(Alastair Curtis’s article appeared on Frieze, 8/21; Photo: Frances McDormand, Frankie Faison, and Marjolaine Goldsmith in Theater of War Frontline, Mount Sinai, 2020. Courtesy: Theater of War Productions.)

How Theater of War Productions uses ancient stories to lead COVID-19 health workers out of silence and into a healing experience of community

The actor Frankie Faison is cursing into his Zoom camera. He is playing Philoctetes: a once-mighty military general, abandoned for nine years on a desolate island because of his suppurating, foul-smelling foot, the result of a mysterious infection. Now, a young soldier named Neoptolemus has arrived from Greece – Taylor Schilling, in another Zoom screen – reluctantly tasked with stealing Philoctetes’s fabled bow, a weapon prophesied to end the Trojan War after ten bloody years. In Philoctetes, written 2,500 years ago in 409 BCE, the playwright Sophocles presents Neoptolemus with a stark dilemma: can he carry through his generals’ orders, or should he take pity on the sick man screaming before him? 

Watching along with me are 882 doctors, nurses and healthcare workers, mainly based in the US – although in the post-show discussion we also hear from audiences further afield, in South America and Europe. From their Zoom backgrounds it is clear many are between shifts, sat in staff kitchens and hospital waiting rooms. Eighteen months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and this audience more than most knows what it is like to feel as scared and helpless as Neoptolemus in the face of suffering – Philoctetes’s screaming fills them with dread.

These performances occur monthly, free to access online, as part of an unconventional public health project organized by the New York City-based Theater of War Productions. After the show, audiences are invited to respond to the play through their own experience as part of a town-hall-style conversation mediated by a panel of health practitioners and psychiatrists. Since the pandemic began, it has provided a sympathetic, safe space for health workers to share the feelings of upset, shame and horror they have accumulated on the frontline. I witness remarkably cathartic results: tears and smiles of recognition and relief. Much of the audience empathizes with Neoptolemus, and identifies in him their own experience of compassion fatigue – a type of stress derived from helping those who are traumatized.

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