A crowd of about thirty strangers gathers in the rented church vestibule. They sit in chairs lined up in rows, facing a space at the front of the room, where five actors dressed in black sit on black boxes. A facilitator, known in Playback as the “conductor,” stands halfway between the audience and the actors. It is her job to bring the two together.
Tonight’s conductor is Meg. She invites the audience members to shake the hands of the strangers around them and introduce themselves. She says that this month’s topic is “Departures and Arrivals.” To demonstrate, one of the actors stands up and tells the story of the ex-boyfriend who barely looked up from his book to greet her at the airport when she returned from a long trip away. She sits in the “teller’s chair” as her fellow troupe members interpret the scene.
Then Meg asks the audience members to turn to a neighbor and tell an arrival or departure story from their own lives. For a few minutes, the room buzzes with story. Meg asks for a volunteer to take the chair next to her and share her story with everyone.
A young woman sits down and tells the story of the time the police officer came to her house and took her to the Maine Youth Center, where she was incarcerated for a number of months. She describes the hard bed, the bunched up blankets she used for a pillow that first night, the intake nurse who complained of a phantom popcorn smell. She admits she was scared and felt betrayed by this officer she had come to know and respect. “But in the end,” she says, “it was the best thing. I went into a group home, and now I’m an honor student in school. It sounds funny to say this, but ending up at the Maine Youth Center was almost like rolling into a bed of roses.”
The Playback troupe stands up and improvises her story, right down to the roses. The audience laughs and then applauds in appreciation of the story, the actors’ performance, and the courage, strength, and humor of the young woman who has just stood up and shared a piece of her life.
This is Playback Theater, and troupes like this all over the world play back people’s stories, helping audiences to remember their shared humanity. And in Portland, Maine we have our very own troupe, which performs at 7:30PM every First Friday at the First Parish Church on Congress Street. It’s the best five dollars you’ll ever spend.