Playback Theatre to perform stories from Amnesty International in New Paltz

HRPT actors Matteo Spitzer and Jody Satriani enact an audience member’s story. (photo by Marjorie Berman)

The Amnesty International USA Hudson Valley Chapter lobbies on behalf of prisoners of conscience, writing letters to US legislators and foreign government officials pressing for the individuals’ freedom and the passage of laws ensuring equal justice for all. On November 14, some of those real-life stories will be brought to life by actors in Hudson River Playback Theatre (HRPT)’s “Light a Candle: Stories from Amnesty International” production at the New Paltz Community Center.

It’s an unusual partnership, given that HRPT’s specialty is on-the-spot improvised performances of stories told by audience members. However, HRPT’s social justice bent fits perfectly with the mission of Amnesty International. “We thought it would be interesting and of value to feature stories from people who’ve been in prison for their views or activities and can’t be there in person,” said Jo Salas, co-founder and artistic director of HRPT. “We will minimally rehearse the stories. It won’t be like a scripted play. We’ll also invite the audience members to share their responses and tell their own stories on the topic.”

Playback Theatre was founded by Salas and her husband Jonathan Fox in the mid-Hudson Valley in 1975. Born of the experimental theater movement of the 1970s and Fox’s stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal – “He lived in a village with no technology or literacy and saw firsthand the role in the community of ritual and storytelling,” said Salas – Playback Theatre has spread to communities around the world. HRPT, which was founded by Salas and Fox in 1990, is one of two Playback Theatre groups in the Hudson Valley.

Salas, who has written several books on Playback Theatre, has traveled the world training actors and observing Playback groups. A recent trip to Palestine, as she calls it, was particularly inspiring: “I was at a Playback Theatre in a Bedouin village under the stars with the musician playing the oud and doing an ancient form of vocal improvising. The actors’ acting out stories of the Occupation was incredibly powerful,” she said.

There is also a musician who plays at HVPT performances, interpreting the emotional current of the story by improvising on her guitar. This group of actors has been together a long time, and its members have fine-tuned their ability to listen and read each other’s cues. “It’s very much about the ability to listen deeply, to what’s between and under the words,” said Salas. “We practice how to bring to life the stories in the most insightful, impactful artistic way we can. We know each other very well and read each other so well that to the audience it often looks like we have rehearsed the story.” The connection with the audience is key, she added. “They are the co-creators of the event. We create an atmosphere where people feel safe and excited to tell their stories.”

The collaboration came about when Ilgu Ozler, professor of Political Science and International Relations at SUNY-New Paltz who runs the school’s Global Engagement Program and is coordinator of the local Amnesty International (AI) chapter, learned about Playback Theatre at a women’s rights event. She was fascinated and thought that combining the theatre technique with the stories of people in prison would help raise awareness. “It’s shifting from just reading and writing letters on their behalf to bringing attention to their stories through theatre,” she said. “Maybe we’ll arouse an interest in people who haven’t been interested in human rights before. Maybe they’ve suffered violence in their home and can relate and get help. It’s bringing the stories to the public in a different fashion.”

Each of the eight members of the AI chapter will choose a story, which will be sent to HRPT. “The one I’m going to send is about a Guatemalan rights activist who has been threatened because she’s trying to force the government to prosecute criminals harming women,” Ozler said. Another will be about Eddie Daniels, who spent many years in jail with Nelson Mandela in South Africa; the member submitting the story knows him personally.

Ozler added that every AI chapter is assigned a particular case, which for the Hudson River group is the Peace Community of San José de Apartado in Colombia, which is trying to stay out of the civil war between the rebel group FARC and paramilitary groups. “There was a massacre in 2005 in this community, and the international criminal court is investigating. Every month we send letters to the community letting them know we’re with them, and to the Colombian government letting them know we’re following the community; so if a paramilitary group attacks them, they’ll be accountable,” Ozler said.

Bringing people’s stories to the stage “leads to a kind of resonance that’s different from the conversational,” said Salas. “People are often quite moved and delighted. Their story connects not only to other stories in the room, but also in an almost archetypal way to stories told over hundreds and thousands of years. It’s tremendously gratifying to realize my story is not just my little story; it’s dignified and honored.”

“Light a Candle: Stories from Amnesty International,” Hudson River Playback Theatre & Amnesty International USA Hudson Valley Chapter, Thursday, November 14, 8 p.m., by donation, New Paltz Community Center, 3 Veterans’ Drive (off Route 32 North), New Paltz;

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