Reordering the Hierarchy of Culture: Bryan Doerries and Theater of War

by Howard Sherman
Tate Donovan and Willie Woodmore in Theater of War's Antigone in Ferguson at Harlem Stage
Tate Donovan and Willie Woodmore in Theater of War's Antigone in Ferguson at Harlem Stage

"Our belief is that when you approach audiences with a reverence for the intelligence and the experience that’s in every room, and the humility for what might be possible, new things are possible in the theatre.” 

Those are the words of Bryan Doerries, founder of Theater of War Productions, which for a decade has been bringing classic works by Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides and others to military audiences, revealing how works that are some 2,500 years old still hold meaning and emotional power for present-day audiences, particularly those dealing with some of the greatest challenges anyone can face. Doerries chronicled his own work with both currently serving members of the military, as well as veterans’ groups, in his 2015 book, The Theater of War. In conversation with SD in November, Doerries suggested that while that work continues, it represented merely Act I of his utilization of the classics, with Act II now underway as the company expands to now serve not only the military but the mental health, medical, prison, justice communities and those affected by disasters.

He states, “The tension between theatre and trauma, theatre and violence, and the idea of the Theater of War being the place where that tension is borne out, lends itself to a metaphoric extension of the idea, so there are many theatres of war. The theatre of domestic violence as it’s playing out in homes. The theatre of racialized violence and police brutality. I see these things.”

In September, Theater of War offered its most sustained New York City run with a multi-week production at Harlem Stage of Antigone in Ferguson, a partially musicalized performance of the ancient play threaded through with gospel and R&B, featuring a rotating cast of professional actors and members of the Ferguson, Missouri community. The text of Antigone was used to spark reflections upon the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, and more broadly the relationship between police and the communities they are charged with protecting.

More fully staged than many Theater of War (TOW) presentations, often just actors seated at tables reading selections from plays translated by Doerries, Antigone in Ferguson saw the readers instead speaking from music stands and literally backed by a gospel choir on risers behind them, with a small pit band to their left. The dramatic sections were not conventionally blocked, and the company wore what seemed to be their own street clothes. There was a basic light plot of color wash illuminating the stage area and sound reinforcement was used by miking the company.

The performance, akin to a concert as opposed to a dramatic production, still featured TOW’s trademark structure – the presentation of selections from a classical work, in this case with musicalized interludes and the occasional soloist stepping forward in song, followed by an extended discussion between the artists and audience. On opening night, the post-performance discussion included Brown’s father and the cast included police officers from the Ferguson community.

For Doerries, the conversation is inextricable from the presentation. “What I care about,” he declares, “is empowering audiences who have had these experiences to find their voices, to articulate their truths, and be validated for articulating their truth – even if I don’t agree with them. We’re not coming in to spread the good news of culture. We’re not coming in to teach people how to consume Shakespeare or the Greeks.”

The nature of audiences, observed by Doerries, who has personally moderated many of the post-show discussions, is essential to Theater of War’s work. “Our best audiences are audiences that are compelled to come,” Doerries explains, “so we get such a broad cross-section of people. The military is such an amazing thing. Whether we like it or not, it’s the grand social experiment where people come from every walk of life. A good two-thirds of them are looking at us with contempt when we start the exercise.” He continues, “I could say the same thing about a prison, or any number of other places where we perform. Judges compel people. We get people who have no idea what this is, no expectation for it other than a general antipathy for the idea of being mandated to do it or compelled to do it, who then move past that to a place where we disappear, and this incredible exchange starts to take place.”

That said, Doerries notes, “The flip side of that is that some of our best audiences are audiences that come seeking something, audiences that heard about what we do – they’re going to be challenged, or the notion of hierarchy in the room is going to be challenged, that they’re going to be kicked in the gut, that they’re going to be made to feel things and not really understand what they’re feeling. They come looking for that.”

The expansion of Theater of War’s subject matter has been eye-opening even for Doerries, after years of work with military and post-military audiences. “We got to engage with audiences that were underserved on a scale that I hadn’t experienced,” said Doerries. “Underserved, undernourished, living in mental health deserts, food deserts, among violence that could only be comparable to war zones, in police states, even if they are only a few zip codes away from where we might live. The value proposition and the thesis that that audience who had experienced more loss, more trauma, more betrayal, more oppression had more to teach us about these ancient myths and plays than we were to teach them was really put to the test.”

The work of TOW was taking place even as Doerries himself had been named a public artist in residence for New York City by the NYC Department of Veterans Services and the Department of Cultural Affairs for the years 2017 and 2018. He described the appointment as “turn[ing] New York City into our laboratory.” Now, as the end of the two-year residence period was drawing to an end, Doerries observes, “It’s been totally transformative for me, for the company, and for everyone involved. It’s changed my politics. It’s changed by objectives as an artist. Everything that I found inspirational that I hadn’t let go of, the idea of professional success within the establishment, is completely gone now.”

He continues that thought, saying, “Even the pursuit of classical texts in my education has come under scrutiny by me. People say, ‘Do you believe there is any intrinsic value in the classics’ and I can’t say yes. That’s how far I’ve come from the original proposition. In my bio, I still call myself an evangelist for classic literature and its relevance to our lives. I’m not sure that’s necessarily true anymore.”

“I am an evangelist for the technology of theatre. By that I mean the boundary-dissolving predictable results that can be achieved when an audience is approached the way we approach an audience. I believe it is in the DNA of the texts we started from and the audiences that we first encountered in the military.”

Given the breadth of issues and populations that Theater of War currently reaches or wishes to reach, it’s inevitable to ask where the company sees itself going beyond its existing programs. He answers, “Two projects we’re going to lead with are a project on dementia and caregiving using King Lear. After that we’re going to launch a project on immigration, refugees, and human trafficking using Aeschylus' The Suppliants and Euripides' The Trojan Women as texts. Then, on the heels of the success of Antigone in Ferguson, the experience of being in one place for five weeks, we’re going to mount a 16-week run of Antigone in Ferguson in Brooklyn. It’ll be free and open to the public. We haven’t landed on a venue, but we have several exciting venues in mind and they will not be cultural institutions. We’re going to open the doors. We’re going to dispense with the box office. We’re going to have front of house. We’re just going to be welcoming to people. The funder who’s behind it is not concerned with numbers and how many people show up each night.”

He goes on to say, “After that 16-week run, we’re going to take Antigone in Ferguson to Baltimore and run it for over two months until Thanksgiving next year.” As the most frequent moderator of TOW’s post-show colloquies, Doerries is quick to make clear, “I’m not interested in franchising this, I’m not interested in going to scale. All of this new expansion is possible because during the residency in Harlem, we did a series of trainings for people to be facilitators or co-facilitators. They are former gang members, combat veterans, violence interrupters, formerly incarcerated people, mental health professionals in the black community – the list goes on and on. Because of these co-facilitators and partners who are now on our team, we will be—and have been—in three cities on one night. We have a diversified group of people who are increasingly going to be the face of the organization, who will be facilitating out in the world.”

But Doerries further makes very clear that in the work of Theater of War, the actors and the facilitators are essential tools, that their own expression is not the goal. “At the core of the work now,” says Doerries, “is this steadfast, unshakable belief that the audience is everything. Until we’re treating the audience at the very least as an equal if not our master, then we are just reinforcing the hierarchy and structure of oppression which makes us feel special for consuming culture in the first place.”