Mar 31, 2020 | By David Turberfield
It’s a Saturday evening and an instruction has gone out on the family WhatsApp for everyone to be home by 6 p.m. “cos we’re going out”. It’s not an unusual scenario, the kids and I left wondering what’s going on – my wife keeping us in the dark so that we can’t back out… It’s not until we are on the MRT that we discover that we are heading to a cozy theatre in the heart of Singapore for a Playback Theatre.
If you have never heard of Playback Theatre, it’s worth checking out. It’s a form of improvisation where the audience tell stories from their own lives and watch them enacted by a troop of players. It’s a very simple format – a volunteer is called for and is invited to a seat at the side of the stage together with the Playback Conductor. The players, usually four or five of them, stand respectfully and quietly on the other side of the stage and listen intently. The volunteer tells their story, the Conductor asks carefully craft open questions to draw the story out to give the players enough material to work with. Once the story is told the volunteer is asked to select which players they would like to play the characters in their story. The Conductor then initiates the action with the words “let’s watch” and the players begin.
It’s fascinating to watch but it quickly becomes apparent that this is not entertainment. It is something else, something quite different, something cathartic. The stories being told are deeply personal – one person is being bullied at school, another is living with parents who fight constantly, we are hearing and watching stories of abuse, betrayal, fear, shame, and confusion… it’s incredibly emotionally charged, there are tears, there is laughter, there is naked humanity. People are being heard, seen and held with empathy, kindness, compassion and without judgment. It is a rare and beautiful gift that feels like a collective hug.
On the surface, the idea of standing in front of a room full of strangers and telling a deeply personal story sounds awful but the reality is really very different – there is real healing in this process. In his book, “The World is made of Stories”, David Loy tells us that stories are the lens through which we make sense of our world. Everything has a story – from the straw in my cup to the death of my father. Our stories define who we are and what we are to do. We mark ourselves by our stories and get locked in.
David Loy says in his preface “we do not see our stores as stories because we see through them: the world we experience as reality is constructed with them”. If we fail to recognize them or fail to give them a voice, they get stuck and play over and over like a broken record or an open wound – never moving, never healing. It is through the telling and the hearing that we bring our stories into the light and break their spell – robbing them of their power and enabling ourselves to carry forward. We have a deep need to be seen and to be heard but rarely are, and we carry the weight of our stories in our hearts. Playback is one welcome forum to help us lighten our load. What stories do you have to tell?