Ritual, art and social interaction

The ritualistic aspect of Playback Theatre provides an important container for the whole experience. The ritual creates a framework, a definition for the process, within which the unpredictable and the miraculous can manifest. When the ritual is held well by the conductor and the performers, there is a subconscious sense of safety amongst the audience. And in this atmosphere, the most profound as well as the most mundane of personal stories will feel welcomed and honoured.

The artistic transformation of the stories into drama provides another level of impact. When this is witnessed as a spontaneous ensemble creation, it offers a deeper experience of our humanity and collective potential. Playback Theatre therefore challenges the performers to listen, allow intuition and inspiration to arise, trust and support each other, and to call upon their innate personal wisdom and experience. So in Playback Theatre training, beyond basic improvisational theatre skills there is an urge to develop greater personal awareness, and self-understanding.

The notion of the ‘citizen actor’ is very much part of the Playback world – that anyone has the natural capacity to perform Playback Theatre in a satisfying way. Playback performers come from many different backgrounds – social workers, administrators, educators. Some are professional actors; many are creative artists, trainers and therapists. However it is an interesting phenomenon that members of Playback companies tend to stay in a company for many years often for little or no remuneration for their time or service. Somehow the values and work of Playback Theatre – the orientation of theatre in direct service to the community – gives more than sufficient reward to the members of a company. And the investment of shared experience over a period of time creates an artistry that can be extraordinary.

A third fundamental aspect of Playback Theatre is in its attention to social interaction. The ritual and artistic response is only meaningful when there is a good cognisance of the whole group experience. This theatre form is in direct service to healing relationship, communication and understanding between people. This is an underlying value, so the conductor interacts directly with the audience with respect and human warmth, and is sensitive to the larger social context of the Playback event. By listening to personal stories we feel and weave the deeper web of our story as a community of people and thus tap into the collective and universal experience. Social change and transformation begins here, as we make space for the stories of the community, through individual voices, and are affected by them.

Sometimes a Playback performance may begin with an explicit theme, and the stories are offered following this thread. Sometimes there is no theme to begin with, and the underlying concerns and interests of the community will reveal themselves through the deeper patterning of the stories. This is not always obvious, and a skilful conductor may be able to bring this to consciousness at the end of the performance.

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