Rashmi Dixit explores the world of playback theatre which highlights oppression and helps its victims to craft a new ending to their stories
|Young people and adults at the Freedom Theatre in Jenin use arts to express their feelin|
That longing to interact with people on the other side of the fence remained unfulfilled until I attended Ben Rivers’ playback theatre workshop in Mumbai, organised by Prithvi theatre. Unlike standard theatre, playback involves real-time interaction. Playback theatre is impromptu. The actor becomes the channel for emoting the stories narrated by the audience. These are real stories of love, loss, hatred, devastation, or joy. Stories, which are a part of everybody’s lives; stories that live inside of us, but hardly find expression. The actor listens deeply to the audience’s story and then performs. Suddenly, my heart opened and I could see my childhood longing being answered.
However, playback needed me to do rigorous inner work, shed my inhibitions, connect authentically with my audience and interact without holding judgments. It helped me become more self-aware and develop deep empathy and love towards my audience. That love translated into a performance which healed both the audience and me. For me playback theatre is almost like an interactive healing therapy, where deep listening, emoting and intuitive connect is happening in a shared, real-time and authentic space.
Researcher Sandeep Sadanand Chaugule divulges that playback has resonances with ancient theatrical art forms. He says, “In ancient India theatre was not just meant for entertainment. It had the larger purpose of educating, expressing, healing and counselling. There was something called lokdharmi style of theatre, which is the equivalent of playback theatre, where actors gave an extempore performance, based on the stories and psychological states of the audience.” The objective of lokdharmi or realistic theatre was to hold a mirror to the status of society and its psychological conditions.
India has its own proponents of playback theatre through troupes like Yours Truly Theatre company founded by Nandini Rao in 2003.
The company’s mission is to innovate theatre, and make it a more personal experience, which electronic media can’t provide. Playback theatre has been the core of its approach for the last 12 years. For Nandini, the best part of playback theatre is spontaneity. An actor has to perform in such a short time that there is no space for the mind to step in and complicate things. So what is expressed onstage is directly from the being of the actor, from a place of intuition.
Nandini says, “Every time we listen and perform stories it reminds us how human we are; it connects us deeply to each other. At Yours Truly we have performed hundreds of stories, encompassing different facets of life. A light-hearted lovers’ story, the trauma of a student whose close friend committed suicide, a nine-year-old girl’s experience at a rehabilitation centre for rescued children, the story of an Indian soldier who hoisted the Indian flag on Independence Day in spite of threats. The spectrum is vast and mirrors humanity.”
Nandini and her team have performed among different communities on topics of gender, freedom, equality, terrorism and education. The troupe has experimented with different aesthetics including Indian concepts like Harikatha, a composite art form composed of story-telling, poetry, music, drama, dance, and philosophy revolving around a religious theme.
Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas are the founders of playback theatre in USA. Their daughter, Hannah Fox, is a torchbearer and continues to nurture the playback theatre scene in America and around the world. Some years ago, Hannah Fox created a series of playback theatre pieces about her body and body image. It was a time when she was struggling with poor body image and felt that neither her body, nor her hair or facial features fit the prevalent Barbie doll mould. She wrote and performed a series called, Take Back, in which she reclaimed her body exactly as it was without manipulation, starvation or covering up.
Says Hannah, “The refrain went something like this, ‘I love you, my belly, my thighs, my hips.’” She remembers having a blonde Barbie doll as a prop. “It was very liberating to perform and the response, particularly from the women in the audiences, was moving. I remember going to random places like coffee shops or clothing stores and strangers or the clerk behind the counter would say, “You’re the hip, thighs, belly woman!” Through the process of making that piece I created a lot of self-love and acceptance and experienced such positive reflection from the community.”
Another performer called Mario remembers setting up with his team, a shelter for women who had experienced domestic violence and were deeply traumatised. The shelter was an undisclosed building and therefore a safe haven for those women and children. He heard stories of physical and mental abuse, which shook him and helped him connect with the issue more powerfully. The children were lodged in a day care centre so the women could speak freely. At first, they were reticent, but soon their stories tumbled into the open through the process employed in playback theatre. As a playback artist Mario believes that people have the capacity to change their lives and find new endings for their stories. And Playback helps them to do so by helping them to see their lives more objectively. Theatre was always meant to be a cathartic experience, but playback theatre clearly takes catharsis to a whole new level.
“A sword of truth”
Ben Rivers: Playback theatre helps us imagine a better, more humane world
Ben, share with us a little bit about your journey into playback theatre and spirituality.
I find it difficult to define ‘theatre’. It’s even harder for me to define ‘spirituality’! In brief, though, I believe playback theatre provides a realm where stories, questions, criticisms, hopes and desires can be expressed through the body, within an imaginal space, and before a witness. The relationship between the performer and audience seems especially important. I think this is where spirituality comes in. I see spirituality as something intrinsically connected to our place within the broader web of relationships that make up our world. Once we are conscious of our interdependence, it becomes imperative to act with compassion and responsibility – action that transcends our narrow self-interest. To truly understand our place in the world, we must investigate the political realities that surround us. We must become conscious of the systems and structures that perpetuate violence, oppression, exploitation and environmental degradation. We must understand how we contribute or benefit from these violent structures. We must also understand how we suffer under structures of patriarchy, capitalism, casteism, and racism. I therefore gravitate towards a spirituality that involves critical thinking and active resistance to all forms of discrimination and domination – a spirituality that promotes values, behaviors and structures that are more equal and more considerate of others; a spirituality that celebrates the rights of all to enjoy opportunity, health, happiness and well-being. This is where playback theatre comes in – it helps to awaken us to the lives that others inhabit. Playback theatre can also help us to imagine a better world, a more humane and egalitarian world. A world where women, Dalits, Adivasis, the working class, queer folk, and all other oppressed people can enjoy freedom, peace, justice and dignity alongside those who have traditionally occupied positions of privilege.
Ben, your group, the Freedom Bus, has been working across the world using playback theatre as a healing medium for many. Could you tell us more about the work that you do?
Since December 2011, The Freedom Theatre’s Freedom Bus has engaged thousands of Palestinians and people from abroad in actions that address practice of settler colonialism, military occupation, ethnic cleansing and apartheid. Freedom Bus events occur in villages, towns, refugee camps and Bedouin communities throughout historic Palestine. We partner with village cooperatives, popular struggle committees and grassroots organisations to hold multi-day “solidarity stays” and “freedom rides”. These events involve community visits, home stays, teach-ins, civil disobedience, interactive theatre, protests and cultural actions. In communities subjected to home demolitions and settler violence, we also engage in building construction and protective presence activity. During Freedom Bus events, Palestinian actors and musicians invite true stories from communities across Palestine and subsequently transform each account into a piece of improvised theatre. At the heart of all Freedom Bus activities is the belief that community engagement, active solidarity and creative expression are vital in the journey towards a more just, peaceful and egalitarian world. Playback provides a space for this.
What role does Playback Theatre have in creating the ideal world that we all dream of? Violence, political repression and environmental degradation mostly arise from the hunger for power, privilege and excessive comfort. Playback Theatre can help by illuminating the realities of those (the world’s majority, in fact) who suffer and struggle against various forms of exploitation and oppression. Here I am pointing to the potential of empathy as a remedy to ignorance and self-interest. However, we must also acknowledge that those who enjoy power and privilege will do all they can to preserve their status. Empathy will have little impact on them. As Frederick Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist leader, said ‘the struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.’
About the author
Rashmi Dixit is a Life coach and a Leadership Facilitator, based in Bengaluru.
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