Power of Playback Theatre

During the break, I took my first ever intersession course. I have often wondered how much can actually be accomplished in only a couple of weeks. Let me assure you, quite a lot can be accomplished in that short of a time with the right instructor and the right motivated students.

I had been talking with Sally Bailey, a Kansas State University professor in theatre and drama therapy about possibilities of incorporating elements of drama into my technology courses. She suggested I try the Playback Theatre course, a drama therapy course that emphasizes improv storytelling, so I signed up to audit the course. I also encouraged my digital media students to take the class since it would count as a humanities elective towards their degree. Playback Theatre was offered in Manhattan, Kansas and our campus is 70 miles away in Salina, Kansas so I didn’t expect many takers. However, one of my students actually did take it with me and it was a wonderful experience.

It didn’t occur to me right away that I had some prior experience with improv theatre in high school. I completely forgot that I went to the Kansas state forensics tournament in “Improvised Duet Acting” as a high schooler, but that was many years ago. In recent years I have also participated in three improv murder mysteries, but when I showed up in the course that first day the tension was palpable. I really felt out of my element.

Most of the students were theatre majors, and most had little experience with improvisation. Improv is really quite different from working with a script. I did see many similarities between what is required of an improv actor and being a classroom teacher. We always have to think on our feet, and respond to the unexpected.

We had four days of preparation before our first performance, not including the readings we did as a class in advance in online meetings. I should say the other students had four days; I had to miss a day which really hurt my understanding of how things were going to work. But I just followed along, and my classmates were really good about getting me up to speed.

There were three basic forms our improvisations took, the fluid sculpture, the narrative “V” and a long form story. The day I missed, they covered the details of the long form story and it took me a while to catch on. The fluid sculpture is basically a sculpture in motion, as a group, each actor responds to a word or phrase given from the audience. Here is a video example of a fluid sculpture. The narrative “V” is where the actors stand in a “V” shape (think geese flying in a “V”) and the lead actor does some expressive movements, along with some narration, while those upstage actors follow along with the leader. Here is an example of narrative “V”.

Forms of Playback.

The long form story is the most complex. After working through the shorter versions of improv storytelling, the audience is ready for a longer story. The “conductor,” in our case it is our professor Randy Mulder of  The Village Playback Theatre in New York,  does the interview and draws the story out from the story teller, helping to cast the actors into the story and giving the narrative some structure. The long form can also require a larger group of performers needed onstage.

Improv really takes a lot of focus and concentration to get it right. Living in our digital world, these are traits I believe we need now more than ever. In the beginning, I continually felt myself drifting away as a storyteller would tell their tale. Not good. You won’t be able to play this back if you don’t get the details down right, I would tell myself. As time went on, I found that I could concentrate longer and not be distracted as easily. I suspect if I continue practicing and performing with the playback theatre troupe, my concentration will continue to improve.

A Student’s Perspective

During our break between performances, we were running through what went poorly, what we could fix, etc. The changes were beginning to overwhelm me. What do you think about dropping the planned form, fluid or narrative V, and just going with your gut? asks the professor. I start grumbling, these changes are too much. Randy sternly says, Bill, stay positive. It’s overwhelming, I say. Here is why I am suggesting this change, he says, and he explains his rationale. I start to breathe again, that won’t be so bad, I think.

I’ve just had another student experience, instead of my usual teacher perspective. That’s one of the benefits of taking a class every now and then, so you don’t forget what it’s like to be a student. I really enjoyed watching Randy teach. The lesson I learned here is when a student is resisting, it might be because they don’t understand what you are trying to accomplish and you need to explain further to re-establish trust.

Taking a risk, doing something a little outside of my nomal comfort zone is what taking this class was all about. Of course, I wanted to learn more about storytelling and I did, but mostly it was about stretching, improving, and learning some new things to help me be a better teacher. Hopefully, my efforts in this class will pay off in spades and we’ll see the benefits in the classes I teach.

Here is one other example of the “out of the box thinking” I experienced through working with this class. I noticed the folding tables of the classroom we were meeting in. We folded them up and created a large acting space we could use. I commented that my classrooms would never give this much space as we had non-folding tables. Randy said he would just flip one table onto another table and slide everything to the side. That’s brilliant, I thought. I never would have considered doing that. I have a computer class with plenty of active learning. In one review exercise, I have them milling around the room, with printed cards of terms & definitions they must know. Our space in the room is tight because of all of the tables, and it doesn’t work very well. Now I’m going to have them do the “flip and slide maneuver” and give us a lot more space. It will create a big spectacle, and send home the message we are about to do something very important, and very fun. I can’t wait to try it!

