Playback Revives Interpretive Improv Theater

A modern recreation of the campfire tradition, a theater comprised of neighbors, intimacy, and stories—this is how Playback Theatre was described to the audience at the Pomona College’s Allen Theater on Saturday, Apr. 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 in the play itself: 5-C students, families, and members of the community gathered to absorb the experience and wisdom expressed not only through words, but also through movement, sound, and both physical and spiritual interaction. In Playback Theatre, each randomly gathered audience combines to create a new version of the theatrical style.

Playback Theatre is an improvisational form that transforms stories, childhood memories, anecdotes, and life dilemmas as 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,” said Armand Volkas, Director of the Performing Living Arts Playback Theatre Ensemble. In his welcoming speech he said, “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—interpretation of the story as a dramatic work.

Playback Theatre was first developed in 1970 by the social activist Jonathan Fox, with the goal of positive social change that 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 Volkas. He encouraged each member of the audience to think of a formative or trans-formative experience in the realm of cultural identity, and then to 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 power, guilt, love, and shame. 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 representations of the essence or the emotional weight of the words.

The bulk of the show focused on the transformation and representation of several audience members’ 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, and fears. The high level of physical interaction and interdependence emphasized the tactile aspect of the performance, beyond the surface of words and script.

For their final piece, the actors asked for the most memorable words, phrases, lines, and moments that the audience would take away from the performance. The performers then “played back” the responses in a fluid structure, exaggerating their bodies in an intricate physical puzzle designed to portray 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 and professional 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.

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