Theatre History Podcast #41
Bryan Doerries and Theater of War Productions Use Classical Drama to Address Today’s Problems
The characters and events of ancient Greek drama might seem remote from our present-day concerns, but Bryan Doerries and Theater of War Productions don’t see it that way. Since 2009, this company has used readings from classical theatre to tackle issues from post-traumatic stress disorder to the community impact of gun violence. Now Bryan’s a New York City Public Artist in Residence, working with city agencies to stage over sixty events all across the city. He joined us to discuss Theater of War’s work and the continuing relevance of ancient drama.
- Learn more about Theater of War Productions at their website.
- To find out more about Bryan and Theater of War Productions’ work with New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Department of Veterans Services, visit their Artist in Residence website.
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Michael Lueger: The Theatre History Podcast is supported by HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community. It's available on iTunes and HowlRound.com.
Hi, and welcome to the Theatre History Podcast. How can we use drama to help others and ourselves? That's been a crucial question since the earliest days of the Western theatrical tradition in ancient Athens. Today we're joined by Bryan Doerries who, together with Phyllis Kaufman went back to that tradition to begin Theatre of War Productions in 2009. According to their website Theatre of War quote, "Presents community-specific theater-based projects that address public health and social issues. Among those issues are psychological ones experienced by veterans trying to process and come to terms with their experiences."
Bryan is a writer, director, and translator, and he's currently the artistic director of Theatre of War Productions. In spring of 2017 Bryan was selected to be a New York City public artist in resident by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York City Department of Veterans' Services. With support from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Bryan will work with Brooklyn Public Library, community partners, and other city agencies to bring more than sixty events to New York City over the next two year.
Bryan, thank you so much for joining us.
Bryan Doerries: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for having me on.
Michael: Can you give us an overview of what Theatre of War Productions does?
Bryan: Sure. Theatre of War Productions uses performances of classical texts, both ancient and contemporary classical texts, to engage communities in really powerful discussions about sometimes very difficult issues. Our first project was called Theatre of War and it took off back in 2009 where we used ancient war plays by Sophocles to engage military audiences to open up in conversation and dialogue about highly stigmatized issues like mental health, suicide, the impact of war on families, depression. From that initial audience, which in some ways, as you've already alluded to, deeply connects to the original audience for which some of the ancient plays we perform were originally intended, the project and the initiative and the company grew and now we have over eighteen projects that all address pressing public health and social issues through a combination of live theatrical performance and very intentional audience curation and guided and facilitated audience discussion.
Michael: Can you tell us about some of this current projects? I understand one of them involves Antigone?
Bryan: Yeah. In some ways our most exciting new project is called Antigone in Ferguson. We premiered the project last September at Michael Brown's High School in Ferguson, Missouri. It's a project that presents a kind of full performance of Sophocles' Antigone and the choruses of Antigone have been adapted by a local composer from St. Louis named Phil Woodmore to about forty- five minutes of gospel music. The choirs that we've assembled to perform the chorus and the gospel music are composed of police officers and their spouses from the St. Louis area, activists, Black Lives Matter and other types of activists, as well as teachers. Two of Michael Brown's teachers and other professionals just from the community. We premiered the project last September in Ferguson. We've now performed it nine times in places like Baltimore about three blocks from where the uprising took place. We just performed it in Athens in a 1400 seat opera house at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center. Then even last weekend we just performed it in Brownsville, Brooklyn in an outdoor basketball court in a public housing project in a particularly rough part of the neighborhood in Brownsville.
For the performance in Baltimore we had about 900 people show up, half black, half white. The performance in Brownsville is deeply, incredibly diverse. We had close to a thousand people show up Saturday night to participate.
Some of the other projects that have also evolved out of the last six to eight months have also included a project on gun violence in which we perform readings from Euripides' play The Madness of Heracles. We call it Hercules in whatever community we're performing, so Hercules in Brooklyn is where it premiered, at the Brooklyn Public Library, which is one of our main partners under the Public Artists in Residency Grant, and is now touring other communities. We performed it in the Bayview area of San Francisco, which is a particularly challenged area on many levels. On Thursday, tomorrow night, we're performing it in Arverne in Queens, which is near Far Rockaway at a Baptist church.
