Playback Theater is a form of improv theater founded in 1975 it New York. It’s a form where the actors play a real story told by one of the audience members. The playback fever has spread over various countries in the world since then, but it’s not so well-known in the Netherlands. However, since a year ago, Nijmegen has its first group performing playback theater: Blending Voices. What makes them even more unique, is that they are the only English-speaking playback group in the Netherlands!
The founders of this group are friends of mine, as well as some people in the group. And a few months ago, my boyfriend Ruud also joined the group. So you probably can imagine I wanted to see one of their performances very badly! I had no idea of what to expect, even though various people had tried to explain to me what playback theater was. I just could not imagine how it would be interesting to hear a story from someone in the audience, and then see the actors play the exact story, without any embellishments. No exaggerations, no added story lines, no alternative endings, everything is exactly as the story was told just before.
I decided to just go without expectations and enjoy the new experience. The theme of the evening was Christmas memories. We were asked how Christmas made us feel. Every feeling the audience gave the group was displayed by a very simple sound and movement, ending in a tableau vivant. The actors filled this tableau vivant one by one. It was beautiful to watch. After each display of the mentioned feeling, the host Daria would ask the audience member if the feeling was displayed correctly. Most of the times it was, but sometimes it turned out to be not quite exactly what the audience member had meant. This was solved brilliantly by asking to elaborate a bit more about this feeling and then acting it out once more. It was clear that it was thought to be very important to get each detail right. Daria would also ask each person who gave them input what their name was, which made the whole thing very personal.
This part lasted quite a long time. During the second part I understood why: the first part was to make us all feel comfortable and safe to tell our stories. This was super important, as the main part of the evening was supposed to be about our stories. Daria asked if someone wanted to share s Christmas memory. It could be any memory, sad or joyful, as long as it was very specific. She invited this person to come sit with her at the side of the stage. There she became like an Oprah, asking all the right questions to have her guests tell their stories in depth. This was especially wonderful during the second story, which was a very sad story about a father who had died right before Christmas. I was amazed that a theater group could make their audience feel so safe, that they’d feel comfortable to tell such touching and sad memories. I’ve never seen such high audience participation during a theater performance, but I definitely have never seen audience members share such personal stories. Not all of the stories were heartbreaking, though. Which is probably a good thing, because heavy, sad stories need a bit of balance for the audience to cope, I guess.
And again, the actors tried to get every detail right. I was amazed that it was not boring at all to watch a story I’d just heard. I think it was partly because the actors tried to act so truthfully, which made the character from the story come to life. They also used colored vails to add symbolism in their scenes. These vails were transformed into anything: a Christmas tree, a plate of food, food cooking in the oven. It added a special element to the scenes. They brought objects to the stage without having the actual objects, but without having to mime.
Another thing which brought the stories truly to life, was the amazing musician. He was sitting on the floor next to the stage with a guitar and various percussion instruments. His background music was the perfect addition to create just the right atmosphere in the scenes. It sounded quite enchanting. I was sad to hear that this musician will leave the group, because he won’t be living in the Netherlands anymore. I hope Blending Voices will be able to find another musician who can create the same atmosphere to their performances.
At the end of each story, a candle was lit by the storyteller. This was a very nice symbol. The symbol got even bigger at the end of the play though. We were all invited on stage, forming a circle around the candles. We had to put the candles out to make place for new stories in the future. I thought we simply had to blow them out, but we were asked to clap instead. The winds created by our claps blew the candles out. This was a very intense and awesome way to show our appreciation for the performance and at the same time create a kind of closure to the stories.
Like I said, I didn’t know what to expect, but I had never imagined playback theater to be anything like this. Or any form of theater for that matter. It was a truly special way of sharing stories, memories and a love of theater together. I will definitely go see their future performances and I’d recommend you to do the same! Or, if you’re living in another country, to find a playback theater performance somewhere near you.