"I Need You to Sit in This With Me"

The best short description I've heard of playback theater is that it's improv that's not trying to be funny. I put “take a class or a workshop in playback theater” on my blog list, because I saw a performance about ten years ago and had always meant to learn more. I found a local group that does it, True Story Theater, but had some trouble making time to go to one of their public performances, and they do classes but they’re infrequent.

I found a performance that was open to the public (and even free), at Boston Medical Center. I thought it would be interesting to go to one at a hospital, since I work at a medical museum. As the city's safety net hospital, BMC is worlds different from the hospital where I work, which some argue has never fully shed its Boston Brahmin background. So, I decided this would be the playback theater experience for my blog post, even though it wasn’t a class. I wasn't sure what to expect this time. I didn't remember much about it, just the basic concept, which is that audience members tell short stories or experiences, and then the troupe creates a short, improvised piece that reflects what was just said. In some areas, my tastes have changed a lot since college, and so I wasn't even sure if I would still like it.

When the program started, a hospital staff member greeted us all, saying that he saw a number of new faces, and recognized many people from their other cancer support programs. He said that they have True Story Theater come in once a year. About half of the people in the room had been to one of the previous performances. The audience was mostly older middle aged and older, and a lot of people of color, which makes sense for the neighborhood and the cancer center. A part of me wondered how you get an audience that's the right crowd for this experimental-feeling genre of performance. When the troupe members introduced themselves, they all walked onto the area in the front of the room that was serving as a stage with very deliberate, expressive movements. After each one introduced themselves, they held the pose or gesture they had been in when they finished. It started to feel like a genre of performance that might be in an artistic idiom that just isn't for me.

Thee theme of the evening’s performance was "What sustains us in difficult times." One of the actors served as emcee, asking the audience questions about the theme. One woman said that the thing that sustains her most is gratitude -- recounting all of the things she's grateful for, like her family, a roof over her head, waking up every morning, and more. In fact, several people over the course of the evening mentioned being grateful to be alive each day; it was a real reminder that a lot of them are cancer patients or survivors. After this first woman spoke, four of the actors responded with a short piece -- they later mentioned that the name for the type of piece is a "fluid sculpture." Each of them acted out a specific piece of what she said. One acted out opening a box of the good things in her life, and then made a “woosh” motion and sound. She repeated the “woosh” more quietly as other actors joined her, layering in the family, the roof, and so on.  

A doodle of classic theater masks representing tragedy and comedy

After each one, the emcee asked the audience member who had inspired the piece how it felt. A few people in, she paused and said she wanted to emphasize that they want people's genuine reactions -- they're not seeking praise, and if it doesn't land, they want to hear that, too, and they might even try again in some cases. I appreciated hearing that. Over the course of the evening, though, things just got more and more connected, between the audience and the troupe, and it seems that every piece landed. One man had described his daily routine playing peek-a-boo through the door with his dog when he gets home from work, saying this was what sustains him. The actors did a sort of allegory -- the man and his dog were characters, but first, we met the door, opening and closing, who was so excited for peekaboo, because the door saw how much the dog missed his human during the day. Then, we met the day, who puts little stones in people's pockets from morning until evening, weighing the man down. The person playing the dog was the tallest in the troupe by a good six inches, and she bounded up and down like a puppy. At the end of the piece, the man from the audience whose story it was pulled up a picture of his dog on his phone to show the actors.

Despite my initial hesitation, I ended up finding a lot of it really moving. It was funny, one moment I would find what was happening at the front of the room somewhat contrived and awkward, and the next moment something would happen that gave me chills. I had chills three or four times over an hour and a half, and that's not an experience I have a lot with performances.

One of the reasons I was interested in getting reacquainted with Playback Theater is that many museums are always looking for ways to create interactive experiences for the visitors, and I wanted to learn from it. Many people have a real need to be heard. One of the stories that the playback troupe did, for an older woman in a newsboy cap, was in part about wanting to be heard when she talks about her pain. She said that she's tired of everyone trying to put a positive spin on things. Even the concept of "what sustains you" was a challenging theme for her right now, because the most important thing for her is the difficulty of what she’s going through. The piece they did reflected different parts of her emotions. One player was on the floor, calling out, "Look at all this crap! I need you to sit in this crap with me!"

I would love for museums to offer more opportunities for people to feel heard. There's research out there to support what anyone who has worked front of house at a museum knows, which is that many museum visitors want to share their own stories. Some people seek out a social element in their visit. For others, something in an exhibit triggers a memory or emotion and they find the nearest willing ear. I've heard a lot about people's psoriasis, surgeries, and genealogy projects. hernias and experiences with gluten-free diets. In some of these interactions, based on what they are talking about or the look on their faces, it becomes clear that they really need to share their story right then, or don't get to share it often enough. In those moments, listening to them is my job, and it's an important one.

It's challenging to come up with ways to encourage visitors to express themselves in the museum. If it becomes too challenging, maybe the paradigm of our exhibits isn't working right. One of the scarcest resources in the museum where I work is physical space, which makes it especially hard. I want to add places for people to make art, to write down hopes or prayers, to make video or audio recordings of themselves. We do do some of this, but only a little bit at a time.

Some time in the last week, before I saw this performance, I wrote in one of my work notebooks, "Guestbooks everywhere?!" It's a small thing, that only appeals to some people, and guestbooks are so standard to have by the door they are almost cliche. We're not shaking anything up by having a guestbook. But we've had a fair bit of success with guestbooks. Since this past fall, we've had one in an exhibit about the hospital's involvement in World War I. The guestbook is next to a basket of silk poppies for visitors to take, and it has the poem "In Flanders Fields" printed in it. Visitors are invited to share reactions to the exhibit, or something in remembrance of anyone they have lost. One person wrote that her mother told her the story of people using poppies as a symbol of WWI remembrance when she was young, and this brought it back. I wish there were ways to invite more people to go that deep and deeper. Or rather, there are, but I haven't figured out which ones are right for us.

I want to emulate the lessons of playback theater in exhibits as well as with in-person interactions, but I think a lot of what makes it so successful is the human connection, real people in real time reflecting a story back. As one of the emcees said, “we can’t fix it, but we can sit with you.” It's amazing, because it's so personal to the person who told the little story, but it is also meaningful and moving to the rest of the audience. Story isn't necessarily the right word. A lot of these didn't have a plot, many didn't even have a point. They were just dramatizations, reflections. Because many of them were about what sustains us, people shared about the love of parents, children, spouses, refreshing with nature, music, getting out the door to meet a friend even when your body is tired all the time, cooking good food. These pieces were little vignettes of happiness.