19 May 2018
Now in its third year, the Blesma Community Programme is set to become an unrivalled success
The theatre settles into silence and the first words fill the dark chamber of the glorious Theatre Royal Haymarket.
Delivered with poise and deep meaning, they grip the audience, but the voice is not a stage professional, instead, a forces veteran taking part in a unique project that trains severely injured forces personnel in acting and story-telling which they then take to workshops in schools around the country.
The unique Blesma Community Programme is in its third year and the Class of 2018 is graduating with the traditional final day session performing their inspirational life stories at the celebrated theatre in London’s West End.
The Blesma Members who are about to graduate will soon deliver resilience workshops at secondary schools and education centres across the UK and all eyes are on them today including Blesma Patron HRH, the Duke of Gloucester who went on to spend time with the Blesma performers, and the Blesma and The Drive Project teams in the post-show reception.
Some have lost three limbs to IED blasts in Afghanistan, others have been devastated by accidents; they all have powerful recovery stories that are resonating with teenagers dealing with their own issues up and down the UK.
In the wings, Alice Driver, who devised the project, smiles as the latest crop are put through their paces by a team of skilled trainers.
“It is very humbling and so lovely to listen to these stories and see people benefit and that seems to happen every single time” she says. “I’m moved every time I witness what they achieve.”
The programme was forged from the successful impact of the Two Worlds of Charlie F - a ground-breaking play with real veterans’ stories delivered by veterans - when Blesma approached Alice’s award-winning company, The DriveProject, to see if the initiative could be extended.
“Blesma came to see it and wanted to do something with the Arts as a recovery tool adds Alice, they had two clear objectives; to do something for their members and to give back to the community. Their commitment has been fantastic.”
“We have the very best trainers in storytelling."
"They are theatre directors, actors and story tellers who have worked with the great and good of theatre world. It resonates with the military because we bring in the best trainers, there is a clear structure and we want them to be the best they possibly can be in telling a 20-minute story.
“A lot of them describe it as therapy; some as the best therapy they have had. We are not therapists, butI have seen over the years that if anyone can talk about things in their past,particularly dark things, and talk about them so they are in control, then it is a beneficial thing to do. This allows many to talk about things they have never spoken about before.
Not only is it cathartic,it is a life skill that can be transferred from the BCP workshops to motivational speaking and presentations and interviews.” Says Alice.
The camaraderie is as evident as the pride in performance.
Alice adds: “All the Members enjoy giving something back and being useful. And they realise their story, their journey, their injury can help people.
“These stories really resonate. To have a real-life person coming in to say ‘I lost my leg in an explosion or an accident’ really breaks down barriers. They listen and take something away to help them deal with their adversities, which could be things like bullying, family issues and social media pressure.
After last year’s workshops, 100 percent of teachers fed back saying that pupils were more motivated and positive. It has made them think and realise maybe how lucky they are or open their eyes to the world, given them the tools to get over adversity and to realise they are not alone.”
Lily Phillips, a workshop facilitator who has worked with the BCP since the start, adds: “Some Members worry that their story is not ‘heroic’ enough but it doesn’t matter whether they've been injured in a conflict zone or an accident because the kids are transfixed. I’ve never seen kids respond to something so quickly. When a Blesma Member comes in, they have never seen anything like it before. They are inspired.
Alice adds: “If you think you don't have a story, I don't believe you. Don’t put yourself off, speak to others who have done it and benefitted, the impact is incredible.”
The Blesma Community Programme, after three successful years has so far trained 29 Blesma Members and inspired more than 8,500 teenagers, with a target to reach a further 10,000 by the end of 2018.
"After last year’s workshops, 100 per cent of teachers fed back saying that their pupils were more motivated and positive as a direct result of the Blesma Community Programme"
MEET OUR MEMBERS
The 31-year-old former Royal Engineer broke his back, lost both his legs, and had to have his right arm amputated when he stepped on an IED on New Year’s Eve in 2010
What were you first impressions? We started off with humming and a lot of ‘la-la-la-ing’, and I thought; ‘What have I let myself in for?’ But that was just a way to warm up our voices. These guys strip your story to pieces and build it back up again so it is much more powerful.
So how did your story change during the course? It was mainly about developing a structure and realising what works for you. You might think everything about growing up is important, but people don’t want to hear what you did at 16, they want to hear why you are there with three missing limbs. I found that hard at first, but it worked and now I feel confident giving a 20-minute presentation, using techniques like dramatic pauses to build up the suspense.
What do you want to achieve from taking part? I do public speaking for a living now, so it was great to improve those skills, but I also want to give back to society. I want to go into underprivileged schools and help teenagers who haven’t had the type of upbringing I had. I can stand in front of them with three limbs missing and say; ‘My life is better now than it was when I was 24, when I was at the peak of my fitness.’ That shocks people! It also shows you that, although you may fail, there is somewhere else to go or something else to do. The moment you accept you’ve lost your legs, crashed your car or failed an exam is the moment you can just get on with life.
MEET OUR MEMBERS
The 48-year-old former major in the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps suffered severe back injuries when a drunk driver hit her car in 2004. She was discharged from the Army in 2006
How do you think your experience can help teens? I’ve come out of a catastrophic injury probably a better person and I hope I can contribute by showing that, no matter what your depths of despair, there is always a way out and a future. If I can reach and inspire just one person by telling my story, and demonstrate that you can come out stronger and better, then that is reason enough to do this.
Did anything about the course surprise you? There were times during the training when we were asked how we were feeling and to describe those feelings – that made me feel a bit vulnerable. But that was after a few days and we had got to know each other by then, so we were quite relaxed around each other as a group. It was definitely important for us to address those feelings and understand how other people might feel about our stories.
What do you hope your sessions will achieve? Teenagers often feel isolated and you can certainly feel isolated in a wheelchair. The students who we will speak to could be facing any type of trauma and I now feel confident that my story will help them. I’m not saying I won’t be nervous, but I feel that I now have the skills to tell my story and hopefully make a difference to other people’s lives
The Blesma Community Programme after three successful years has so far trained 29 Blesma Members and inspired more than 8,500 teenagers, with a target to reach a further 10,000 by the end of 2018. Click here to learn more about either joining the programme or hosting a workshop.