In addition to that project we also, in April premiered a new project where we secured the rights from the Martin Luther King estate to dramatize and reenact Dr. King's final sermon, which is called the Drum Major Instinct. We premiered that at Brick here in Brooklyn in April and we had our choir from Ferguson in St. Louis, Queens, and Brooklyn come together and we wrote another forty-five minutes worth of music. Phil Woodmore, our composer from St. Louis. We're beginning to tour that project in repertory with Antigone in Ferguson. When we come to a community we'll do Antigone in Ferguson and also do The Drum Major Instinct.
For that one we had Samira Wiley from Orange is the New Black and Jumaane Williams who is a local council member from Brooklyn embodying King, followed by a discussion with the community that was framed around some of the core questions that King was trying to address at the end of his life, like white supremacy, the military industrial complex, hierarchy, poverty, class, as he expanded beyond just black liberation into all kinds of other issues that now we're in the thick of. We all, I think now ... I mean, I think I speak for the majority of people see it as holistically interconnected now, not separate and apart from liberation.
Those are three current projects and what they've done is we've gone from projects that were for military audiences and then prisons and in hospitals and hospice clinics and addiction centers and we've now moved out of these kind of ... We're still doing those types of performances, homeless shelters, but we're now doing these projects that address issues that affect way wider populations in much more public ways. That's been the exciting part of the last six to eight months, especially as we've begun this initiative in New York City to do sixty- five performances across all five boroughs.
Michael:Yes. I was wondering if you could tell us more about that initiative and in particular your partnership with the New York City Department of Veterans Services?
Bryan: Yeah, sure. In March of this year I was named Public Artist in Residence for the City of New York. I'm one of, I think, five right now who are embedded in city government. We brought on the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, which is a major international Greek cultural foundation which has funded our work in the past, to do something kind of unprecedented, which is to really underwrite a version of a public artist in residency that's really expansive in nature and very ambitious. We undertook and are executing currently sixty-five performances across all of our projects across all five boroughs, with a kind of mandate to serve the most vulnerable populations.
We already, intrinsically have that mandate in our work because one of the core value propositions of what we do is that people who have lived through the extremities of life, who suffer whether it's through trauma or poverty or neglect or betrayal, that these individuals actually have more to teach us about these texts that we to teach them. We already are focused on those audiences but the New York City Public Artist in Residence Program sort of galvanizes even more to focus on underserved populations.
For the next six to eight months, in the sort of second half of the first year of my residency, we're focusing on homelessness. We're focusing on gun violence. We're focusing on domestic violence, all of which we have projects about. Then we're also focusing on doing performances in and around NYCHA public housing, which we did this last weekend in Brownsville.
All with a connection back to our core partner, which is the Department of Veterans Services, which is run by a very, I think, brilliant and pioneering commissioner named Loree Sutton, with whom we've been collaborating now for over ten years, since she was a general in the Department of Defense, who sees culture as not just entertainment and not just therapy but as the frontlines of health. Her vision for culture is that less than five percent of us will end up in a clinical setting and also that probably less than five percent of us can be helped in a clinical setting given the limitations of the tools that we have in those clinical settings. But many, many more of us can be affected by the boundary dissolving, communalizing power of culture and in particular theatre, as a medium to bring people together, reduce stigma, reduce isolation, raise awareness, raise consciousness, and put resources, many different types of resources, in the hands of people who are now open to the possibility of seeking paths of healing.
She sees and I see all of this enterprise that we're describing as Theatre of War Productions really as one project that maps on...Of course, domestic violence maps onto the veterans community and the veterans community has a lot to say about domestic violence, homelessness, poverty, gun violence. All these things are interrelated. They're not something you can just extract from one another. The other thing we've learned about veterans, which has been a remarkable part of our own journey, is that never before in our history as a species has there been a cohort of people as large as the veterans who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, who have experienced trauma and are willing to talk about it with the sensitivity of millennials. The sensitivity of millennials that I've now witnessed and experienced in our work has to do with a fundamental understanding of systems of oppression, hierarchy, cruelty, betrayal, and an ability to articulate in a really sensitive way an understanding of those issues.
