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An Interview with Theater of War's Bryan Doerries

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Theater of War: With over 600 performances and still counting, Theater of War represents one of the largest and most ambitious projects ever brokered between artists and the Department of Defense. This public health project uses dramatic readings of seminal ancient Greek plays and community conversations to confront topics such as combat-related psychological injury for U.S. Military Veterans. Using theater to build a common vocabulary for openly discussing the impact of these issues, events are designed to generate compassion, empathy, and understanding between diverse audiences. All events are free to the public and feature leading film, theater, and television actors. Bryan Doerries is a Brooklyn-based writer, translator, and director is the co-founder and Artistic Director of Theater of War Productions. This year, he was named Public Artist in Residence (PAIR) a joint appointment with the New York City Department of Veterans’ Services and Department of Cultural Affairs. During this two-year residency, he will bring more than 60 Theater of War Productions projects to diverse communities across all five boroughs.

The WWrite Blog was lucky enough to spend some time talking to Bryan Doerries about the ways in which Theater of War might enlighten us about the experience of WWI soldiers and military personnel throughout the Centennial year.

elizabeth marvel as ajax 2Elizabeth Marvel reads Ajax at Women in Military Service for America Memorial, June 2011. Photo credit Theater of WarWWrite: What was it that influenced to take up the Theater of War project? Did you know anyone serving in the military growing up? Family or friends?

Bryan Doerries: No. I didn’t know anyone on active duty certainly. I didn’t really know much about military culture. I had grown up in Hampton Roads, Virginia and although I was surrounded by military culture, I grew up in this rarified academic bubble and was mostly untouched during the Cold War. This was despite the massive growth that took place in the area as it was one of the epicenters of military activity in the country. Yet I felt kind of distant from it. In principle, I was in support of veterans but ideologically against military conflicts. When the invasion of Iraq was imminent, I marched in the streets against it in New York City and it felt kind of ineffectual, like I wasn’t doing much.

A few years later, I started to see the first wave of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with catastrophic injuries that would have killed any other veteran in any other conflict prior. And now it’s 40-50,000 with multiple amputations, and moderate to penetrating brain injuries, a whole subclass of people returning to our shores who will never be fully well and will be stranded on islands of chronic illness for the rest of their lives. I had read about their stories and it was the Walter Reed scandal in 2007, when our nation’s flagship military hospital was revealed to be substandard on so many levels, my liberal sanctimony sort of evaporated and I was able to see with some clarity that if we didn’t act quickly, we could perpetuate the same kind cruelty that we perpetuated against the Vietnam generation by, in effect, criminalizing military service members for carrying out our foreign policy.

That’s when I got the inspiration for Theater of War. All I had was a hunch. Greek tragedy was my background and I’d been directing my own translations of Greek plays for some time. In the years leading up to the Walter Reed scandal (2004-2007), I’d been working on bringing my translations of plays to hospitals. From those medical audiences, I’d learned that people who had never heard of the ancient Greek plays that I translated could teach me more than I could teach them. That led me on this sort of odyssey to bring Greek plays to audiences for whom the words of the plays could actually have life and death significance.

So, when the Walter Reed scandal broke, I had already been doing this work in hospitals with this play Philoctetes, which is about a combat veteran who has been abandoned on an island for 9 years by his own friends, by the army, and by his superior officers due to an illness he contracted during the Trojan War. For 9 years, he’s left there, dehumanized, and never hears his own language. The other Greeks hear through an oracle that they must go back and get him and his weapon to win the war. It takes place during the 9th year of the Trojan War, somewhere around the 13th or 12th century BC. The play is performed in the 5th century BC, in 406 BC, only a few years before the end of the Peloponnesian War and the demise of Greek hegemony and democracy. It was written by Sophocles when he was 87 and no stranger to the islands of chronic illness. So, I had this hunch that if I could take this play Philoctetes, which seemed to describe the loneliness, isolation, betrayal and the physical, emotional, and spiritual wounds of Walter Reed, something powerful would happen. That was the impulse behind it all.

