"Why Theater?": A Look into Theater of War

posted by Tyler Pugliese, A.C.T. Marketing Fellow

A poignant examination of the impact of war upon warriors, Theater of War has riveted audiences across the country. On November 13 and 14, A.C.T. will participate in this incredible event, which includes a dramatic reading of Sophocles’ tragedy Ajax, followed by a town hall discussion featuring a panel of local military community members, including a mental health professional. Admission is free, and reservations are recommended. Click here for details.

Marketing Fellow Tyler Pugliese had the opportunity to attend a Theater of War performance in Philadelphia before he started work at A.C.T.

“Why theater?” The question echoed in my mind. I wondered how theater could sincerely display the horror and depravation of war. What could theater accomplish that countless other mediums have not? Theater is often illuminated with human connection, while war is fueled by a lack of emotion and inner turmoil. I have participated in theater and have been obsessed with military history since I was a small boy, yet this combination perplexed me. I looked at the scratchy, chaotic font of the flyer. Theater of War stared back at my skepticism.

I first saw Theater of War performed in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. I walked into the auditorium not knowing what to expect from a reading of a play and a town hall discussion. The play was Ajax, by Sophocles, a Greek tale of the decade-long Trojan War, in which the formidable warrior Ajax faces mental and physical challenges. The audience consisted of veterans, theater enthusiasts, families of soldiers, and dissenters of the current wars. David Strathairn (an Academy Award nominee who will step onto the A.C.T. mainstage in Scorched later this season) masterfully played the parts of Ajax and Agamemnon, and he was supported by other actors from local playhouses. The reading was voiced in a multitude of experienced and powerful vocalizations.

Bryan Doerries, a writer and director who founded Theater of War, led the postshow discussion, enthusiastically pacing the stage like a televangelist. He was as fervent as he was eloquent, and he carefully facilitated an enlightening dialogue between the panelists and the audience. There were opinions contributed from military personnel, the actors themselves, and engaged audience members. The talk was not about the justification of existing conflicts, but rather about the mental vulnerability of those who fight wars. We focused on the shared empathy between a community and its protectors. Although most of us were strangers, we all shared compassion for those with splintered honor and forgotten strength.

One line in particular resonated with me, spoken by Ajax:

“In his madness he took pleasure in the evil that possessed him, all the while afflicting those of us nearby. But now that the fever has broken, all of his pleasure has turned to pain, and we are still afflicted, just as before.”

This discussion could just have easily happened after any struggle, and in any place. The fact that the play was written over two thousand years ago held little sway. If anything, it demonstrated that a warrior’s suffering transcends both time and culture and must be acknowledged before it can be healed. The dialogue could have even transpired in an ancient amphitheater in Greece.

I am enormously proud and excited that A.C.T. is producing this event and bringing it to the Bay Area. The beauty of Theater of War is that it deftly ignores any moral debate on conflict and instead focuses on the combatants and their humanity. It is more than just a dramatic reading or a talk on a tense subject, it is the social embrace of a topic that has always been ingrained in society. It is shocking and cathartic, a perfect exhibit of the power of theater to transform a person, a warrior, and a community.

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