“By now you’ve all had several days together, exchanging memorable stories and important discoveries. Reunions and en- counters have been happening every day. I look forward to hearing the story of this gathering, so long and carefully planned for, and to see what emerges from it in terms of themes, and questions for the future.
When I was invited to take a couple of minutes to speak to you, I thought about what seems important for me to say, at this moment in Playback Theatre’s long arc. These days I’m thinking a lot about listening in Playback Theatre. So I’d like to say something to you about these thoughts.
When we started doing Playback Theatre all those years ago, our aim was to listen to people’s stories and then transform them into theatre. That’s what Playback is–inviting stories, listening to them, and enacting them. By now we know that this process is much more complicated than it sounds. How do you invite stories? How do you enact them? And what does it mean to listen?
There has been a great deal of creative exploration both in action, and in the realm of careful thought, into these questions. We now know something about the immense and delicate skill that it takes to create an atmosphere in which strangers will want to tell their stories. And we have learned something about the scope of artistry that comes into play in acting them out.
We’ve also come to realize that the kind of listening that Playback Theatre requires is very rare, and very challenging. Listening well enough to grasp what the story means to the teller is hard! Really hard! It takes a degree of attention, maturity, openness, and clarity that is not at all easy to achieve. We have to put aside our own assumptions, our own pride or insecurity, our concerns, and just be with the teller and her voice and her story, taking it in not just with our ears but with our whole body, our whole being. Only then can we create an enactment that will embody the constellation of meanings held in the story and how they express themselves in the story’s events, images, metaphors and echoes.
Of course, in addition to listening, we must also translate our understanding into action on the spot with our fellow performers. What a huge challenge! But when we are able to do this, the story will resonate not only for the teller but also for those who are witnessing it. Connections and change can happen. This is what is unique about our art form.
In recent times, as I watch performances, read project reports and essays, and take part in discussions, I’ve begun to wonder if the basic commitment to listening to a story, and then reflecting the meanings that are important to the teller, may be wavering. I wonder if that kind of listening can seem just too hard. It may be easier to let go of that goal and simply use the teller’s story as a theme on which to create your own composition.
Sometimes that’s OK for the teller–she or he might enjoy seeing the story take flight in another direction. But sometimes they are disappointed. And the potential for the rich dialogue between stories, the red thread, is weakened. To me, it is a loss when that happens. Playback’s value lies exactly in that accurate, sensitive, and aesthetic embodiment of meaning. Without it, our theatre work loses its point. It may be beautiful and impressive, perhaps, but it no longer has the capacity to deepen understanding within and between people.
I hope as Playback Theatre continues to grow and change that we hold strong the intention to listen fully and to create enactments shaped by a deep sense of a story’s particularity and significance. It takes great commitment and practice. It is not an easy path. But it must underlie our other efforts in Playback, all the energy we put into artistic development and new opportunities. It is the most important thing we have to offer.
Thank you, and have a wonderful conference.“