I was invited along to the Chrysalis Montessori School in Glendalough to witness an improvised performance held after a daylong introductory workshop to Playback, a form of improvisational theatre. The performance featured actors well versed in this process and proved to be a fascinating experience as both an audience member and as a writer.
The audience was made up of people who had attended the workshop and members of the general public either interested in acting or there to watch family or friends who were participants. The atmosphere was very supportive which was important not only for the performers but also, as I was about to find out, those of us who supplied real life stories as the catalyst for the improvisations.
Actor Zane Alexander (who I had recently seen in Romeo and Juliet) conducted proceedings and started by giving a brief explanation of Playback and the importance of empathy in the process. The theme of the day was “What if…?” which is, of course, a question all writers ask when creating a new work but had even more resonance here as we were encouraged to apply it to our own lives. Zane was very good at teasing out the threads of a variety of real life stories, himself showing great empathy as he gently probed for, not so much details, as emotional signposts. “How did you feel about…?” was an important question throughout.
While this was going on there would be four actors ‘on stage’ at any one time out of a roster of 8-9 performers and it was interesting watching them. One of the hallmarks of a good actor is the ability to listen and they did so with utmost attentiveness. After the story or scenario had been offered and discussed with Zane he would nominate, in effect, a technique. The actors would then take the information they had gleaned to ‘playback’ that story in improvised form. For example, I offered the moment in my life when I resigned from a managerial job in Sydney to come home to Perth to be a writer and the feelings associated with that – fear, relief, concern I’d be seen as a failure etc. That translated into a physical interpretation of literally breaking free.
The techniques used (and my most likely inadequate descriptions) were:
Pairs - where tandems of two actors would represent opposing internal viewpoints suggested by the story.
Fluid – which seemed to be the four actors working together to present a continuous flow.
Chorus – the actors mirroring each other to reinforce the emotional and story beats.
Comic Strip – where we were asked to close our eyes then open them to a still moment of the story, repeated 3-4 times with different poses by the actors.
Story – where the 4 actors performed a more traditional though truncated set of scenes.
Transformation – a technique that was mentioned but not utilised on the day.
The actors would rotate on and off “the bench” (to use a sporting term) so that there were always different combinations. The only props used were four milk crates, two blue, two green; and a selection of long, coloured strips of fabric. Music was improvised on the spot in the wings with a mix of - a bell, keyboards, saxophone, flute, occasionally vocals and sound effects. Talking to one of the actors afterwards, Nichola Renton (who was wonderful recently in Concussion), this added to the emotional depth and provided cues as well, notably action changes and end points to ‘scenes’. It was clear there was a great sense of craft and trust at play here with the group working seamlessly together.
I won’t go into details of the stories graciously offered but they ranged from the personal to the light-hearted and gave the actors plenty to work with. I do, however, now know about the importance of hydration at sporting carnivals and the dangers of bedbugs on romantic holidays! Indeed, humour and a sense of play were important aspects of the performance but always with that sense of empathy shining through as justice was done to each story.
Thank you to the director of the Perth Playback Theatre Company, Chloe King, who asked me along but also was a performer (as actor and musician) and even ‘conducted’ one of the story sessions. The afternoon was well received and on the basis of this glimpse into the process is a valuable tool for any performer to acquire within a supportive and friendly environment.
For more details of the Perth Playback Theatre Company go to their facebook page here.