theater of war at guantanamo bayTheater of War Performance at Guantanamo Bay March 2011. Photo credit by Theater of War.And, of course, it was a very naïve impulse. It took about a year and a half of rejection. At that point, I was about to give up. I had been learning to speak to the military and engaging with their culture. I learned that they still study Thucydides and Herodotus at military colleges and academies, which means there’s still some reference to the Greeks. I don’t think many of the brass knew at the time that Sophocles was a general as well. Eventually I found my way in through a Navy psychiatrist, CAPT William P. Nash, who was embedded with the Marines during the Battle of Fallujah. He had made the Sophocles connection himself, partially by way of Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam and also on his own. This psychiatrist said in his New York Times interview in 2008 that he began all discussions with the Marines by telling the ancient story Ajax, a play by Sophocles. And when I read this, I jumped on the phone and email and eventually got him 24 hours later. I then got my first audience of Marines— all with this formless hunch that this might work but with no verifiable proof this was anything other than a crazy idea.

So, fast forward 8 months later to August 2008. We get the audience of 400 Marines and their spouses in there. We scheduled a 45-minutes discussion after the performance of Ajax and Philoctetes. The discussion lasted 3 ½ hours and had to be cut off at midnight. People were standing up and saying things they had never said before in public and certainly not front of their friends in private. Almost everything said was preceded by a quote from the play as if the people in the audience had known the play their entire lives.

It dawned on me as I listened that these Marines do know the plays because these plays are their stories. And while the technology of how we communicate has vastly changed over the last 150 years, there are certain aspects of being human and what it means to experience trauma, isolation, and betrayal that haven’t changed and probably won’t ever change. That’s when everything came together. Soon thereafter we brokered the most ambitious partnership between the Department of Defense and artists. We did 100 performances in a single year. Just this last week we celebrated our 404th performance that one project. And, we have at least 20 more projects that have grown out of that. 

WWrite: You said that ancient Greek theater was part of the community and that it was part of everyday life. People in ancient Greece went to the theater to learn about things and to have catharsis. It seems that you’ve taken on the idea of the practice as well as the texts you’ve translated.

I know that WWI soldiers—not all, but quite a few—had a classical education that consisted in learning ancient Greek and Latin. Wouldn’t those soldiers have been able to identify more easily with the kinds of plays you’re doing? Today many soldiers or military personnel who are leaving and coming back have had education, but most likely haven’t had an education based in ancient Greek and Latin. You could have chosen a contemporary play, any play. Options might have been Edward Albee or Marguerite Duras. The ancient Greek plays ask audiences to cross many historical and literary bridges. Why did you chose them and not others?

Theatre audience 18 19th centuryEtching of theatre audience 19th century. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.Bryan Doerries: I don’t see education as a fast track to understanding these plays. In fact, I almost see it as an impediment. Would that I had two lives to live, I would live the first one to the extreme and I would spend the second one studying the ancients. As it turns out, a prerequisite for understanding antiquity is suffering and experiences like betrayal, loss, survivor’s guilt, and moral distress—anything that anyone who has been to war knows intrinsically. Those are the prerequisites. It’s unfortunate, and Nietzsche pointed this out in the 19th century, that 15-21-year olds are exposed to the ancient Greeks at precisely the moment when they don’t have the prerequisite life understanding or experience to begin to understand them.

I studied ancient Greek, but every time I perform in front of Marine grunts who have never heard of Sophocles, they elucidate and repeatedly confirm that the prerequisite for understanding a Greek play is losing your best friend or feeling that you’ve been betrayed by your commanding officers or understanding the stakes of life and death. That’s what every word of the play radiates with contemporary significance. I think those who encounter these plays in an academic setting often are unable to appreciated them in the direct way that some of these young men and women in the military can.

