Saturday October 25, 2014

St. John's-raised marine Cassidy Little stars in 'Two Worlds of Charlie F'

Cassidy Little (centre) is pictured in a scene of "The Two Worlds of Charlie F." in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Mirvish, Helen Murray

TORONTO - St. John's-raised marine Cassidy Little has only foggy memories of the deadly explosion that blew off the lower half off his right leg while he was on duty in Afghanistan.

"It's taken me two years to piece (the memories) back together," said Little, whose story inspired the title character in the play "The Two Worlds of Charlie F," which makes its North American premiere this week at Mirvish Productions' Princess of Wales Theatre.

The incident happened about three years ago in Helmand Province when Little was 29 and on patrol with the British Royal Marines.

"Something felt wrong, so the metal detectors came out, we had a look," Little, who is also a comedian and actor, recalled in an interview.

The detectors, however, weren't able to find a low-metal-content improvised explosive device that was nearby.

"My friend stepped on it and he died and my friend next to him, he died and the interpreter died," said Little, who initially signed up for military duty on a bet to get in shape.

"I ended up with a brain injury as well, a mild traumatic one which luckily I have no symptoms of anymore."

Little described the shock as that of falling off a bike as a kid and feeling "grit in your hands and ... stones under your skin."

"It's kind of pulsing and burning and it comes on slowly. That's really all I remember. There was dust in my mouth, I couldn't move."

The resident of Market Deeping, England said he had a couple of fractures in his pelvis and couldn't even scream at first. Some Marines rushed over to help as he "tried to bark orders at them to try and square away the other guys, to try and save their lives."

He woke up after a two-week induced coma in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham in England, a recovery centre for injured soldiers.

It was weeks later, while at the Headley Court rehabilitation centre in Surrey, England, that Little heard of the opportunity for "The Two Worlds of Charlie F."

Producer Alice Driver said she initially created the show as a theatre recovery project after meeting wounded military personnel at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

That led to workshops and interviews with the injured, whose experiences eventually inspired the play written by Owen Sheers and directed by Stephen Rayne.

Little said he signed on because he needed a distraction and because he was assured the show would focus on the experiences of military personnel rather than politics.

"At the end of the day, if you don't support a war, then have words with your politician. If you don't support the soldiers, you need to have words with yourself. This is about the guys."

The project brought together 30 medically discharged wounded service personnel from across the U.K.

It was initially intended to run for just two performances at a charity fundraiser at London's Theatre Royal Haymarket in January 2012.

But it went on to a critically acclaimed run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as well as a U.K. tour and an Amnesty International Award for Freedom of Expression. Now, it's on an extensive tour that kicks off in Toronto.

Little, who still goes through rehab for his injuries, said the first time he performed it he "had so much pharmaceutical power" in him he's surprised he remembered his lines.

He didn't get emotional in the starring role until his dad, who lives in Meaford, Ont., surprised him by showing up in the audience at the Edinburgh festival.

"I'm out delivering another monologue and I spot my father four rows back kind of in the centre and he's weeping like a little girl," he said. "After that I had to go offstage and I had a little cry to myself, actually."

He added with a laugh: "He's going to kill me for saying in front of a microphone that he was crying. He's going to drop-kick me."

Little's sense of humour peppers his conversations ("Chicks dig war scars," he quipped) and is also present in the show, which contains comical anecdotes.

"Come on, you can't be a soldier if it's all about drama," he said. "I mean, you need to laugh. That's one of the disclaimers I would give is that soldiers laugh at stuff that you guys as civilians just don't find funny.

"There's lots of laughing ... there's a fair amount of crying, some singing. There's even a wheelchair dance in there. ... It's a hell of an adventure."

Little said the show has given him as well as the rest of the cast and audiences "the opportunity to open those lines of communication" and soothe the trauma.

"A lack of communication breeds dysfunction, in my opinion. That doesn't necessarily have to be communication with other people, but even communication with yourself not being honest with yourself, not being true to yourself.

"So when a traumatic event occurs in somebody's life, irrespective of what that traumatic event is and I'm talking when it happens to firemen, when it happens to parents, when it happens to people who are in car accidents, or nurses who see something their mind can't process your instinct is to be ashamed and your instinct is to hide that and cut communication off with that subject."

"So now it's no longer dysfunctional to me, and that's what the play has given me," he added.

"It's taken away the dysfunction. It's allowed me to be comfortable with what's happened and who I am."

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