Writer and director Bryan Doerries concedes that reading ancient Greek tragedies like Sophocles’ “Antigone” can be boring for some, but what if these plays could be used to address important societal issues like mental health and addiction?
That’s the driving idea behind Doerries’ social impact theatre company Outside the Wire, which “uses theater and a variety of other media to address pressing public health and social issues.” Doerries spoke to a roomful of students, faculty and communities members on Nov. 17 as part of Ithaca College’s annual Distinguished Speaker in the Humanities Series.
During his speech, he discussed the company’s “Theater of War” project. The project uses readings of Sophocles’ “Ajax” and “Philoctetes,” which depict the psychological and physical wounds caused by war, to address important issues facing veterans and service members, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Joined by famous actors like Adam Driver and Jesse Eisenberg, Doerries uses the performances to initiate town-hall-style conversations in hopes of de-stigmatizing psychological injuries and increasing awareness of the hardships many veterans face when they return home.
Doerries was inspired to create the “Theater of War” project after learning about the 2007 scandal at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where soldiers with severe medical conditions were being neglected for weeks or even months at a time.
“We have developed the ability to save lives but also sustain misery,” said Doerries.
He says that the initial response to the project was skeptical, but people began to take it seriously after an early performance of “Ajax” at a mental health conference for Marines in San Diego. Doerries says that the play was able to “disrupt hierarchies,” allowing service members to open up about their issues in front of higher-ranking officers. After that performance, Doerries was contracted by the military to bring the project to soldiers all over the world.
So far, Doerries has presented “Theater of War” to over 60,000 service members, veterans and their families.
Doerries started Outside the Wire following the death of his girlfriend when he was just 26 years old. The loss profoundly affected him, and he says he felt like there was no one he could really open up to about it.
“I ask the question, ‘why do you think Sophocles wrote these plays?’ Some people say he wrote them for himself,” said Doerries. “Well it took me 120 performances to realize that this entire apparatus I was creating for myself, so that I could be around people who wanted to talk about it, to create a space where our defenses are down.”
Doerries also spoke about a new project titled “Antigone in Ferguson,” which addresses the killing of Michael Brown and subsequent events in Ferguson, Mo. For the project, Doerries brought a group of actors to the city to perform “Antigone,” a play that deals with what happens when personal convictions conflict with state law. For the show’s chorus, Doerries put together a choir that included local police officers and activists. He says that the performance served to “break down walls and remind us all of our own humanity.”
Other projects presented by the company include the “Addiction Performance Project,” which uses Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” to incite discussions about drug addiction, and “Prometheus in Prison,” which uses Aeschylus’ “Prometheus Bound” as a catalyst for discussions about the challenges of supervising and rehabilitating prisoners.
Doerries encouraged students to start similar projects to encourage open, honest discussion of social issues in their communities.