British Columbia

Contact! Unload is both theatre and therapy for Afghanistan veterans and audience

"All the performers would say, if we prevent one other suicide, our performance has been worth every minute of it."

Theatre piece was recently performed for Prince Harry in London

Four veterans lift up a Tribute Pole to other people who have served in the military during a performance of Contact! Unload. (UBC Faculty of Education)

Contact! Unload is much more than just a theatre show featuring the stories of four Afghanistan veterans as they transition back to life in Canada — it's a form of therapy for the men and some of the audience.

"There's been now several individuals in the audience that knew they needed help, but they didn't come forward until they saw this show," said Marvin Westwood, a counselling psychologist at UBC, who co-developed the production along with other colleagues and the veterans themselves.

He said the show, which is being performed at the Beatty Street Drill Hall in Vancouver Dec. 11 and 12, can help other veterans and their families as well.

Prince Harry saw performance

"The very serious side of all this work is, if the veterans don't drop all the baggage they're dealing with they risk going into a depression cycle, and post-depression is suicide.

"So all the performers would say, if we prevent one other suicide, our performance has been worth every minute of it," Westwood said.

Prince Harry meets the four veterans acting in Contact! Unload at the Canadian High Commission on Nov. 11, 2015. (UBC Faculty of Education)

The production, which was brought about by the Veterans Transition Program (which Westfood co-founded) and Men's Health Research at UBC, was even brought to London and performed in front of Prince Harry on Nov. 11. 

Westwood said the production grew out of a collaboration between the veterans and researchers in group counselling and theatre education.

Theatre as therapy

He said he doesn't regard the men as actors, but rather performers who are portraying their life stories in a way that is therapeutic to them — a process called therapeutic enactment.

"[This process] is an action-based group approach for helping people revisit hard things in their life," he said.

"They go back, when the group feels very safe, to re-observe and re-do what should have been done before, and then that's done, over time they're able to walk away from that very same scene.

"With the support of the group they would say that they revisited the hardest thing in their lives, but they dropped the baggage that is the emotional trauma baggage related to it, so they often say instead of a movie playing in their head or a video, it's now just a photograph."

He said the veterans had all gone through counselling before, and there were resources available to the soldiers in case the trauma they were revisiting during rehearsals became too intense.

'Don't make them wait as long'

Westwood said the project was also inspired after he interviewed a number of elderly World War II and Korean War veterans.

"They found it so valuable to telling their stories, even at the end of life, they said whatever we do, be sure not to make the younger veterans wait as long," he said, adding that support for Contact! Upload came from the the Royal Canadian Legion's' Poppy Fund.

"Now this project these guys are getting into it just a very few years after they return, so they don't have to carry this with them the rest of their lives. So I really think we're hearing the voices of the older veterans, the older men and women who were 85 or 90 [and] said, 'Please do this, don't make them wait as long.'"

To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: Contact! Unload is both theatre and therapy for Afghanistan veterans and their audience


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