 Exploring the Room Exercise

In one exercise, we were invited to explore, communicate and interact with our classroom environment. It was a lot of fun, almost like Kindergarten. People were talking to the walls, the floor, the whiteboard, the chairs, even the air. We played on the musical instruments we found. People were crawling on the floor, it was chaotic but fascinating. However, I had just learned I was going to have to drop out of the class, so I just walked around the room sort of in a daze. I later wrote these paragraphs about the exercise on the class message board:

At the time, I didn’t really know why I did it, it just happened. I came to class yesterday with the knowledge that it would likely be my last day with you all and it made me very sad. I was, and still am in a situation that I have almost no control over. Unconsciously, I said a lot in that room exercise about how I was feeling.

I started out wandering aimlessly, but soon found myself scratching the blackboard with my fingernails. I don’t remember ever doing that in my life before. I knew the sound is obnoxious, but I don’t think I ever made that sound myself. Finally, I was regaining some control, unpleasant as it was, as I watched the group’s negative reaction to the sound. Pretty infantile, really. Definitely a reversion to childhood tactics of gaining attention when I was hurting.

Then I looked for and found a place to hide. I explored the acoustics under the table. I used to do this as a kid too. Hide in a closet. Under a bed. In the toolshed when the babysitter wasn’t aware. She’d spend hours looking for me. It was another way to gain some control in a life out of my control.

But I didn’t want to waste the day. I thought about quitting the class after coming home Thursday and learning I would likely not be able to continue with the performances. What’s the point of continuing? But I decided to come back and make the best of it. I’m not a quitter. I couldn’t stay hidden under the table. I had to press on, stay involved.

Shortly after my re-emergence, I noticed those chairs that had been halphazardly placed were now neatly aligned. That would never do. Someone had taken pains to put them like that. I could make some noise by flinging them into the center of the room. At first, it was like the chalkboard noise. Annoy, get some control. I even purposefully dropped people’s belongings off of chairs that I wanted, to see if there would be a reaction.

But then I realized that I could make a really cool sculpture out of these chairs. I could show the “order” people that chaos can also be beautiful. I wanted to pile them up to the ceiling, making them jut out in odd juxtaposition. The artist in me was kicking in. I wanted to do something over the top and amazing. Something that said: I enjoyed my brief time with you so much; please don’t forget about me.

I wish I had made a picture of what happened next. I did pile up around 15-20 chairs in a “sculpture form.” Several people were really surprised by my sculpture. One student walked around it muttering, “this is against the rules… this is against the rules…” Another decorated it with brightly colored fabric. When it was all over, people were curious about why it was made, but I wasn’t ready to talk about it. It took me a day to come up with the written explanation that continues:

loved the post-discussion and everyone’s reaction to the chairs. How Sarah had to “become one” with the sculpture to tolerate it’s presence. How Trecena was at first unsettled by how her neatly aligned chairs were moved and repurposed, but she grew to accept it and even added a dash of color to it. How Ross (wasn’t it Ross?) was so involved in other things that one moment the floor was empty and the next moment – boom- it was there!

This is why we are all artists and performers, isn’t it? To both offer an expression of ourself, and to take in the response of others?

As it worked out, the family emergency that would force me to drop out of the class was being resolved differently so I was able to return to the class for the performance days. And what wonderful experiences those would prove to be.

The Prison

Our first actual performance was at a women’s prison in Topeka. First we took a really long tour of the facility that included minimum, medium, and maximum security areas. Since most of the class had not ever been inside of a prison before, it was pretty fascinating. I remarked to Randy that the minimum security area reminded me more of a school than a prison. He said they even refer to the area as a campus, and the housing as dormitories.

My only other experience of being inside of a jail was when I was temporarily assigned as a guard in my ship’s brig back when I was in the Navy. It is an unsettling experience, even for a guard, knowing that you can’t come and go as you please. I also felt that being on a ship deployed at sea was something like being in a prison, in that you couldn’t leave even if you wanted to. There were times during the 1991 Gulf War when I might go for days without seeing daylight. I wasn’t sure that my analogy was even close to their experience until one of our early short-form stories, when an inmate shared her happiness at receiving two letters from home. I knew that feeling! I was a sailor before the days of e-mail. One of the greatest delights were those delicious words – “Mail Call!” I shouted them out, dancing around in our fluid sculpture, and the audience roared their approval. We connected! I knew how they felt, and they knew it!

