I have cancer and only six months to live,” are Fay’s opening words. “I am scared. Scared to leave this world and face the unknown, and that is why I am here tonight.”
Fay exits stage right and four matured female actors take the stage. One actor stands centre spotlight. She is tall, strong, and feminine. All at once the three others begin to encroach on her space. One twists and contorts her body so that she resembles a Richard III protégée. The other stoops low and grimaces; the third violently kicks and thrusts her limbs. The three approach their centre stage victim. First, they dart across the empty stage. Finally, they attack. Suffocated under the weight of three vices, the victim is left pale and lifeless in centre spotlight.
Playback Theatre emerged during the eccentric 1970s decade where conventional art was shunned in favour of fluid and experimental performances. As an improvisational participatory theatre-form originating in upstate New York, Playback has since become a worldwide movement with groups and practitioners across the globe. At the root of all Playback theatre is the act of storytelling, inviting personal stories from the audience and re-enacting them with artistry.
Fay re-enters the spotlight. She clasps her crimson bonds hands close to her chest as the audience erupt into applause. Her brave, but lost battle with cancer has been performed through movement and performance. The process is both sensitive and tender, and one must commend the players on such a raw, but empathetic depiction.
Fay silently glides off the stage and takes a seat in the front row. Her wrinkled face radiates briefly. Evidently, her struggle played out in physical movement is a liberating release.
Other audience members begin to command the stage and share their stories. Love, fragility, family and the testaments of youth are disclosed in this private two-hour performance dialogue. Kevin, 67, suffers from ‘dark and depressive’ thoughts. Yannis, 35, recalls how his Orthodox Greek mother forbade him from painting as a teenager. Ash, 17, is scared to study her A-levels. Four private disclosures resulting in four very strong performances of issue-based drama. Even for those members who choose not to partake in the unveiling of a story, are nonetheless stirred.
The Playback Theatre group in Kentish town is the only dramatic group of its kind residing on the British Isles. It is not commercial theatre, and the performances do not inspire big crowds. Very few in the artistic world even know of Playback as it is so far removed from the mainstream.
The purpose of Playback is storytelling, a kind of therapeutic psychological session that firstly listens to the stories of others and then ‘plays’ it back through movement. Fay’s testimony is an exemplar of Playback method, which responds to all types of trauma and pain. A workshop is currently used in Afghanistan to train victims of violence to enact each other’s stories in the context of transitional justice. Playback is also effective for soldiers experiencing posttraumatic stress.
The ability to both act and retain an emotional connection with the storyteller and audience is a skill not to be overlooked. The four players on stage did this remarkably well. Their interpretation of the stories was metaphorically stimulating. It was a moment of sheer genius when the four decided to embrace different vices to show how cancer consumes the body and mind in full.
It is a cathartic experience for all members. Performances in Kentish Town occur once a month. No thespian training or artistic interest is required; this is as much an emotional cleansing session as it is theatre. You do, however, need an open and non-judgmental mind. Eccentric art has always incurred critical cynicism, and Playback is not conventional theatre with a stage and audience divide. This is an immersive theatre movement, and as a spectator do not expect to maintain anonymity. Nor, expect to be allowed just to show up, watch the drama enfold and leave. You are required to join in and converse with the audience and players, whether on the ‘stage’ or after the spotlight has dimmed. However, once you displace your bourgeois habits and immerse yourself in the Playback performance the effects will be profound. For this is issue base drama in its finest and most undiluted form.