With Digital Events, All the World’s a Stage

The ancient Greeks used theater to deal with trauma in their communities. Digital technology — through groups like Theater of War Productions — is connecting modern audiences for the same purpose.

Author: Barbara Palmer       

Theater of War

Frances McDormand (clockwise from left), Nyasha Hatendi, and Frankie Faison perform Sophocles’ Philoctetes during a Theater of War Frontline production.

Before the pandemic, if someone had asked Bryan Doerries, the cofounder of Theater of War Productions, whether his company’s performances, which interlace dramatic readings of ancient Greek plays with audience conversations, could transfer successfully to an online corporate communication platform, he would have said no.

“I would have sold you some bill of goods about how theater is about being in each other’s presence,” said Doerries, the company’s Brooklyn-based artistic director. “That it’s about breathing together, about energy and vibration — all this New Age stuff that we use to talk about what’s happening in the theater.” But after a few months of staging presentations on Zoom, Doerries has changed his mind. Performing in a digital platform has been nothing short of revolutionary, he said, affording “an intimacy that I could never have anticipated until this all happened. It is absolutely more direct and intimate.”

What Doerries meant became apparent on a weeknight in December, when the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) hosted a performance of readings from Sophocles’ Ajax on Zoom for its members. (I was invited to observe.) The event was a follow-up to an earlier Theater of War presentation that was part of ACEP’s virtual annual meeting program in October — that session included excerpts from two plays by the ancient Greek dramatist, a project developed specifically for frontline medical workers as a tool to help them discuss the complex challenges they face in the COVID-19 pandemic. (Watch the Frontline initiative trailer below.)

For more than a decade, Theater of War Productions has used that model — presenting readings from Greek tragedies, chosen for how they address difficult themes such as trauma of war, racism, or addiction, followed by conversation. The performances have often taken place at conferences, where the plays function today similarly to ancient Greek times, reflecting moral, ethical, and spiritual quandaries in ways that elicit an emotional response. “The Greeks weren’t saying to their audiences,‘This is you,’ when they were performing stories of the Trojan War in 5th-century B.C.,” Doerries said. “And we’re not saying to audiences, ‘This is you.’ We’re asking audiences to reflect. We’re asking: ‘What do you see of yourself in this?’”

Theater of War

“We’re not saying to audiences, ‘This is you.’ We’re asking audiences to reflect. We’re asking:
‘What do you see of yourself in this?’” — Bryan Doerries, co-founder and artistic director of Theater of War.

In a conference setting, “that’s a totally different proposition than having a PowerPoint presentation … imposed upon you,” he said. Our culture “seems to have an endless appetite for this idea of people of authority speaking from a stage to a large audience that sits in silence. But what if we actually will achieve deeper learning — both ethically and emotionally grounded learning — by empowering the audience to make the connections, rather than asking them to absorb someone else telling them what to think from a place of authority?”

At ACEP’s 2020 virtual annual meeting, discussions in response to the Theater of War readings had been emotionally powerful — and it also had been clear that there was still much more to be said, Doerries said, “particularly about betrayal and deviation from standards of care and moral suffering that frontline emergency medical professionals were experiencing.” To illuminate those issues, Doerries’ company presented scenes from Ajax, the story of a general, revered as a hero, whose intense feelings of betrayal, rage, and shame led to his suicide. The play is the same one that the Theater of War has been presenting for more than a decade to military audiences whose members may be suffering from the psychological effects of combat.

‘I Broke and Ran’

During the Dec. 2 event, three well-known actors — Amy Ryan, Nyasha Hatendi, and David Strathairn — gave readings from Ajax, looking directly into the cameras of their laptops. It felt personal, allowing participants to witness the smallest changes in the actors’ facial expressions and register every quaver in their voices, a degree of access that even a front-row seat at a theater can’t provide. But even more affecting — and more memorable — were the faces and voices of the emergency medicine physicians who spoke afterwards about the effects that the play had on them, and the parallels that they drew to their own lives.

“I was part of the first wave [of COVID cases],” an emergency medicine doctor who practices in Jersey City, New Jersey, said from her living-room sofa. Pre-COVID, she had prided herself on her ability to have difficult discussions about death with patients’ families, she said. “I really think that we give a small piece of ourselves to each [person] that we have that conversation with. But then to do it over the phone or to do it through FaceTime — it was just like a level of change and trauma that was really difficult to wrap my head around.” More than 400 physicians die each year by suicide, she said. “This year alone in my network, I’ve known of nine physicians that have died by suicide. In a normal year, that might be two.” Earlier this year she climbed out of a “depressive hole” that she fell in after becoming ill herself with COVID-19 and dealing with the fear that she would leave her three children motherless. “Now that I’m healthier, I’m just like, I’m going to do everything possible to catch those colleagues that are falling and that are breaking now,” she said. “And unfortunately, there are more of us that are breaking now than ever before.”

