Mum, Me & the IED at the Depot Theatre
Last week we spoke with James Balian and Roger Vickery, co-writers and producers of Mum, Me & the IED at the Depot Theatre.
Co-Writers and Producers James Balian and Roger Vickery
How exactly did this play come to life?
ROGER: All our work comes from human stories and not the theme. I was at my father’s wake, I was talking to probably my oldest friend, and I asked after her son, and I was told a very sad story. He’s a happy-go-lucky country kid who had joined the army, he’d been a combat medic in Afghanistan and he’d come home suffering from PTSD – what the used to call ‘shell-shock’ in the first World War. Officially, he was being well looked-after with counsellors and general support, but behind closed doors he was really being got at for being a weakling. He hadn’t come nearly as far as the official story reported, so she wanted to get him out of the army. She had ways of doing it, but she also knew that she was going to be bringing him back to a country town where there’d be no real support. She was in a real dilemma – and that was the basis of my story.
Why have you chosen to stage Mum, Me and the IED at the Depot Theatre?
JAMES: This idea started off as a short story so we adapted it to a play. We did a play two years ago at the Depot which was about refugees – we managed to raise $1,000 for the Asylum Seeker Centre as well. Depot was incredibly supportive. So we had the opportunity to do it there again, and we took it. We only found out afterwards that where the Depot stands now used to be an army recruitment centre, up until about 1975. It was where the Vietnam conscripts where sent when they were first recruited, and it’s where the mothers’ group Save Our Sons would protest conscription. It’s got this brilliantly rich history of military activity and political protest. Now, we weren’t aware of all that when we chose this space – we chose to work here because the space itself is also a fantastic space – but it’s great to hear that there’s all this rich history here as well.
What can audiences expect from this show?
ROGER: It’s a drama, but it’s a pretty nuanced story rather than a dark, confrontational drama. I think when people hear about IEDs and PTSD they think about the dreadful aspects of those – and they’re quite right, they are awful, but we want to focus on the stories of some very strong people. The way the Director has chosen to present this is in very Salvador Dali-type territory. So while we created a very fast-moving, naturalistic dialogue drama, Kevin Jackson has turned it into a theatre of the mind. So it’s going to be fast-paced, have a lot of nuances, and surprisingly enough, it’s got a good measure of humour as well.
What relevance do you think Mum, Me and the IED has to a 2018 audience, and do you think this show will resonate with Australian audiences in particular?
JAMES: Absolutely, I think it will definitely resonate. We’ve been involved in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and a couple of other places here and there. This is not necessarily a political critique of whether we should be involved in those situations, that’s actually a completely different subject matter, but this is about the soldiers themselves. We refer to them as heroes, and we praise them, but there aren’t the correct mechanisms to look after them properly. The rate of suicides and self-damage within the veteran community is very high compared to the rest of society. In addition to all of those soldiers and veterans who are suffering are a whole bunch of people around them who are as well: their family, their friends, children, parents, the lot. So I think this will definitely resonate with a lot of people.
ROGER: In terms of the age group, the main character is exactly in that demographic of late 20s to early 30s. His counselor, which is a very prominent female role, is also in that age bracket. So is his best friend who is a very strong character. So the main life on this stage is that of someone who is in their late 20s to early 30s, which is the age of people that are coming to see this play.
JAMES: When you think of soldiers, you often think of an older age group. You think they’re older and wiser and have lived more life, but
generally speaking they are young people. They get recruited at 19 and then they spend the next 5, 10, 15 years being soldiers. That’s got to take a huge toll.
ROGER: I think what’s also important is that these characters come with their own backstory, and that the protagonist’s backstory is one that people can understand. It poses the question: if you’re in that situation as an army medic and you have people relying on you in a high-pressure situation, how do you respond? What choices do you make? Part of the story focuses on how people unravel in different ways, and how PTSD affects these soldiers. The Director Kevin Jackson, who has taught nearly every famous Australian actor in the last 20 years, normally only works with classics. But he chose this as his first contemporary Australian play because he saw this as such a strong, authentic story. So when someone who’s theatre royalty is saying that this is an important script, that really reinforced for me that we were on the right track.