The thing that I was most struck by in the prison was the genuine empathy and concern shown by the mental health professionals working there. You could tell that they really cared.

The High School

Our second day of performing was at a local high school, for three drama classes. The most dramatic & powerful experience of any acting performance I’ve ever given happened in this unforgettable long-form story:

Kyle (not his real name), an 11th grader, described developing friendships in Tennessee over a six year period of time and how difficult it was to move. He was in his current school in Kansas for four years, and became distraught as he revealed to us and his classmates that this would be his last year at this school. He talked about being a military dependent, always moving every few years, and how difficult it was to make friends. As he told us a bit about his personality, it was just as described in our textbook; I knew he would pick me to play him because I had also moved a great deal and found it difficult to make friends on each new move. I didn’t particularly want a lead role, I was content to be a supporting character, but as he told his story, I knew I was the person for the job. How he was able to choose me for the role, I don’t know, but it was almost telepathic. Randy says it always happens when actors listen with empathy to the teller’s story. Somehow, some way, the teller knows who will be the best person for the part. It felt like a scene from the Twilight Zone when it happened to me. It was surreal and almost eerie.

When the play began, I could have begun instantly as I already knew how to play the role. However, I simply waited for a time to allow the other performers to think and prepare. I walked on the stage, and began my monologue, and the other actors just played off of me. I described my feelings of unfairness at the situation, how hard it was to make friends, how everyone thought I was weird, how just as I started to fit in, I would be uprooted once again. Now, as an 11th grader, I was going to be asked to move again, to finish my last year of high school in a strange new place. I completely knew how to play the role, because I had lived it. The only thing I didn’t personally experience was moving in my 12th grade year. At least I was permitted to attend all four years of high school in the same school. bu I knew how crushing of a blow it must have been for this young man.

The other students were shocked when he revealed that he would be leaving. Most were unaware that this was weighing heavily on his heart. Some of the students had been treating him badly. I even heard some digs and disparaging comments from classmates while he was telling his story. You could tell that while he was mostly accepted, he wasn’t terribly popular or well-regarded.

So while I’m telling the story, I’m feeling his anguish myself and I have to fight back real tears. Looking back now, I probably should have just let them loose. When I was 17, I would have undoubtedly cried and it was only my hardened, 40-something self that was able to contain them. There was nothing fake or disingenuous in my performance, because I wasn’t really playing a role, I had already lived it and was just playing it back. I felt so badly for him, and I know I felt what he felt. By this time, the audience, and many of the cast members are also in tears. It was easily the best acting performance of my life.

I left the stage emotionally drained, relieved that my group’s set was finished. I couldn’t believe what had just happened and was grateful to have some time to process & recuperate. Our post-performance comments kept returning to this particular story. I don’t tell you all of this to boast or to try to convince you that I’m some kind of wonderful performing artist, but merely to drive home the point of how powerful the medium of playback theatre is, and also so I never forget the lessons myself.

Lessons learned

Here are some things I learned about improv that I think I can use in my teaching:

  1. Don’t second guess yourself. If you’re feeling it’s right, just go with it!
  2. Exude confidence. Lack of confidence ruins the story and the audience’s faith in your ability to do the job.
  3. When you screw up, don’t let on that you’ve screwed up. Think Pee Wee Herman’s bicycle crash- “I meant to do that!
  4. Asking questions implies there is a right & wrong answer. Making statements and affirmations gives them a chance to confirm or deny that you are understanding what they are saying.
  5. Be an intense listener and really care about what they are saying.
  6. There is nothing more powerful than a story.

Can you imagine a computer technology professor putting this sort of knowledge to use in technology classes? How strange, how wonderful! That’s why I do it. A few years ago, I made a decision that life is too short to be too uptight about what others think of me. Of course, as a kid, I struggled with having few friends and behaving in ways that nobody appreciated. There has to be a healthy balance between going your own way without regard for others, and between conforming yourself to social norms that might make you fit in better, but also inhibit you from being yourself. So I began to sing more and to get involved in things like theatre more because those were things I enjoyed as a kid and knew I would enjoy them as an adult. I went two decades without those things in my life, but I’m glad I’ve brought them back into the mix. I’m happier, and I believe a little better now for doing it.



P.S. – For an entire book about how the attributes that make you an oddball as a youth will become the very attributes that make you sought after as an adult, please read The Geeks Will Inherit the Earth by Alexandra Robbins. The book really resonated with me, and I hope Kyle will get the chance to read it someday as well.


One thought on “Power of Playback Theatre

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