Welcome to Bohemia: Soldiers’ Arts Academy and The Winter’s Tale
The people of Bohemia tell their behind the scenes story from our 2023 production
With the crash of the gong, summoning all, excitedly and hastily the people of Bohemia emerge from their homes and make their way in a ceremonial procession from all over the cottage, to gather where the great feast is hosted. It is the celebration most waited for in the year. The music, the lights, the fire, the food, the drinks, the spirits, families, beggars, animals, everyone! ‘Tis time!
Welcome to Bohemia
As the first half of The Winter’s Tale concludes in the ornate and intimate Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the audience are transported to an entirely different venue during the interval. That’s where we come in. We are a troop of performers playing the People of Bohemia in the second half, situated in the Globe Theatre.
As performers we’re from a range of different backgrounds but half have a connection to military service with others mentoring and supporting them. All are brought together by the Soldiers’ Arts Academy, or SAA.
‘The Soldiers’ Arts Academy is a Community Interest Company that provides opportunities for serving and veteran military personnel – and their families – to engage with the arts.’
The Soldiers’ Arts Academy is a Community Interest Company that provides opportunities for serving and veteran military personnel – and their families – to engage with the arts. The aim is to create a long-term arts community which helps to facilitate growth in confidence, self-esteem and to teach new skills, and then through engagement and mentorship to provide routes into work in the arts and beyond. Whether as a form of therapy for past traumas, developing skills and experience for a career in the arts or outside, or providing vital credits to enter the industry, SAA integrate the arts in their members’ lives in a highly skilled manner.
When military personnel join the services, they undergo a prolonged period of training where they are taught to follow instructions, many of them very difficult and demanding. In some cases, this may mean that they have to disconnect with their emotions in order to carry out these exacting tasks. By engaging with the experiences of the characters they play in a theatrical production they are able to explore emotion and feeling in a new way which can help them to reconnect with themselves. In doing so some even argue this process can help to reverse the recruitment process as they transition back into society.
‘My heart is full!’
Philip J Milo recalls his words to his partner Julie Geiser as they entered the Globe Theatre for the first time during rehearsals in January 2023: ‘fifty-five years ago I was in a war. Today, my heart is full! The joy is overwhelming.’
Phil, one of SAA’s international members, is a US Army veteran who served in Vietnam. Phil and Julie are both actors (as well as many other things) and are extremely active within the arts community where they live in New York City, having performed in, and organised, Shakespeare in the Park and many other productions. They became involved with Soldiers’ Arts Academy during the pandemic when SAA was providing acting classes via zoom, extending their reach beyond their country of origin at a time when outlets for people to express themselves were greatly needed.
London-based actress, and partner of British Army veteran, Daisy Boyden, recalls finding out about the project: ‘…I first heard about The Winter’s Tale at the Globe through Amanda Faber, the CEO of SAA in December 2022, who invited me to come along to a workshop. The workshop was absolutely brilliant – we did some movement, some singing and then we all had one minute to present something to the rest of the group (a joke, a monologue, a song etc). I remember leaving that room thinking how much I’d love to be involved.’
Our first rehearsal was on 6 January 2023 – the first time we all met each other and the Globe team. I think we were all very aware we’d be meeting some of the best actors, musicians, directors, and stage crew in the business, and here we were, a makeshift team of fledgling performers wondering how we’d been so lucky as to have the SAA and the Globe put their faith in us. When encountering an organisation as prestigious and renowned as the Globe, you’d be forgiven for the presumption that they’d be extremely direct and proscriptive with their instructions, but the opposite was true. We were all blown away by not only the talent and experience of the Globe’s team, but far more so by their genuine warmth, and their way of treating us as equally valid performers. They wanted the creation of the People of Bohemia to be a product of collaboration with us, so that we have room for self-expression through the making of our tribe. There was no ‘us and them’, just one big group of people putting together the best show we could.
It was great meeting the other ‘Bohemians’ as well. There were some British military veterans with varying levels of experience performing, including Colin, an ordained Chelsea Pensioner who served with the Scots Guards and continues to be their Padre; Max, an ex-Green Jacket turned actor and musician; and Ian, who after leaving the army became a stuntman and is now developing his acting career. SAA is an international arts organisation, and we were joined by veterans from overseas: Phil and Julie from the USA, Andrea – who served over 25 years in the Canadian Armed Forces – and Chen – who moved to London to be an actor after serving her two years national service in Israel. We also have a number of professional actors in the group who have close family connections to the armed forces, including Daisy Boyden – whose partner served with the British Army in the REME – and Meg Blowey – who freelances in Pirbright and Gibraltar Barracks and has many family members in the military.
‘There was no ‘us and them’, just one big group of people putting together the best show we could.’
After introductions, we spent time exploring movement and the sound of our voices, and then we were invited to create and teach each other our own dance routine. We were led mostly by Movement Director Tamsin Hurtado-Clarke who was amazing at getting us to let go of our inhibitions, connect with ourselves and each other, and bring something new into this world together.
‘See, your guests approach…’
The choreography was memorised, the costume department had everyone dressed in animal skins and masks designed by Grace Smart, and it was now 9 February, the night of our first preview, and our first time in front of a live audience. Nerves were high, but we all had trust in ourselves and each other. There were two small lines from an unnamed character in the script that the people of Bohemia, us, were given the opportunity to take turns delivering. To help us with this we had coaching from Assistant Director Roberta Zuric, and Head of Voice Tess Dignan, who were extremely generous with their time and energy getting us to dig deep and deliver these lines like seasoned Shakespearian actors – a learning experience cherished by all of us.
