When therapy and performance collide

Playback Theatre West combines entertainment and catharsis

Photo courtesy of Michael Ensminger

Audience interaction is the bread and butter of any improvisational theater — in comedic shows, even just the mention of the next game of the evening will usually invite an eruption of suggestions from an eager crowd. But for troupes like Playback Theatre West, participation isn’t about who can shout their ridiculous word loudest. Audience members are instead invited to share personal stories for actors to interpret on stage.

“Today when we think of improv, we think of comic improv, but instead of serving the laughs we serve the story or the teller,” explains Kevin Gray, the founder of Playback Theatre West. “It’s one of those rare forms of theater that’s as rewarding for the audience as it is for the actor.”

Coming up on 25 years in Boulder, Playback Theatre West combines two of Gray’s fields of expertise — psychotherapy and drama — to create a recurring interactive show that does more than entertain. Regular patrons often feel relieved or healed through this interpretive storytelling, and even cast members find themselves gaining a sense of fulfillment.

“There are times when I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t wait for the next week’s Playback rehearsal because I’m having a rough week,’” says Jim Walker, a Playback Theatre West actor. “There are groups around the country that don’t perform publicly, but just for each other. It’s like therapy.”

Playback theatre isn’t anything new; it was developed more than 35 years ago and takes cues from psychodrama, a role-playing exercise used as therapy. While other groups have made public playback shows an outlet for discussing social issues, Gray says Playback Theatre West’s goal is mainly to entertain and provide a place where the community can share in each other’s experiences. However, Rebecca Brown Adelman, a cast member with a master’s degree in drama therapy, says that their show does offer people a chance to process a life event from a new vantage point.

“In a therapeutic process, people can really go there as well as create distance from whatever is going on for them,” Brown Adelman says. “One of the things I love about this kind of theater is that it can take us to this emotional place or it can give us a new perspective.”

Playback Theatre West achieves this effect by having an audience member tell a true story on stage and cast actors to portray characters in the reenactment of their tale. After the evening’s “conductor” (or emcee) asks the storyteller a few questions to help flesh out a full picture, the cast is turned loose to improvise the story with only a few boxes and some pieces of cloth as props. A musician is also present on stage to aid in fully bringing the scene to life. With each performance, the group strives to honor each storyteller by listening carefully.

“You have to understand what the teller is looking for. It could be resolution or validation that it happened or they need to say, ‘Hey, this was ridiculous, wasn’t it?’ Or they just need to vent,” Walker says. “And then there’s all those skills you need to really listen to each other on stage.”

Dynamic skills that forfeit the self in favor of the group especially come into play during other improvised parts of the show. One section features a pair of actors who each portray a conflicting emotion in an audience member’s story, and the warm-up performance, called “fluid sculptures,” is an abstract depiction of how an audience member feels that night. While any number of emotions can pop up in a given night, Gray says many times a theme will develop as the night progresses.

“The sculpture will often set the tone,” Gray says. “If people start sharing very deep stories, we’ll get all deep stories that night, or if it’s lighthearted, we’ll only get funny stories. But you just never know how it’s going to go.”

On May 4, Playback Theatre West will stage its second-to-last show of this year at the Dairy Center for the Arts. Though the show will surely take on a life of its own, its cast members have no doubt that the stories and performances will find a way to stir the soul.

“We are entertaining and sometimes we are not entertaining, but it’s always impactful,” Brown Adelman says. “Whether that impact is humor or empathetic or tragic or therapeutic, we are there to portray the story in the most honest and beautiful way that we can.”

Playback Theatre West will perform Saturday, May 4 at the Dairy Center for the Arts. The show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at the door or at www.thedairy.org.

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