Theater In Conversation
Jumaane Williams and Bryan Doerries with Lucas Kane and Shadi Ghaheri
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and theater director Bryan Doerries reflect on The Oedipus Project and the arts in the current COVID-19 climate.
We first spoke with Doerries, cofounder and artistic director of Theater of War Productions, back in April during one of our lunchtime conversations here at the Rail. We were taken, not only by his view that ancient tragedy can be utilized to engage in communal conversations around trauma, but also by his critiques that much of the contemporary theater world fails to use this powerful art form to engage in such necessary work.
Doerries found a willing collaborator in this mission with actor and then city council member, Jumaane Williams while working on Madness of Hercules in 2016, a project aimed at fostering discussion around gun violence. Since then Williams has become, as Doerries jokes, Theater of War Productions’ “secret weapon”, appearing in many different productions since their first meeting.
This is their latest project together, and it premiered May 7th via Zoom, and reached an audience of over 15,000 people from around the world. The project starred some very familiar names—including Francis McDormand, Oscar Isaac, Jeffrey Wright—as well as featured a discussion with panelists from various New York communities working in direct contact with COVID-19: Anthony Almojera, a lieutenant paramedic with the New York City Fire Department; homeless and housing advocate Paulette Soltani; physician Dr. Robert Gore; and Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation.
We were struck not only by the power of the performance itself but also by the eloquence and intimacy of the hour-and-a-half community conversation that followed, including responses from both panelists and audience members. We spoke with Williams and Doerries the following day.
Lucas Kane (Rail): Last night was the premiere of The Oedipus Project. Bryan, do you want to give us an introduction to what you were doing and the goals of this project?
Bryan Doerries: The Oedipus Project was born out of a conversation with Jumaane Williams asking me if I had anything that we could perform that addresses isolation and the pandemic. We’ve been working on this Oedipus translation for years. We’ve been thinking about it as our environmental climate change project because we thought this theme of intergenerational curses and denying prophecy and ignoring what’s in front of us would be relevant to talking about climate change. Then, when the pandemic hit, it became clear that Oedipus was a plague play written and performed in 429 BC after a plague afflicted Athens. So the idea was to try something that was new for us, performing for an online audience, and see if we could reach people in ways we reached people in live settings. For me, just briefly, I think the metric of success was could we communicate with each other and could we connect?
Rail: Jumaane, this was your first time performing this version of Oedipus, and performing on Zoom. How was that for you?
Jumaane Williams: It was amazing. My first love is drama and acting and I’ve always loved politics and civic empowerment. It’s amazing to have the ability to use my talent in a way that intersects with politics, with empowering people and giving them a space to get away for a second and engage in a conversation that’s probably needed and they don’t quite know how to engage in it.
Rail: Is there a kind of conversation that happens through theater and, specifically, through Theater of War Productions that you haven’t experienced in your time as a tenant organizer and as Public Advocate?
Williams: Absolutely. When I'm tenant organizing or I’m Public Advocate, I’m talking about real things to real people in real time. Sometimes it’s very stressful to focus on that where you are right now. What theater and Oedipus and others are able to do—it allows us to remove ourselves for a second. We’re talking about the same things except there’s a huge space: it’s not necessarily us, it’s other people; it’s not necessarily this pandemic, it’s another pandemic; it’s different leaders—and creates enough distance that you can have a real conversation but it’s close enough that it’s personal.
Rail: Last night you played the Chorus. Is there a specific line of the Chorus that you find particularly relevant to this situation that we find ourselves in?
Williams: Well, there was a line, actually, that was cut by Bryan...
Doerries: [Laughs] You can put it back in!
Williams: In one of the monologues, the Chorus was asking, “Why should I dance?”
That was a very key line for me because I’m often asking, “What’s the purpose of this? Is it having an effect?” But even in the lines that were in there—trying to channel the energy of the person who contains these things was important. Asking “Why are you putting fuel on the flame? Why are you acting so swiftly?” People who act swiftly and don’t think, it never ends well for them.
Rail: Bryan, I know you’ve talked about abolishing the hierarchy in the physical structure of a theater—in a raised stage and lowered audience. It occurs to me that Zoom actually does that in the sense that we’re all here in the same sized rectangle talking to each other. And so I’m curious if you both could respond to what Zoom might allow for in this project of dismantling the hierarchies of culture in theater and society.