We had this cohort of veterans who are kind of like our chorus. Who are willing to talk about their experiences because they believe that they are helping other people by opening up, and by virtue of opening up and helping other people they continue their virtuous cycle of service, where they feel like they're of use to something larger than themselves. There's this wonderful sort of iterative, reflexive cycle, this chain where veterans kind of in many ways, even with performances that deal with other subjects, help us open the room with their willingness to participate. So that's part of the connection.
The other connection is that the Department of Veterans Services is connected to an initiative that the mayor's wife, Chirlane McCray, initiated called Thrive NYC, which is a very large public health campaign around mental health in New York City. We're trying in all the ways that we can to tie into it, amplify its efforts, and at all of our performances there are representatives from Thrive NYC, from social services, from the Department of Veterans Services, in formal and informal ways engaging with the audience.
By formal, I mean there are tables. You can go up and you can talk to them and you can get resources. By informal I mean at every performance we now execute under this residency also includes receptions before and after the performances, which is a kind of intentional socialization that happens amongst people in the crowd, which results in all kinds of other conversations beyond the large group conversations that we start.
In effect, this residency is so remarkable because it turns New York City into our laboratory and it gives us the runway to really explore some core questions with communities that in many ways overlap. Also, in a sustained way, continue to come back to communities and then finally bring communities together that would rarely come together in any context, cultural or otherwise.
For instance, one of our earliest performances under the residency was that we brought gang members, former gang members and veterans together to have a conversation through Theater of War about what transcends those experiences, about the experience of violence, which they can both relate to. We also talked about masculinity and used the story of Ajax as a way to frame a discussion about how masculinity is taught, received, acculturated today.
Our performance in Brownsville this past weekend with the help of the Brooklyn Public Library, we really got the word out. They have a distribution list of over 900,000 people so when we advertised Antigone in Ferguson with the cast of The Wire, many cast members of The Wire, plus our Ferguson choir, people from all over the city came and there are people who would never have come to Brownsville. Certainly wouldn't have hung out in a basketball court in a public housing project, but here we were, 1,000 people strong, bringing together people who normally wouldn't sit together but probably people who see themselves as standing on the same side of the political spectrum, but in the exchange that we have we can really interrogate, "Well, what does it really mean to be an ally?"
It came up on Saturday night. It means to go someplace you actually feel uncomfortable, where you're actually taking a risk to be there in order to experience something that you couldn't experience otherwise from the safety of your rarefied world. I feel like theatre is a medium that can deliver that experience, whether we're taking you to a basketball court in a rough neighborhood to see a Greek tragedy, or we're bringing you into a room full of people whose life experiences you've never imagined and have never been touched by and we've empowered them to speak and for you to be part of a discussion with them.
It's a really exciting time for us and the sky is the limit in terms of what we feel like we can accomplish here in New York City with this really generous grant that we've received and also the support of the city government so that when we start a conversation with Parks, we get traction. When we start a conversation with Department of Homeless Services the door is open and we then get access to the populations that we're trying to serve, which is ... For us, audience is everything and all of our events are always free and some instances where we perform we're actually in some ways paying the audience to attend when they're considered trainings or performing in institutional settings.
I think that's the right flow of culture and the right flow of theatre because at this point in the late capitalist theatre world one pays money to consumer theatre and often to check a box that one has engaged with a series of political issues or questions, but what we're trying to do is something A, that can't be bought and B, isn't ultimately consumable, because we want to make people profoundly uncomfortable and give them the opportunity to interrogate why they're so uncomfortable around these issues.
Michael: Yes. I'm so interested in the fact that you're using classical drama as the vehicle for all of these projects. You are, in your own words quote, "An evangelist for classical literature and its relevance to our lives today." Why do you feel that way?
Bryan: I feel that there is a basic message in ancient literature that if it is able to connect to a contemporary audience when it's delivered, provides palpable, physical, emotional, spiritual results. The message is you are not the only person in the world across time to have felt this sense of betrayal, to have felt this sense of isolation, to have been heartbroken, to have met the limits of your own compassion, to have realized that you have an agenda and you're not perfect. All these possible themes that come up out of these plays.
When people get the message, and it is ... I'm not Christian but it is good news, you know? It's like, the good news is pain is extremely isolating. Everyone who feels some kind of trauma or pain or suffering naturally feels they're the only person on the planet to have felt such isolation. That's just the nature of how we as humans subjectively experience trauma and pain, and theatre, especially ancient theatre, has the possibility, if it connects, to provide relief to that sense of isolation. Not just in the room, not just in the community, but across time, across the millennia. That's one of the reasons.
