Theater of War: Sophocles’ Ajax at Vassar

After some early success with this project, I met some folks at the Department of Defense at a moment when Congress had put pressure on addressing the invisible wounds of war, following the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal. In 2009/10 we toured 100 performances of Sophocles’ plays in Europe and throughout the US, from the Pentagon to shelters for homeless veterans. The second year we developed a prison project and end-of-life program at Harvard.

We’ve performed over 230 times for more than 50,000 servicepeople and their families all over the world, including in Kuwait and Qatar, ten kilometers from the Iraq border, plus Japan and Guantánamo Bay, where I managed to convince a four-star general who commands the Southern Hemisphere to allow us to perform Prometheus Bound for the guards.


What was the discussion like at Guantánamo Bay?

We had in the room Marines who guard the place against Cuba, guards working in the detention camps, a four-star general, the FBI, the CIA and interpreters. People are saying things they never said in a group setting before, ranging from things that were frightening to those left of the left. At the end of the day it’s just a play. Just for a moment the hierarchy dissolves and everyone there is engaged in the exercise, without fear of retribution.


You’re also involved from an educational standpoint with the military.

Yes. We’ve had a longstanding relationship with the English and Behavioral Departments at West Point; they’ve sent cadets to our performances in New York City. The United States Naval Academy in Annapolis has made my translations mandatory reading for the plebes.


What led you to start Theater of War?

I graduated from Kenyon College, where I directed a student production of Euripides’ The Bacchae for my senior thesis. I went to grad school at University of California at Irvine for Theater Directing and set out to direct my own translations, which are about to be published by Knopf and Vintage. I made a decision I didn’t want to go into academia, and I didn’t want to be a barista. I believed there was a way for these ancient plays to speak to a larger audience.

When I was in my mid-20s I started doing readings in hospitals. In listening to the medical students and faculty wrestling with ethical challenges of their jobs and the real-life stakes, the veil lifted. Even though I translated the play from the ancient Greek, I needed audiences who had skin in the game, who could translate it for me and each other, which led me to the military.


Why do your own translations?

In order for our translation to feel fresh, it has to be a living text that relates to the audience. Even though there are many great translations, ranging from the poetic to the literal, very few spoke to me as a director. Most people who translate are removed from the theater, and most translations you will pick up off the shelf still reek of the 19th century. It’s a Victorian-sounding world that’s a huge impediment to performing these texts in the theater.

This whole experience has changed my relationship to the audience. We had a veterans’ court judge who said watching the play is like watching helplessly as a 747 falls out of the sky and crashes at his feet. That sense of urgency has a utility. I want people sitting at the edge of their seat, hearts in their throat. In the ancient-world biography of Aeschylus, it talks about how when the Furies came in the Oresteia trilogy, women in the audience had miscarriages. Arousing people to the point they’re on the verge of something like that is what theater should do.


You say part of the power of the plays is their avoidance of contemporary psychological jargon. Explain more about this.

The core strategy of Theater of War is not to say to the audience, “This is you.” People would be traumatized if this were a photorealist fiction. It’s taking this highly archetypal poetic form and putting it up in front of an audience. It creates a much safer space. People don’t feel coerced or intimidated.


Describe a performance.

It’s an actor sitting at a table reading the script. The actors have minimal rehearsal, because it’s important the audience sees them taking a risk.

It’s subtle and mercurial as a form unto itself. It begins with the performance and ends with the last person in the audience speaking. Some of the things people say have as much prosody and are as rhetorical as a Sophoclean monologue. They extemporaneously improvise. I have to believe it’s because people have these stories in them. A Vietnam War nurse stood up at a performance and was deeply shaken. She said, “It was very hard for me to hear for so many reasons, but if the audience of civilians can hear that, they could definitely hear my story.”


What is the interaction between the military and civilian audience members?

People have no idea the person sitting next to them was in the military. When they hear their story, it has a profound effect on them; it rearranges their molecules. Trust is built. Civilians hear stories of trauma and then talk about losing their own friends to suicide or sexual abuse or being abducted. There’s a pervasive myth in the military that only those who’ve been through the military can understand the experience, but this opens up a pathway for the military to see part of their experience is knowable to others.

A lot of students in the audience stand up and break down crying. A Boston University student at a performance in Cambridge, Massachusetts was asked why she was crying. She said, “Because I had no idea how fundamentally ignorant I am.”

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