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University of Iowa News Release


Feb. 2, 2007

Gothard Directs Script By Iowan Who Was Abu Ghraib Interrogator, Feb. 15-18

The University Theatres Gallery series will present Joshua Casteel's "Returns," based on his own experiences as an Abu Ghraib interrogator, at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, Feb. 15-17, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 18, in Theatre B of the University of Iowa Theatre Building. The production is directed by David Gothard, associate director of the Abbey Theatre, Ireland's national theater.

A student in the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, Casteel is a 27-year old from Cedar Rapids with a Christian background who, as a young boy, had always dreamed of becoming a soldier. At the age of 17 he signed a contract to go into the Army Reserves and after 9/11 was called up for full active duty. Within a few months after his training as an Arabic linguist and interrogator, he was deployed to Baghdad and the Abu Ghraib prison.

The Aug. 26, 2006, issue of the British newspaper The Guardian told his story: "His turning point came when a 22-year-old Saudi who came to Iraq for jihad was brought before him for questioning."

Casteel has written of the incident, "The man was a self-professed jihadist, come from Saudi Arabia for the sole purpose of killing people like me. Yet the entire time we spoke, he talked to me with a gentle calmness and evangelical tone, whereby I genuinely believed he desired my good -- as I grappled with trying to desire his. He tried to convert me to Islam from start to finish, and coming from an Evangelical Christian background, I felt in familiar territory, as if I were speaking simply to my Muslim counterpart. Then, we began to discuss war and violence. I asked him why he came to kill, he asked me why did I. At that point I knew I could go no further, unless I wanted to get into a debate about which one of us had the 'more just' cause."

The Guardian article continues, "Two days later Casteel went to Qatar on leave. When he came back he told his commander that he would be applying for conscientious objector status. 'I said I wouldn't turn in my weapon while I was there or talk to the media but would carry on doing my job and when I got back home I would ask to leave the military.' He filed his application on Feb. 16 and was granted an honorable discharge on May 31."

Casteel was subsequently interviewed by Paula Zahn on CNN, his story has become the basis of numerous documents on the Internet, and he has become an outspoken opponent of the Iraq war.

While in Iraq, Casteel wrote emails to his friends about his experiences, and they served as the foundation for the play. The main character in "Returns" is James, a U.S. Army interrogator who has returned from the Iraq War uncertain of the landscape of his interior life. He is haunted by the image of a little boy at whom he pointed an M16, by the faces of men he interrogated at Abu Ghraib, and by the nonmilitary life and friends he remembers but cannot fully rejoin.

James is called "Priest" by his military buddies, but has for some time resented this nickname for the holiness it implies -- and which he wishes he still possessed. James suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and thus cannot see the degree to which he is a prisoner of his memory.

Casteel met Gothard several years ago through a mutual friendship with Naomi Wallace, a graduate of the Iowa Playwrights Workshop. Gothard became one of the friends to whom Casteel sent e-mails from Iraq.

Last summer Gothard invited Casteel to London to attend a fundraiser for Human Rights Watch, where the participants included Harold Pinter, President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic and actor Jeremy Irons. Casteel performed a segment of the play, and he was subsequently invited to perform it live on BBC "News Night."

When the piece was selected to be produced as a University Theatres Gallery production, Casteel invited Gothard to direct the play. UI Theatre Arts faculty member Art Borreca arranged a guest teaching position for Gothard in order to enable him to direct the play.

Gothard says, "Because of the time I have spent in the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, I feel I am on the edge of American Playwriting. I am directing the play because it's the real thing. It's a dangerous play. He is a Midwest boy in a situation to discuss whether youth have been misled in this war.

"Besides being about the most important thing going on in the world, it is a modern expression of someone who has a faith and has a real interest in other faiths. Anybody who has been through this is suffering in a normal way from post-traumatic stress."

As associate director of the Abbey Theatre, the National Theatre of Ireland, he will soon produce a new play by Sam Shepard, which Shepard will also direct.

Gothard has been one of the UK's most influential theater figures. He brought pioneering visual theatre to London in the 1980s when he was artistic director of Riverside Studios, producing a decade of shows, residencies and workshops whose influence is still felt.

Admission to "Returns" will be $6 ($4 for students) at the door.

The Department of Theatre Arts is part of the Division of Performing Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. You may visit the department's web site at

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STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Winston Barclay, 319-384-0073; cell: 310-430-1013;