The other is that by using ancient texts, of which I'm a zealot for many reasons, it's not documentary theatre. Although we always have a discussion with real people, we're not portraying our impression of those people back to those people. You know? These plays are strange. They're from another culture, they're from thousands of years ago. Sophocles didn't write them with an intention of performing them on a basketball court in Brownsville or Michael Brown's high school or in Fukushima, Japan. But it turns out they work in those settings because people do not feel threatened by them. The ancient texts, if it's written and performed in a direct way, can create this safe space, for lack of a better word, where people can make their own connections. That's the exercise.
We're not telling audiences, "This is what you look like to us. This is our judgment or assessment of who you are." We're asking audiences, "What do you see of yourself in this ancient text?" Our work is not about... Antigone in Ferguson sounds like a concept play. We're not saying, "Polynices is Michael Brown," or it's not like this recent production at The Public, you know, " Trump is Julius Caesar. " That's a facile and condescending way to approach audiences. No, in fact our approach is to celebrate the infinite possibilities of interpretation, which is what theatre really should be about.
If you're into didacticism, if you're into Bertolt Brecht or you feel that you need to wear your politics on your sleeve, well that's a certain type of theatre. Of course, all the more power to you. But what's exciting to me as an evangelist for ancients’ texts is that this form arose in the fifth century BC in which, in a very sophisticated way, all of the characters on stage are justified in their actions. They all feel they're right and yet someone is going to be sacrificed. Someone is going to die. Usually for some... Resulting from some fundamental ignorance and often portraying characters who learn too late.
Well, I really feel like that maps on beautifully to not just our time but really any time. That we all feel justified in our actions. We're all playing roles. We all over-identify with the roles that we play in daily life as if the job that we do is who are or the experiences that we've had, the sum total of them make up who we actually are. Seeing a Greek play and seeing characters all fighting for what they believe to be right and all being sort of locked in an agonistic struggle in which someone is going to die, gives us an opportunity to step back and interrogate and acknowledge the roles that we're playing. And also ask the fundamental question, does violence need to take place? Does someone need to die in order for us to advance a political agenda? Do we have to savage each other or can we see things from each other's perspectives? Is there a dialectic approach where we actually are able to be wholly who we are and also see from the other perspective. In theatre, I think, and particularly in this democratic form of ancient Athenian drama.
The word amphitheater means, "I see you, you see me," right? We see in both directions. The theatron, the seeing place. We're seeing the characters, we're seeing the actors, we're also seeing the audience, which we all seem to like...We like to turn the lights out on the audience in the contemporary theatre as if we shouldn't see them. The minute the lights go out in a production these days for me I want to walk out of the room. It seems like it's such an act of fundamental betrayal of what we're actually trying to accomplish and also a stupid sort of convention of the theater. Lights should always be up and we should always be conscious of the fact that this isn't a film and we're not in Wagner's Bayreuth watching an opera. Wagner wanted to erase the audience completely from the equation. We are in this highly democratized, incredibly powerful, boundary dissolving form in which we actually have to see each other in order to receive the full benefits and the possibilities of what the theatre can provide.
Finally, I'm an evangelist for something that I think the Greeks knew that we've lost touch with, and that is theatre, the god of theatre Dionysus is the god ecstasy, boundary dissolution, the liberator he's called. It's about loosening the boundaries so that we can actually truly hear each other and have real dialogue. It's not a coincidence that Greek drama arose and reached its peaks at the same exact concurrent moment as Athenian democracy did the same.
What we've lost touch with as a culture is that when we moved... First of all, for the Greeks, the ancient theatre was not entertainment. It was a civic exercise, a spiritual, religious practice. It was a military practice that had to do with national identity. All these things were happening, but it was a religious act. I think we spend ninety- nine percent of our time in the contemporary non-profit commercial theatre pretending we didn't just have a transcendental experience. The way that that manifests is in the way that we treat what happens after performances, because when we've actually moved an audience with a performance, I don't care what it is, there's an opening. There's a possibility for something to happen other than what was happening before. For a moment this buzzing and contradictory body of people, if a production really reaches them and penetrates, have come together and connected in this way.
