Philip Thayer Memorial Lecture

Bryan Doerries uses ancient Greek drama to help modern day warriors and their families

Bryan Doerries Bryan Doerries

Never in his wildest dreams did Newport News, Virginia native Bryan Doerries imagine his passion for Greek drama would end up helping military veterans and soldiers.

But today, nearly two years since he presented his first Theater of War performance to the military, Doerries’ work has exploded, gaining him national recognition and praise—and a more than $3 million contract with the Department of Defense.

In March, as part of the Philip Thayer Memorial Lecture, Doerries shared his experiences and work. Earlier that afternoon, a reading of scenes from Randolph College’s 2010 Greek Play, Hecuba, was held.

The Pentagon has funded Doerries’ independent production company, Theater of War, to enable him to visit hundreds of military sites and bases throughout the world. The intent, Doerries is quick to point out, is not to provide therapy, but to open discussion.

“I see these performances as a public health campaign,” he said, adding that more awareness fosters acceptance of the emotions and real psychological problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, that soldiers face when they return from war. Doerries’ hope is that discussion will help military personnel and their families overcome stigmas about psychological injuries, which in turn will lead to more people reaching out for help.

A translator and director, Doerries has made it his mission to bring new life to ancient drama—and to do what he can to use these stories to help modern-day soldiers.

“These ancient stories don’t belong just to those academics who study them,” he said. “They belong to anyone who can find meaning in them.”

For those who have experienced Doerries’ Theater of War performances, the meaning today is clear.

“When I saw Theater of War performed in Charlottesville, I thought this is something we should all know,” said Susan Stevens, classics professor and the Catherine E. and William E. Thoresen Chair in Humanities. “It forces you to think, and it’s really quite moving.”

Full Theater of War presentations include readings, often by renowned actors, of Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes. These ancient plays timelessly and universally depict the psychological and physical wounds inflicted upon warriors by war. By presenting these plays to military audiences, Theater of War tries to destigmatize psychological injury and open a safe space for dialogue about the challenges faced by service members, veterans , and their caregivers and families. The readings are followed by panel discussions with the audience featuring veterans, soldiers, mental health professionals, family members, and others.

The production bridges the gap between civilians and military, often having an emotional effect on both.

“Once people see themselves reflected in these ancient stories, they begin to make a connection,” Doerries said. “They start to realize they are not alone, and it draws them out. I’ve seen incredible outpourings of emotion that I don’t think are happening anywhere else.”