leading role of Corporal Charlie Fowler because he was the only one with any kind of stage experience – “that’s how “a ballet-dancing comedian ends up on the West End stage,” he says.
“The problem with being blown up – apart from the fact you miss body parts – is that your life takes a huge change. In science they call it singularity, something that affects everything before and everything after. Your confidence is gone because you’re not the strapping, tall, dark, interestingly-accented ladykiller that you were. Now you’re sitting in a wheelchair and feel disabled. You’ve lost your confidence. I had all kinds of things that weren’t working. I had nothing to do. Like a dog with a thorn in its paw, I sat in my basket all day licking it.
“This production gave me something to do. I couldn’t just sit there playing Modern Warfare 3 the whole time, or watching reruns of Game Of Thrones. I had to do something productive.”
He’s nervous at the prospect of the tour. “A company of men go to war. A company of actors get on stage. Suddenly, you realise this is your new military. This is your new troop.
These are your new brothers. And when that happened, everything fell into place,” he says.
“Guys were memorising their lines, not because they like the play, not because they wanted to get on stage, but because they had to support their brothers.
“Physically, I’m about three-quarters of the man I was. But mentally now, I’m every bit the guy I was before. It’s as a result of being able to get up on stage and share.
“No one has done any studies about whether there is such a thing as drama therapy. We can’t call it therapy because we have no legal grounds to say that. But if you were to ask if I found it therapeutic, I would say, ‘hell, yeah’.
In some ways I would say it’s more important than my physiotherapy because it gave me back me.”
Rediscovering a sense of self
VISITING military patients at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham proved a eye-opening experience for theatre producer Alice Driver. One soldier, in particular, summed up his feelings at returning wounded from Afghanistan. “He said when you become injured, you become incredibly vulnerable, you lose your sense of self, your purpose, your identity and fundamentally you lose your voice,” she recalls.
This struck a chord with Driver, who has used theatre in training programmes in the business world and has worked with non-professionals to boost their self-esteem and give them a voice.
“I felt what I needed to do was create the first theatre recovering project for wounded, injured and sick service personnel,” she explains.
And so the Charlie F Project was born, one which has led to the creation of a production performed by ex-servicemen and women that explores the effects of injury and its impact on others. Traditionally, sport and adventure training are used in the recovery of wounded, injured and sick (WIS) military personnel. This was the first time theatre had been considered.
“It was really exciting. The objective was to bring together 30 WIS from around the UK to write a new story based on their experiences, for them to rehearse it and then perform it on stage,” she recalls. “That was the idea and I was very excited by it, but I had no money, no soldiers and no theatre.”
The fact that she’s at Newcastle Theatre Royal promoting the forthcoming UK tour shows how far the project has progressed. The first two performances at the Haymarket Theatre Royal in the heart of London’s West End have led to a 13-date UK tour.
The Haymarket got behind the scheme, as did Sir Trevor Nunn, who was directing his company at the theatre at the time. “I had a meeting with him and it was the scariest meeting of my life. I asked if he would help me and he agreed. This was not about a community project, but creating something at the highest standard with a world-class team and a world-class theatre,” says Driver.
Then she approached the Royal British Legion which, like the military, was new to using theatre in wounded servicemen’s welfare. They funded the project.
A key part of the plan was the military itself.
“I had to learn the language of the military, which I’m still not very good at. I met the commanding officers. The first thing they said was, ‘Alice, it had better not be airy-fairy therapies, please’. I assured them this wasn’t. It was about risk and reputation, that I was using the best people in the business and their soldiers were going to be looked after.”
General Sir David Richards, then chief of the defence staff, became patron of the project.
Film-maker Chris Terrill was recruited to make a documentary, which was commissioned by Alan Yentob for his BBC Imagine series.
There was still a missing piece in the puzzle – soldiers to appear in the play. She approached actor Ray Winstone (“who does a lot under the radar for wounded soldiers”) and sold him the idea. Together they rounded up servicemen for the play.
Owen Sheers wrote a play based on their experiences with Stephen Rayne directing. Rehearsals began in November 2011 with 30 wounded, injured and sick personnel. “They had all sorts of injuries – neuro injuries, back injuries, post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression …a real mix,” says Driver.
“The whole process was evaluated and 50 per cent of those in the project said it was lifechanging.
In the rehearsal room people changed in front of our eyes. They moved from being in this dark place, being isolated, feeling very alone. Through this company, a new military family was formed.
“They created new bonds and relationships, they were able to share their stories with a goal. This wasn’t about sitting opposite a psychiatrist and saying how they were feeling.
They were part of a mission to put this play together, perform it and open it in the West End of London. They understood that mentality.”
The two London performances were packed, although Driver admits that a lot of people probably turned up because they felt they should. But the show itself changed them.
The effect was summed up by one cast member a few days before opening night. “This guy stood up – he had a piece of shrapnel go into the back of his brain when he was in Afghanistan commanding a troop of 400 men – and said, ‘although I am still clinically depressed, I no longer feel depressed any more’.
“Nearly every single person in the room was saying a similar thing. This had given them back their voice and their identity. For me, I felt the job was done.”
What she hadn’t anticipated was the impact on audiences, which included Barbara Windsor, Joanna Lumley and Robert Lindsay at the first performances.
“This isn’t just a play. It has changed lives and has changed the lives of people who come and see it. That’s what’s so exciting about it. Yes, we got five-star reviews and people say it’s brilliant, but now we need support to make sure so many more people get to see it.”
- The Two Worlds Of Charlie F: Newcastle Theatre Royal, from April 28 to May 3. Box office 08448-112121 and online theatreroyal.co.uk