Using Theater to Address Complex Social Issues

A theater-based approach helps to address complex and critical community issues. Metis evaluation shows promising results in developing new partnerships and engaging audience members in authentic topical discussions.

Willie Woodmore plays the role of Tiresias in a Theater of War Productions performance of Antigone in Ferguson. Photo Credit: Gregg Richards.

Theater of War Productions seeks to serve as a catalyst for generating discussions surrounding complex and critical issues affecting communities. Since its founding in 2009, Theater of War Productions has facilitated events for more than 100,000 people. They presented over 20 tailored programs targeted to diverse communities across the globe, including the United States, Europe, and Japan. While performances initially centered on issues related to combat, the project now focuses on pervasive community issues, such as domestic violence, gun violence, sexual assault, and substance abuse.

Theater of War Production events follow a unique format. First, professional actors conduct dramatic readings of classical Greek and other temporally-distant texts. Next, panelists, who are often selected from the local community, share their reactions to the readings, including how the experiences in the narratives relate to their own lives. This panel discussion is followed by a facilitated conversation, during which attendees offer their individual responses to the performance, often sharing their personal experiences and emotions. Following the discussion, attendees are invited to a reception to continue the conversations and learn about relevant community resources.

PAIRing Up for Evaluation

In January 2017, Theater of War Productions was selected to be the Theater Company in Residence for New York City’s Department of Veterans’ Services, and co-founder Bryan Doerries was named the Public Artist in Residence (PAIR). The two-year residency was implemented in partnership with the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, the NYC Department of Veterans’ Services, and the Brooklyn Public Library. 

NYC’s Department of Cultural Affairs reached out to Metis to conduct an evaluation of the PAIR project.  The evaluation activities included the development of a logic model and the examination of outcomes for audience members and participating communities. Our evaluation design explored the nature and quality of the activities, including recruitment of participants, partnerships, and the nature of the residency’s implementation. We also examined the impact of PAIR as a mechanism to implement and scale cultural programs across NYC and to strengthen partnerships and communications between and across city agencies and local community organizations.

Overall, the evaluation found that Theater of War Productions was highly successful in meeting its goals throughout the residency:

  • A total of 63 events were held across all five boroughs, each of which brought diverse groups of people together for a profoundly moving and bonding experience.
  • Partnerships were created with key city agencies and both small and large community-based organizations, many of which have been sustained beyond the residency.

Theater of War Productions Deepens its Roots in New York City

In January 2019, Theater of War Productions was selected to collaborate with the Brooklyn Public Library and the Mayor’s Office to end domestic and gender-based violence. Under this new residency, Theater of War Productions produced approximately 25 events and projects that centered on eldercare/dementia, gun violence, consent, suicide prevention, and immigration. Concurrently with this residency, the company presented a 10-week run of 50 performances of Antigone in Ferguson at one location in Brooklyn. Antigone in Ferguson was developed in collaboration with the St. Louis and Ferguson community members who were affected by the death of Michael Brown, a teenager who was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

Overall, the second Metis evaluation found that the company was able to sustain existing, as well as develop new partnerships. Additionally, they were able to increase their audience size over time. They fostered authentic discussions at events in which audience members were in dialogue with each other, including such comments as:   

I can’t remember the last time art made me weep.”

I am changed simply from being here for the past hour.”

Moreover, the evaluation found that the Antigone run had a clearly positive effect, as intended, on audience members’ perceptions of Brooklyn Public Library.