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This improv theater plumbs the emotions behind our divisions

Playback theater tells audience members’ stories, seeking understanding across social divides

By Hattie Bernstein

It’s one week before the local sheriff’s office is scheduled to run a gun buyback in Arlington, Massachusetts, a suburb north of Boston. A minister, a police captain, a gun control activist, and a gun owner sit shoulder to shoulder in an upstairs classroom at the local Calvary Church.

They’re part of an audience of roughly 20 people who have come for a performance by True Story Theater, a local acting company that uses no script and only the barest of props: a rack of colored scarves, a few boxes, and an assortment of musical instruments.

Over the next hour, four actors will engage in a form of improv known as “playback theater.” They’ll listen as audience members share deep, personal stories about guns. After each participant speaks, the actors will improvise a scene that responds to the story, evoking its emotions through dialogue, movement, and music.

It’s a short program that goes by fast, but has an ambitious goal. At a time when it’s grown harder and harder to discuss difficult issues, when political divides cause rifts within families and tear apart friendships, the organizers of playback theater believe this particular art form can help heal divisions — by making it easier to listen.

Playback theater has been performed by troupes as far as Switzerland, Lebanon, and Kenya and addressed subjects as varied as aging, mental illness, sexual identity, war, and genocide. In Israel, an all-female troupe of Arab and Jewish actors, From Stage to Change, dramatizes audience stories in hopes of building empathy and support for peace.

Watching a playback performance feels a bit like standing in front of a Jackson Pollock painting. What unfolds isn’t a narrative so much as bursts of energy, ideas presented in drips and slashes. At one point in the Cavalry Church performance, Cynthia Good, the church’s minister, shares a story about her family. She grew up in the Northeast U.S. with little experience with guns, while her relatives in rural Texas learned to hunt as kids. She loves her family, she says, but their cultural differences make her feel lonely. “They’re my relatives. I’m a minister. And I don’t even speak the same language,” Good says.

In Lebanon, Syrian actors have joined playback theater troupes to seek reconciliation among refugees from their nation’s civil war.

When she’s finished, two actors step forward and set a scene. One plays Good, walking into a general store and asking a clerk where she can find the orange juice.

“Go down the gun aisle to the back of the store, next to the ammo,” the actor playing the clerk tells her, matter-of-factly.

The actor frames her eyes with her hands, as if they’re blinders. She marches down the aisle, chanting “orange juice, orange juice,” as if it’s a mantra to keep her safe.

Other speakers’ stories play out in similar ways. A woman named Betty remembers the day, early in her marriage, when her husband taught her to shoot a gun; the actors recreate their interaction at a shooting range.

A man named Johan talks about attending memorial fundraisers for a family whose child died in the Sandy Hook shooting. “We see them every year, and I’m always haunted by their faces,” he says.

The actors’ voices rise, like a Greek chorus wailing. “Their faces. Their tiny child was killed,” they sing. “When I see you, my heart is broken.”

The show ends on that note, followed by a moment of silence, before Christopher Ellinger, True Story Theater’s founder and director, steps forward. “How does it feel to have been seen and heard?” he asks the audience. “What will you carry out when you leave?”

Playback theater is based on the idea that, like music, painting, and other arts, a dramatic performance can lead people into their deeper selves — plumbing ideas in ways that are inaccessible through conversations on social media or at the local coffee shop.

“It slows things down,” said Cat Gilliam, a True Story actor who has performed playback theater for almost 30 years in cities including Seattle and Asheville, N.C. “When a story is shared, embodied, it allows for the viewers to gain insights and perspective.”

In normal political conversations, Gilliam says, people approach listening as a kind of transitional state: they’re preparing their counter-arguments, getting ready to respond. With playback theater, she says, they listen to understand and empathize. The method also gives audiences an opportunity to absorb the storyteller’s narrative and then, with the actors’ help, distill it to its emotional essence.

The playback theatre genre was invented in 1975, just north of New York City, by Jonathan Fox, a writer and former Fulbright fellow who’d studied preliterary epics at Harvard, and his wife, Jo Salas, a musician from New Zealand. Playback theater grew from their backgrounds in storytelling, therapeutic psychodrama, and music. True Story Theater is one of more than 100 acting companies worldwide that use Fox and Salas’ improvisation techniques to address sensitive subjects.

The program has been used in schools, prisons, senior centers, boardrooms, festivals, and migrant camps. In Lebanon, Syrian actors have joined playback theater troupes to seek reconciliation among refugees from their nation’s civil war. In the Lebanese city of Tripoli, a black-clad troupe of young Lebanese and Syrian playback actors tours the city’s neighborhoods, dancing, gesturing, and posing as they act out residents’ stories of the Syrian civil war and a related conflict in Tripoli itself.

Arlington’s Cavalry Church, which hosted the playback about guns, has supported local gun buybacks for years, raising funds for gift cards distributed by the police department. But the goal of the playback wasn’t just to talk about guns. It was to encourage judgment-free listening. In Arlington, a liberal town where 76 percent of residents voted for Hillary Clinton in the last presidential election, “You don’t always want to be outed as a gun owner,” resident Tom Wilhelm told Wicked Local Arlington in 2016. “People will jump to conclusions,” Wilhelm told the local paper: they may label gun owners as “rednecks,” or worse.

Cynthia Good, the minister who organized the playback theater event, said the performance moved the town’s conversation about guns to a deeper level.

“It becomes an ‘I’ experience: Let me tell you my story,” Good said. The point is not to have an exchange or a point. We listen to opposing views. We share and listen. … Particularly in these times, [it’s] important and worth it, because we’ve become so divisive, so mean-spirited.”

Arlington police captain Richard Flynn, who was in charge of the gun buyback, said the playback helped him and fellow audience members see others’ perspectives. “I understand where people are coming from,” he said.

A week after the performance, Arlington residents turned in 27 unwanted weapons, Flynn said. But he was also simply happy to have witnessed the kind of conversation he rarely sees on the street.

“At the end, there was an appreciation in the room, that kind of environment that fosters a little bit better understanding,” said Flynn. He marveled at the power of “people keeping their mouths shut for a few minutes.”

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Hattie Bernstein is a writer based in Royalston, Massachusetts.


Top photo of a team of Syrian actors taking part in a playback theater by Bilal Hussein/Associated Press


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