Using Theater to Ignite Conversations About Public Health and Social Issues

October 14, 2020

Scott Wargo

Three people in screenshot of Zoom meeting
Marjolaine Goldsmith ’14 (bottom) in rehearsal for a performance of Doctors Without Boarders, presented by Theater of War Productions, with Frances McDormand, and Frankie Faison.
Photo credit: Marjolaine Goldsmith

Marjolaine Goldsmith ’14 fulfills her passion for storytelling and also has the opportunity to confront social injustices through her work with Theater of War Productions. Leading film, theater, and television actors are brought together to present dramatic readings of seminal plays—from classical Greek tragedies to modern and contemporary works—followed by town hall-style discussions designed to confront social issues by drawing out raw and personal reactions to themes highlighted in the plays.

As both cast member and company manager, Goldsmith not only performs in the presentations but is also deeply engaged on the production side, from the ideational phase of a project to managing each element that goes into putting on an event, with an ever changing roster of stakeholders. The chance to work with and learn from such a reputable cast is not lost Goldsmith, but it is the audience that has left an indelible impression on her. “They have changed me on every level.”

Read more about Marjolaine Goldsmith and her work with Theater of War Productions.

You studied classics at Oberlin and were also involved in theater. How did you become involved with Theater of War Productions?

I read Theater of War Productions’ founder and Artistic Director Bryan Doerries’ book The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today, and it affirmed all my formless hunches that everything I cared about was very much connected: ancient stories, acting, civic engagement, confronting a heritage of oppression, our biological need to communalize trauma, and our own ethics with storytelling. I wrote Bryan a letter in the spring of 2016 after I graduated in 2014, and he hired me.

You are both an actor and company manager with Theater of War Productions. How do you balance those roles? Is there a benefit to be able to see things from the two perspectives?

I was hired as both and see it very much as one job. Both are inextricably linked and are all in service of discussion. Especially when we moved our events in May entirely online, much of my work was making technical decisions in line with our values. Every actor’s performance changes based on what is said in the discussions, each event is iterative in that way, we believe that the audience is the translator of these plays.

The actors and the audience are both interpreting the text, live, in the moment, so creating those conditions is central to my work as company manager and as an actor. It's the best boot camp I could imagine. Not only are we using the plays for what they are actually for—to foster discussion—but I also get to work with my heroes, and get to see so many actors—our cast is 250+ and growing—take on the same 20+ plays in rotation so I am learning so much from all the actors and the audience all the time.

The company has partnered with a wide range of institutions and organizations, from the Department of Defense and the Mayo Clinic to the Missouri Department of Corrections and the New York Public Library, to address difficult topics, including war and mental health, racism, and sexual violence. How are these productions able to help foster a deeper understanding of such complex social issues and what has the response been like from those who take in the productions?

Come and see one to find out! All of our events are free to attend, and most are open to the public. Our discussions are not accessory to the performance of the play, they are the main event. We use the plays as a shared text and experience to launch the discussion. We are able to address pressing public health and social issues because they are in the plays. We are not interested in assigning meaning to the plays but we are interested in the infinite possibility of interpretation and we have reverence for the experiential intelligence that is in every room.

A lot of my work is dissolving the hierarchies that are physically built into most spaces: the audience is in the dark, we are acculturated to be silenced, so I am usually the mic runner and the lights are up in the audience, but now Zoom takes care of most of the conditioning that was an impediment for so long. We are all on equal footing if the stream of the experience isn’t one way, relegated to chat with a character limit.

In our events, everyone has the chance to participate and be seen and heard. We put people with the most proximity to the issues we are addressing in the discussion on stage as our panelists, not people with degrees or on a book tour. The panelists replace the actors (who are never heard from again after they read the play). The panelists kick off the discussion and model a way of responding for the audience, using the play as a point of departure for their remarks. The responses from the audience and our panel truly blow me away each time we perform.

I learn the most from our audiences. Even though I studied the plays at Oberlin, and had great professors, I had no idea what these texts were actually about because I had not lived their experiences: combat, survivors guilt, exile, homelessness, domestic violence, suicide, incest, addiction, and the audience translates the plays through their own lived experience. I think sooner or later we all have proximity to these issues. It is our duty to bear witness to the truth of our fellow citizens. We have a stake in the health of the polis, and clearly practicing clinical detachment hasn’t worked so well. So I think we are a public health initiative, to communalize the impact of these issues.

After the performances are completed, they are followed by town hall-style discussions designed to confront social issues. What is one of the more poignant reactions from an audience member that has stayed with you?

There is a different one for each performance, truly. Recently, I have been really moved by EMS officers and Paramedics, and am stunned by a member of the custodial staff of a hospital in the Bronx that got hit severely by the pandemic. She interpreted Oedipus The Kingthrough the lens of her experience cleaning the rooms after patients have died from Covid19. She talked about the double plague of racial inequity and health inequity.

In your work with Theater of War Productions, you interact with a broad range of amazing cast members, including performing with Tracie Thoms and Jason Isaacs in Antigone in Ferguson. What have you taken away from those interactions?

Reg E. Cathey was a huge part of our company, and his spirit still is. I had the privilege of working with him, traveling together, during the first couple of years of my time with the company. I will be forever shaped by his presence, outrageous sense of humor, and incredible talent. While all of our actors are wonderful and incredibly talented and I learn so much from working with them, our audiences are the amazing ones. They are the arbiters of truth. They have totally changed me on every level. I will be forever grateful to each of them for their courage and candor and interpretations of the plays we perform.

Oberlin offers many opportunities for students to explore interests outside of their major area of study. Beyond classics and theater, what course(s) at Oberlin influenced who you are today?

Socialism Real and Imagined with Chris Howell was my freshman seminar that really set me up to see the power of fiction and theory as prisms through which to examine our own social contracts. Realism with Pat Day, which covered so many media (painting, film, books) was hugely eye opening to the many ways to capture reality and that the truth of a story is sometimes communicated better with a seemingly non-realistic approach. Hopeful Monsters and Screening Spirituality with Jeff Pence, which were each really productive in seeing cinema and books as a flexible device, a technology, for capturing a transcendent experience. I also had the opportunity to be in several student films, which became a home outside of the departments.

Mostly, I am so grateful to Oberlin for the proximity to the arts, the Art Rental Program is really the greatest. And the Allen Memorial Art Museum. And the music, there are more than 400 concerts a year, more than one a day, and you can see a harp concert in the afternoon, and a show at the ’Sco, or Chick Corea at Finney Chapel at night.

The HIV peer testers program is frankly the most functional progressive public health program and positive student-run initiative I have ever encountered. It served as an empowered and confidential source of science, truth, and medical care and I hope it is super well funded and I know it was a deeply important stabilizing force for many of my fellow students.

Read more about Theater of War Productions in a recent issue of the New Yorker: Can Greek Tragedy Get Us Through the Pandemic?


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