Can ancient Greeks teach us something about gun violence?


Euripides might not be the first playwright in mind when starting a conversation about gun violence, but then again, not everyone has the minds of Bryan Doerries and his team at Theater of War Productions. And he’s bringing that conversation to the Riverdale Temple on March 11.

Doerries is the theater’s artistic director, part of a group specializing in bringing to life ancient Greek plays like “Antigone” and “Medea” that address public health and social issues to communities across the country and the world. It’s a way, he said, for people to connect and relate to their modern world. 

“It’s the closest in analog we have from the ancient world to what we have on our streets today,” Doerries said. 

He founded Theater of War in 2009 with Phyllis Kaufman, a former producing director. Last March, Doerries was appointed as the city’s public artist in residence, a two-year program where he’ll bring Theater of War to various communities across the five boroughs. So far, he’s been to places like Brooklyn’s Brownsville as well as Mott Haven in the South Bronx.

The process for a community visit is simple. A group of four actors read a powerful and emotional scene from an ancient Greek play. Shortly after their performance, four members of the community have a chance to respond and react to what they just heard. 

Doerries then asks the audience questions to prompt a discussion, letting the community take it away. 

“We’re not prescriptive about where the conversation goes or how it proceeds as much as we just engage the audience in an open discussion and honor the needs of the community in which we’re performing,” he said. 

When Theater of War visits Riverdale on March 11, actors will read from a scene from Euripides’ “The Madness of Hercules,” a tragedy about how Hercules killed his wife and children with his invincible bow and arrow. 

Although guns came long after the ancient Greek civilization, the reason Doerries believes “The Madness of Hercules” is relevant is because Hercules’ invincible arrow can kill as many individuals as a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle could in a mass shooting.

“Gun violence is on the minds of almost all Americans right now,” Doerries said. “It’s important to us as well that we frame the conversation around gun violence in New York City around the experiences of not just those who experienced a mass shooting, but people who experience shootings every day in their community.”

Doerries finds using ancient Greek plays is more effective than showing a modern documentary. The plays, he said, don’t force self-reflection. It happens naturally. 

“I think when people see their own private struggles reflected in an ancient story, it brings relief to know that you’re not alone in the community,” Doerries said. “But I think most importantly, you’re not alone across time.”

It’s difficult for Doerries to pinpoint something memorable said during one of Theater of War’s community visits because there have been so many captivating discussions.

“We’ve seen and heard some of the most powerful discussions imaginable about some of these very timeless experiences,” he said.

As for the actors behind each of these performances, Theater of War Production has 200 actors at its disposal. In the past, audiences have seen famous people like Paul Giamatti and Jake Gyllenhaal grace their communities.

“It’s kind of like the fire department,” Doerries said. “We book a gig, and then they get a phone call, and then we deploy the actors in whatever part of New York we’re working in.”

While most of them get the occasional call from someone like Steven Spielberg, Doerries said his actors remain committed to Theater of War’s work.

“In general, they make time for this because they think it’s important,” he said.

Looking ahead to his visit, Doerries hopes the audience will “take a broader, more holistic understanding of the violence that’s taking place” in America, as well as in local communities. They might be surprised at what they learn.

“The normal mode of the flow of culture is that we, the artists, are bestowing a gift on the audience,” Doerries said. “But what if the audience is solely in the position of bestowing the gift?”