Real-life drama's instant replay

Theater: The audience provides the script, but the actors - without props or practice - improvise their anecdotes for often-hilarious results.

Howard Live

May 23, 2002|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Their stories were as varied as their backgrounds.

A 68-year-old lawyer told of the time he fell out of a boat to an audience of two, an 11-year-old homeschooler admitted to stealing pennies when she was younger, and a 45-year-old life coach talked about being turned away from his sister's at Christmas.

But the same thing happened each time a tale was over: A crew of six in solid-colored T-shirts assumed assigned roles and acted out the anecdotes, down to the last, often embarrassing, detail.

This is playback theater, and it's largely hilarious. The design requires spectators to provide the script by telling a story from their lives - be it happy, sad or unfinished. Then members of, in this case, the Baltimore Playback Theatre give them an instant replay, without discussion, organization or props other than brightly dyed scarves.

At a performance Sunday at Howard County Center for the Arts in Ellicott City, the audience had an agenda other than entertainment. Of the 25 or so people taking in the show, most were members of the Fabulous Fifty+ Players, a Howard County acting troupe for people age 50 and older, and their purpose was to figure out if the improvisational playback style is for them.

"The Players would still do musical reviews and outreach performances like they already do," said Amy Poff, deputy director of Howard County Arts Council. "The intention was to have the [playback] group come here and perform to familiarize the players with the theater form and see if they want to head in that direction as well."

Phyllis Stanley, 57, is all for it. She's the musical director for the Fifty+ Players, but she's also a member of Baltimore Playback Theatre. It would be her job to train the players if they liked what they saw.

Playback theater "can be therapeutic for both the people watching and the person telling the story," said Stanley, who wants to take the show on the road to senior centers, where stories are plentiful. "It can be a healing process."

Therapy isn't the main focus of playback, but it could be considered a side effect.

"It helps people get a more objective view of what really happened," said Tony Kirkland, who told the Christmas story. "They can divorce themselves from the situation. Seeing someone playing me and going to [my sister's] was a little bit like psychodrama."

Psychodrama examines issues through role playing, and the sole purpose of some playback troupes is raising awareness of mental health issues (such as the Mental Health Players, part of the Mental Health Association of Maryland). But this playback theater is about building relationships and having fun, said Monique Auger of Reisterstown.

"It's all about building communities. When people come together to share their stories with one another, universal themes emerge," said Auger, one of Playback Theatre's actors. "People watching say, `Gee, that could be me up there.' Everybody's story is unique, but there are common themes and it becomes a shared humanity kind of thing.'"

That's the best reason Harriet Lynn, the 57-year-old director of the Fifty+ Players, can think of to adopt the method.

"The stories brought us all closer together, which is very appropriate for a place like Howard County where people come from all different places to live and work here," she said. The Players convened at their regularly scheduled rehearsal Monday night to talk about their impressions. After discussion about the physical nature of the Playback Theatre's show (marked by lots of tumbling and tossing of one another), they reached a consensus about whether to pick up the practice.

"There was hesitation, but after I explained there are many ways to tell a story with our bodies other than throwing ourselves across the floor," Stanley said, "there was definite enthusiasm."

Members say they will start learning the style in the fall, and plan to unveil it next season.

"I'm excited," said Stanley, who lives in Columbia. "It will take some time to develop an ensemble, learn the skills and feel comfortable with them. But I think it will be good for us and" the audience.

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