Chicken soup for the skeptical

Kindness is going soft.

Well-meaning makeover shows and that never-ending series of featherweight pop-psych books featuring “Chicken Soup for” all sorts of various souls — apparently baseball fans and gardeners require different recipes — have largely wrung the radicalism out of kindness. The sunny selflessness they preach, symbolized by gentle acts like underwriting a self-conscious single mother’s nose job or paying for a stranger’s highway toll, seems little match for black-hatted problems like political corruption, terrorism and war.

Asheville Playback Theater this week is partnering with more than 80 other playback companies worldwide to uncover whether there’s more to kindness than smiles and fuzzy sweaters. Global Playback, scheduled to coincide with World Kindness Day, will feature playback troupes on six continents reenacting stories related to the titular attribute.

The event, an outgrowth of an Asheville Playback Theater performance capping Asheville’s Kindness Campaign’s Kindness Week earlier this year, marks the first time playback theater companies have coordinated their efforts.

“There’s this excitement in the playback world,” says Asheville Playback Theater Art Director Deborah Scott. “There’s a tingle.”

Playback is an improvisational form, pioneered in the mid-1970s, in which audience members tell stories about their lives and then watch as troupe members — cast by the lay storytellers — instantly dramatize them. Devotees describe the process, which isn’t therapy but often functions therapeutically, as “magic.”

“When people come to theater like this, there’s some kind of opening that occurs,” says Asheville Playback Theater Managing Director Raphael Peter. “It’s like an oasis.”

According to Peter, Playback has inspired even the most reticent and emotionally guarded audience members to tell deep, dark secrets. He recalls a farmer who quietly attended a number of performances. He arrived one night dressed in a suit and tie, accompanied by his wife. When the call for stories went out, he rose from his seat to confess his infidelity.

“Afterward, we wonder why these people expose themselves so much. But it’s just very universal, very cathartic.”

With only a summer training school to keep practitioners together, playback styles vary widely from one location to another: What rocks Burundi may fall flat in Japan. In coordinating Global Playback, leaders of the 13-member Asheville Playback Theater not only had to cope with the many permutations of playbacking, but also with the many languages spoken by its participants.

“We don’t like to just do light, fun, happy stuff, so at one point I wanted to look at different angles of kindness,” says Asheville Playback Theater founding member Mountaine Mort Jonas. “What about when I wished someone had been kind to me? Or I wished I had been kind to someone? But we were talking to people in different languages all over the world, so it got too complicated. We dropped it.”

Di Adderly, director of Playback Theater Manchester (U.K.), still plans to solicit stories about “moments when an opportunity for kindness was missed” when her group performs at a Baptist chapel on World Kindness Day. She also hopes to tell her own story of kindness, which she shared in a recent e-mail:

“In autumn 1990, I had left both a relationship and the city of London. I (stood) in my new house thinking, ‘What have I done?’ There was a knock on the door. There stood my new neighbour with a tray of coffee and hot buttered toast for breakfast.”

While such traditional modes of comfort and consolation are likely to play starring roles in this weekend’s stories, Scott says her recent contemplations of kindness have forced her to define the concept more broadly. She believes the very act of playback, which often involves highlighting some awkward truths unspoken by the storyteller, is the essence of kindness. Troupe members share innumerable tales of having to subtly transform stories cast as comedy by audience members — such as the high-school senior who jovially recounted shooting his female classmate with a B.B. gun.

“You honor their perspective, but you might have a character say, ‘This doesn’t really feel funny to me,'” explains Scott. “I think honoring people’s stories is really the foundation of kindness: ‘I see people clearly. I don’t project.’ What could be better than that?”

Peter acknowledges that some feelings can be momentarily hurt by the clarifying lens erected by a playback performance — but the human connections it ultimately fosters more than merit the kindness label.

“Kindness,” he ventures, “is being authentic and telling the truth.”

In fact, he adds, “If I’m present and not looking to do harm, it may be perfect.”

Jonas himself was the recipient of kindness via playback when his father died. He learned the news just before playback practice, but decided to go to rehearsal as planned.

“I told everyone what happened, and Deb said, ‘Would you like something played back?'” Jonas says he opted to play it forward, instead, asking theater members to enact his fears of what would occur when he returned home.

“I felt so relieved,” he remembers. “It was a huge service to me. That is kindness.”

[Contributing writer Hanna Miller is based in Asheville.]


Asheville Playback Theater and the Kindness Campaign present a local celebration of World Kindness Day at the Parish of St. Eugene (72 Culvern St., off Beaverdam Road in North Asheville) at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 13. Admission is free. 252-3054.

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