There were few empty seats in Kresge Auditorium last night during the 216th production of Theater of War. A simple table with four seats and four microphones appeared on stage. The actors entered, and after brief introductions, began dramatic readings of scenes from Sophocles’ plays “Ajax” and “Philoctetes.”
Labeled a “social impact project,” “Theater of War” selects scenes by Sophocles that deal with a range of emotions including loyalty, abandonment, mental affliction, honor and disgrace. The theme of mental instability and the struggle for empathy while in the throes of injury as demonstrated by Philoctetes transcend their time period and serve as narratives that relate seamlessly to experiences had by the military community and the civilians effected by war.
“Theater of War” is a production of Outside the Wire, a social impact company, and last night’s performance consisted of a reading of scenes followed by a panel discussion about the challenges members of the military face both on the front and when they return home. The actors then engaged the audience in a town-hall style forum.
“Theater of War” has been performed for civilian and military audiences in places as far-flung as Europe, Japan and Guantanamo Bay. Adam Driver of HBO’s “Girls” lent his voice to Ajax and Neoptolomus.
Jennifer Kosak, associate professor of classics, was behind the effort to get Outside the Wire to come to Bowdoin. As a specialist in Greek tragedy, Kosak saw “Theater of War” performed at Boston University and thought it would be a valuable project to bring to campus.
“Tying together these great dramas of antiquity, matters of public policy, interest in theater—all of those strands I think are coming together when we have this sort of thing at this sort of community as opposed to just a military community,” she said. “We can provide multiple perspectives on this event.”
Indeed, the audience at Kresge was made up of a mix of students, faculty, and community members—some of whom had served in the armed services themselves. It became clear after the first few audience comments that the dialogue had a deeply emotional impact on many viewers. Within the first 10 minutes of the conversation, an elderly woman spoke of how her husband, afflicted with PTSD, screamed in the night. Another young woman commented on being the wife of a soldier , and said that she had lost a friend to suicide caused by PTSD.
Driver, known primarily for his starring role in Lena Dunham’s “Girls”, joined the Marines shortly after September 11 and said he identifies with many feelings presented in the Greek tragedies.
Although “Girls” and “Theater of War” could not be more different in content, Driver said he finds fulfillment in contributing to projects that stir up conversation.
“Tying the two projects together, the great thing about that show and this project is that it feels like it is stirring up a conversation,” he said. “To be involved in a show [“Girls”] that’s creating a conversation not just domestically but that also has an international effect is gratifying. It feels active and relevant.”
Bryan Doerries, artistic director of Outside the Wire and the creator of “Theater of War”, facilitated the discussion that followed the readings. With a classics degree from Kenyon College and a directing degree from the University of California at Irvine, Doerries’ idea for the project was borne from his study of Greek texts. He translated the excerpts from Sophocles that make up the production.
“I felt helpless as a civilian reading the newspaper everyday and wanted to do something and all I had was Greek and Latin,” he said.
Each production of Theater of War is very different because the thoughts and reactions of audience members differ enormously depending on the locale and demographics. For a project that started as a performance solely offered to military audiences, Theater of War found a mostly civilian audience at Bowdoin.
“There are not too many students who are directly involved in the military here, but we are members of the community, and students should be introduced to these issues that are affecting people all around us,” said Kosak. “Wars are being fought in our name, wars are being fought in the name of students everyday, and I think that it’s really important for students to be exposed to these ideas.”
While Doerries stated that one of the purposes of “Theater of War” was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” his final message was one of solidarity. In keeping with the transcendental nature of Sophocles’ work, he hoped the audience would leave the auditorium knowing that “You are not alone across time.”