Bryan: It's not Zoom that eradicated the trappings and the baggage of 20th century theater that we were still holding onto—it’s the pandemic. We can’t have a proscenium, we can’t have all these bullshit lights with the conceit of naturalism anymore, we can’t have all the ushers yelling at us and telling us where to sit and people scolding us for using our phones. It’s all been levelled. And what’s left is essential. And it turns out that we don’t need anything except human presence and the ability to actually hear and see each other. And we can tell these stories in, I might argue, more compelling ways.
Rail: Definitely, and something that seems so essential to Theater of War Productions is that only half of the performance is actors acting and the other part is this community dialogue where you often have very disparate members of a community—whether they’re police, people formerly incarcerated—all different folks in one room to, as you’ve said, “communalize trauma.” Was that successful last night?
Doerries: I think so. I really do feel like it created a space where people, for the time that we were together, felt connected. Were there things lost? Yeah, you turn it off and you’re alone again. And what’s the half-life of that feeling and does it bolster you? I’m an evangelist for Greek tragedy, because I think it actually brings us hope—not to read it in isolation—but to come together and to face what it implicates about us and who we are (the Oedipus within us, the Jocasta within us, the Messenger within us) and I think it was successful at creating the conditions for people to come together across really disparate geographic and temporal boundaries and to create that sense of community. I’m excited to see where we can take it.
Williams: I was concerned about how people were going to interact because you feed off the people around you and the energy around you. So I was concerned about how people would respond on screen, having maybe never been on a screen interacting like this. I actually found the responses even more intimate and more real than when we’re together in the audience. It might be what’s happening with them, they might have just been waiting for a release. My hero—there were two seniors—one of them was just laid back in the bed, and the husband was in the front. I was like, “I want to be them when I grow up.” They were just chillin’. That’s, I think, the magic of what this does. [It] allowed everybody the freedom to allow you into their space, and vice versa, in an incredible way.
Rail: That panel was extremely eloquent. Every time a panelist spoke, I felt like I saw something that I had never thought of in terms of Oedipus. I’m wondering if you two learned anything about the play that you didn’t initially see?
Wiliams: The one thing that struck out to me and I don’t know if it was a panelist or someone who was watching. I didn’t really pick up on it until she said that Oedipus was okay with killing people until it was somebody he knew. It just hadn’t hit me until right then that, “Oh shit! Yeah that was true then and it’s true now.” That applied to the violence in the play but also applies to other things. Because people very often looked down on “essential workers” when we were fighting for $15/hour for them and now it’s affecting their lives in a way it hadn’t before. The best place to look at this is the people who are now looking for rent relief. The folks we were fighting for for a long time who needed assistance with rent, people pushed them aside or looked down on them or said to them, “Just go to work,” or something like that. These are now the people who need assistance or, if it’s not them, it’s their sister or brother or mother. So now more people are caring about issues that they may not have cared about before. And so that’s what made that kind of just—it really struck me in a way that I hadn’t realized when I was acting in the play.
Rail: One of the things that the panelists mentioned is that we’re all looking forward to this “return to normal.” But you’re talking about how normal was never normal and normal is an injustice and an inequity. I’m wondering, as we all—theatermakers, artists, activists—are dealing with this quarantine, is there any advice that you have for us at kind of the intersection of art and activism as we face the end of this lockdown?
Williams: She’s absolutely correct in saying that the “normal” they want to go back to was unjust, it was inequitable, and it caused a lot of folks to suffer. We don’t want to go back to that, we want to go to a better space. We should use this to learn a lot of lessons and if we don’t, we just wasted this, people perished for no reason. The best thing we could do, is to honor those whose lives were lost, is to go forth and better society. And that's on all of us; from Trump to who is able to eat, who is able to pay rent, who has access to the arts, which are all critical.
Rail: Thank you so much.
Williams: Peace and blessings to all.
Doerries: Thanks Jumaane!
Rail: Bryan, can we keep you here for a minute?
Doerries: Yeah, I’m not going anywhere.
Rail: Last night I thought that this might be the first time I am seeing a Greek tragedy function more or less in the same way that it was functioning 2,500 years ago. Every single audience member was watching it in the middle of a pandemic. And personally, I think I understood and could relate to the circumstances of the play for the first time. Did that discovery bring anything new to you as a director?
Doerries: Yeah, I think that’s a great insight. We always talk about how we try to curate audiences with skin in the game and for this one we wanted to curate audiences disproportionately affected by COVID-19, but the thing is we all have a way in because it affects everyone. Peter Brook often talks about how much we prepare as performers to then engage an audience. Well the pandemic has prepared the audience to engage with the play and with the performers; and when both are prepared, then the scale to which the exchange can go, I think, is much greater in terms of the net effect of communalizing. But I think, as Anthony Almojera was saying last night, now that we’ve been touched by some form of suffering collectively, now the question is: How do we make meaning out of it collectively? When people are in contact with the fragility of our lives and the fleeting possibility of making meaning before we get sick and die—it’s a heightened environment in which to make theater.