That rarely happens in our culture and our world and we all pretend as if that didn't just happen because if we do move people and we decided to do something after a performance typically it manifests in three ways. One, we bring out a dramaturg who explicates what just happened in the most pedantic and boring way. Two, we bring out people who share our political beliefs who congratulate us for consuming this leftist theatre or whatever we just did. Three, and worst of all and most egregious, we bring out the artist and we ask them the most banal and soul-deadening questions about the process of making theater. That's all we've got and we all know it. When someone says talkback that's what you conjure in your mind because you know that you want to leave the room as soon as someone says talkback because it's an infantilizing and stupid word. That's because we, for some reason as a culture in this late capitalist moment, think that going to the theatre is an act of watching a play, consuming it, and then at best going out with our friends for a beer or a glass of wine and talking about it, when theatre is a psychotropic experience. It changes our brain chemistry. New things are... This is why Plato, Socrates wanted to throw the poets out of the ideal republic because they could actually sway us to do things that weren't possible before.
The fundamental question of our work and why I'm an evangelist for Greek drama is, and ancient drama is the technology for doing this, is what do we do once we've moved audiences? What's possible that wasn't possible before? With Antigone in Ferguson we're bringing cops and Black Lives Matter activists together. We're not asking them to hug each other. We're just asking them to hear eachothers rage and create a space where that can be held and we can all stay there uncomfortably for a couple of hours with the hope that that actually results in something more constructive that what we're doing outside of the theatre right now.
Michael: This is fascinating, this idea of paying as much attention to the audience as to what's going on stage. I know it's impossible to generalize but what are some of the most striking specific reactions that you've had from audience members over the course of doing these projects?
Bryan: We've done over 650 performances for hundreds of thousands of people all over the world. I could list all kinds of things. I was just thinking the other day about oftentimes people in our events who have experienced some kind of -they've done something morally repugnant for which they are haunted in some way and they're empowered by the play and acknowledge it in front of the audience or communalize it. Not asking for forgiveness but they kind of... Basically what you hear often, "Well, if you can hear this play you can hear what I have to say." The play creates the space, gives permission for that to happen.
A long time I've been sort of struggling, what's the appropriate response of the civilian population? Those who haven't experienced trauma when someone gets up and says something morally repugnant about something they've done or felt complicit in having done? One of the first times I heard a civilian or a lay person respond to Theater of War in a way that I think moved in the direction I was hoping was back in 2009 we were performing at the University of Virginia at Old Cabell Hall and we had about 700 people in this beautiful indoor amphitheatrical space. There was a panelist who was an Army captain who had, as he told the audience, ordered a missile strike on a house in Iraq and discovered that he actually received faulty intelligence when he went to see the house and realized he destroyed and killed a family with two children the same age as his children back home.
You could feel the room recoil. It was mostly civilians, some military in the audience. Not a lot of active duty and not a lot of the younger generation, and certainly a lot of students. When we got to the town hall discussion, when I went into discussion, before I even had a chance to sort of begin my salvo, "Would anyone like to respond?" This guy in the back row shot up his hand and he said, "I don't know what I'm going to say but I feel compelled to speak," and that's usually a very good sign. He said, "I'm a family physician, I live in this community. I don't know really anyone in the military and I just want to say sir," to the captain, "I don't feel I deserve to have heard your story. I don't feel I deserve to have been in the room."
The captain, Army captain, turned out to the man in the back row and said, "Thank you so much for saying that, sir. I, too, feel that I don't deserve to be here." In that moment there was a shared humility between what was happening onstage and what was happening in the audience that created an opening for other people to approach the conversation with a fundamental understanding of our fallibility as human beings. Our brokenness, our ... Democratizing, for lack of a better word, and this really powerful discussion ensued where we're not asking for veterans to understand the civilians and we're not asking civilians to understand the veterans. We're asking people to use their imaginations and to try, to try to make a connection.
