Art Works Blog

Theater of War

Washington, DC

David Straithairn, Gloria Reuben, and Jeffrey Wright in a Theater of War production. Photo by Paxton Winters.

The lingering effects of war have long been felt by returning combat veterans. Some of the labels to describe these have included ?soldier?s heart? (Civil War), ?shell shock? (World War I), and ?battle fatigue? (World War II). The term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) only entered the American Psychiatric Association?s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980, after the disorder started being specifically diagnosed in Vietnam veterans. With America?s current mass deployment overseas, and a growing population of returning soldiers attempting to fit back into society, diagnoses of PTSD and depression have been increasingly common and gaining public attention. According to a 2008 RAND study, 20 percent of all Iraq and Afghanistan vets suffer from these debilitating diseases.

One of the surprising treatments for PTSD has been a return to 2,400-year-old language by way of ancient Greek drama produced by a young company called Theater of War. The group presents excerpts from two ancient Greek plays to audiences of service members, veterans, and their families to promote dialogue about the issues faced by soldiers and their loved ones. As the company?s mission statement states, ?[T]his unique, participatory event is intended to increase awareness of post-deployment psychological health issues, disseminate information regarding available resources, and foster greater family and troop resilience.?

Theater of War presents excerpts from plays about the Trojan War, written in the mid-5th century BC by Sophocles, himself a military officer as well as poet. The first, Ajax, tells of a Greek warrior who?s driven to insanity and kills himself. The second, Philoctetes, is the story of a wounded Greek soldier, marooned on an island by his comrades. Read by acclaimed film and stage actors, the two plays are very simple in their presentation---nothing more than performers sitting at a table with their scripts. Following the show are town hall discussions---informal talkbacks with the audience members.

And it?s the talkbacks that are the crux of the matter. The themes of the plays---including mental fragility from combat and alienation from society---have already profoundly touched military bases across the United States, and they?re just getting started. The project has been so successful that the Pentagon has not only taken notice, but has also become a theater producer of sorts. A collaboration between the company and the Department of Defense has enabled Theater of War to give 100 performances in 50 military sites in 2010, including 18 performances in 10 American military bases in Germany this past May. Producer Phyllis Kaufman reported a fantastic reception overseas, where there was a "huge turnout of enlisted members, thanks to enormous support by leadership on the highest level on down, empowering enlisted service members to speak openly at the town hall meetings."

Bryan Doerries, the theater?s founder and director, cautions that the events are not psychotherapy. Still Doerries said, ?We hope our audience members leave the performances empowered to seek out resources and help, feeling less alone in the world.?

Check back on Tuesday for part two of our coverage of Theater of War---a Q&A with Bryan Doerries.

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