Theater of War Frontline NYC: Innovative program employs ancient Greek Tragedy to help medical workers deal with the personal and professional struggles of COVID

Frontline medical workers continue to confront unprecedented professional and personal challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. From their own inadequate access to personal protective equipment to facing impossible decisions about allocating limited lifesaving resources among their patients, clinicians have experienced feelings of betrayal, anger, and fear.

Now, by combining one of the pandemic’s newest forms of communication – the Zoom webinar – with the ancient art of Greek tragedy, an innovative project is reaching frontline medical workers who may be struggling in isolation, providing them the opportunity to name and communalize their experiences, connect with colleagues, and access available resources.

Theater of War for Frontline Medical Providers – developed by Theater of War Productions, the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, and the Johns Hopkins Program in Arts, Humanities & Health – presents dramatic readings by acclaimed actors of scenes from ancient Greek plays for audiences of frontline medical providers to open up powerful dialogue about difficult subjects. In a paper published by The Lancet on July 23, the project’s organizers write “we have found that presenting scenes from ancient tragedies about complex ethical situations for frontline medical providers generates an open, non-threatening space in which health personnel can begin to process, interrogate, share, and bear witness to experiences of loss, betrayal, grief, and other forms of moral suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

July and August performances have focused on the experiences of EMS workers, in partnership with the City’s local EMS union, and the experiences of frontline medical providers at Lincoln Medical Center, a public hospital in the Bronx that it part of the New York City Health + Hospitals network.

Theater of War Frontline NYC

As explained by Dr. Robert Glatter in an article Forbes, “In a nutshell, Theater of War for Frontline Medical Providers’ current approach during the pandemic is this: harness the power and messaging of Greek Tragedy, and use it as a medium to explore moral dilemmas that frontline care providers confront on a daily basis via Zoom Webinars, followed by a debrief that explores real-life issues which mirror the themes that are displayed during the actual production. After the performance, the actors are replaced by four panelists—a diverse group of front-line medical providers—who then respond to what they heard in the plays that melds with their own experiences of caring for patients during the pandemic.”

“This play was a complete translation of what I have been experiencing or witnessing. I haven’t necessarily been in the field, but I work behind the scenes seeing how decisions are made and how they’re implemented and watching my coworkers, my friends, pretty much my family come off their shifts knowing they have to go back home to their families and not knowing if they are going to be able to come back home, when’s the next time they’re going to be able to hug their kids. It’s a very helpless feeling.”

–Emergency Medical Technician, Bronx, NY

More than 900 people from 18 countries attended the EMS performances in July. In a post-performance survey, audience members shared that:

88%Viewing Theater of War Frontline offered new insights about their experience during COVID-19
88%Participating in Theater of War Frontline reduced their sense of isolation.
80%Viewing Theater of War Frontline made it more likely for them to use resources, if needed.
98%Would recommend Theater of War Frontline to a colleague or a friend.

Actors who have participated include Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Frankie Faison, Jesse Eisenberg, and David Zayas.