Interactive Theater: We Play Back Your Story!

by Da Ye Kim

There is no script, costume, or a fancy stage. No one knows what the show is about until someone starts to tell a story. You, the audience, are the content of today’s show as we, the members of Playback Theater, literally play your story back to you!

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photos from Playback Theater presentation during the “2014 Educational Theater Summer Workshop” in Seoul, Korea 

Mr. Jonathan Fox and his wife Jo Salas along with their colleagues founded the original Playback Theater in 1975, during “the heyday of participatory culture in America.” (Carpentier, 13) The first Playback Theater started in Mid-Hudson Valley in New York with an aim to create a truly collaborative and interactive theater. Now it has evolved into not only an established performance style, but also an effective method for educational and therapeutic purposes. Playback has challenged theatrical conventions and currently exists in multiple countries around the world. (“History”, Playback Centre website) Playback Theater is “totally improvisational” and its “objective is to act out, using, mime, music, as well as spoken scenes, the personal stories of the audience.” (Fox, 1) The following list explains different parts in Playback and their roles.

            Conductor: A conductor substitutes the traditional role of a director and takes responsibility in leading the performance. He or she acts as a mediator between the teller and the actors.

            Teller: The chosen speaker from the audience. Anyone from the audience can volunteer to become the teller. The teller’s personal story of a real event becomes the source of the performance.

            Actors: Actors improvise the teller’s story spontaneously. They use stylized acting techniques specific to Playback, such as pairs (two opposite emotions enacted by two actors) and fluid sculpture (actors with different movements to complete an active sculpture). Actors can also choose their own characters, except for when the teller appoints certain actor to play his or her character.

            Musician: Musicians accompany the performance and amplify the emotions. Instruments may vary. Just like the actors, musicians should be adept in improvisation.

            Other spectacle elements: Boxes on the stage are not only for seats, but also act as stagecraft with which the actors can play with during the enactment. Colorful cloths are used as props to enhance the aesthetics.

The order of a Playback performance is simple. The actors enter the stage, usually performing some type of dance movements with music. Upon entrance, they sit on the boxes located center stage. The conductor comes downstage, towards the audience, and explains the concept of Playback and invites an audience member to the stage. The volunteered audience, the teller, stands or sits on the side of the stage while telling a personal story. He or she has an option of staying in his or her seat. The conductor asks questions to reveal more details necessary for improvisation. The conversation is followed by an improvised enactment by the actors. Telling and improvisation continue throughout the show. Short interludes of mime and musical pieces may take place between enactments. There is no definite procedure for Playback performance and each show is unique on its own, as it can never be replicated.

The following clips are examples of Playback performance.

When I first heard about Playback Theater in 2013, I was very skeptical because such interactive theater sounded too radical. A direct involvement of audience and a purely improvised theater did not seem “theatrical” enough. However, after experiencing several Playback performances and studying interactive media, I now understand its values. Playback Theater is a successful example in which interactivity merges with conventions to create a new, democratic kind of art.

Playback Theater explores the “potentials for interaction and participation fed into the cultural democratization” (Carpentier, 11) by completely dismantling the infamous fourth wall between the audience and the stage. Diverse roles in the performance are democratized and the show becomes a collective experience. Fox compares Playback with pre-literary drama in respect to its “communal aspect”. (Fox, 33) The director gives up the authorial role in the production. The actors do not have any script to build up their characters, but they have to improvise spontaneously. The audience is no longer confined in their seats and can voice their stories in the performance. In fact, when the teller is not satisfied with the enactment, he or she may ask the actors to redo the scene. There is no hierarchy in parts and everyone contributes to the making of the performance. The audience, traditionally considered as the passive viewer of the play, provides the source of the performance, which is the object of the show. The active interaction between the audience and the artists creates the art. The arguments in object-oriented theory, which locate the subject and object on the same ontological level, are represented in the process. (Barker, 66) They are even heightened because the distinction between the object and the subject is further complicated in Playback.

Democratization of roles, however, does not mean that each part loses its integrity. Since everyone’s contribution is important, individual responsibility is also emphasized in Playback. That is why Jonathan Fox devotes long chapters in his book explaining the altered states of roles and their subsequent expectations. The conductor, a unique character in Playback, plays an “intermediary” (Fox, 121) part, which is equivalent to an interface in terms of other interactive media. As an interface, the conductor is responsible for ensuring “symbiotic, mutual knowledge, mutual beliefs, and mutual assumptions” (Hutamo, 82) between the actors and the teller before the enactment begins. He or she must ask appropriate questions to uncover enough details in the story for the actors and be simultaneously conscious of not going too deep into questions so that the teller would feel safe in telling. Honest recalling of a personal story from the teller and an open mind to take risks in playing any type of characters from the actors are also required for a successful Playback session. I have seen very sloppy performances where it was obvious that the teller was making up a story or the conductor was too blunt in asking questions which eventually shut down the teller’s story or the actors’ enactment was too straightforward without any stylized acting. In order to avoid these faults, Playback members have to be trained and the audience should commit themselves to share stories.

Another level of democratization occurs in Playback performances as the boundary between life and art also breaks down. Allan Kaprow, the coordinator of the first Happening, a participatory art movement commenced in the U.S., “emphasized that the line between art and life should be kept fluid, and the source of the happening should originate from outside the arts.” (Carpentier, 13) In non-scripted theater like Playback, the raw material of art comes from the audience, not from books. Ordinary people’s daily life meets the aesthetics to be transformed into an artistic experience or someone’s personal secret is exposed through a careful, dramatic enactment. Playback does not discriminate story sources because no one’s story is too sophisticated or silly to be performed.

For this post, I have only focused on the interactive nature and democratization of roles in Playback Theater, in addition to a brief introduction. Playback’s various applications in fields other than theater and its psychological effects are also crucial in understanding its potential. I strongly recommend visiting the Playback Centre website for further information.

http:/http://www.playbackcentre.org/

WORKS CITED

Barker, Timothy. “Objects and interaction.” Digital Creativity 22.2 (2011): 65-77.

Carpentier, Nico. “A Short History of Cultural Participation.” Transforming Culture in the Digital Age 14-16 (April, 2010): 11-17.

Fox, Jonathan. Acts of Service: Spontaneity, Commitment, Tradition in the Nonscripted Theatre. New Paltz: New York. Tusitala Publishing, 1994. Print.

Huhtamo Erkki. “Seeking Deeper Contact Interactive Art as Metacommentary.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 1.2 (1995): 81-104.

“History”. Website for Playback Theatre Centre. <http://www.playbackcentre.org/about-playback-theatre/playback-theatre-its-uses/&gt;

Photos attached here are my personal photos.

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