Cassidy Little always wanted to be a performer, but then a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to the stage.
The Newfoundland native went from studying dance in St. Louis to a failed stint as a comedian in England, after which he became a British Royal Marine commando. He served in Afghanistan where, in 2011, he lost his leg in an IED explosion that took the lives of two fellow Marines.
For the past two years, however, the 32-year-old has played the title role in The Two Worlds of Charlie F., a 2012 British production about – and performed by – medically discharged military personnel that is making its North American premiere this week in Toronto.
In early 2012, after workshops with more than 30 former soldiers along with Welsh playwright Owen Sheers and director Stephen Rayne, The Two Worlds of Charlie F. was unveiled at a pair of fundraising performances. The reaction was strong and the show earned a spot at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it won the Amnesty International Award for Freedom of Expression.
"This isn't a freak show," says Little. "This isn't 'Let's clap for them because they got hurt doing war-y, war-y stuff.' The audience is coming away a little more informed about what a soldier goes through." We spoke to Little from London, where the 16-member cast rehearsed.
All of the actors in The Two Worlds of Charlie F. are wounded or sick former soldiers. But how fictional is the play?
Playwright Owen Sheers listened to all of our stories, which involved the details of our injuries, our service and our aspirations before and after we were injured. He took all the stories and jumbled them up. What you are seeing is 95-per-cent truth.
Are the words coming out of your character's mouth actually your own?
The play opens with a high-octane scene, where Charlie F. wakes up in a hospital bed. Because his last memory is being on the ground in Afghanistan, his natural assumption is that he's been captured by the Taliban. He fights to save himself and to break free, but his injuries prevent him from escaping. That scene is almost word-for-word exactly what happened when I woke up after losing my right leg.
Do you think it is important to the audience that the actors are the actual soldiers who endured the trauma?
The show has no political agenda. It's about soldiers, before, during and after the injury, and it's told by people who lived through the experience. But more importantly, it's about that trauma. The audience is relating to us because everybody in the planet has gone through trauma of some sort.
So, when given the opportunity to see people who have muscled their way through the recovery process, both physically and psychologically, you're inspired.
You say there's no political agenda. So, we're not talking about whether soldiers should be fighting this foreign war or that foreign war. How does it make a soldier feel, though, when there are fellow countrymen who are oblivious to your service?
Soldiers do what they do because of the rest of the population can't or don't want to. You go for the person next to you. You go to get the job done. If someone doesn't support the war, they need to have a talk with their politician. But if someone doesn't support their soldier, then they really need to have a word with themselves. It's as simple as that.
Your family has a military background, but being a soldier wasn't the original plan for you, right?
My father is a retired brigadier-general from the Royal Canadian Air Force. My grandfather came up on the beach at Normandy. So, I have that line, but I stopped all that by going to school in the United States with the hopes of becoming a ballet dancer.
And then you tried your hand at comedy.
I have always been an attention seeker. I saw George Carlin and thought that with some effort and some time, I could be as good as he was. I quit my job, flew to England and worked in a warehouse and did stand-up comedy around the United Kingdom. Turns out I'm not really a funny person.
And you then joined the British Royal Marine Commandos on a bet?
I was sitting in a bar with my girlfriend at the time, and my step-sister. We made a series of bets, one of them involving me getting in shape. I thought joining the army would necessitate me getting fit, and I was told the hardest unit to join would be the Royal Marine Commandos.
I signed up, expecting they would never take me. They did, and then I started to get a little taste for it. … I ended up completing the basic training in the top 5 per cent of my class. Three months later I was on my first tour of Afghanistan.
Now that you're missing part of your leg, do you have any regrets?
Never. I don't have the time. Regrets, I believe, are a symptom of victims.
We've talked a bit about what the audience gets out of this play, but what do you and your fellow soldier-actors get out of it?
This show gave me back me. You have to understand that when a person goes through this kind of trauma, they have a lot taken from them. Future goals, aspirations, confidence and much more. Your ego is slashed right down to its bare bones. Your employment endeavours are taken, your physical appearance is altered, and with a brain injury, even the way you think and react changes. Throw in some very high-powered drugs and you have a perfect combination for confusion and hopeless recovery. So, we needed something to allow us to subconsciously repair that. This show was it.
The Two Worlds of Charlie F runs Feb. 25 to March 9 at the Princess of Wales Theatre. Tickets at mirvish.com or 1-800-461-3333.
This interview has been condensed and edited.