Stories have become as much a part of Appalachia as the mountains themselves. The oral tradition runs strong in this region, and Playback Theatre takes it pretty seriously.
“Everyone has a story, and I love stories,” avows Raphael Peters, the troupe’s founder and co-director (with Deborah Scott).
But the stories Playback Theatre uses aren’t dusty tales from the attic. The troupe’s stories are literally sitting right in front of them — in the audience. During a Playback show, audience members tell stories from their lives; the actors then “play back” the story — that is, act it out right there on the spot. In other words, no script.
But if you’re someone who thinks “improvisation and audience participation” is a fancy way to say “yanking people on-stage to humiliate them,” think again.
“It’s not about [the actors] feeling the spotlight,” Scott explains. “It’s about honoring the story. And we’re all there in service of the story.”
“The people in our company really care. It’s not for money, so it’s removed from this bigger venue of ‘I’m an actor, and this is my life’s work, so I’m looking to make a lot of money and go to Hollywood.'”
So what is the point? Conversations with Playback members turn, again and again, on the idea of honoring — and validating — people’s individual stories.
“It’s a service we can provide,” says company member Mort Jonas, “that we can play back something from someone’s life, so they can get some distance on it. … You may think — oh, well, they told the story and you act it out — it sounds very simple. But what we’re learning over the years … is to find all those creative ways to play back someone’s story in a way that’s as unliteral as possible — really working with the images and the symbols and the feelings.”
I got a taste of how this works when I attended a Playback rehearsal at The Harvest House. The group’s rehearsals are intimate affairs, with members themselves providing the tales to be used.
At this rehearsal, Carolyn Brooks tells a very personal story of a visit to family members, a return to the sea she had known when she was younger, and her homecoming to Asheville.
Scott sits beside her, serving as a conductor of sorts. Her job is to help draw out the story and, then, to help the cast members create the piece. Scott herself describes her job as being “a conduit of information and of caring, for both the teller and the audience.”
When Brooks finishes speaking, Scott asks her to pick one of the four actors on-stage to play her. For this story, she casts the other three actors as a chorus — to represent, in turn, the family, the sea and home. The cast goes into action, as Linda Metzner begins to provide atmospheric sounds, using various musical instruments. The actors move slowly and gracefully, using their bodies, voices and props such as pieces of cloth to evoke the strong emotions Brooks has just described.
An actual Playback performance always starts with music. As the audience gets seated, Metzner will play different instruments, to familiarize them with the sounds they might hear during the show.
The cast then introduces themselves, trying to keep the atmosphere informal so that they can begin to bond with the audience.
“We set the tone by how personal we get, so if we’re willing to open ourselves up and be a little bit vulnerable, that sets a tone for other people to do the same,” explains Jonas. “We try to be personal and open, and model for the audience what we’d like to see in them.”
Often, the stories that people share during a performance are of the funniest-thing-that-ever-happened-to-me variety. But the group also likes to dig deeper. “Our ideal show is one in which there’s a really thick mix of funny stories with difficult, poignant, kind of ‘the most difficult thing that ever happened and I haven’t quite gotten over it yet, but I’d like to’ [stories],” says Jonas.
Playback Theatre (also known as The Theatre of Neighbors) is an international network, with groups on five continents. The Asheville group has been around since 1995.
At first, recalls Raphael, “We asked people to make a four-week commitment, to just play and learn the form. … Some were local actors, some were artists, some were in the therapeutic mode.” After the four weeks, “some people stayed, made a commitment of another six weeks, and after 12 weeks, the group was formed.”
Ten of Playback’s 12 members trace back to that original group.
While the group’s diverse membership already includes actors of different ages and from different walks of life, Jonas would like to see the group become more racially diverse, to open up the range of stories told.
Playback Theatre performs monthly at the Forum, at Pack Place. The group, which recently received a grant to work in area prisons, has also performed in schools, as well as private parties, festivals and corporate meetings.
But wherever the troupe goes, stories will never grow cold