When attending a performance by Asheville Playback Theatre, it’s best to expect the unexpected. With no scripts, memorization or any predetermined performance “plan,” participants rely on the actors to create on-the-spot, spontaneous theater that is entertaining, sensitive and cohesive. The actors, in turn, depend on the courage of the audience to contribute the “material” for the show by sharing a story from their life, which is transformed into a short dramatic sketch.
For the launch of their 15th season at the BeBe Theatre on Friday, Sept. 18, Playback Theatre earned the confidence of their audience, creating a sincere-yet-playful environment to share, listen and watch. Playback’s unique format — a fusion between theater, performance art, and community therapy — is used to recreate or “play back” the extremely personal stories offered, transforming them into both abstract, motion-based skits and more linear, narrative-driven pieces. During the 90-minute show, eight stories were shared, with themes ranging from hilarious childhood memories, to present day fears, hopes, health issues, dilemmas and aspirations.
This is how it works: An audience member is invited to sit in the “teller’s chair” on stage and recount a story or experience that is particularly meaningful to them. These stories are directed at the show’s moderator, played by Deb Scott, who functions as a bridge between the teller and the actors. Scott asks the teller questions and gives each story a title (like “The Journey Towards Love,” “Sandy’s Hummingbird Dilemma” and “Be Careful What You Ask For”). After providing a short summary of the story, Scott turns to the troupe and chooses a “playback form” (an improvisational structure) in which to present the work.
Navigating through an array of emotions and themes, the troupe worked extremely well together, conscious of each others action, yet confident in their delivery in the same breath. The five actors performing in the troupe, Jessica Chilton, Michael Beveridge, Monica Nolan, Mountaine Jonas and Raphael Peter, accompanied by Daniel Barber who played live music for the skits, are well versed and comfortable with the playback forms, jumping into action at Scott’s sound.
Guiding the show with confidence and sensitivity, Scott is a gifted listener, able to encourage the teller to dig to the core of their experience. In many ways it is Scott’s consistency that provides a through-line for the performance as a whole, giving structure to the stories while locating the greater themes within them.
Bringing spunk and enthusiasm to the stage, Chilton is eager to play and her excitement stands out on stage. Her fiery stage presence adds a tremendous amount of energy to the ensemble. Actor Beveridge is an attentive, focused player in the troupe who presented each of his roles with sincerity. Nolan is an actress that knows how to scream, shout and make people laugh. Providing an element of comic relief, she is extremely expressive, prompting many of the laugh-out-loud moments in the performance. An established playback enthusiast, Jonas performs as both an actor and musician. His eccentric personality paired with his wild hair and crisp articulation makes him a captivating character on stage. Longtime Playback actor (and Playback founder) Raphael Peter performs with great focus. He is a veteran of improv, quick on his feet and highly adaptive.
An especially striking aspect of the troupe’s performance was the attention paid to the details of each story told. These actors are attentive listeners, often weaving in quotes and exact phrases from a teller’s story into the drama, which brought the vignettes full circle with poignant endings that reference the voice of the teller. Though the majority of the skits were quite short (often taking a fraction of the time needed for a participant to tell their story), the intentions and goals that drive Playback Theatre are extremely effective. Watching their stories unfold before them, tellers laugh out loud, make exaggerated faces of glee, and even cry on stage. Because these stories are so personal, the emotions expressed on stage are often contagious: exposing the power of being a “witnesses” in the audience.
The goal of this untraditional style is to “build community and address social concerns while reminding the audience of their common humanity.” Today, Playback Theatre is performed all over the world, from small community playhouses to classrooms, prisons and shelter, where it’s used as creative forum for community conversation. Here in Asheville, Playback Theatre has a unique roll in the theatrical community, linking individual experiences with the gamut of emotions that affect us all.
Playback Theatre will perform at the Light Center Dome in Black Mountain in collaboration with In Touch Reiki Center and The Light Center on Saturday, Sept. 26 at 7 p.m.
They will also be performing at NC Stage on Friday, Oct. 2 at 8 p.m. See www.globalplayback.org/asheville-playback.htm or call 670-5881 for details.