Sometimes the toughest things to see in perspective are the ones closest to our own noses. We tend to undervalue resources in our own communities that grab the attention of people all around the world – just because they’re in our own communities, and therefore couldn’t possibly be all that big a deal.
A great example of this type of myopia is the way that most of us take for granted the global phenomenon that is Playback Theatre, born in New Paltz in 1974. The reenactment techniques developed way back then by Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas – a hybrid of theatre exercises, traditional storytelling, improvisation and the sociometric and roleplaying tools of psychodrama – are used today in over 50 countries on five continents (they’re especially popular in Australia and New Zealand).
In a Playback Theatre performance, a troupe of actors (and sometimes a musician or two) who work intensively together over time will ask audience members to volunteer stories from their own lives. Without so much as a huddle, the actors will then assume roles from one of these true-life stories and launch into an improvised, stylized dramatization of it. It’s astonishing to watch how seamlessly they work together, and how thoroughly they engage their audiences in this interactive artform.
Although they utilize a number of techniques derived from psychodrama, the Playback Theatre folks make it very clear that their performances are intended as art and fun, not as therapy. Nevertheless, practitioners of the form have recognized from the very beginning how valuable it can be to groups of people who feel like they lack a voice. Playback Theatre is widely used in prisons and refugee camps, geriatric centers and school-based anti-bullying programs. One of the newest programs is currently serving survivors of the traumas of war in Afghanistan.
But you don’t have to go that far to see a topnotch Playback Theatre company in action. The founding troupe has split over time into multiple entities, with Fox mainly focused these days on training people to lead new companies. Still based in New Paltz, Salas now directs what’s called Hudson River Playback Theatre. The troupe recently got back from a road trip to London and Frankfurt and is warming up for a spring performance at Historic Huguenot Street’s Deyo Hall next Thursday, March 15 at 8 p.m.
Come on out for a bit of catharsis: Connect with other human beings, hear and see some of their true stories and maybe even contribute one of your own. It’s a great spring tonic. Deyo Hall is located at 18 Broadhead Avenue in New Paltz. Admission is by voluntary donation, and all ages and stories are welcome. Please visit https://www.hudsonriverplayback.org for more information.