Theater of War: Sophocles’ Ajax at Vassar

The bottom line for me is: Greek tragedy doesn’t mean anything unless it does something. It’s not nihilistic or pessimistic; the Greeks were life-affirming. The object of watching tragedy as a community is to wake up. There’s a general who stood up after a performance and said, “Sophocles wrote this play to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted.”

 

What are some of your other projects?

Our newest project is a partnership with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health that’s for the displaced people from around the Fukushima nuclear plant. We’re working with a Japanese theater company in Tokyo, and I’m in the process of selecting a text. This will be a real challenge. In Japan, aside from Freudian analysis, there’s no precedent for talk therapy; it’s not a confessional culture.

Every time we cross a cultural divide, I find that Foucault is right: There’s no difference in a power struggle, whether it’s happening in a hospital room or prison barracks. I know when the lowest-ranking member of a community is speaking openly in front of the highest-ranked person, it’s working.

We did a performance in Copenhagen for the Copenhagen Business School designed for a project on xenophobia. They sent the contract two weeks after the shooting in Oslo occurred. It was a moment when this issue could no longer be ignored. We did a project in Joplin, Missouri after the devastating tornado based on the Book of Job, with Paul Giamatti playing Job and David Strathairn playing God in a megachurch for evangelical Christians. We’re doing the Book of Job in Far Rockaway and a gospel church in the Caribbean-American community on the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. We’re like the fire department: When there’s a disaster, people call us.

 

Have you done modern plays?

Our most contemporary play is Conor McPherson’s Rum and Vodka. He’s a Broadway/West End Irish writer who wrote the play when he was 20 years old. It’s a monologue that addresses substance abuse, and we’ve been touring it for the Marine Corps and Army bases.

When the National Institute of Health approached us for a play helping them confront primary-care physicians with their own prejudices and judgments about people struggling with addiction, we got the rights for Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night and did Act Three with Debra Winger and Blythe Danner. We used the play as a way of looking at the present situation of what do we do with prescriptions.

 

What about gun violence? Are there any ancient plays that address the terrible tragedy of these random shootings?

I got a call two weeks ago from Virginia Tech about devising a project for the fifth anniversary of the shooting that occurred there. I’m really struggling. It would be really helpful for our nation if I could find a play with gun violence, but there are very few, if any, dealing with inexplicable gun violence. I’m going back to the Greeks and doing Euripides’ Madness of Hercules. It’s about when Hercules comes back from his 12th labor and finds his house under siege by a local warlord. He goes berserk and kills the warlord, but then enters a state of mind where he can’t discern his enemies from his friends and kills his family with an invisible weapon of divine origin. It’s close to the Glock pistol. It never misses its mark.

 

What is your economic model?

Most of our funding is through institutional contracts, in addition to foundation funding. Not being a nonprofit means I don’t have to respond to a large board.

I now have three facilitators. Phyllis Kaufman is the producing director, overseeing administration; I’m the creative side; and we also employ a former Bard student. Being small and limber is really helpful. For the time being, we’ve found a model that works – although there are moments of feast and famine, extreme exhilaration punctuated by extreme tedium. The next phase will be creating a cadre of people who can do this.

 

Any attempt to gather and preserve the audience responses?

A couple of documentaries have been made about us, and we have cameras set up. I’m writing a book for Knopf on how and why ancient Greek stories are so hugely relevant through the lens of the ordinary people I’ve met.

 

How can Ajax help us understand that most difficult issue of all: suicide?

At the Marine Corps base, I met a soldier who said he had deployed three times to Iraq and Afghanistan and lost every member of his vehicle to suicide. He was the only one left. I’ve heard that again and again.

I don’t think it’s so much about survivors’ guilt, but dealing with the mystery. In the last scene of Ajax, Ajax is alone on a sand dune praying to his gods. A person at a reading said he didn’t think Ajax knew he was going to kill himself, even though he walked away from his family with a weapon. He did it because he was in extreme pain. It’s deeply ambivalent.

Ajax’s brother arrives a millisecond too late, and he says this line: “Where can I show my face, among what men/When I was not where you needed me when you needed me the most?” The play goes a long way to addressing how we forgive ourselves and the person after a suicide. We get insights and forgiveness.

Theater of War’s reading of Sophocles’ Ajax, Sunday, November 3, 4-6 p.m., casting TBA, free Vassar Chapel, Vassar College, 124 Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie, www.outsidethewirellc.com.

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