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'Theater of War' author Bryan Doerries explains how to make Greek tragedies relevant to vulnerable audiences

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Richard Termine

Most people probably remember Greek tragedies as stuffy inaccessible high school assignments about how we’re all doomed, and theater as pretentious condescending. Yet, for the last few years, theater director Bryan Doerries has been offering a radically different take on theater and tragedy. His Theater of War project brings excerpts of specific plays to vulnerable or overlooked populations to help them deal with traumatic experiences.

Doerries and his team of renowned actors (which at various times has included such celebrated performers as Paul Giamatti, Adam Driver, and Jesse Eisenberg, among others) have performed Sophocles’ Ajax for Marines dealing with PTSD, Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound for corrections officers, and Sophocles’ Women of Trachis for hospice nurses, among many others. As Doerries recounts in his new book, The Theater of War, these performances have helped audiences come to grip with their various traumas.

EW caught up with Doerries, a few days after a book launch event for The Theater of War at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, to talk about keeping Greek plays relevant to modern audiences, the healing power of literature, and the future of audience-oriented storytelling, among other subjects.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did the book came about?

BRYAN DOERRIES: One of the reasons I wrote the book is because there’s a natural limit to the number of people who can attend a theatrical performance. There are messages within these plays that I think could reach a much wider audience through various media. This book is one of them.

Your interest is in how this art affects people?

The main interpretive argument of the book is that the plays don’t mean something, they do something. When looking at a poem or a novel I think it’s fine to talk about what it means, but when you’re talking about something that’s really simply a blueprint for felt experience, for theatrical production, the question is, does it work? And how does it work? Those are the questions I’m exploring with these actors in these unlikely settings with these unorthodox audiences for the last seven or eight years.

Is this unique to Greek tragedies or are they uniquely good at it?

I think it’s a Greek idea. I think it’s something that reached its fullest realization in 5th century BC. They created this technology for delivering this experience that would move you from one cognitive state to another. Even the theater itself, the acoustics of the theater, everything about these productions in the ancient world was in service of moving you from one state to another, and by virtue of that creating the conditions for something to happen that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Now I would apply that to all theater, and in many ways all theater in the western world evolved from this model, but we have lost touch as a culture with what theater can do, and I think more strikingly, what it’s possible to do once theater has done its magic. There’s an opportunity, once we’ve been moved by a live performance, to do something with a live audience that’s been affected by the play.

What kinds of things have you heard following up with audience members years later?

We’ve had people call us after a Theater of War performance and say “I talked to my husband or wife for the first time about my war experience or my experience of trauma,” or “I set up an appointment with a therapist, I checked myself into a 28-day treatment program that saved my life.” We’ve known intended acts of suicide that have been averted. We’ve known in fact one act of violence, where someone was plotting to kill his unit because they’d been teasing him mercilessly about his wife’s infidelity, that was uncovered by Theater of War and ultimately averted. Those are all really concrete. Unfortunately they don’t hold a lot of weight in the scientific world, but they’re enough for me to know we’re on the right track.

These tragedies just get worse and worse. What is it about them that creates these good things?

The shorthand version is that I think the hope in tragedy is not to be found in the story, it’s to be found in the audience that comes together to bear witness to the truth of the story. In the beginning of Theater of War, when we were rolling out the project, there were some people, both in the military and also in the mental health profession, who said, “This is not a good idea, talking about suicide in this frank and open way.”

But what I’ve learned and firmly believe is that the only way we can get to a frank and open discussion about a dark subject is by taking the story to its furthest extreme. We’re not saying everyone who’s gone to war is going to be like Ajax or come back with these invisible wounds. We’re just saying, if you’ve felt anything on the spectrum of the story of suicidal thoughts or attempts, you’re not alone. That’s really the public health message of Theater of War: You’re not alone in this room, you’re not alone across country, across the world, you’re not alone across time.

Richard Termine

We’re now at this interesting moment of cultural debate about trigger warnings and literature’s effect on traumatic experiences. What’s your tactile of understanding of literature and catharsis?

I want to be respectful of people and their experience of trauma, but I also feel that the argument that’s currently being made on college campuses for the most part will do more damage than good. It’s precisely the opposite argument, that by coming together as groups and confronting as communities these very dark things, we develop connections with one another that didn’t exist before. Maybe the argument really is that we tell stories to trigger and be triggered, so if we start not telling stories for that reason, I’m not sure what that’ll lead to but I can’t imagine it doing much good. That was the very thing we were up against when we got started, that you might traumatize people with these plays in these settings. And of course I see night after night a palpable sense of relief in the faces of people realizing they’re not alone.

What do you hope people get out of the book?

One can’t replace a theatrical experience with a literary one. But one reason I went so much into my own personal history, the loss of my girlfriend and father that shaped my views on tragedy, I hoped to move reader into space where they could receive the rest of the book. In the theater, we do the performance, and that shocks people out of their heads into their guts, and if you’re a civilian sitting in this audience full of veterans, suddenly you hear them because your defensive apparatus has come down. You’re rolled the Trojan horse into the gates of your city.

And so for me, I tried to structure this book in such a way it could be read in one or two sittings. And that if people were emotionally affected by the sharing I did, they’d be able to receive the rest of the book in the same way. In many ways it’s like shifting the strategies of the theater into the literary world.

How do you find art to match your audience?

In the beginning I went searching for audiences with plays. I had this idea to do plays for Marines. And then I had this idea to do Prometheus Bound for people who worked in prisons, and that led all the way to Gitmo. And then I had the idea that we’ll do these plays about end of life care because of my own experiences with Laura, and I knew this play Women of Trachis.

Then we started getting calls: Do you have a play that can help us do x, y, and z? Sometimes, magically, the play is sitting right behind me on the shelf and I just pull it right off. Or sometimes I field phone calls to people who have a deep knowledge of theater and ask what play they think would be appropriate. Unfortunately a lot of times there is no quick and easy answer. I’ve got eight or nine requests on my desk right now that I haven’t been able to answer. The church in Ferguson where Michael Brown’s memorial took place: Could you do a project to bring these communities together and heal? Virginia Tech: Seven or eight years out, we really haven’t had a conversation we need to have about gun violence and what happened to this community. Philanthropists from Rwanda: It’s the 25th anniversary of genocide, can you do something? As cavalier as I’ve been about pulling plays off the shelf, I want to make sure we have the right tools at hand to go into a community and address a big issue. It’s not a bad problem to have, but we have more requests than we can fulfill.

Moving beyond Greek tragedy. What do you think about for the future of your company and this similar kind of audience over structure attitude?

All the major cultural institutions and theaters in the US are asking, how do we engage a wider range of people to experience and participate in theater? I think this model isn’t the only model, but we’re part of a larger movement that’s interrogating the relationship between theater and audience. When you reach people at a level where the words that are being said are actually making a difference in their lives, I think the connection between theater and our lived experience becomes less tenuous. People see the value in it.

My hope is to direct full productions, not just of Greek plays but other texts, but always with discussion. Even if the discussion is just 10-15 minutes after the performance, it’s a discussion that’s framed the way that we frame discussions, respecting the audience’s innate intelligence and ability to know more than we do. I just have to believe that’ll create a healthier theater, but also if we get more people in our democracy experiencing and participating in theater, like in the ’30s when the Federal Theatre Project really brought theater to the deepest recesses of our country where it had never been before, then we’ll see a resurgence of interest in this form.

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