And that goes back to also what’s so critical to these plays: the whole Athenian theater was borne out of relationship to these catastrophic events.
Eighty years of war, eighty years of contact with human suffering, eighty years of death. And the plague, in the late 5th century—or around 430 to 427 BC—is just one wave of endless waves of death and destruction that this audience is trying to make meaning out of. And out of that was built this theater; this technology for doing that. And now we are being directed back into contact with what that tool can do. And all that belongs to the 20th century—the entrapments, the mise-en-scène, the construct of what makes theater theater, even experimental theater—begins to fall away in its importance.
I mean, Chekhov used naturalism to address the isolation caused by pestilence in the late 19th century, and it worked well: this idea of confinement and the intimacy that we saw on the screen last night—there is a kind of naturalism—but we are also working with plays that were performed outside for 17,000 people at a time and all that they demand—an intensity that can’t be held within the walls of cultural institutions. So, where does it thrive? In nontheatrical spaces. In non-institutional spaces.
Rail: What do you say to someone who is working within those institutions, who is interested in pushing the line when it comes to theater?
Doerries: I’m really on the fence at this point. There’s still a part of me, at 43 years old, that would like to bring the institutions along. The ones where the really great experimentation has happened, like BAM. I am hoping that the economic consequences of the pandemic are such that they don’t destroy the cultural sector completely, but they strip it down to what is important and force those who are in those institutions to ask the really hard questions. I’m afraid that, rather than doing that, most institutions are just furloughing and firing people, who are actually human resources that could be answering those questions of how do we pivot and adapt during this time to start making new forms that will serve the moment and also that would potentially make us more solvent in the end. Instead, all of these nonprofit institutions—or many of them—seem to be following the behavior of for-profit entities, like: “let’s cut the people first, and protect the product.” That seems so ill-advised, and unfortunately, I think the institutions that follow that route will end up reaping what they sow. And they may not exist after this is over. And, if that’s the case, for those who thought that their line of work belonged in institutions, I have to say that there’s infinite work to be done outside of them. That said, some of these institutions can be really powerful amplifiers. But, there was a pandemic before the pandemic, and there was something diseased about late capitalism and the way that it affected arts and culture.
Rail: Of course, and it’s what Jo-Ann Yoo said in the panel and Jumaane kind of restated, “normal was never normal. It was always iniquitous.”
Doerries: We’ve got to come up with an entirely new economic model to support them. The federal government has to step in. There has to be a wholesale WPA federal investment in the arts that doesn’t rely upon the old structures of the NEA or NEH or the resident’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities—these very anemic, band-aid, barely-hanging-on-by-a-fingernail solutions to the problem, but an FDR-scale New Deal response that treats artists and writers as essential workers in the rebuilding of our society. But I don’t think that artists can solve it for themselves—the economic issue, which is too devastating—and I don’t think philanthropy can solve it because it’s not big enough, and I don’t think these institutions can solve it because the first people they’re going to cut ties with are the very people they’re paying. But again, this is the time for adaptation. Because there is infinite ability when the lights get cut off and the meat supply’s cut off, to make theater in our living rooms and warehouses when we’re able to convene again.
I think the performances are going to be better. But how people actually make a living with something that approximates or comes close to what they have to offer—we need wholesale federal intervention. The idea that wealthy people have to just step up and that’s going to solve this issue for artists is how we got to the sickened place that we’re in right now where we’re beholden to a privileged class of people who consume art.
I was on a board call for a nonprofit arts organization recently and I was just startled by how frozen in their tracks everyone was—all those wealthy people on that call. All that generous spirit of philanthropy and innovation of being behind this arts-based organization—you could just feel the fear and the frigidity and the sort of inability to see outside of the threat to their own privilege. And when people are in that position, how are they ever going to be expected to address social inequality? And the whole nonprofit model is based on that equation. We’re beholden to people with privilege.
Is an ambitious federal response the answer for all time? No. The answer for all time is to build a society that values artistic, spiritual, emotional innovation and technologies over centuries. And then something wholly new can come out of this experience. And I don’t know how far we have to go before that’s possible. And whether—maybe it’s the next plague.
For more information about upcoming Theater of War Productions events, including registration for The King Lear Project on June 11 as well as the next performance of The Oedipus Project on June 24, visit www.theaterofwar.com