In The American Soldier, a 55-minute tour de force, enhanced by an ingenious interplay of sound and lights, Douglas Taurel (Mr. Robot, Nurse Jackie, The Americans) enters into the personas of 14 veterans and their family members, telling their story of courage and sacrifice. The American Soldier exposes their flaws, and their scars, with both darkness and humor.
An American Soldier is not simply a play, but a journey through the American story, moments that resound with lasting meaning for both audiences old enough to remember, and those young enough to yearn for inspiration.
Taurel brought his one-man show to Mile Square Theatre in Hoboken, NJ for performances September 9th-11th. New Jersey Stage spoke with the actor about the play.
Tell me about The American Soldier. How do you take the audience through the lives of 14 different soldiers? My show is based on actual letters and accounts that I have researched and collected from veterans and their family members. The stories and letters are collected as far back as the American Revolution all the way through our current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I tell the story with a through line and a message I am trying to communicate and not chronologically. I play soldiers ranging from Revolution, Civil War, World War I, WWII, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. A father in the wake of his soldier son’s suicide, a wife and son dealing with the father’s absence while he is away at war, and a grieving mother remembering her son and his story of how he died.
How did you come across the letters? I started creating this show about eight years ago. I would go to the NY Public Library and research books that contained letters from all of the different wars. You don’t realize how much research there is on war until you start doing the research. It’s like trying to count all the stars in space. Needless to say the research was intense and immense.
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As I workshopped the play and word spread about what I was trying to create, people started sending me veteran letters they knew about, books of only veteran letters, podcasts of veterans, websites that have letters from every war to even some personal letters of family members. It became so much that I had to start telling people please don’t send me any more letters, I am drowning in letters.
What additional research did you do to learn more about each era? I have always been a historian and a lover of history. I am a big reader so I would read books on war, veterans experiences from war and how wars have shaped our country. I would also watch documentaries and of course movies that were about a particular war.
Movies were great to watch because you could pick up little details that you never knew about a war or era; like it is considered bad luck to be the third soldier lighting his cigarette on a single match. This little known fact is in my play.
Does the play touch on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other modern issues of war? My play does touch on PTSD and it is the layer that everyone gravitates to, but I also touch on many aspects of war. I address subjects like “How does a son go on after losing his father?” and “How does a mother and father go on after losing a child?” However, PTSD is a key theme and the research came from a lot of different sources.
As I read about stories of veterans dealing with PTSD in the newspapers, I started looking for more stories to read and immerse myself in. I have watched countless documentaries and listened to podcasts of veterans dealing with PTSD. A particular website that was very influential in the creating of my show was Making the Connection. They have videos of actual veterans and their family members telling their stories of how they deal with PTSD. The stories were extremely moving and heartbreaking.
There were two stories that really touched me. The first was seeing a video of a veteran who had served 3 tours in Iraq and was dealing with severe PTSD. He wouldn’t play with his son anymore and his son was extremely sad. It broke my heart for what they had both lost. His son in the video said – “My dad’s home but he really isn’t and it sucks!”
The other story that touched me was a veteran coming home from Afghanistan and not being able to find work as his PTSD meant he could not drive anymore. In order to support his family, he would go to his neighbor’s houses asking if he could do odd jobs for them so he could make a living.
PTSD is a relatively new condition, but one that soldiers of every war have probably faced. PTSD didn’t get recognized until the 1980’s so yes, it is relatively new by that name. However, soldiers have been experiencing it since the days of the Greeks. It is clearly talked about in the Iliad Achilles. Shakespeare clearly makes a reference to it in Henry IV part 2 when Kate keeps talking to Hotspur about why won’t he sleep anymore.
During the Revolution, men were called cowards when they would not fight anymore or thought as crazy. In the Civil War they were said to have “soldiers heart.” In World War I, they used the term “shell shocked.”
The impact of men losing their brothers in combat is the same. They all have trouble talking about it, shame from admitting they have it, have marital problems, abuse alcohol and drugs and experience employment difficulties but the one common thing that they all have is nightmares.
Was this your first time working with Mile Square? Yes. I moved to Hoboken from Texas in 2000 and have been here ever since. Both of my children were born in St. Mary’s Hospital. My son actually has his footprint in the wing where he was born. We are very proud to call Hoboken our home and don’t plan to leave anytime soon.
What was it like performing the play on September 11th? Could you feel something different about the audience or atmosphere? For me it was very personal to be doing the show on September 11th. I was coming out of the first tower when the first plane hit. The atmosphere in the theater was more focused than usual. Like an intense quiet if that makes sense. You can hear things a bit clearer.It was very much different from any other performances. As Hobokeners, we all very well remember that date as we were so close to the towers. You could feel the audience remembering and reliving the horrific events of that date. After the show, the audience was more emotional and grateful than other shows and the standing ovation lasted longer than usual.
I will never forget 9/11 and there will never be a clear day when I am not reminded of the tragedy of 9/11. I remember being stuck at my gym on Whitehall Street, remembering seeing the towers come down on the TV screens and then seeing the incredible destruction of the buildings go right past the glass doors of the gym and completely gray out all the windows in seconds - as if a dark grey curtain had been drawn down. I remember being evacuated out by a fireman and the frantic look in his eyes and the way he told us to leave the building NOW! The ferry ride back to Jersey City and the hug from my wife (then girlfriend) when I came home.
