Community building with Playback Theatre
We cannot hold a torch to light another’s path without brightening our own. Ben Sweetland
My introduction to improvisation was via Playback Theatre. Playback is a form that uses real stories – moments and stories from the audience – as a basis for the enactment. The players use deep listening skills and metaphor to play back the stories capturing the emotion, and sometimes the sub-text. It can be funny or moving or tragic. Anything really. It’s great fun, and a privilege, to perform.
One comment that stayed with me was from Christopher Ellinger, who said that “the purpose of playback is community building”. Improv is not usually associated with community building, so maybe this requires some exploration.
It’s described by TrueStory Theatre like this:
The mission of True Story Theater is to promote social healing by listening deeply to people’s stories and transforming them spontaneously into theater. Our events create a respectful atmosphere where every voice can be heard and any story told — however ordinary or extraordinary, difficult or joyful. True Story Theater offers audiences fresh perspectives, deeper connections, and a renewed appreciation for our common humanity.
I’m reminded of my own experiences learning playback and performing. We built community amongst our dispirate troupe of newbies grappling with the form by turning up each Tuesday evening and telling our own stories: there was the woman minister dealing with the hierarchy and expectations of the Church and her family; the daughter of social workers who had grown up in institutions; the male beautician who went on to become a regular playback performer; the young couple just starting an organic fruit and vegie business. Oh, and I was there too, just starting out on my own in business – and exploring improv for the first time.
We’d share moments from our week, and stories that grew and developed. It was like living in a real-life melodrama serial. And all the while we’d practice listening – listening for the essence of the story, a metaphor, what’s not said and how it could be restated as three sentences. We’d practice each of these in turn, and then we’d practice listening for all four at once. It was the most authentic listening training I’ve ever done. We’d practice playing back, taking on different roles and using different forms. We’d practice accepting offers, and moving the action on. We’d practice speaking up and shutting up. We’d practice making our partner look good. And we’d practice giving, because that’s what playback is all about – the teller giving their story to the players, and the players reshaping it and giving it back. That’s why I also think the essence of playback is community building – it creates shared stories. Your story becomes my story. It creates shared understanding – I can empathise with your experience. And it creates a shared experience, that bonds us and builds connection.
Playback is another manifestation of the power of conversation, telling stories and human connection. And it’s great fun!