A ten-week free run of Antigone in Ferguson, exclusively supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), came to St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn this summer. As the run comes to an end, we asked Theater of War Artistic Director Bryan Doerries about the show.
Q: Antigone in Ferguson has been extensively performed, including through a five-week free run at Harlem Stage last year. Are there things that continue to surprise you about the way the audience responds and engages?
Bryan Doerries: "We work very hard to curate and assemble diverse audiences with skin in the game. Because of this, we believe that, no matter how many times we perform the play, the audience will always know more than we do. The audience always has new things to say, new insights to reveal, new ways of expressing ideas and emotions. There is a performance on stage every night, which is ever-changing. But in some ways the play Antigone is simply a rehearsal for the real performance, which happens when audience members stand up during the discussion and take the risk of sharing their truths and perspectives often for the first time in public. This act, and the courage that it requires, is electrifying and keeps the project fresh and unpredictable. Every night and every performance is different."
Q: How has Antigone in Ferguson evolved since its first performances?
BD: "When we set out to develop Antigone in Ferguson, the core idea was to build a choir that could not preach to itself, which included activists, police officers, teachers and friends of Michael Brown, concerned citizens, and members of the faith community. In the beginning, we worked mostly with established actors to perform the main roles of the play, incredible performers such as Samira Wiley, Reg E. Cathey, Paul Giamatti, Tamara Tunie, and Kathryn Erbe. Over the past few years, as the project has evolved, we have brought the choir into the performance of the scenes from Antigone. By doing so, we have created one Greek chorus, out of which the actors step to perform their roles and into which they return to sing the choruses of the play. The actors are now a mix of professionals and real people. The actors are, for the most part off book, and everyone learns the music. Tiresias is played by the Rev. Willie Woodmore. Antigone is currently being performed by an 18-year-old singer named Diamond Jones, who had never acted before the current 10-week run in Brooklyn."
Q: How does performing Antigone in Ferguson in a space like St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church impact the performers and the audience?
BD: "By presenting Antigone in Ferguson in a church, we have been able to create the kind of welcoming environment that simply isn’t possible in established cultural spaces. We have eliminated the idea of a box office, and the doors of the church are kept open throughout the performance, so people wandering by can walk in, even for just the discussion. There are no officious people with clipboards and walkie-talkies herding audience members into seats. We have assembled a front of house staff that has the sole job of welcoming people into the space, talking with them, showing them around, and making them feel welcome. This has been a game changer for our work and has paid dividends in the readiness of audience members to receive the performance and, in turn, participate in the discussion. It has also created an environment in which the actors and singers connect more directly and freely with the audience, blurring the boundaries between performers and public."
Q: In addition to directing, you are also the translator of the classical works, like Sophocles’ Antigone, on which Theater of War’s performances are based. How do you balance fidelity to the original with the aims of your productions?
BD: "A play is a blueprint for a felt emotional experience, and not simply a literary artifact. I begin all of my translations from the ancient text. But the core question I’m always asking myself as a translator is: For whom are we telling the story? This informs most of my decision making about the words, idioms, phrases, and vernaculars that I employ. I’m interested in conveying the spirit of the original by way of living language that speaks directly to the intended audience."
Q: Theater of War combats perceptions of the classics as no longer relevant, or as the province only of academics. But are there limits to how broad a public theater based on the classics can engage?
BD: "The question at the center of our work is this. Whose stories are these? Who has the right to be speaking about them? Those of us who were privileged enough to study them in school? Or audience members that know these stories intimately, without ever having heard of them before, because they have lived the extreme experiences the stories describe? Our conviction is that the closer the audience is in proximity to human suffering, the more that audience has to teach us about what these plays are about and what they signify today. Our performances take place in prisons, homeless shelters, housing projects, addiction clinics, public schools, hospitals, hospice units, and public squares. In our model of public engagement, those who are typically invited last to the table come first. And from this perspective, there is no limit to scope of the public that can engage with ancient stories and make them new again."
Q: What’s a classical text that Theater of War hasn’t worked with, but that you’d pick out as recommended reading?
BD: "Our newest project is based on a play by Aeschylus called The Suppliants, about fifty Egyptian women who seek asylum in ancient Argos from forced marriage to their cousins. The play takes place at a border, and we intend to perform it at borders throughout the world. The main argument of the play is that suppliants seeking asylum at borders are sacred and should be treated as such. I couldn’t think of a more relevant or important text from the ancient world to be reading and revisiting right now."
Q: As time continues to pass since Michael Brown’s death, what is the future of Antigone in Ferguson?
BD: "At a recent performance of Antigone in Ferguson, an audience member stood up and said that the name Antigone in Ferguson made sense to her because Antigone was the conscience of Thebes and Ferguson has become the conscience of our nation. The future of Antigone in Ferguson is the future of that conscience, born in Ferguson and spreading throughout the country and the world. Our hope is to bring the project to countless other cities and communities that have experienced radicalized violence and unrest, with the hope of inspiring healing dialogue, restorative justice, and positive action."