We had a performance in Asheville, Oregon and we got to the end. It was mostly veterans, it was Theater of War, and we got to the end of the discussion and I left the room for the audience and I said in my facilitation, "Maybe someone would like to say something that wasn't addressed by one of my extremely leading questions. Someone could have the last word." This woman approached the microphone. She asked for it and she said, "I'm a doctor and I live in this community," and she started to cry. She said, "Hearing these veterans stories tonight I feel compelled to tell mine. I have treated veterans in our community for many years at my practice and I'm ashamed to admit that I have actively ignored what can only be symptoms of psychological trauma and not helped them for fear that by helping them I would aid in the war effort." Then she started to bawl and she says to the audience, "Now I realize how profoundly wrong I was and I promise you I'll never do it again."
For me this is a huge moment because it actually, it embodied and exemplified what a civilian could do. A civilian could bear witness. A civilian could listen. A civilian could actually show humility and acknowledge that people with skin in the game, even if you go to the theater, have way more insight than we theatergoers or even those who did like a few years of...Who cares what training you have, you know? Suffering is training. Life is training. Nietzsche writes this essay in the latter half of the nineteenth century in which he basically asserts in a kind of dig at classicists that the prerequisite for understanding antiquity is life experience so no one should study antiquity until their old, consequently. It's sort of a fallacy and if anyone is going to be a classic professor it's someone who lived to a very old age and lived a full life and then began these studies at the end.
That's how I feel about the reversal, the sort of reversal of culture that we're after. Those who feel they have no proprietary right to be speaking at the public theatre, so-called public theatre, or Lincoln Center or whatever, BAM, all of the sudden come first. They come first because they actually have an insight to provide that no amount of education can provide. No amount of reading.
This woman stands up and she admits malpractice in front of the community. She reveals something morally repugnant about herself and she meets the veteran exactly where the veteran is. In so doing she models something that's even more powerful than anything I've seen at that point and the veterans all approached her and approached me, the ones I talked to afterwards, and said, "You know, that took a lot of courage. Thank you so much for saying it. That was so much better than thank you for your service." The truth is so much better than being called a hero and then ignored. Those are the kinds of things that happen.
I'll just close by saying that I could tell a million stories. We've had people say it's the first time they've spoken to their wives or husbands. It's the first time that their father has spoken from the Greatest Generation. We've had people say that saved their marriages. We've had people check themselves into twenty-eight day treatment programs the next day. We averted an act of violence where someone was planning to kill a group of people and came forward and told us.
If you told me fifteen years ago that I would be making theatre where the words that were said by the actors could have life and death consequences for the audience, how they were said could actually save lives, I would say, "Whatever. That sounds really hyperbolic." But that's what we deal in. The actors that we work with, of which there are over 200, all know that. They know that actually the stakes of just enacting the play are of life and death for many of the audiences for whom we perform.
We did a performance recently at the Brooklyn Public Library of our gun violence project. We engaged with, as a sort of audience building partner, an anti-gun violence organization called "Save Our Streets in Crown Heights". They invited a bunch of young people, many of whom are former gang members, to the performance and then we invited the general public. We had 500 people in a beautiful art-deco temple to learning at the Grand Army Plaza lobby, for Brooklyn Public Library.
Fifteen-year-old gang members or former gang members are sitting next to little Jewish old ladies and they're all talking. The young people want to talk about white supremacy and misogyny. They want to talk about systems of oppression. The old Jewish lady wants to talk about American foreign policy and how we perpetuate gun violence throughout the world and how can we actually solve our domestic problems until we solve the way we approach things outside of our country, violence. This incredible conversation ensues.
Later, after the performance, it was brought to my attention that two rival groups of teenagers came to the performance thanks to our invitations. We had Ashanti, Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Wright and Jumaane Williams, local council member, in the cast. One of them, teenagers, was sort of marked. He wasn't allowed to go back to his own neighborhood. He was staying outside of it and he saw the very youths who wanted to do him harm at the event and after the performance they got together and they resolved their differences at the venue and he was able to go home.
These are all sort of ineffable. There ephemeral. I do sound like an evangelist when I speak about them because there's no proof that what we’re doing, in an empirical sense, results in any of these things. These are just anecdotes, but the power of what we do can be seen in the room and the way I measure the success of an event is against what it seems the community is capable of achieving. For many communities it's just naming the problem and acknowledging it and not doing it alone in your room but doing it with like 500 people in a public space.
