A description of a public Playback Theatre performance by a member of the audience…

Random Acts at Clean Break

We arrived late. So like us, but we had checked the starting time on the website, and so walked in cheerfully confident that the thirty or so people sitting there waiting for us were in the wrong. To begin, Playback was described briefly by the conductor (a lovely lady called Tig) and then the five playback performers introduced themselves along with a short story of something that had happened this week, while the other four performed this little snippet of information to the rest of us. This was great for relaxing everybody, and also giving us a little sense of the personalities of the performers. Also, as the performers had shared first, a relationship of trust had already been established.

After the introductions Tig asked the rest of us, in a conversational manner, how we all felt about the sunshine (it had been a really hot day). Ever confident, I was one of the first to call out: “the sunshine is brilliant. It’s lovely. The heat makes everybody feel happy” I exclaimed. “Does anybody disagree with Sara?” Tig laid down a gauntlet for a multitude of moans from audience members. “Its too hot to do anything,” said a man at the front. “Even when you take off all your clothes, it’s still too hot. And you can’t take off your skin.” The conductor then asked the performers to do a fluid sculpture of the feelings the man had expressed. As you can imagine, in a slow motion formation they groaned in agony, attempting to rip off their clothes before dropping immobile to the floor, unable to go any further. As the audience laughed in recognition of the moments of heat induced lethargy portrayed by the group, other people piped up with stories of heat and discomfort… the most memorable being a performance of people on a tube train, with one performer spraying sweat on all the other passengers!

After this initial process of short performances, the audience began to feel quite familiar with the way that performers used their bodies, sounds, and often language to improvise a situation or feeling. These were never exact representations of what had been described, sometimes taking an idea to its extreme resulting in comedy, sometimes presenting just several aspects of a story rendering it simple but thought provoking. Many times, although exhibited in quite obscure and imaginative ways, the essence of what had been shared was preserved, it just became three-dimensional.

We were asked as an audience at this point to go and speak to somebody that we didn’t arrive with. One of those horrible, feels like forever moments ensued where everybody waited for someone else to move first, or to shout out “NO! We won’t do it. We don’t like strangers!” And then suddenly, we all moved en masse and found ourselves a nice stranger to sit next to. In our pairs we had to tell each other a story about something that had happened to us recently, which must be the quickest possible way of making the mind go blank because I couldn’t think of anything. Well, nothing except the fact that I was jealous of the man who had mentioned earlier (during the sunshine stories) that he had been paddling in Brighton. So that’s what I told her about, “it’s not fair, I want to go paddling in Brighton”. I’m not sure she was fascinated! She in response told me a story about her good works for a cancer charity, leaving me feeling slightly shallow! However, the stories were of no importance in themselves, as we were not asked to share them with the rest of the group. Rather, they were a method for unifying the audience and to prepare us for sharing.

For the next hour various people stepped up to share their stories, and the performers used a variety of methods to portray them. Shelley told of her first day as a teaching assistant in a Severe Learning Disabilities School. She had difficulties because the teenaged boys were obsessed with her breasts, and she felt very awkward. But she overcame this challenge to feel very excited about the possibilities of the job. The actors portrayed her situation while standing in a line, speaking over each other, and giving voice to all the characters involved. The other teacher, the students, and Shelley’s range of thoughts both positive and negative. This collage of voices avoided being frivolous with what was simultaneously a funny but difficult event in Shelley’s life. And it was incredibly dramatic to hear all those voices converge.

A very amusing performance was inspired by a lady who told of waiting in a friend’s house for something to be delivered, and then greedily eating the contents of their fridge. The players were very imaginative in their representation of bits of food, while also playing the lady herself, her friends and her conscience. Watching hummus scream in anticipation of being eaten, and a carrot squealing that the all-consuming lady was a greedy pig and making oink sounds was hilarious!

Another story that stays in my mind had two tellers, a mother and son, telling of the boy’s school concert and his band’s performance of ‘Peaches’, during which there was a power cut. The performers really had a field day here playing a rock and roll band AND the audience, even Jimi Hendrix made an appearance to encourage the young boy on. My favourite part of this sequence was that none of the actors knew the song ‘Peaches’, and so were just making one up!

Although there were many lighthearted stories like this one, or tales of minor dilemmas or decisions, the final telling of the evening was much more serious. I won’t go into detail, but it involved a son talking about his very ill father. As all of us have relationships with parents, dead or alive, the room became very still as the young man spoke. All of us hanging on his every word, and implicitly supporting him. When the performers came to play back the story, there were no words needed. The two actors worked using their bodies and two chairs to show a tug of war, of life and death, of trust and disappointment, of love and of pain. Without language, the messages of this performance were universal. The whole audience were transfixed. We were also damp-eyed.

One of the most wonderful things about the evening was the trust the performers had with each other. Never blocking an idea, always supporting a fellow when they branched out, physically and vocally. And above all the seriousness and compassion with which every single person who gave a story was treated. There were no in jokes – no laughing AT people, present or not. Hence we felt communal within minutes of entering the space.

Playback is a wonderful way to share and explore people’s lives, and the environment that Random Acts created was safe and warm above all else. I hope I leave you in wonder of how on earth four improvisers, a conductor and a musician managed to create such an emotional and entertaining evening. I hope I leave you in anticipation to gain your own first experience of Playback Theatre.

Sara Pascoe, June 2005