“Listen to the heart beat…” chanted the ten barefoot actors of the River Crossing Playback Theater Saturday as they made their way to the front of the stage at the York, Pennsylvania, YWCA for the last performance of “We Belong.”
Founder and director Chris Fitz applauded the fifty or so spectators who showed up for the performance. “We’re going to take a journey about where we are,” announced Chris. Before the journey, Poets Christine Lincoln and Dustin Nispel set the mood with dramatic readings of their poems.
Playback Theater is a particular form of improvisational theatre developed around 40 years ago by Jonathan Fox in New York City. A general theme is chosen for each performance—last Saturday it was the idea of belonging. Then Chris asks members of the audience to tell stories (experiences) related to the theme and the cast acts them out stressing the use of the body to narrate and communicate the feelings that the story elicits.
A young girl suggested “happy;” a young man added love and others talked about death and trust. The stories offered by members of the audience included one about a taxi driver who came within a hair’s breadth of colliding with a 90 year old pedestrian; a middle aged man recalled his days at graduate school when he organized dances; a woman who came from Peru shared her memories as a nine year old immigrant.
Stories and theater thrive on conflict. The experiences offered by viewers of Playback Theater do not always take that into consideration, so the performers have to incorporate conflict into their “play backs.” The story-ideas grow in the process and evolve towards a sort of feedback in which spectators exchange views on the issued dramatized.
Playback Theater does not consider itself to be a politically oriented form of art, but it does base itself on situations that exist in the communities where it organizes performances.
Chris Fitz is from Marietta, Pennsylvania, and likewise is director of the Lancaster based Center for Community Peacemaking, a graduate of the International School of Playback Theatre in New Paltz, New York, and has been involved in playback technique for more than a decade. His playback workshops on improvisational art have taken him to Washington, D.C, Munich, Germany, and across the U.S. The invasion of Iraq helped stimulate his interest in resolving conflicts peacefully. He holds a M.A. in Peace, Conflict & Development Studies from the Universitat Jaume I (Castellon, Spain) and a B.A. in International Conflict Resolution from Hampshire College (Amherst, MA).
During his university studies he got involved in performance art, “including modern dance and improvisational theater.” So the training workshops stress use of the body, choreographed type relationships and spontaneity.
Asked what she got from “We Belong,” a female spectator said: ““This is the third time I’ve attended dramatizations by the Playback Theater. Each one has been on a different theme and have stimulated the audiences in different ways. What was so intriguing about this evening was the inclusion of audience members in participating as “actors” in the improvisational process. The spontaneity of the “spectator actors” was wonderful and added new dynamics to the evening!”
In fact, the spectator-actors were able to act out a number of ideas with great spontaneity and dramatic instinct.
“Very few of the cast has actually studied theatre,” says Chris. “I always say the biggest qualification for participating in Playback theatre is presence, listening presence and also stage presence. If anyone has that then the rest will follow.”
--I think everyone can do Playback Theatre, but not everyone can do it well or right away. I have seen persons come to us introverted and I have seen them soften and come out of their shell after working with us. It means using the body to express feelings, not only those ideas we want to work with but it is also necessary to recognize that we all come from different backgrounds and have different emotional lives.
--Is this your special way of doing Playback Theatre?
--No, not at all. It began in the 1970’s by a man named Johnathan Fox.
--Is this a social or political form of theatrical art?
We certainly are working with social consciousness but I wouldn’t call it political. Actually, I see it as more meaningful politics than what we usually understand politics to be.
--Has the work of Boal in Brazil had an influence on Playback Theatre?
Yes, Fox and Boal were developing their work during the same period and in the same period you had psycho-drama also. What is different from what Boal does is that it brings more ritual and artistry into it; not just the social consciousness.
--Are you satisfied with this series of performances on belonging?
--Actually, I am exhausted because it was a lot of work organizing it. But when I see the people that show up and see how vulnerable they are with their stories it is extremely rewarding.
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