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Classics alum helps soldiers heal through ancient drama

Director Bryan Doerries ’98 interprets Greek tragedies believing they were not performed to glorify battle, but to help soldiers connect and heal through community theater.

In 2008, Doerries founded Theater of War, a project that presents Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes to military and non-military communities for free. These plays, according to the project’s website, “timelessly and universally depict the psychological and physical wounds inflicted upon warriors by war.”

Doerries has led over 360 of these international performances, which usually consist of a dramatic reading (translated by Doerries and performed by actors) followed by a panel discussing what audience members can learn from the action. Since he founded Theater of War, Doerries and his colleagues have expanded the theater company to encompass audience members dealing with addiction, incarceration, trauma and the deaths of loved ones. More than provide good theater, Doerries said, these events create safe spaces for people to process their experiences with an audience that is more than willing to listen.

Doerries majored in classics at Kenyon, but discovered his passion for dramaturgy in the College’s theater scene and has been known since for his unique directorial choices. He directed Euripides’ Bacchae as part of his senior thesis, a performance held on the slope outside the Horn Gallery. At the play’s conclusion, the queen of Thebes realizes she has murdered and dismembered her son Pentheus. In Doerries’ rewrite, Dionysus (played by now-Associate Professor of Drama and Film Benjamin Viccellio ’98) pulled up in a horn-blaring, rock-music-playing car, stepped up to the queen and said, “Well, I guess that’ll teach you a lesson.”

“That’s the most brilliant effect, and it was Bryan’s own idea,” retired Professor Emeritus of Classics Bill McCulloh, a close friend and mentor to Doerries, said. “It was utterly unforgettable. I saw it three nights in a row.”

McCulloh recounted several significant moments in his mentee’s career. Doerries performed for long-term care patients in New York City hospitals, was asked by the heiress to the McDonald’s empire to perform in her home and caught the attention of the Pentagon, which offered to finance Doerries’ performances.

Doerries performed in Columbus last year; when the classics department learned of the upcoming tour date in September, they organized a bus ride to the performance. Professor of Classics Carolin Hahnemann and her first-year seminar War and Memory were shocked to discover the impact of classical theater on military veterans and families.

Hahnemann noticed a clear mood shift when the performance’s discussion panel, composed of service people and members of the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation, learned Kenyon students were in the audience. “I had the distinct feeling that they were getting strength from the knowledge that the students were there,” she said.

As the discussion continued, speakers turned toward the students; one woman, overcome with grief for the suicides of her father and fiancé, addressed the students.

“I do believe, because I’m a professor of the 21st century, that many of my students have been close to suicide, so I think it was very relevant,” Hahnemann said. “We’re not just any old group that she is speaking to.”

The performances are generally geared toward people suffering from long-term afflictions, but Doerrries remember this moment. “That night, I guess I’d underestimated how validating it was for many of the veterans and their spouses in the audience to have a group that large of students from Kenyon show up, and be listening so actively, and so clearly moved by what they heard,” Doerries said. “They were training these ephebes, these late adolescents, for some of the harder lessons that life has to offer.”

In addition to his translations of Greek tragedies, Doerries has published a graphic novel and, most recently, Theater of War, a non-fiction epic in which Doerries expounds on his life’s work examining trauma under the lens of ancient Greek texts.

Doerries has never felt himself drift too far from the Hill and looks back on Kenyon with gratitude.

“Every single minute of Kenyon feels unwasted,” Doerries, who still returns to his first-year reading list for ideas, said. “This work feels like the distillation of those four years into something that certainly never would have occurred had those four years never happened.”

Doerries will receive an Honorary Degree from Kenyon in April.