Empathizing with the American Soldier – A Conversation with Douglas Taurel
Douglas Taurel has never served in the military but he possesses deep empathy for the soldier and the families of the soldiers. It is not an inactive empathy. Though a successful actor in his own right (he got into acting because he wanted to impress a girl!), seven years ago he felt compelled to begin working on a project which eventually turned into The American Soldier, a one-man play which he has been performing at theaters and festivals over the past year. Residents of the tri-state area who were unable to see the play previously will have another opportunity to see it at Mile Square Theater in Hoboken from September 9 -11.
I reviewed the play last year at 59E59 Theaters when it debuted (click here for the review) and had the opportunity last week to talk with Taurel about the play as he gets ready for the Hoboken run.
There were a few catalysts that drove Taurel create The American Soldier. First, he has always been fascinated with American history and has always spent time trying to understand history through characters. Second, as an avid reader, he read stories of veterans with PTSD and he was very troubled by them. And finally, as a husband and a father and an actor, he could really empathize with the pain of losing a child or a spouse. At a certain point, he wanted to do something. He wanted to give back. The American Soldier is the result of all that active empathy and intellect. “What I really wanted to do was to give a sincere thank-you to our soldiers and to their families,” said Taurel.
In The American Soldier, Taurel wanted to represent the war from all perspectives and the play provides a kaleidoscope of experiences. Soldiers are obviously represented, but there are also mothers, fathers, children, and siblings of soldiers. Not surprisingly, PTSD is a theme that comes up and seems to have resonated the most with audience members, but that is only one layer of the experience that Taurel was trying to convey. “I find it heartbreaking and moving to know that a son is not going to play with his father again,” said Taurel. “Or how a wife can get into bed without her husband for the rest of her life.”
These are experiences that can resonate with everyone, but it is the power of Taurel’s writing and acting that allows everyone to access those traumatic and heartbreaking experiences. It is because of this that the play has had a much longer life than he anticipated, something that is especially gratifying to Taurel. “It’s like the show that won’t die,” he told me. After an initial run at 59E59 Theaters, he took it to the Edinburgh Fringe where it won a 4-star rating and was nominated for the UK Amnesty International Award for Theatre excellence. The show started to sell out and people urged him to continue to take the show elsewhere. So from Edinburgh to Houston, and then later to the Midtown International Theater Festival in New York. Now it is Mile Square Theater in Hoboken, and he is also scheduled to reprise it in November in upstate New York in performances solely for veterans. To cap things off, he is also in discussions with the Kennedy Center to perform it there early next year.
Of course Taurel is pleased with the success of the show, but he is more pleased with how the show has been able to reach people and open up conversations that were closed down beforehand. He shared with me the letter of one veteran whose wife had never understood the military and held harsh views on it and the soldiers who joined. After seeing the show though, she apologized to her husband for their previous fights about the military, started to express an interest in his military experience, and then told him that she was proud of him. This is just one of many individual testimonials that Taurel has received.
Taurel called the show The American Soldier because it was based on actual letters by and to American soldiers. (He would build characters based on actual people, but fictionalize the stories since he didn’t have licensing rights.) But he believes that the themes and experiences he explores are universal to soldiers, regardless of country. He experienced this directly when he brought the play to Edinburgh. He admits that he was a little worried about bringing this play, blatantly titled The American Soldier to another country. He worried, rightly, that it would smack of American arrogance. Instead he found that the play was able to transcend the American boundary, and give cause for the stiff British upper lip to quaver a little. In England, he told me, no one was talking about these issues. Once the play started to sell out in Edinburgh, he would start to see mothers of U.K. veterans in the audience. And after the play, they would come up to him and thank him for doing the play and bringing these issues to light. Taurel believes that he would receive this reaction in any country.
If the soldier’s experience is universal across nations, it is also universal across time. Taurel was amazed once he started doing his research how he would find almost the same phrases and descriptions in letters from the 1700s to letters of today. The biggest pattern he found across all wars was the inability to sleep after killing innocent people. But this was just one of many, the others including loss and anger and post-traumatic stress.
And that is the power of the play. The ability to take military experiences across time and wars and countries and weave them together—through characters—in a way that resonates with both soldiers and non-soldiers, and more importantly, allows people to grieve or understand or simply be a little more at peace and able to move on with life.
If the shows moves on to the Kennedy Center next year, Taurel feels that would be a fitting way to end the great run. But when I asked him what is next, he almost sighed and said, “Oh, there are so many…” The two that are most important to him outside of the military are race and immigration. If Taurel is able to take on those issues as well as he has the military one, then I will eagerly be on the look out for those. For now though, he is busy enough with the final productions of The American Soldier as well as his regular acting work to even think about the next big project. However, I can’t help but think that Taurel, with as much active empathy as he has, will be back at some point to tackle another big issue. And that one will be worth waiting for. In the meantime, there are still another few productions of The American Soldier to savor before we see his next big project.
“The American Soldier” will be playing at the Mile Square Theater in Hoboken from September 9-11. For more information, visit: www.milesquaretheatre.org.