See your stories on stage with Playback Theatre
“Playback Theatre is a powerful and beautiful form of theatre where the actors play back your real-life stories in an authentic and respectful manner using text, poetry, movement, metaphors and music,” explains Michael Cheng, the driving force behind Home and Home Away and Beyond The Horizon. (Photo: Interwoven Threads)

See your stories on stage with Playback Theatre

You can take part in two online theatrical happenings this month, both tapping into an interactive form of improvisational theatre in which audience members tell stories from their lives and watch them be performed on the spot.

Home and Home Away asks what ‘home’ means to different people. It may be a place, an emotion, or a memory. It may be where you started out or where you ended up. What moments and stories from your life bring the idea of home to mind?

Beyond the Horizon is a performative discussion around a question with added immediacy and intensity after two turbulent pandemic years: what does the future hold for us as individuals and as a society?

Working with Singapore International Foundation’s Arts for Good (A4G) programme, Cheng connected with First Drop Change Foundation of India to form Interwoven Threads, and it is this multinational troupe that performs both shows.  

The first Playback Theatre company was founded in 1975 in New York State by an American, Jonathan Fox, and Jo Salas – an activist and trained musician from New Zealand. Fox was a student of improvisational theatre, traditional oral storytelling, and psychiatrist Jacob Moreno’s ‘psychodrama’, which taps into the power of spontaneous dramatisation and role playing to help people gain insight into their lives.

So while Home and Home Away and Beyond The Horizon are performed in the digital space, this is community theatre based on age-old traditions of oral storytelling; a theatre where anyone and everyone can speak their truth. 

Michael Cheng talked to The A List about the challenges of online improvisation and his enthusiasm for the messy, beautiful, democratic process that is Playback Theatre.

Week 49_Playback Treatre Michael Cheng

What can audiences look forward to in Home and Home Away and Beyond the Horizon?

They can look forward to a unique experience of building community through the meanings embedded in the personal stories. In Playback Theatre, audiences are invited to bring their stories, and the performing team brings authenticity, deep listening and empathetic response. Together we build a safe, brave and creative space to explore issues close to our hearts.

You already performed both pieces in November. What kind of themes came up?

In the first show, Home and Home Away, the audience brought themes of home, physical location and roots. For some, home is a feeling of kinship, familiarity and safety. And there are many in this world that do not get to experience these. Some move to find home, others move to get away from home. One story that stuck with me was about putting down roots and making a home in one place but losing a sense of identity, language and connections to where one has come from. In Beyond the Horizon, we heard how different perspectives can lead to division. It was important to talk about how divided we are and how, if ever, we can be as one again. A ray of hope was offered in a story about finding new energy and life by bravely letting go of old ways.

Playback Theatre performers don’t huddle before they act out a person’s experience, trusting in a shared understanding of the story and in their ability to instantly respond to each other’s cues. How much more difficult is that when performers are remote from each other and the audience?

The ‘live-ness’ is missing because we are physically isolated from each other, and that does create difficulties for someone like me, who is not so used to that. Sensing one another and reading the room becomes more difficult. Some challenges result from the digital platform and some arise from old habits. We have performers who have only done Playback in the online space and, for them, there are no such comparisons. In any case, the pathway to building shared understanding is the same. It takes time to play together, to build trust, to practise, to tune our understanding of the stories.

What is the secret of making a Playback Theatre experience a success? Does it lie more in drawing out the audience to tell their stories or more in the skill and empathic intelligence of the performers in the way they bring those stories to life?

It is a lot of hard work, heart-work, teamwork, and self-work. A Playback Theatre performance is not just an aesthetic and performative event, but also a social one. The facilitator, or conductor as we call them, has a key role in guiding the event, creating the atmosphere, and maintaining the safe space. The musician helps create the mood and leads us into a liminal space [the transition from one state of being to another]. A Playback Theatre event is a democratic process: it can be messy; it can be beautiful. We can always do better but always we strive to serve the story, the individual, and the community who gathered.

Register for Home and Home Away on 5 Dec here and Beyond The Horizon on 19 Dec here to experience Playback Theatre for yourself.

We can’t wait to share more awesome content with you. This is going to be so much fun.

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