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Away from the spotlight, playback theatre gains popularity in private

By June 18, 2019No Comments

Source : Business Standard – WEEKEND

This form of theatre helps develop a deeper sense of community, and allows people to share things they may not have addressed before

Not long ago, in a small room dotted with people, a man got up and came forward. He talked about how he’d regularly take a tunnel that connected the hospital where he worked with his residential quarters. It was dimly lit, but kept him away from the city’s heavy traffic. A tiff with some bikers in the tunnel one day, however, left him with a broken nose. The man, a Bengaluru-based mental health professional, said he had since begun to feel unsafe and now preferred to stay indoors.

Minutes after he shared his story, five actors played it out before him and the small audience. For the man, the assault was the focus of his story. The actors, however, chose to highlight what happened next: that the man petitioned various authorities, got security alarms installed on either sides of the tunnel and ensured that it was properly lit at all times. “When he told the story, he saw himself as a victim. When the act ended, he emerged a hero,” says Rajesh P I, coach and founder of The Actors Collective, the Bengaluru-based group behind the performance that is popular as “playback theatre”.

Every fourth Sunday of the month at Lahe Lahe, a venue for events in Bengaluru, people sit in a half circle and wait till they are asked questions as simple as, “How are you feeling today?” Once a person shares something personal from their life, the actors take it up and enact it. This way playback creates a ritual of sorts, where anyone’s story, ordinary or not, is heard and retold.

Empowering people to become “tellers” of their stories and then allowing professionals to present those stories is called playback theatre. There’s no script involved. With playback theatre, the process of the performance encourages the audience to delve deeper into their lives and share personal stories.

Bengaluru-based microbiologist and arts therapist Radhika Jain says playback theatre doesn’t just help her express herself, it also helps her hear “others expressing themselves”. In 2016, Jain, alongside her husband Bejoy Balagopal, founded the that specialises in playback.

“It’s all about winning the audience’s trust and convincing them that this is a safe place. There’s no judgment in playback theatre,” says Jain. “The idea is to be sensitive. Otherwise the story could re-traumatise you.”

During one event, when a person spoke about their battle with depression and how even reaching for a glass of water seemed an uphill task, the group chose to go with a metaphor. They showcased the moon being eclipsed. “I know the eclipse is a phase, but I just want to be here with myself for now,” said the actor playing the moon. The eclipse in itself wasn’t tagged good or bad, but just something that was there for the moment and would pass.

Besides poetry and dance, actors also use tambourines, guitars and djembe (West African drums) for live music during performances. A form best suited for small audiences (10 to 50 people), playback theatre isn’t new, but it isn’t as popular as scripted theatre. Workshops and performances — usually announced on respective social media pages and ticketing platforms — are helping fix that.

In Chennai, for instance, groups of 10 to 12 actors from Sterling Playback Theatre Company travel across the state to places such as Tiruchirappalli and Kanyakumari twice a month to hear stories from local communities. One such story is of a woman who grew up in a conservative family outside Chennai. It was at 55 that she got the chance to say what she wanted to four decades ago, that she had wanted to go to college and not get married.

“This form of theatre helps develop a deeper sense of community, and allows people to share things they may not have addressed before,” says Cyril Alexander of Sterling. Alexander’s theatre company has also been engaged with state-run homes for children for the past one year, helping educators and children connect with each other better.

“Playback helps in seeing things in the larger perspective,” says Rajesh, also the India Representative of the International Playback Theatre Network, an association of over 70 countries. In December this year, 350 delegates from across the globe will be in Bengaluru for the first India conference of the International Playback Theatre Network. Among them will be Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas who co-founded the first playback theatre company in 1975 in New York.


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