“I was an emergency physician for 23 years,” said another physician, a woman who appeared be in her 50s or 60s. “And during that time, I dealt with my stresses and all the anguish of the job by shoving it behind a wall. But at that 23-year point, I broke and ran. I burned out totally. I couldn’t take it anymore. And I think it was because I was not allowing myself to interact with my colleagues, because I was afraid of being seen as weak. I heard that in some of what the [Greek] chorus was saying, and in some of what Ajax was saying: That to be weak was worse than killing yourself. He opted to kill himself rather than be seen as broken.

“I really wish,” she continued, “that I could have had the kind of interaction that you people have described with my colleagues. … I lucked out and did not kill myself.”

For professional communities like ACEP, Greek tragedies “are a perfect Trojan horse to roll into the room,” Doerries said, “because no one’s expecting that this is what’s going to happen — that they are going to be sharing in this way.” But over the years, he has witnessed an incredible thing that occurs, Doerries told the retired physician, “where there’s a virtuous cycle of service, of sharing your story and naming something that other people don’t have the courage or tenacity in the middle of their careers to say out loud, and then giving them permission to acknowledge it exists.”

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams (clockwise from left), Oscar Isaac, David Strathairn, and Frances McDormand perform Oedipus the King. In the Sophocles play, the city of Thebes suffers an epidemic.

Digital’s Superpower

In its nearly 12-year history, Theater of War Productions’ 20 programs have been presented to more than 300,000 people. With the move to Zoom, Doerries said, it’s as if they’ve discovered a new format that not only enlarges their audiences, but fundamentally changes them. One of the “superpowers” that has come from going digital is the ability to bring a diverse audience together, Doerries said. For an event in May, when the company presented readings from the Old Testament’s Book of Job, “we had more than 15,000 people show up from over 40 countries, talking across borders and boundaries.”

Theater of War brings big names to the stage — Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, and John Turturro all have performed in virtual productions this year — but from its beginning, the company’s model put the spotlight on the audience as much as, or more than, it does on the actors’ performances.

“In the past, there were days where we would perform in a homeless shelter in the morning and then at [New York City’s] Lincoln Center at night,” Doerries said. “And there was nothing I could do to impress upon the Lincoln Center audience the depth of the insights that came out of the homeless shelter, because of the whole hierarchy of culture and how we consume it and who has access to it.”

But with digital broadcasts, “we can bring the people from Lincoln Center into the homeless shelter,” he said. “We can illuminate the perspective of people who have just gotten out of prison. We can go right to the frontline workers of COVID and [bring to the] foreground their perspectives and privilege it over those who would normally want to hear a Greek play, which is a very rarefied audience that thinks that they have some authority, and then bring them into dialogue with people all across the planet.

“These are not connections that could have been made were it not for the pandemic and were it not for the necessity of a technology that could lift us up out of isolation,” Doerries said.

“It’s not just the technology of Zoom, it’s the ancient technology of communalizing trauma by way of theater.” Doerries added: “We’re never going back to a model where we’re not broadcasting to 75 countries. There’s too much to be gained. And also, there’s no reason why we can’t go to a hybrid model in the future, where we’re bringing audiences together from all over the planet for every session we do.

“You could never have prepared me for how the pandemic would have accelerated our work and taken it to an entirely new level,” he continued. “I would have been fine if I spent the rest of my life on the conference circuit doing Theater of War. But now we’re touching people all over the planet in this direct way.”

A Place to Talk

“We kind of discovered our model at conferences,” said Theater of War Productions’ Bryan Doerries. One of the company’s first big performances was an evening event for the United States Marine Corps Combat Operational Stress Control Conference (COSC) in San Diego in 2008. Conference attendees “had a choice between free tickets to a San Diego Padres game or to come see this presentation of an ancient Greek play and talk about it.”

That night, four actors read excerpts from Sophocles’ Ajax, followed by remarks by three panelists. “We knew,” Doerries said, “that there was going to be a Q&A sort of session afterwards.” What had been scheduled as 45 minutes of audience interaction ended up lasting for three-and-a-half hours, before it was cut off at midnight, he said. “It was a time when, in the military, it was seen as career suicide to raise your hand to say, ‘I’m struggling with an invisible wound.’ And, at one point, there were 50 people who were standing up, waiting to talk.”

Bringing the performance of Ajax and the Theater of War event to American College of Emergency Physicians members was “one of the most fulfilling experiences of my career,” said Michele Byers, CAE, CMP, DES, ACEP’s managing director of education and management services, “[It was] humbling and inspiring.”

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.

Trailer for Theater of War’s Frontline Medical Providers Initiative


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