Playback Theatre: Neighbors, Intimacy, and Stories

Playback Theater
Image: Ottawa Phoenix Playback Theater

Published in The Student Life on 4.10.2008

A modern recreation of the campfire tradition, and a theatre of neighbors, intimacy, and stories – this is how Playback Theatre was first described to the curious audience at the Pomona College Allen Theater on Saturday, April 4. The spectators were few, barely enough to fill the seats on one side of the small performance space, but they were diverse and invested: 5C students, families, and members of the community all eager to share and absorb experience and wisdom expressed not only through words, but also through movement, sound, and physical and spiritual interaction.

Playback Theatre is an improvisational form that transforms stories, childhood memories, anecdotes, and life dilemmas told by audience members into theater pieces using music, movement, ritual, and spoken improvisation. “Moments of our lives can be touchstones, full of power and significance,” explained Armand Volkas, the director of the performing Living Arts Playback Theatre Ensemble. In his welcoming speech he stated, “We come to you with no stories of our own; we are open to yours.”

The term “playback” refers to the process of reenacting a personal story shared by an audience member on stage, the “teller,” and producing a surrealistic, funny, or tragic but always very expressive piece of dramatic art.

Playback Theatre was first developed in 1970 by the social activist Jonathan Fox, and the marked direction towards positive social change is evident in each piece of the art form. In the Saturday performance the Ensemble focused on the theme of “Facing Self and Other: Difference and Education” and explored bias, privilege, and oppression in the interest of building togetherness in the community. “Today we invite you to share stories about diversity,” said the director of the group and encouraged each member of the audience to think of a formative or transformative experience in the realm of cultural identity and share it with a neighbor.

After a moment of collective sharing the actors of the Living Arts Playback Theatre Ensemble—Roni Alperin, Christine Kalb, John Kadyk, Allison Kenny, Joyce Lu, and Gina McKuen—put up on a stage blackboard and “responded” to words related to cultural identity and cultural problem resolution. The list included key terms like “origin,” “tension,” “overcome,” “sacrifice,” “power,” “guilt,” “love,” and “shame” and the actors’ response was staged as an improvisational warm-up in which three members of the Ensemble danced in a circle and, under the director’s guidance, created physical representation of the essence or the emotional weight of the words.

The body of the show focused on the transformation and representation of several stories concerning the issues of race, body image, and national and cultural conflict. The acting was deliberately physical and expressive. The actors used their bodies, facial expressions, and voices to portray states of mind, emotions, or fears. The high level of interaction and physical dependence was exceptional and emphasized the ideas of the performance on a highly perceptive level, beyond the surface of words and script.

As a conclusion at the end of the show the actors asked for the most memorable words, phrases, lines, and moments that the audience would take away from the performance and, in response, created, “played back,” a fluid structure by exaggerating their bodies in an intricate physical puzzle that portrayed statements and sentiments like “I can do it” and “I cannot stop listening.”

Part of the International Playback Theatre Network, The Living Arts Playback Theatre Ensemble was established in 1986 as a nonprofit organization working for personal, professional, and organizational growth. It is closely related to the Healing the Wounds of History Project, founded by the same director in 1989, which works for intercultural communication, mutual understanding, and conflict resolution through the expressive arts. This initiative gave the organization international acclaim for bringing together conflicting groups and peoples into peaceful and aesthetic dialogue. The achievements of Playback Theatre as an art form with a social activist direction have been employed in various fields such as graduate education and business management.

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