I do think that around the time of WWI, the early 20th century theater was still a primary medium of communication that film had not taken over. Photography was still nascent and some of the subscription-based opera houses in Europe still had half a million subscribers. It was a different time, but early 20th century theater does share commonality with the culture of theater that existed in the ancient world. It represented the largest audience in the modern world. But, in the ancient world, in the 5th century at the theater of Dionysus at the City Dionysia Festival each spring, one-third of the Athenian citizen population was sitting in that theater. The courts emptied. There was no political activity. If you didn’t have money to attend, your ticket would be subsidized. It was not just a civic act to attend theater, but it was a religious act. The actual Festival of Dionysus began with a ritual sacrifice of animals in reverence for the god Dionysus, who was the god of boundary disillusion, the god of ecstasy, the god of transcending that which differentiates you from me, the god who can break down those barriers. I think that’s what theater does, what it was designed—as a technology—to do.

Sometimes, I think, in the contemporary world, the novelty of theater as a form is like writing someone a letter. You can write someone now a banal letter, but it’s such an unprecedented event to receive a one today that it could seem like it’s of tremendous significance. The bar is so low in terms of the lack of depth to human communication today. Theater is the answer to Twitter, but we’ll never be able to scale theater to meet the need.

It turns out that Greek tragedy is as sophisticated technologically as an iPhone. When it’s plugged into the right audience, it has this psychotropic boundary dissolving, hierarchy dissolving property. Greek tragedy works on us at a truly visceral level, as visceral as the sacrifice that preceded the performance itself at the Festival of Dionysia. And, if Theater of War is doing that job, we’re bypassing the forebrain and going straight to the amygdala of the audience members who are listening. I know that something biochemical is occurring, which will result in 45 minutes to an hour of true boundary loosening.

We know it’s working when the lowest ranking person stands and speaks in front of the highest ranking. That’s no small thing.

The other answer to your question about my choice of Greek plays has to do with utility.  Ancient texts help contemporary audiences make connections without putting them in a defensive position. So, you can take the warrior archetype of Ajax, and it will connect on many levels, but it will also feel strange and dissonant, as well. In that dissonance, we create safety and people can either respond to the play by talking about the characters or they can step outside the archetype itself and talk about themselves. It’s their choice. That’s the utility. The Greeks were doing that too. Most of the plays are about the Trojan War, which is as distant from the 5th century Athenians as they are to us.

 edit Shot at Dawn memorial courtesy The Chase ProjectShot at Dawn Memorial near Staffordshire (UK) commemorating the 306 British soldiers executed for cowardice during WWI. They were pardoned in 2006. Photo courtesy The Chase Project

Theater at the Front SalonikaTheater at the Salonika Front during WWI. Credit International Encyclopedia of the First World War.WWrite:  I wonder if a soldier returning from World War I going to theater would be expecting to have that kind of visceral experience. And if this soldier was expecting it or desiring it, they may have felt disappointed by the conventions. They certainly wouldn’t stand up and talk at the end.

You said that you try to reach the audience not just on an emotional level, but on a biochemical level. World War I was the first war that gave called shell shock public recognition. Shell shock has evolved today into the many characteristics and forms of PTSD. We have medical proof that PTSD is part chemical. National Geographic recently ran an article showing the physiological evidence of changes on the brain due to trauma causing PTSD symptoms. It was only in 2006 when Great Britain pardoned 306 WWI soldiers who were executed for cowardice. Now we know it was something much more complicated than cowardice and it was certainly not their fault. How do you take this physiological-neurological phenomenon into account when you’re performing and discussing?

Bryan Doerries: Shell shock manifested itself as psychological or mental illness during WWI and in WWII. These soldiers were “cured” by execution or lobotomy, which meant taking away the very faculty of speech itself. We find other ways to silence those who have experienced trauma today, but the impulse to stop survivors from telling their stories still runs strong in our culture today. What many of those who have experienced trauma need is the ability to give voice to their experiences, to speak the unspeakable, and—through narrative—to make sense of what happened to them. In a way, that’s what Greek tragedy was designed to do. And so, it seems fitting that, as a species, we have finally reached a place where we can hear what tragedy has to offer us.  

