Sometime in my thirties I became part of a very active Playback Theatre troupe. Playback is an improvisational form in which individuals from the audience tell personal stories and the actors on stage seek to faithfully play the story back to the teller. Doing Playback well is a remarkably challenging practice, one filled with opportunities to honor profound moments in individual lives, and in our collective experience. At it’s best it is a theatre practice of honoring the sacred.
Playback stories come in many forms: playful, sad, angry, loving, passionate, and hysterically funny. Most of the stories people chose to share are tales of transition or transformation, although frequently the teller only discovers that after the story has been played back. I like to think that the actors, when we do our job well, make the sacred nature of stories visible to the teller and the audience, and by doing so, make a space for some healing.
Playback, like many theatre forms, is both a style and a disciple, and one can go to Playback school, an activity I heartily condone. Although Playback aims to create decolonized spaces, here in the US it is haunted by the same ghosts and challenges that confront most of North American theatre: there are remarkably few Indigenous people and people of color in the Playback world, and few people with disability.
Often, when audience members tell stories of discrimination and hardship, actors completely miss the underlying truth of the narrative. Playback companies are often eager to make performances for marginalized communities, but are more hesitant to invite marginalized performers, including actors with disabilities, to join their companies, let alone teach in their training programs. Tellingly, there are a number of companies for people with intellectual disabilities spread around the world, but I know of few companies that integrate obviously physically disabled actors into their ranks. I am grateful to our local company for making me a crucial part of their performance lives for many years.
I stopped performing a few years ago, as the late effects of Polio made the grueling work of rehearsal and performance impossible. Every now and then I will tell a story or two to a few people in an intimate setting. Sometimes the stories work, sometimes not so much. The outcome has a lot to do with whether I can give myself over to the spirit of the story, whether I can allow the story to shape itself to the mood and needs of the audience, and whether I can allow the sacred heart of the tale to shine through.
One of my theatre teachers insisted that Western forms of theatre arose from people’s attempts to give physical embodiment to the sacred. Another teacher, a dear one and a traditional healer, believed that healing happens when the persons in the role of healer and patient both embody the wholeness that is the sacred. He was an inspiration, inevitably shifting form deeply serious to outrageously funny without warning, and just at the perfect moment! He insisted that all healing is theatre, and that laughter is a master healer. He also knew theatre could can be a powerful force for those who do evil, that it can harm, maybe even kill. He was profoundly aware that when we make theatre we are choosing sides in the struggle for healing, and he often asked those who came to him for instruction or aid to think about, “Which side are you on?”