By Nigel Fair, Founder of Hats Off for Bootsie.
I bumped into a company of combat veteran actors unexpectedly, coffee in one hand, newspaper in the other, as I hung around for my daughter’s physio appointment to end. My mind was full of a TV series I was writing and I had hoped the waiting room would be a treasure chest full of human interest, ready to be plundered. It was completely empty, apart from me looking at some rather dull wall art. Oh well: the freebie coffee was pleasant enough and The Independent promised a balanced take on the news, so I settled into my chair and tried to become engrossed in domestic and foreign affairs.
Eventually, page twenty-four came to the rescue with an article about “The Maltese Pavarotti”. The legendary Italian tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, had a masterly vocal technique which had been a great example to me when I was establishing an operatic career at home and abroad. Why Maltese, though, and what had great singing got to do with the paper’s Homeless Veterans Appeal?
Nick Clark’s article told a story with a surprising cast which saw misery transformed into hope. An ex-soldier called Androcles had developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which wrecked his life. (He acquired the Maltese Pavarotti nickname entertaining troops.) He went to Combat Stress in Leatherhead for specialist help and there joined a short-term drama rehabilitation project. So effective was the project that its Director, Jaclyn McLoughlin, managed to find funding and a permanent home for it at Stoll, in West London, and named it The Combat Veterans Players (CVP).
That was over five years ago. The CVP thrived, won awards and performed Shakespeare at the Globe. Ex-servicemen and women, half of whom had been homeless and all of whom had experienced mental trauma, were now comrades in considerable achievement. And Androcles, the beardy man in the photo, was having the time of his life.
CVP had to be worth a call. Despite being an unlikely combo of ex-military and thespian, they were actors and I had a script which was up their street. “Hello, I wrote a play a year or two ago called The Terminus. It’s about a homeless war veteran with PTSD and wondered if it might be of any use to you.” The lady at Stoll gave me a charming, helpful response, which I interpreted as a polite no thank-you. Yet after a couple of emails in as many days, Jaclyn had read the play and I was fast-tracked to meet her in a coffee shop near South Kensington tube station. She was on her way back to the States.
Travelling into Paddington I thought, even for a city as extraordinary as London, this felt odd: not bad so much as strange. Somewhere with me on the train was a brooding colossus from my childhood, an old vagrant known as Bootsie, who had inspired the play and was probably the reason I first became interested in theatre. Without his permission, I had opened up a door onto his private life and invited in a stranger. Perhaps that wasn’t the right thing to do.
I knew from our email exchange Jackie was measured and professional as well as encouraging. She had also been very complimentary about my writing. During our meeting, it became obvious she cared passionately about the well-being and development of her actors. They were sort of Bootsie’s successors, which reassured me he wouldn’t kick off. Jackie had invested a great deal in her Combat Veteran Players without financial gain as a priority. Indeed, what she had achieved and the way she had done it were truly inspiring; you had to be impressed. She also insisted on buying the coffees.
As I listened to the context in which CVP had developed, I learned of the difficulties faced by many ex-service personnel and the nature of the challenge within our communities. What particularly struck me was how mental trauma can be successfully overcome, but the overcomers need to be more positively received than they often are. “Something should be done to tilt public perception.” I actually volunteered that without any inkling I would soon be up to my neck in trying to make it happen.
Jackie said she recognized a great deal of truth and authenticity in the play’s central character, Boney, and appreciated the way in which his mental trauma had not been sensationalized, over-dramatized, or stereotyped. She also agreed there was a need to tilt public perception. I allowed myself a fleeting sense of achievement. After all, a big part of the creative process is a relentless desire to improve upon the way one sees things and then represents them. Instead of forging ahead, though, I turned an unexpected corner. It became clear over the next few days I needed to formulate a practical response to the bigger picture of ex-service mental trauma and homelessness overcomers I had just discovered.
The practical response was to found Hats Off for Bootsie (HOfB). Its flagship event will be the first performances of The Terminus. We’ve already had a read through with the CVP actors who gave the play their silent approval as well as a big thumbs up. It seems their experiences resonate with the characters in the play and many of the issues it grapples with. They also laughed in some of the right places!
HOfB has a fantastic collection of trustees, friends and enablers, all working for the cause. Our newly formed charity has a strap line – championing mental trauma overcomers. Obviously that’s our goal, and in many ways has been CVP’s goal too. It’s also the concern of many generous-hearted souls with whom I am having the privilege of talking to and meeting. Certainly, we will need all the help we can get to deliver alongside the play various publicity ventures to help tilt public perception.
One question persists, though. It nags away at me. Is there such a thing as a free coffee?
The CVP’s founder, Jaclyn McLoughlin, has since moved to the USA where she founded CVP US. Her UK producer, Amanda Faber, then set up The Soldiers’ Arts Academy (SAA) which most of the CVP UK actors joined. SAA are HOfB’s new partners.