Graeae Theatre Company

This case study is from our Sharing the stage initiative, which was part of the Foundation's Participatory Performing Arts strand (2014-18)

This Is Not For You

“I LOVED every minute and learnt so many new things which normally would be out of bounds for a wheelchair user. The Graeae experience has brought me out of my reclusive shell.” Participant

This case study looks at Graeae’s This Is Not For You. Part of 14-18 NOW, this outdoor performance celebrated the contribution of veterans who have become disabled through war, but were never commemorated as a casualty of war. Find out more about This Is Not for You by watching the film and reading the project summary below.

The UK Branch of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s Sharing the Stage initiative ran from 2014-2018. It supported arts projects in which vulnerable and under-served groups of people 'share the stage' with professional performers, and projects that are based on partnerships between arts organisations and social partners.

Phase One supported the research and development (R&D) stage of 14 consortia projects. Phase Two ran from 2016-18, supporting 10 consortia projects to full production of the work created through the participatory process. 

Graeae is the world’s first theatre company led by D/deaf and disabled performers. Graeae champions the inclusion of D/deaf and disabled people in the arts through intensive actor and writer training initiatives; access support for creative and learning situations; workshops and training programmes for young artists; and a range of training models for the creative sector.

Graeae aimed to create a major outdoor performance, animation and permanent memorial to celebrate the contribution of veterans who have become disabled through war, but who have never been commemorated as a casualty of war.  This became This Is Not For You, directed by Jenny Sealey, written by Mike Kenny and performed by Blesma, The Limbless Veterans, professional performers and local community choirs.  The production was co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW and Blesma, The Limbless Veterans and supported by Arts Council England in addition to the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch).  The project was successful because of these and other partnerships, working across sectors:

  • Blesma, The Limbless Veterans helps all serving and ex-Service men and women who have lost limbs, or lost the use of limbs or eyes, to rebuild their lives by providing rehabilitation activities and welfare support.
  • The Drive Project is an award-winning social enterprise developing projects that build communities, producing creative projects that support an individual’s path to recovery and reach a huge public audience, and for businesses they deliver transformative training and talks built to inspire, empower and motivate.
  • The National Centre for Circus Arts is a registered charity and one of Europe’s leading providers of circus education, which involves thousands of people in the creation and performance of circus arts every year. 

There were four main strands to the project: 

  1. giving wounded veterans a new set of skills in circus arts, storytelling and performance
  2. creating and presenting a story that resonated and was inspired by the lives of wounded veterans
  3. building bridges between wounded veterans and their local communities
  4. working with veterans and military choirs to share the story with audiences of up to 10,000 people in total, over four performances.

This Is Not For You had a number of intended outcomes and impacts: creating a body of artistic content that was both beautiful and affecting; for the veterans to feel skilled-up, listened to and represented with authenticity; creating a lasting impact on participants and audiences that broke down barriers and opened up future opportunities.  

This Is Not For You is still delivering on the outreach programme, and working with François Matarasso on an independent evaluation, an investment that allowed Graeae to develop appropriate mechanisms for assessing the impact on participants.  Graeae, with the National Centre for Circus Arts, trained 25 disabled veterans in performance especially for This Is Not For You.

This Is Not For You was performed in the summer of 2018 as part of the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival, reaching an audience of 1,600 people over four performances, and Stockton International Festival reaching an audience of 2,300 people over three performances with choirs of 75 participants over the two performance locations.  This was supported by an outreach programme during the autumn term of 2018 with schools and community groups and a micro-site: http://tinfy.org/

Graeae succeeded in its aims and objectives for participants and practitioners, and gained valuable organisational experience, which is evidenced by the feedback and outputs gathered as part of the ongoing evaluation. 

Making great art

This Is Not For You was an outdoor performance paying to Britain’s wounded veterans from the First World War as well as more recent conflicts, both men and women, whose contributions to history often go unnoticed.  The audience response was overwhelmingly positive, as demonstrated in the analysis of returned feedback forms; some 60% were new to Graeae’s work, extending both reach and awareness for inclusive theatre.  Individual comments indicated the impact of the piece:

“The show challenged the audience to consider the experiences of disabled veterans with viewpoints that are little understood and often unrepresented. The cast of veterans added an integrity and truth to the performance which was uncomfortable at times but completely absorbing and inspirational.” Audience member

“It brought home the fact that the war dead get much more recognition than the wounded and disabled.” Audience member

Providing opportunities for participants

The experience of training and rehearsing was transformational for some of the participants, and some veterans took to the training from the start. The discipline and physicality of circus skills training matched the rigour and precision required in the army.