For other communities it's going extremely deep. We have a performance, this gun violence project, we did it in San Francisco in this rough neighborhood recently called the Bay View. Really amazing community. People really turned out to this old opera house in the community to hear the play. Frances McDormand, David Straithairn, Reg E. Cathy, and a local actor named Jim Carpenter. The first forty- five minutes of the discussion were just rage. Just rage. Unadulterated rage. I couldn't even get a word in edgewise there was so much rage.
There was a woman who stood up, an African American woman from the community, and she stared down a white woman in the front of the audience and told her that she would take her first born child if the white community did not understand the implications of their actions upon the poor black community in this community. That there needed to be a reckoning of consciousness and that you couldn't simply listen to NPR and call yourself a lefty unless you were getting your hands dirty and coming down, seeing the epidemic of violence and poverty that was there.
After forty-five minutes, though, the audience always corrects for the rage and certainly I've seen it happen over and over again. Someone will stand up and reframe the conversation in a way that's positive. If you give an audience enough time they'll find the solution. The solution isn't kumbaya. The solution isn't a group hug. The solution isn't pretending like we can solve the issue with a play and a discussion but they can solve the issue of how to come together in the space if you give them enough time. But you have to...If the rage needs to be expressed it needs to be expressed and there's a lot of rage out there around these issues, especially around marginalized populations.
The exciting part for me has been learning how to engage with these various communities and learning what to say that will give them permission to go to the places they need to go to without getting in the way and if an event is really successful I and my colleagues kind of dissolve and disappear and all of the sudden the real performance is happening out in the audience and people are saying things like the things I quoted earlier that have just as much prosity and rhetoric and beauty as Sophocles or Euripides or Aeschylus and oftentimes exceed the beauty and prosity and rhetoric of those plays in this mysterious way. People who are totally uneducated, who extemporaneously speaking, are creating a kind of poetry that transcends the performance.
The core question for me at the end of all these years of doing it, I think we as artists walk around acting like we're the shamans. We're the privileged bestowing a gift upon the audience. What if the audience is actually primarily and almost wholly in the position of bestowing the gift? What happens when we approach audience with a true humility for the experiential intelligence that's actually in every room rather than turning down the lights or talking back to the audience? What happens when we allow that intelligence to be expressed and what new things are possible when we approach audiences without condescension, with judgment, with didacticism, but with a real interest in hearing what they have to say?
It's an exciting...There's endless and limitless amounts of work to be done. I just turned forty. I hope forty years from now to scratch the surface of this. I guess the next step for us is that we're trying to get this project, Antigone in Ferguson, into a more commercial or established non-profit setting where we can, with the help of some pioneering and innovative producers, begin to re-socialize the theatre-going audience to expect and want something different of the theatre itself.
We'll never stop doing the field work we're doing with these populations out in the world. That's the most exciting thing that we do and it will always be, but can we actually shake off the crust of the twentieth century and the nineteenth century, at long last, and by way of the ancient world come to a new understanding of what the theatre is capable is doing and remember the tool that is, especially in this time in which the media we consume have created this crazy alternate reality in which we're now living. It's not a coincidence that a reality TV show is the president right now. While theatre cannot be scaled to be the answer to Twitter, at the end of the day it is the answer to Twitter and it has to be done community by community by community.
Michael: We'll post additional information in our show notes that will let you explore the work that Theater of War productions is doing. Bryan, thank you so much for joining us today.
Bryan: Thanks so much for the opportunity. I really appreciate it.
Michael: If you'd like to continue today's conversation please visit HowlRound.com and follow HowlRound and add Theater History on Twitter and Facebook. You can also visit our website at theaterhistorypodcast.net where you can find links to all of our episodes. A big thank you to the staff at HowlRound who make this show possible. Our theme music is the Black Crook Gallop which comes to us courtesy of the New York Public Library's Libretto Project and Adam Roberts. Thanks as well to Tim Cross who designed our logo, and finally, thank you for listening.
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Read Doerries book, "The Theater of War" last year, and it was remarkable listening to him describe the outstanding and meaningful paths his work has taken in the time since. His comments about "talkbacks" are particularly intriguing, given recent discussions I have been privy to regarding their use and potential value.
This is a blog post I wrote early last year, in response to his book, and my own experiences listening to audiences and the contemporary uses of classic text:http://clevelandcentennial....