TTT treats the wounds of modern war with the classics

Michelle Hensley says she has learned something about the power of classical theater.

theater of war.jpg“In a funny way it’s almost easier to talk about the issues, when there is that imaginative distance of another time and another place,” she says.

As artistic director of Ten Thousand Things Theater Hensley takes plays into prisons, shelters and other atypical venues. But now TTT is teaming up with the New York-based company Theater of War to try something different, a reading of “Ajax” for an audience drawn from the military community and members of the general public followed by a discussion of the issues the play raises.

The program is the brainchild of Theater of War founder and artistic director Bryan Doerries.

“The idea behind Theater of War is that ancient Greek plays written 2500 years ago by a General officer named Sophocles would have something relevant and meaningful to say 2500 years later to service members veterans and their families,” he said.

On Monday evening a cast of local actors, including Sally Wingert, Bob Davis, Sonja Parks, Luverne Seifert, and Shawn Hamilton, will read the play to an audience at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

“Ajax” tells the story of a soldier returning from battle, deeply troubled by his experiences. His mental turmoil increases and ultimately he commits suicide.

Immediately after the reading a panel drawn for the military community reacts to the play and then the discussion is thrown out to the audience. Monday night’s discussion will be moderated by MPR’s medical commentator Dr Jon Hallberg.

MichelleandSonja.jpg“The reading just serves as a catalyst to the discussion,” says Hensley (pictured here with actor Sonja Parks.) “And the idea is to make a safe place for people, especially people in the military where there is still a lot of shame around PTSD and suicide and thinking of those as signs of weakness,

make a safe place to talk about that, and the costs of war that we all face.”

Theater of War’s Doerries remembers the first time they tried the program about three years ago. As a classics major he went in believing the play could teach the audience something. He says he quickly understood it is the audience which does the teaching. When the discussion began a woman stood up and began to speak.

“She said, after hearing the play Ajax, ‘Hello. I am the proud mother of a Marine and the wife of a Navy SEAL, and my husband went away four times to war, and each time he came back, he came back like Ajax, dragging invisible bodies into our house. The war came home with him.’ And to quote the play she said ‘Our home is a slaughterhouse.'”

ajax.jpgDoerries says every time he attends a Theater of War show he learns something new about the harsh realities military families face.

“I have heard the most remarkable, the most insightful, the most earth-shattering things said about these ancient stories by service members, and veterans, and their family members who have lived lives of mythological proportions,” he says.

Initially the Theater of War events were designed just for the military community, but some participants said this perpetuated the isolation some returning veterans feel.

Hensley says opening up the event to everyone makes it a different experience.

“So by inviting civilians into the reading, suddenly it’s about how does the community deal with the wounds of war, not just the veterans themselves, but everybody.”

There has already been one Theater of War event in Minnesota. A crowd came to the show last Monday at the Rosemount Armory and Community Center.

Michelle Hensley says she was struck by the insight, and honesty of the discussion She says people in the panel talked about recognizing the methodical nature of Ajax’s decision to commit suicide and about the ideas of honor and shame and how that can trigger suicidal feelings.

She says performing plays about issues for people who have experienced them in real life is an intense experience.

“It brings depth and resonance to the play you don’t get when you just do it for an upper middle class audience, which is the usual audience for theater these days,” she said.

Hensley says next Monday’s performance at MCTC is appropriate because of the large number of veterans enrolled in the school. The performances are free but pre-registration is required

Comments are closed.