You are working on taking The American Soldier across the country. Do you have any dates/locations set for the future? Yes, it will be going to upstate New York in November to a venue called Theatre On the Road, the Kennedy Center in January, and Williamsburg, VA in 2017 with the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. I am also working on turning the show into a web series.
Are you planning to continue with a 2-3 day run like this one? I tend to only do three days run because of the emotional demand of the show. At the end of each show, I am absolutely emotionally drained. I spend some time socializing after the show—we have a lot of veterans and their families come and they often express their gratitude—and then go home to decompress. It’s like running marathon and is such an emotional event. So I’ve learned that it’s very important to reserve some time for yourself after the show is done.
Does that allow you time to continue the play while doing other acting jobs? It does allow me to continue doing other acting jobs. However, when I do the show, I simply try to block out any other work and focus on the preparation and performing the show. The show demands a lot from me so I have to give it the time and attention that it needs in order for it to be successful.
You are about the same age as I am. Did you know people who were in the first Gulf War? Yes. Being from Texas, you knew of a lot of people who had family members who fought in Iraq or were in the military. While it was nothing as severe as what the men in combat experienced, I was very aware of the first Gulf war as my father was a Merchant Marine whose ship would deliver missiles to bases in Iraq.
My sister is a Sergeant in the army, I have two nieces who have done tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I have a nephew who just became a Marine.
I know you’ve acted all over, but what is it like bringing a new work to the Edinburgh Festival as you did with The American Soldier? As an American and a professional actor who works in Manhattan, Edinburgh has a theatrical excitement that is like no other. The festival takes over the whole city and there are hundreds and hundreds of shows to be inspired by.
The city truly becomes a massive theatrical festival and they absolutely love new shows. I was very honored with the reviews, awards and the overwhelming response I received from the audiences and UK veterans. I think it did well over there because they are dealing with the same problems we are, and perhaps worse. British society does not encourage people to talk about their problems. I had so many British veterans and family members thanking me for bringing the show and for being their voice. British audiences don’t give standing ovations like we do. You really have to earn it and I got two so I think that speaks to how they responded to the show.
Why is the story of soldiers so important to you? What makes you so passionate about this play? I believe that we all need to understand the incredible sacrifices our veterans and their families have made for us and our freedoms. As a father and a husband, there are questions I ponder such as: Could I move forward knowing that my son was lost because of a war? Would I be able to give my life for a brother in arms? How would I respond under horrific violence and could I recover?”
These questions I feel should be asked by everyone so that we can have a better understanding of our veterans and their families. I believe we have a duty to tell their stories and to hear their stories so that we can honor them and help them.
Do you think being the son of Hispanic parents and living in South America helped give you a better sense of what it is like to be American? Has your upbringing helped you to be the voice to those who are silent? Yes. Great question! I think it has helped me very much. It has taught me to feel empathy, to be grateful to be an American and to feel honored and proud that I am an American.
My father was an immigrant from Argentina who recently passed away. He was self made and self taught and every day he would tell me that this country was the greatest country in the world. He loved the United States. When I think about where I came from, being the son of immigrants and being able to get a college education at Ole Miss, to have worked with the incredibly talented and famous artists I have worked with and to be on TV, film and to grace some of New York’s most famous stages, I would say that only in America could all of this happen. Thank you Dad!
Finally, a little about yourself. Your bio says taking on huge challenges is in your DNA. You’ve been a boxer, ran marathons, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, and ran with the bulls in Spain. What have been some of your scariest experiences? So many scary ones, but all of them exhilarating. My first performance of this show, the first show I have written, in front of an audience was pretty scary. However, I guess the scariest was running with the bulls in Spain. You don’t realize how big and powerful those animals are until you are right next to them. They are so incredibly beautiful, powerful, athletic, and violent at the same time.
What was the most rewarding? Most rewarding? I would say the show. Never in a million years did I ever think this show would be as successful as it has been. To receive the positive responses from critics, to be nominated for an Amnesty International Award for theatrical excellence and to be asked to tour the show across the country has been thrilling. But the most rewarding has been receiving the personal messages and letters from veterans thanking me for my work. That has been unbelievable. I have been enriched 100 fold as a person and artist because of this show and will always be incredibly grateful for the lessons of courage I have learned from all of the veterans’ letters.
If you had the choice of a recurring role on a television show that would last for years or a starring role in a major play, which do you think you would prefer? They are both such different beasts, I would love playing a detective on an episodic drama. The idea of trying to help and bring justice sounds very appealing to me. Also, working in front of the camera is a very different skill set than theater. I compare it to math, as you have to think of angles and pictures. What look or angle will communicate the story the best. It’s acting with a laser compared to a knife when you are doing theatre.
However, the theater is something that is incomparable to anything else. You can feel the audience, you can hear the audience and they can feel you. It’s an extremely addictive drug to know that you are making 100 or 200 people cry or laugh. There is nothing like doing live theater and when they stand up to show their appreciation of your work as they have a lot with this show, it is the best drug in the world! If I had to choose based on feelings not economics, it would doing the show in a Broadway house.
For more on An AmericanSoldier visit: www.TheAmericanSoldierSoloShow.com
For more about Douglas Taurel visit www.DouglasTaurel.com