Theater of War: Ancient Words, Modern Wounds

April 20, 2011Bookmark and Share
Theater of War participants and Columbia student veterans discuss the recent performance on campus. (7:33)
Among the literary names carved above the columns of Butler Library and discussed in Core Curriculum seminars is Sophocles. But the words from his 2,500-year-old play Ajax resonated anew at Miller Theatre on April 5, in a dramatic reading produced by the nonprofit group Theater of War, whose goal is to engage mostly military audiences in difficult conversations about the enduring physical and psychological wounds incurred by combat veterans.
“There is no more appropriate place in some ways to be performing Theater of War, with this diverse group of student-veterans, and students and faculty, than here at Columbia, and we’re really excited,” said the group’s co-founder, Bryan Doerries.
A quartet of actors, including Academy Award nominee Amy Ryan, performed the excerpts. The reading was followed by a panel involving Columbia alumni and student veterans, the wife of a Columbia veteran and a recently retired military psychiatrist. Doerries then led a town hall-style discussion with the packed audience about the challenges faced today by service members, their families and communities.
“I think it helps other soldiers who aren’t yet ready to tell their story to hear that there’s other people that are in pain and having issues as well that are similar to their own,” said Columbia Business School student Jason Bennett, a former captain in the U.S. Army. “And then for the civilians that haven’t gone to war and experienced those things, it helps them to understand the soldiers better.”
Rita Charon, director of the University’s Program in Narrative Medicine, which sponsored the event, said, "When Theater of War approached us with their proposal, we saw immediately that this was an important and urgent example of our work in action."
Columbia MilVets, the school-wide veterans group, and the SIPA Veterans Association helped organize the event. In addition to Amy Ryan in the dual roles of Athena and Tecmessa, the cast also featured Ty Jones as Ajax/Agamemnon, William Jackson Harper as Teucer and Bryce Pinkham as the Chorus.

This marks the second consecutive year Theater of War visited Columbia. Usually, the troupe tours the country’s military academies and bases. Since its inception in 2008, Theater of War has traveled to places such as Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Fort Knox, Camp Pendleton and even to Europe with an impressive rotation of actors that has included Paul Giamatti, Terrence Howard, David Strathairn and Lili Taylor.

Columbia has attracted a growing community of recent military veterans on campus with approximately 340 veterans enrolled in the current semester. More than half attend the School of General Studies which was founded after World War Two in part to provide a Columbia undergraduate education to veterans and other non-traditional students. The school has helped lead University-wide participation in the federal Yellow Ribbon program of education benefits for Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans, who also attend many of Columbia’s graduate and professional schools.

(Editor's note: The actual Theater of War performance and discussion is not in the video to protect the privacy of those in the audience.)

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