WWrite: WWI has been largely forgotten. If you go onto the Washington Mall in D.C., the heart of our country, you see several war monuments on display, but you really have to look hard to find the WWI memorial. It’s small and a bit shabby. In the heart of the country, this war’s place seems insignificant. And, as the Centennial Commission’s work shown, it is anything but insignificant. Thankfully, a new memorial will be constructed. I live in France. The monuments to fallen American soldiers from WWI, like Chateau Thierry, are huge, well-kept, beautiful, and often bigger than French monuments. We lost a tiny fraction of the soldiers France did. The memory of the war is well-kept abroad but not in the U.S. Do you think that techniques you use in Theater of War could be used to teach us about a history of a war? 

Bryan Doerries: Literary texts and myths are how we encode our histories and pass them down from generation to generation. In the Greek texts, you’re kind of at the border of an oral tradition moving to a written tradition. What I like about plays is that they are not, from my perspective, simily literary texts. They are blueprints for a felt, emotional experience and require a group of people to get it off the page. If you’re only looking at a play on the page, you’re missing the meaning. I think the Homeric epics are intergenerational archives of accrued knowledge passed from one generation of veterans down to the next. That’s how I view the poems of Wilfred Owen in the voices of veterans I hear from today. They are still quoting Owen. Wherever we fall in the ideological spectrum, I think that the cauldron of war in the 5th century BC is something we’ve missed as the catalyst for the paradigm shift in the consciousness of the ancient Greeks. 5th century BC architecture and philosophy that we study has, unfortunately, endless wars to thank for jumpstarting the insights we praise today.

WWrite: I have a similar view about the role of WWI in artistic and literary movements of the early 20th century like Modernism, Surrealism, and Dada. WWI was the catalyst for the huge shift in consciousness that produced some of the masterpieces of these movements. But when we learn about them in school, WWI is presented as a minor blip, a small influence. In reality, for me, it was a war that exploded consciousness at this time period and we can’t think about any literary work without placing WWI at the center of it seriously.

TOWUSSWashingtonTheater of War Performance at the USS Washington, 2016. Courtesy of Under the Radar.Bryan Doerries:  I think World War I obliterated the crust of the 19th century and how we perceived the world. These artistic currents were already happening before the war, but the war acted as an accelerant that made it impossible to return to those previous approaches. Studying war seriously helps us see what’s illusory about constructing our narratives of reality. Whether we see it or not, culture encodes these war histories. To come to what we’re doing in Theater of War, the plays we’re performing have the war encoded in their DNA. I’m not sure the Trojan War, as we think of it, ever happened, but there was war all the same—prehistoric conflicts, pre-writings, pre-civilizations, which passed down their intergenerational accrued knowledge and understanding of the human condition through myths We’re still connecting to them now. You can put the plays of Sophocles in front of an audience of grunt Marines who have no more than a high school education and they’re able to deliver profound insights. Their responses indicate to me that these deep histories and codes written into this Greek culture just needs the right translator to be heard. And the translator isn’t me. The translator is the audience with skin in the game.

WWrite: What was the most memorable experience in a performance of Theater of War?

Bryan Doerries:  I could say so many things about the Theater of War and my experiences. I think that the process has been one of me humbled. All my privileges and presumptions have been checked – simple things like who’s awake and who’s asleep. Whose stories are these and who has the proprietary right to speak about them. Is it the rarefied few of us who have had a few years of college or undergraduate training? Who cares? What does that provide us?

I’ve had moments in which someone has upended my understanding of what tragedy is, who taught me more than I ever learned in a class or in a book. One of these I talk about in my book, The Theater of War. It came early on when we were performing in Germany on a U.S. artillery base. I asked the audience of mostly junior enlisted soldiers who had been on deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan: “Why do you think Sophocles wrote this play, Ajax? What was he trying to say? A young man shot up and said: “I think Sophocles wrote this play to boost morale.” I interrogated him and asked: “What would be so morale boosting about a play about a great warrior coming unraveled after losing his best friend and being betrayed by his command?” The man shot back before I could finish my question: “Because it’s the truth. Because we’re all sitting shoulder to shoulder acknowledging it. It’s not being whitewashed.”

