Art Works Blog

Theater of War: The Q&A

Washington, DC

Theater of War director Bryan Doerries (far right) leads an audience discussion after performances of Ajax and Philoctetes at New York City's St. Vincent?s Hospital. The audience included military veterans, and medical staff that treat wounded warriors. (Cast members included David Straithairn, Gloria Reuben, and Jeffrey Wright.) Photo by Paxton Winters

In part two of our feature on the Theater of War theater company, we have a few questions for director (and translator) Bryan Doerries.

NEA: Where did the idea for Theater of War come from?

BRYAN DOERRIES: Theater of War (ToW) was born from a wild hunch that ancient Greek plays, written by a general officer named Sophocles to be performed for 17,000 citizen-soldiers during a century that saw 80 years of war, would have something important and relevant to say to military audiences today. Or perhaps more to the point, that military audiences today would have something important and relevant to say about these ancient plays nearly 2,500 years after they were first produced.

For centuries, Sophocles' Ajax and Philoctetes have been referred to by academics as "problem plays," but military audiences today have no problem relating to these stories. I think this is because people who live lives of mythological proportions, where the stakes are often life and death, can experientially understand the stakes of ancient myths. These are intense stories for people who live intense lives. They do not belong in the ivory tower; they belong to people who understand the meaning of service and sacrifice.

To this day, I have never heard more insightful things said about ancient Greek drama than by the residents of the Borden Avenue Veterans Residence in Long Island City, a transitional shelter for homeless veterans, mostly from the Vietnam Era. When we finished presenting the plays in the back of their harshly-lit cafeteria, I asked the nearly 100 men and women who had attended our performance if the plays had resonated with them. Nearly 100 hands shot up. An African American gentleman in the back of the room shouted out, "Hey Bryan, you got a year? I got 10 volumes back in my cubicle."

Last year, after one of our performances in New York City at the Juilliard School of Drama, a veteran walked up to me and said, "Knowing PTSD goes back to B.C. gives me the feeling that I?m not totally alone.? I guess that's our message: if you have served or cared for someone who has served, you are not alone in this room, you are not alone across the country, and---most importantly---you are not alone across time. Suffering in silence is not a sign of strength. It is a courageous act to seek help and to make meaning out of your experiences by telling your story.

NEA: How did the collaboration with the Department of Defense (DoD) come about?

DOERRIES: The first branch of the military to open its doors to the project was the U.S. Marine Corps. In the summer of 2008, at a conference on Combat Stress in San Diego, we were given our first opportunity to perform for a military audience--nearly 400 Marines, spouses, chaplains, and mental health professionals. It was an evening event, after hours. Most people came in their civilian clothes, expecting to see [the movie] 300 staged, at least that's what I was told afterward by audience members . . . We were performing in a cavernous Hyatt Regency ballroom with poor acoustics and wall-to-wall carpeting. There was a bar and a buffet dinner in the back, and Marines filed in with their spouses carrying trays of hotel food to long conference tables that were set up, row after row, in the ballroom. It was ancient Greek tragedy as dinner theater for Marines. 

[W]e had no idea what to expect, so we scheduled a 45-minute post-show discussion. The discussion ended up lasting more than three hours and ultimately had to be cut off late into the evening. The gloves came off, and people spoke honestly, from their hearts and their guts, about what they had experienced, at war and at home. They spoke of the stigma associated with psychological injury, of what it meant to be a leader with regard to these signature injuries of the current conflicts, and of the collateral damage of war brought upon spouses and children.

It was then that I realized that Sophocles' plays were just a warm-up act for the real performance---the town hall meeting in which military audiences were disinhibited by seeing their own experiences reflected in an ancient narrative and by the felt experience of real emotions in the presence of great actors. I remember looking out into the audience that night and seeing nearly 50 people lined up to speak at the microphone, who quoted lines from the plays from memory and related them to their own struggles today.

The story of our first performance quickly shot through the services by word of mouth, and soon we were invited to perform at a conference in Arlington hosted by a visionary female general, Brigadier General Loree Sutton, the highest ranking psychiatrist in the Army and the first female psychiatrist to become a general. BG Sutton was the newly appointed director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, a medical division within the DoD focusing on the unseen wounds of war. When we performed at her conference, she immediately saw the potential power of ToW and its usefulness as an innovative public health campaign. She funded a series of pilot performances, in which we took ToW to Army posts, service academies, and conferences, test-driving and refining the concept as a precursor to a large-scale tour. With each performance, the project continued to gain momentum and support, and soon, what seemed at first to be a novelty act, began to take shape as an unprecedented collaboration between theater artists and the Department of Defense. Based on the success of these pilot performances, in September of 2009, we were awarded a contract to deliver 100 performances of ToW at military sites throughout the United States.

NEA: How do the readings---using nothing more than actors, scripts, and a table---connect with and impact vets and their families differently than realistic war movies like Saving Private Ryan?

DOERRIES: As mentioned before, I think that most people come to our events expecting to see 300 staged. They?re sorely disappointed to see four actors sitting at a table, reading from scripts. But then they?re broadsided by the emotional power of [those] actors delivering a story passionately and sincerely. This is where the real magic takes place. It's good that our audiences have low expectations. I prefer it that way, because then they stand a chance at having a transformational experience.

Recently, a Command Master Sergeant at Camp Pendleton told me that his Marines preferred theater to film and television. When I asked him why this was, he said: "Because theater is pure."

A sniper who recently sat on one of our panels in Washington D.C., said that the violence depicted in Ajax was more realistic than any film he had ever seen. When I asked him why, he replied, "Because the violence of war is swift and decisive. The violence in Ajax is swift and decisive."

As a culture, we have lost touch with the power of storytelling, of sitting around a campfire and sharing narratives. Theater of War gets back to basics. The human imagination and memory will always trump special effects, no matter how realistic.

NEA: Do you plan to expand the program?

DOERRIES: Based on what we've heard from our audiences, my producing partner---Phyllis Kaufman---and I have developed two additional ToW programs, which are currently in rotation as we tour military sites throughout the US and abroad.

The Theater of War Spouse & Family program features scenes from an extended version of Sophocles' Ajax to promote dialogue about the impact of deployment and reintegration on the families of service members. The text includes rich, resonant passages that address the psychological challenges that family members experience, as well as their resilience and reintegration into civilian society in the face of adversity. The Theater of War Female Warrior Program features scenes from . . . Ajax to promote dialogue about the aspects of deployment and reintegration that uniquely impact female service members. As we continue to hear from our audiences, we'll continue to shape the project to meet their needs. 

Also, under a generous grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, and in partnership with the USO, we are embarking on an ambitious effort to train five regional theaters and universities throughout the US to replicate ToW for mixed civilian-military audiences.

We firmly believe that in order for true healing to begin, civilians must participate in the dialogue inspired by the ToW. In order for there to be a culture shift with regard to psychological injury, in order to destroy the stigma, we must bridge the ever-widening gap between civilian and military cultures within this country.

You can read part one of the Theater of War feature here.

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