The native Aboriginal people of Australia are a society entrenched in an oral culture of storytelling. It encompasses every aspect of their discourse-every rock, tree and animal has a story. The explanation for their cultural beliefs is shared through story, and these stories are passed down through generations by song and dance.
Comparatively, the western discourse has come to prioritise the written word as the dominant form of record keeping. While we do share stories, we rarely tell them through movement and dance.
Watching Playback, I was transported back to the Indigenous ceremonies and re-enactment of the Dreaming. The body twists and contorts, the eyes pop and the legs jar wide- the body is the most powerful blank canvas in which to share stories, memories and recollections.
Rarely do we experience this kind of free and open movement. It is engrossing, jarring, but utterly cathartic. Yet, stories, like many things, can be traumatic. Not just for the teller, but also for the listener. Offloading to a crowd can be very therapeutic, but it can also seriously impose the mindfulness and wellbeing of others. It is an ancient tradition, oral storytelling. Yet sometimes, should it be kept at a distance?
Lillie, one of the engrossing Playback players is adamant that “everybody has a right to share his or her story.” Additionally, “if you choose to share, then it is not your responsibility to how people react.”
Lillie works with ex offenders and utilises the methods of Playback and encourages them to share. Subsequently, the story is acted out and witnessed by an audience ranging from teachers, to lawyers, students and other ex offenders.
The ex offenders range from petty robbers to murderers. “It does not faze me,” Lillie says.
Playback is a communal space. Thirty anonymous strangers sit together bound by the need and compulsion to share, hear and watch. Such communality is rare. Western discourse prides itself on anonymity, and only in privacy do we dispose of our bourgeoisie façade. Unveiling our nine-to-five fascia is liberating. Seeing it acted out in movement and dance is utterly purifying.
But surely we should censor what we share?
Not so. Ex offenders are encouraged to divulge past crimes within the Playback space. It is no “responsibility” of the teller as to how people react.
Anthropologists tell us storytelling is crucial to human existence. A symbiotic exchange between teller and listener is a central element of human discourse. The 21st century exchange, however, has lost its organic form. Mass media-the Internet, social media and mobile phones-dictates how we tell and share.
“This is the magic of playback,” Lillie says. “We create a fluid exchange between teller and listener.”
Stories shared within Playback can be liberating, moving and cathartic. Others are raw, challenging and emotionally demanding, and seriously compromise the wellbeing of others.
Crucially, all of us have stories, but we are told that we must know when to share, and to whom.
Jenna* was invited to share her story at a recent Playback performance. She spent nigh on a decade at HMP Bonzefield, a Category A adult and young offenders female prison in Surrey. In an open confession, Jenna disclosed why she was incarcerated at Bronzfield. Keeping to tradition, the players acted it out.
“It was very hard thing to do, even for me,” says Lillie.
Jenna’s confession still resonates with the players, and assuredly with the audience. Should she have been given an open platform? While Playback insists that “no one has a right to judge” what people share, surely it is implausible?
Communal storytelling is a way of maintaining an intrinsic connection to the physical, but also to the spiritual. It is a method so easily lost in mainstream living. But where do we draw the line? Playback is a purgative release, but the concept of sharing with no responsibility is frankly unrealistic and neglectful. While sharing is cathartic, if it impinges the wellbeing and mindfulness of others, if it compromises the morality of others, do we really have the right?