And that was a seminal moment in my understanding of what tragedy is. On the one hand, if you look at Greek tragedy simply as a literary artifact, you see the characters in the final moments of the play, crushed by their ignorance usually milliseconds before it’s too late, working against forces far beyond their comprehension The plays are fatalistic, pessimistic, and—on the surface—should probably send us all home to wallow in our lack of agency. But for audiences, watching characters be crushed by things outside their control provokes a counter-intuitive reaction. In fact, rather than inspiring a sense of fatalism or sending people home to cry about our lack of agency in a world where we barely apprehend the forces that work upon us, the plays seem to inspire connection and camaraderie, esprit de corps, relief and joy.

From that moment on, I learned that tragedy is a pretext to bring us together as a community to face the darkest aspects of our humanity as a group. Instead of the isolation of our barracks or our car or our closet, we do it in the company of other people who are all feeling some level of moral distress in the face of human suffering. It can bring about transformation and that’s scary for people to see who haven’t experienced it before because it’s counter intuitive. But we’re 650 performances in so if it didn’t work….

AjaxwoodcutDeath of Ajax by Giuseppe Niccolò Vicentino, Italian (active 1520 - 1550) After Polidoro da Caravaggio, Italian (Caravaggio, near Bergamo, Italy c. 1499 - 1543 Messina, Italy). Credit Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.

WWrite: You’re saying that understanding suffering in a group can be edifying?

Bryan Doerries:  Exactly. If our values are to never leave someone behind, to live a decent life, to fight for people and things you believe in, the plays seem to challege us to imagine how hard it is to live up to those values when confronted with human suffering, corrupt leaders, politics, and all the gray choices we must make in war and life. The plays acknowlege that often, as humans, we will be haunted for the rest of our lives by our decisions, no matter what we decide. The plays create a place where we can validate our own moral distress at living in such a world, a world of unimaginable cruelty and suffering. I learned more from that young man of 18 or 19 about tragedy than I had learned in any of my training.

Also, it helps me to practice a kind of humility that is required for our work—to never presume to know who is in the room or what they’ve experienced and to approach an audience with a true reverence for the experiential intelligence in each room. That doesn’t happen in our cultural spaces today. The flow of culture in our society is one-way.  Artists think they are the ones bestowing a gift upon the audiences. But what if the audience is bestowing the gift upon us? That’s the question of the center of our work. The Greeks taught us that.

For a video introduction to Theater of War, please see video below.

Theater of War Trailer

Published on Jan 24, 2012

Description of Theater of War Project

Author's bio

Bryan DoerriesBryan Doerries is a Brooklyn-based writer, director, and translator, who currently serves as Artistic Director of Theater of War Productions. A self-described evangelist for classical literature and its relevance to our lives today, Doerries uses age-old approaches to help individuals and communities heal from trauma and loss.

During his tenure at Theater of War Productions, the company has presented diverse projects across the country and internationally. Theater of War Productions uses dramatic readings of seminal plays and community conversations to confront topics such as combat-related psychological injury, end-of-life care, police and community relations, prison reform, gun violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, and substance abuse and addiction.

Doerries’ book, The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in September of 2015, along with a volume of his translations of ancient Greek tragedies, entitled All That You’ve Seen Here is God. His graphic novel, The Odyssey of Sergeant Jack Brennan, an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey as told by an infantry Marine to his squad, was published by Pantheon in April of 2016. Doerries lectures on his work at cultural venues throughout the world and, in recent years, has taught courses at Princeton University, the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, and the Bard Prison Initiative.

Doerries is a proud graduate of Kenyon College and serves as a board member of the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers and Friends of the Young Writers Workshop. Among his awards, Doerries has received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Kenyon College, and in March 2017, he was named Public Artist in Residence (PAIR) for the City of New York, a joint appointment with the New York City Department of Veterans’ Services and Department of Cultural Affairs. During this two-year residency, he will bring more than 60 Theater of War Productions projects to diverse communities across all five boroughs.

(Photo credit: Anderson Ward)