PLAYBACK THEATRE CONDUCTOR AS RITUAL GUIDE: The artful and sensitive job of extracting personal stories

Playback Theatre, an applied performance form in which audience members’ stories are acted out on the spot by a team of actors and a musician, is currently practiced across the globe in 70 countries. Playback Theatre, at once ritual and performance, has both entertainment and transformative elements. It is interactive performance which aims to build empathy and connection through personal story. Telling and then watching our life stories reenacted on a public stage is often uplifting and redemptive. The role of the conductor, or the master of ceremonies (akin to the joker in Theatre of the Oppressed) in a Playback performance, requires a complex set of skills ranging from inter-personal to theatrical. The Playback Theatre conductor serves as the liaison between the audience and the actors, and is required to confidently, yet sensitively, solicit sometimes delicate or traumatic life stories from a group of strangers and then artfully pass these stories on to a group of expectant actors. In that sense, the Playback conductor becomes a conduit through which the stories pass. Other metaphors that apply are: the conductor of the orchestra (a Playback conductor needs to make sure the ensemble of actors work together harmoniously) and a train conductor (a Playback conductor needs to keep the event in rhythm and on time). This demanding role requires the ability to multi-task, to have a heightened sensitivity to people s emotions, a keen ear for listening, and a firm understanding of story-shaping.

Playback Theatre, created in the 1970s by my parents, Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas, along with the original Playback Theatre company, was based in upstate New York, was based in upstate New York. Nowadays, there are hundreds of Playback Theatre companies and practitioners across the world. The method was born out of the experimental theater movement, and influenced by J.L. and Zerka Morenos Psychodrama, and the indigenous storytelling tradition of rural Nepal where my father spent two years in the Peace Corps.The goal early on was to create a forum for community stories. My father was the main conductor in the original company and brought definition to the role. These days, there are as many kinds of conductors as there are practitioners, but the basic set of skills and tasks remain the same. My mother and Playback Theatre co-founder,Jo Salas, writes,

Most of all, it is the task of the conductor who must use all her or his resources—her presence; her words and gestures; her eye contact; her warmth; her ability to notice, listen, accept, and include; her confidences; and her strength—to generate a mood where audience members are ready to embrace their role as co-creators of this event.

(2015: 194)

In Playback Theatre, prompted by questions from the conductor (sometimes around a theme), audience members volunteer stories from their lives that range from the mundane to the extraordinary. The telling—and acting—of the stories is improvisational and part of a spontaneous ritual. Typically, Playback is not performed in traditional proscenium theaters which tend to separate the actors and the audience, but instead in smaller theaters, classrooms, or community centers. Playback Theatre is intimate theatre, and in order for the ritual to be successful, the container that is holding the ritual needs to be carefully constructed and cared for throughout the performance. This is the conductor’s responsibility. The conductor first solicits and then reshapes tellers’ stories so that they are clear and concise for both the actors and the audience. One of the essential skills of the conductor is to listen for the essence of the story as well as for the given circumstances. The story may ultimately be about freedom from an oppressive relationship, but the details of the story—the who, what, where, why, when, and how—are equally important so that a dimensional piece of theater can be created by the actors following the story telling.

In Playback Theatre, there are short forms, i.e. Fluid Sculptures, Pairs, Three-Part Story, Tableau,The Beat, etc., which call for moments, feelings, and shorter stories from the audience and serve to warm up the room for the long form, or Stories, when an audience member is invited on stage to tell and cast a longer story from her/his life.This person sits in the “tellers chair,” next to the conductor (two chairs placed downstage right).The actors stand in front of (or sit on) wooden boxes upstage center and the musician sits downstage left, across from the conductor. The house lights never go down all the way at a Playback venue because the audience members are invited to be “ spectators” (to use Boal’s term) involved in the “play,” and feeling connected to the other people in the room or theater is crucial (1992: xxiii).

The conductor, or ritual guide, must be disarming enough for strangers to want to divulge their life experiences, yet authoritative so that the guidelines of the ritual are followed. Some of the “rules” in Playback Theatre are that tellers need to volunteer their own stories and the stories must be true.The conductor does not interfere once the story is passed over to the actors (unlike psychodrama). The teller is prompted to cast herself/himself and sometimes other important characters in the story. And, importantly, the exchange of stories is conducted to generate connection, catharsis, and inclusivity and not meant to be divisive, judgmental, or damaging in any way.

There are several considerations in play for a Playback conductor during a performance (practitioners refer to this as the “conductor’s mind”): Is the audience warmed up enough to tell stories? Who in the room has already told? Whose voices have we not heard from yet? How can 1 inspire a diverse group of tellers? How do we achieve a satisfying artistic and emotional arc to the performance? Do the actors understand both the heart of story and also the important details? Is the conversation of stories flowing or is something else needed in order to build more trust? What has been the connection between stories (which we call the “red thread”)?

When successful, the conductor nimbly guides the audience through the Playback ritual and is able to solicit a range of stories from the audience with sensitivity, efficiency, and finesse. Ideally, this is done in a way that the tellers as well as the other audience members, or witnesses, feel seen, heard, and artistically fulfilled. When unsuccessful, the conductor will struggle to build trust and connection with the audience, and people will be reluctant to raise their hands.

Experienced conductors are always equipped with certain prompts and community-building tools if the performance team is struggling to build a connection with the audience.

In his chapter on the role of the conductor in the anthology' Playback Theatre Practice: Selected Articles (2015), Ukrainian Playback Theater practitioner Volodymyr Savinov outlines five roles that the Playback conductor must occupy at once: friend, psychologist journalist, explorer, and artist (201). Although it is a role that requires wearing many “hats,” when a conductor is able to excavate rich stories from a group and then quietly step into the shadows as the performers act them out, it is a powerful experience for everyone in the room. In her book, Improvising Real Life: Personal Story in Playback Theatre, Jo Salas states,

As a conductor, your job is to ... draw the story out from its home in the tellers memory into the public realm, and to shape it if necessary before handing it to the actors, so that it becomes a living artifact that others can see, remember, be changed by.

(1993: 74)

I have been conducting Playback stories for over 20 years and although it is the role in Playback that feels most comfortable to me, it is one that requires tremendous artistic, psychic, and emotional focus each and every' time.

As a conductor, I usually find myself preparing emotionally for a performance several days in advance. And after a show, I am often exhausted from the job of facilitating stories and holding the Play'back ritual (which typically entails some level of personal transformation and catharsis). Below are four examples from my own conductor experiences over the decades—two that were successful and two that posed specific challenges. In the first story, I learn how critical the warmup stage of the ritual is in a performance workshop. In the second, as a conductor, 1 had to work hard to not re-traumatize the young teller. In the third story, because several of the fundamental elements of the Playback ritual were compromised, my role as the conductor was extremely challenging and even became superfluous. The final story illustrates how remaining authentic and transparent as a conductor can pay off.

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