We also want to use this as an opportunity to fundraise, like we did with our last show. After a lot of thinking, we decided that the best recipient of profit from a show about mental health was Lifeline. So we will be giving five dollars from every ticket sold for three of our shows to Lifeline. We’re aiming to raise at least $1000. So there’s an extra bang for your buck if you come along.
What has Mum, Me and the IED taught you about either yourself or your craft?
ROGER: What it’s done for me is reinforce the magic of collaboration. Not just me and James – we’ve worked together for 2 years on this – but when you add to this mix a brilliant director and a really interesting cast, the excitement of seeing your ideas and your dialogue take on a really different form is great. Seeing something and thinking ‘Wow, I didn’t think of it that way, but it’s perfect. Let’s go with it.’ That’s the joy of collaboration for me.
JAMES: That collaboration takes many different forms. It’s not just about sitting there and writing, it’s about cutting things that we might feel very strongly about but the other will say ‘Nope, that’s not right.’ Actually having the belief and respect in that other person to understand that if they’re not comfortable with that part, then it doesn’t belong in your story.
ROGER: I do a lot of solo writing, I’ve been recently successful in winning awards, but the extra challenge in working with another writer is fantastic.
So would you say then that there’s a definite benefit to collaborating with another writer, because there is that second brain?
ROGER: I’ve written with a lot of other people in a lot of other contexts, and it’s never worked out. I think you’ve got to have that really strong relationship as well as trust. I’d recommend trying it out, but if it doesn’t work pretty early on then I suggest you get out fast.
JAMES: If you’re working closely with another writer and that relationship is working, it takes away the second-guessing. That other person is your sounding board, and you’re their sounding board as well. We’re also friends with a writer named Katie Pollock, who’s a very accomplished writer in her own right. We brought her in as our dramaturg for this show, because we wanted to have a woman’s perspective as well. Roger and I have always been adamant about writing strong women’s roles, but you can always get a blind spot when you’re working on something. Having Katie on board was wonderful, because she saw things that we didn’t, or wouldn’t have seen until the 30th draft. She also challenged us, which lead to some very interesting decisions in the work. Katie has been involved in a long-term project that involves people suffering from trauma, so that was an additional value that she brought. The important thing for us was to get the military voice right – one of our cast members is from the army – as well as the nuances of characters under duress. Having Katie cast an eye over it was so valuable.
Rapid fire: Favourite production you’ve ever seen?
JAMES: August Osage County at Sydney Theatre Company and Sport for Jove’s production of The Crucible.
ROGER: I’d say a production of Saint Joan, but not the most recent one – they cut too much!
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world. Where do you go?
JAMES: I would go to New York, and spend more time in theatres there. Especially Independent theatre.
ROGER: I’d take the fastest plane that would get me back to Ireland, that’s where the family comes from, and there’s the best writer’s festival in the world in Bantry.
Play or musical?
Who is your industry inspiration?
ROGER: There’s a speculative fiction writer called China Miéville and he just bends my mind every time I read his stuff.
JAMES: Honestly, I was the one who wanted Kevin Jackson to direct this play. That’s because I harboured this desire for him to work on one of my plays for years. That’s happening now, and it’s like a kid getting the Christmas present they’ve always wanted.
What’s next for you after this show?
JAMES: I’m always working on about five things at once, but I’m open to whatever comes my way next.
ROGER: I’ve never had the courage to start the Everest climb that is writing a novel, and I’ve been working on one for two years. It’s a speculative fiction novel about the perfect justice system, and what can go wrong in those circumstances. I think it’s time to start that trek again.
Mum, Me & the IED is on at the Depot Theatre in Marrickville from August 15th to September 1st. You can get your tickets at http://thedepottheatre.com/mum-me-the-ied