Turning memories into movements

“This is the transitional season,” announces Deborah Scott with a dab of trepidation. Asheville Playback Theatre is changing its successful format this year, and Scott, the group’s artistic director, admits she isn’t completely sure how the new shows will play out.

“Our overriding concern is [still] to honor each person’s experience,” says Scott.

The company, started in 1995, is known for its unusual structure which relies on audience participation. Shows emerge in this fashion: First, the actors and the audience warm up together. The audience answers simple questions and the actors present those responses in the form of a fluid sculpture. Then someone from the audience tells a tale from his or her life. Once the story has been told, that audience member casts the story by choosing the actors who will play the parts.

Scott recalls one account in which a woman told of her grandmother, who had saved enough money to purchase a sandwich from a local store. It was a time when sandwiches were a novelty, and the grandmother, then a young woman, wanted to see what all the buzz was about. However, when she approached the counter, the shopkeeper turned to meet the eye of a coworker and uttered a single word — “Hillbilly”. Humiliated, the grandmother quickly abandoned her plan and ordered an item — a jar of jam — more in keeping with her assigned station.

“When the story teller cast this story, she chose a black actor to play her grandmother,” Scott remembers. “And when that word Hillbilly was uttered, there could’ve been an echo of Arab, Black or Jew.

Through the universality of such stories, Playback Theatre is boldly venturing in a new direction

“The general move and development has become focused on social change and reconciliation,” Scott explains. The emphasis of Playback has always been on giving a voice to people, and it still is. “Now we’re hearing personal stories and extrapolating a cultural understanding,” she clarifies.

“Our growth as a company echoes the general tendency in Playback Theatre International,” Scott says. The International Playback School in Poughkeepsie, NY, started by Jonathan Fox, has been around for the last decade and tends to determine the direction of Playbacks around the world; branches can be found on five continents.

Fox has facilitated shows where older Germans and Holocaust survivors listen to each others’ memories. There are groups in Ireland where Protestants and Catholics share experiences. Hutu and Tutsi factions have participated in Africa, and mixed-caste audiences have contributed to Playback shows in India. “It’s about personal stories,” Scott muses, “but it’s so much bigger than that, and that’s captured our imaginations here in Asheville.”

Asheville Playback Theatre hit its new direction head-on when the Theatre of the Oppressed, directed by Dr. Augusto Boal, hosted a local workshop last spring. Boal’s company encourages oppressed people in third-world and Southern Hemisphere countries to act out hypothetical situations that might disrupt the status quo. His method is to take an incident and put it into the context of an archetype, or a power role. So, the role of a policeman in a story might be transformed to represent the entire criminal-justice system.

Boal knows a thing or two about oppression. After the publication of his first book, aptly titled The Theatre of the Oppressed, he was arrested, tortured and exiled from his native country for 15 years. The Brazilian-born doctor began his theater work just after completing his degree in chemical engineering at Columbia University in the 1950s. While working with the Arena Theatre in Sao Paulo during the 1960s, he began to experiment with audience participation, first inviting the audience to discuss a play after its conclusion, then inventing a process where the audience could actually stop a performance and suggest different actions to the actors.

From this came Boal’s creation of the “spect-actor,” an audience member fully engaged in the artistic process. Like Playback Theatre, Theatre of the Oppressed depends on viewers’ experiences influencing the action.

Scott enthuses, “We’re excited about the connection between Playback Theatre and Theatre of the Oppressed. We’re exploring how to maintain our Playback integrity while using new techniques as a springboard to look at our society.”

That exploration began in earnest last autumn. “We were performing on September 18 or 19,” recalls Playback Managing Director Raphael Peter. “We had to turn people away because there were so many who wanted to come and relate their stories. At that point, we began to understand that the world had changed. That’s when it became relevant.”

“Right now we’re looking at asking permission to ‘borrow’ some of the stories we come across in a Playback context and use those to experiment with in a sociological sense,” says Scott.

Theater as therapy

Playback Theatre often travels to where there are people whose stories aren’t being heard, such as into addiction-recovery groups, therapy sessions and the prison system. Predictably, “many prison stories are about what got the story teller into prison,” Scott says. However, “that’s an opening to something larger,” she continues. “It’s possible to find those narratives with a specific audience, but with a general audience it will take listening to the stories to choose which one from that evening’s performance we’ll take to the next level.”

The 12-member company rehearses once a week using anecdotes from their own lives. Scott and Peter hope that as the group practices they’ll become more sensitized to the bigger picture, increasingly able to recognize stories that can be stretched to fit the new format.

“This is the first year where the themes have been about social justice,” Peter says. “That’s what we’re about: giving a voice to the community.” Upcoming Playback projects include an addiction-recovery workshop and a Cuban Benefit Show in November in collaboration with Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre and WNC Aids Project.

However, shows “won’t all be hard and heavy,” promises Peter. “There’s always humor involved, too. It’s a balance.”

“Initially I’d like to [try the new format] in the moment,” Scott adds. “We may use some of Boal’s games to weave awareness building into the performance. This keeps the audience from getting too passive,” she insists. “We might even invite the audience to come forward and help create sculptures to illustrate an image from a story.”

Starting Friday, September 20, Asheville Playback Theatre opens its doors at the N.C. Stage Company. Some performances will be centered around a predetermined topic, but experimentation is still the name of the game. “We have a wonderful, loyal following and they’re pretty adventurous, so I hope they’ll go along with us,” says Scott.

Maybe simplicity is the key. As Playback Theatre’s season of transition unfolds, Scott looks back at a recent success involving nothing more than body language. At the Unitarian Universalist Church, she asked the congregation to stand up and angle their bodies into a posture that best expressed what point each person had reached on his or her spiritual journey. “It was so beautiful,” she asserts. “I’d like to explore that more. It’s a non-threatening way to say, ‘Show us.'”

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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