‘Collaborating with Soldiers’ Arts Academy and Shakespeare’s Globe on this performance of The Winter’s Tale has been a truly unique and enriching experience.’
Andrea Greening was first up and delivered her lines so well that the other performers on later shows found it difficult to project these lines without mimicking her Canadian accent. Thinking on her time as a participant Andrea says, ‘collaborating with Soldiers’ Arts Academy and Shakespeare’s Globe on this performance of The Winter’s Tale has been a truly unique and enriching experience. I am grateful for the opportunity to work with other theatre professionals and immerse myself in the language and style of one of the greatest playwrights in history. For me, this project has been a celebration of my passion for the arts, the military, and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s First Folio! I’m excited to bring my experience back home to Calgary, Alberta and to continue to create meaningful and impactful performances that explore the intersection between the arts and the military, and to share my love of Shakespeare with audiences young and old. Through my work, I hope to inspire others to pursue their own passions and to bridge the gap between seemingly disparate worlds, fostering greater understanding and appreciation for the diverse experiences and perspectives that make up our society.’
The previews continued with small tweaks expertly made here and there by the creative team to make the show run smoother and giving greater impact to each dramatic moment, and all too soon it was 22 February: Press Night.
Jen recalls of opening night: ‘We had the most amazing high energy performance. By this time our team also enjoyed the return of Harry Lay, a veteran turned actor who’d just finished touring with stage play Little Manfred – an adaptation of the novel by Michael Morpurgo, author of War Horse. After the press night, it was such a thrill reading the reviews that came out – they were hugely positive, and some writers even mentioned SAA performers by name.’
It had been amazing having Phil J Milo and Julie Geisler as part of the team, but New York was calling, and on 26 February they performed their last show. As Phil recalls ‘when we had to leave, all the SAA participants and the principal actors were emotional as were Julie and I with a fond farewell.’ For Julie Geisler, there were ‘so many memorable moments! One I can highlight is the first night in which I had lines. Even though it was only a few sentences, and I knew I had thoroughly memorized the lines, I was SOOOO nervous! I recall in the festival scene, as soon as we landed on our spots, I was so nervous my legs were quivering. I wrestled with my nerves in my head – encouraging myself that I had this, I could deliver my lines successfully. It wasn’t working, so I pulled myself out of my head and back into the scene… and looked around at the SAA team and full cast. I felt the energy and support of my castmates. This grounded me; I was still nervous, but knew I wasn’t alone, and my team would be there for me if needed. It was a brief but significant moment for me and speaks to the essence of theatre – live and unpredictable, but the ultimate ‘teamwork’ on stage!’
‘Fortune speed us!’
For all of us, it’s been an incredible journey that we’re thrilled to still be travelling on. Jen says, ‘whenever I tell people about my participation in The Winter’s Tale, I never neglect to say that this is a dream come true. Not ever have I thought that thanks to my military service I would come across an opportunity to fulfil my acting career, and what an opportunity – a diamond opportunity. And here I am, on the stage of Shakespeare’s Globe. The creative team and the company’s actors of the Globe are very professional. Watching them rehearse, and working with them is an amazing experience. I do wish to participate in many more similar projects, and hopefully, I will be remembered for the good, as a professional and keen actress.’
Veteran Dave Williams, who was medically discharged from the forces in 2018 and also acted as Fire Consultant and Performer for the show says, ‘it’s an absolute honour and privilege to be invited to do what I love in an amazing and culturally significant place like this… as part of such an awesome project as well. Everyone’s been incredible to work with and the team here has been so accommodating, making sure I’m able to deliver what I do safely and really adding to the show… what a brilliant way to be able to express myself and share my passion with the world.’
Shakespeare’s Globe, being a world leader in inclusivity and diversity in the performance industry, has welcomed Soldiers’ Arts Academy for two other amazing collaborations in the past: a moving production written by the veterans and family members of SAA themselves to mark 100 years since the end of the First World War, and a fun and heart-warming production of The Merry Wives of Windsor (2019). Along with The Winter’s Tale, all the collaborations between Shakespeare’s Globe and Soldiers’ Arts Academy have been hugely enriching for those taking part, allowing veterans and service personnel and their families to experience a role in professional productions, which have been invaluable to their personal development and for the actors, crew and staff members working at the Globe to learn more about who veterans are and their place in the arts community.
‘Although they may seem like an unlikely combination, acting and military careers have many crossovers.’
Although they may seem like an unlikely combination, acting and military careers have many crossovers. They both require discipline, resilience, and an ability to totally trust others you are working with, and participants have to be adaptable and courageous.
Soldiers’ Arts Academy are hugely grateful and proud of the wonderful relationship we have with the Globe. Seeing members flourish and enjoy the process is so powerful.
If anyone would like to support Soldiers’ Arts Academy or get involved, please don’t hesitate to look up the website and get in touch.
Written by Soldiers’ Arts Academy participants, Jen Aviv and Dave Williams.
The Winter’s Tale plays across our Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and Globe Theatre until 16 April 2023 as part of our Winter 2022/23 season.