The energy released when theater is mixed with real stories is moving. Throw in the comic spontaneity of improv as a catalyst and you get an art form called Playback Theater where “an audience member shares an experience from his or her life and [actors] re-enact it, capturing the heart or essence of their experience.”
I experienced playback theater for the first time Thursday night when a friend invited me to check out his new improv troupe, Playback Theatre West. I spent that entire day preparing to use the snowstorm that had just hit as an acceptable excuse to bail. Yet, as the snowfall slumped right around the evening time, I started feeling a bit more lonely. This coupled with my need for human connection quickly overpowered any sense of social anxiety. After a quick drudge through the snowpack, 20 minutes of driving in circles in a too-gentrified-for-accessible-parking neighborhood of Central Denver, a climb up the dark obscure stairwell on the corner of the Deer Pile venue, and 2 minutes outside the partly-closed door calculating the least rude time to enter late, I found myself sitting in a cozy room of about 15-20 individuals. On stage were 8 actors and a talented musician with a suitcase of instruments ranging from a beautiful baritone ukulele to a cowbell.
Once I heard them say “tonight, we will invite you to share your stories”, I knew I would be hooked. Theater is the suspension of disbelief. Being entertained requires our implicit consent to the fantasy being acted on stage. I can’t think of a faster way to attain our consent than by appealing to our egos. We started out shy but we very quickly grew eager to hear each other’s stories and to revel at the artistic interpretations the actors and actresses would quickly fashion. Almost four days later, and I can still remember the release of suppressed emotions when someone shared a childhood story of being accidentally abandoned by his mother at Seaworld. I can still feel how much I wanted to reach out to the audience member who shared her never-ending battle with wanting to be surrounded by the community of her friends while still longing for the quiet simplicity of staying home and being with herself. I wanted to think of the least paternalistic way to tap her shoulder and say “I feel that everyday, thank you for sharing”.
It was this deep feeling of empathy that made the evening magical. Individuals who were mostly strangers to each other sitting in a dark room and connecting through storytelling. Two hours of practicing raw empathy, one story at a time, was food for the soul. I left that evening thankful to have experienced something that’s increasingly harder to do in our digital age…authentic human connection. I also left with questions.
Could we use playback theater to heal our political divides? What if men had their own stories of masculinity played back to them? What would we heal? What is women shared stories of masculinity? How could we use this art form as a means of social justice?
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