“I LOVED every minute and learnt so many new things which normally would be out of bounds for a wheelchair user. The Graeae experience has brought me out of my reclusive shell. I have grown in confidence well away from my comfort zone. I have felt very much loved and supported.  I have continued with singing lessons, my voice is developing into a soprano. (before This Is Not For You, I didn't even know I could sing!) I've made a great circle of friends who I still meet up post This Is Not For You.”  Participant

Since the production, the veteran participants have taken their experience and fed it into other projects:

  • Many veterans are using their storytelling skills to tell their own story in Blesma’s schools outreach programme
  • One participant has been employed by Graeae to co-deliver the This Is Not For You outreach campaign, her first professional paid engagement in nine years. She reported that she had previously thought herself unemployable, and Graeae is working with her to build her skill set and deliver more workshops in future.
  • Two participants performed in Unspoken, a play by Bravo 22 Company at the Edinburgh Festival
  • The Drive Project has been engaged by Blesma to offer wraparound support for veterans that need it. A number of participants have been assigned Blesma Support Officers and a couple have been given counselling to help them take their learning forward in a safe way.
  • Some participants went on to training in British Sign Language and voice skills.

Graeae worked with experienced theatre professionals in a context that stretched, challenged and enthused them, reporting that:

  • The ground and aerial choreographers learned about setting safe working limits with participants who are still adapting to their new physicality. This was the first time the composer and musical director had worked with this group of people, creating a soundscape that utilised the vocal ranges of trained and untrained choirs. 
  • For the D/deaf and disabled practitioners in the team, this was an opportunity to work with people that didn’t form part of their normal group, exposing them to different opinions and perspectives and different attitudes towards disability. Graeae’s professional practitioners were able to reflect on how far they had come from when they first came into contact with the company.

Organisational development

This was the first time that Graeae had worked with veterans on this scale, and within the organisation, each department adapted to situations as they arose.  Accommodation was seldom as accessible as promised; travel was chaotic; the production was performed in the middle of a heatwave; the non-standard rehearsal space was not ideal for all the access needs of the group; and the access needs of the team were much higher than anticipated. However, the team were quick to respond and were in constant communication when finding solutions. 

Since the production: 

  • Graeae has adopted a Code of Conduct, which applies to all staff, freelancers and volunteers to help create a safe working environment for people of different backgrounds and experiences, adopted by all the veterans while rehearsing and performing the show.
  • All Graeae permanent staff have now been trained as Mental Health First Aiders and had dignity at work training.
  • Graeae created a legacy pack for this production which has gone out to all participants and is currently fundraising for future project, to continue working with the veterans.

“The learning was immense and intense.”

The length of time to develop This Is Not For You enabled Graeae to engage the creative team and develop the work at a timescale that enhanced the project overall, for instance, removing the pressure to achieve everything within a dedicated three-week rehearsal period.  It also gave the creative team time to build relationships and trust with participants and develop the themes of the work and the aesthetic of the piece.  This longer timescale also benefited participants: having the resources and space to develop this project over a long period made the transition to active participant and performer more manageable.

There were a great number of positives from the project, but there was also room for reflection on some of the challenges people faced.  Graeae was vigilant about supporting its practitioners throughout the project, and avoiding feelings of vulnerability, but admits that had it known the level of access support needed for some people, it would have built a larger personnel infrastructure to ensure that everyone was less stretched. On reflection, it is likely that the company would have either reduced the number of participants, increase the rehearsal time or do both to reduce the demands placed on the team over a short period of time. 

One tangible change that occurred was within the organisation: how Graeae worked with and valued participants. The creative team learned a huge amount about working with people who were new to the arts and new to identifying as disabled.  The company also invested in learning around mental health, and how the company can support people when they are in a place of poor mental health. That will benefit Graeae’s work as it moves forward, having made a commitment continuing to work with disabled veterans.

 

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