A Lesson in 4 Acts


After serving as conductor for a public performance, an audience member, whom I’ll call Sarah, comes up to me as soon as the show ends.  “I need to talk with you.”  Her eyes are brimming with tears.

Earlier that evening, during a teller’s story about a difficult encounter on the subway, I casually labelled someone in the story as  “crazy” and later “deranged” (as a way to reflect this teller’s fear and judgement).

Sarah was deeply upset by this.  We had a powerful exchange about it which I think will change me forever.

Act 1:  Carrying a mountain

Sarah’s eyes are brimming with tears.  Throughout our calm but intense conversation, her eyes continue to fill.  She quietly dabs the tears away as we talk.  I have no idea what is actually behind the tears.  All I know about Sarah is what a see — a small white woman perhaps in her 60’s.

Later that night, in bed, when I awaken and can’t sleep from replaying our meeting, I imagine possibilities for what’s behind the tears.  I imagine someone she loves, or maybe Sarah herself, struggling for years with a mental illness.  The holding on by fingernails, the hospitals, the invisibility, the judgement and fear of judgment.   Into my heart flows memories of the many people I love for whom serious depression is a life-long companion, sometimes threatening to overwhelm.  I imagine Sarah in a hundred situations where she overheard a slight, a judgement, a label, a wrong towards people with mental or physical challenges, but she didn’t yet have the inner power to speak up.  How much that hurts.  How much courage it takes to step forward against a mountain of cultural ignorance.

I remember an eye-opening movie I saw about a man who was instrumental in the passage of the American’s with Disabilities Act, what crushing, overt prejudice and exclusion people faced before that landmark act, and how recent that was, and how those forces continue, and clearly are still a part of me, aware or not.

Act 2:  Tight little girl

Lying awake, I feel the part of me that just hates to make mistakes.   I can feel that little good-girl I was for so many years, the restrained straight A student who never attempted anything she wasn’t already good at, the teenager who did her best to never break a rule (achievable because my parents were so permissive), the young woman who made sure no one was ever mad at her.  That girl wants always to be perfect and seen as perfect.  To make a public mistake like I made last night — and worse, to hurt someone! — fills me with shame and regret.   I want to write each person in the audience a personal apology (if only I had their emails).  I want to hide, to disappear.  I want to erase last night and make it go away.

Act 3:  Taking action

a) As soon as Sarah and I finished our conversation, I found the teller of that story — who luckily hadn’t left yet — and talked talked about it with her.

b) In the troupe’s debrief of the show, I named the issue.  We will give time to it in our next rehearsal.  (We have learned that right after a performance, when people’s adrenaline is dropping and they need to go home, is not the time to process.  We keep post-show debriefs to 10 minutes, mostly focused on appreciations.)

c) Because the theme of our October public show is “Visible and invisible: stories of disabilities” we have already committed to focus next rehearsal on our own experiences of that theme, and the following rehearsal to get training from members of the Disability Commission.

d) The company will review together a paper on “Respectful Disability Language” that explains the importance of language and offers alternatives.

e) What will I do differently as a conductor?  Actually, the moment the word “crazy” had left my lips, I had felt an inner jolt, a faint “I shouldn’t have said that” nudge, but I barrelled over it, probably embarrassed.  In the future, when I hear that small “oops!” or “ouch!” inside me, I will simply stop, even if I don’t know what to do next.  Perhaps I will say aloud, “I don’t want to say that.”  Or whatever.  I can be transparent and trust I can make my way through it.  And more important, I will focus on the teller’s feelings and not on their judgement of someone else.  I could say, “We have no idea what was actually going on for that woman, but I do see you felt upset and scared by her behavior.”

Act 4:  We are people, first.

Awake in bed, I feel that humiliated and upset little girl.  But alongside her, I feel a centered and wiser grown woman, approaching 60, who interprets last night’s encounter a different way.

After all, why do I do Playback theatre, given its inherent riskiness?  Because I love how Playback can create environments where people reach beneath their daily facades and make human-to-human connection.  Well, my exchange with Surah certainly fulfilled that promise.  That we could touch each other so strongly is testimony to the power of the show, not an erasure of it.  Even with the pain of my mistake, the whole way it unfolded is a success, not a failure.

Something Sarah said will always stay with me.  Quietly weeping, she said, “We are people first.”   At that moment I fully understood that the goal is not to learn correct language so no one is ever offended.  The goal is to always see people in their full humanity, no matter how they look or act or speak, no matter how the teller describes them…. and no matter what mistakes they make.

#3 – Creating intimacy outdoors

It’s ridiculously difficult in the great outdoors to create the focus and intimacy people need to share important and often vulnerable stories from their lives. Yet in warmer weather, so many great performance opportunities are outdoors!  We recently practiced three ways to bring Playback into the wide open spaces:

Be inventive: At the Figment Festival of participatory arts in Boston, we successfully tried one of our favorite out-of-the-box experiments, “Roving Playback.”   We roamed the fair in small groups of 3-4 actors (many of them new Playback students), and politely approached attendees who were hanging out on benches, asking if they’d like to share something from their day at the fair.  After offering a quick “fluid sculpture” of their story, most would beam in delight. And on we’d go to find the next teller…

Be bold: True Story was hired to be the first artists to launch a new Arts in the Park series in Everett.  The show started with an audience of only five elderly women in lawn chairs!  So as people innocently strolled through the park, never guessing they would be part of our show, our conductor Christopher just brazenly went up and asked them to share something from their lives.  He skillfully drew out stories from teens and elderly, from long-time residents and new immigrants… and we managed to pull off a surprisingly satisfying show.

Be nonverbal: At the Cambridge River Festival, it was reasonably quiet in our Storytelling Tent… until a rock band started playing in the next block!  We actors could barely hear each other. Our show about stories from long-time Cambridgeport residents got even livelier, as we communicated mostly in body language (and shouts when essential).  Fortunately, we heard from audience members that they heard us well enough and loved it.

#4 – Hellos and goodbyes

One of the most beautiful parts of being in a Playback company is how deeply we get to know and trust each other.  Yet one of the saddest parts of being in a Playback company is saying goodbye to beloved members as they move on to other pursuits.  Because True Story is such a large company (16-20 members, while most Playback companies have 6-12), we experience hellos and goodbyes more often than most.

In September, long-time member Johnny Lapham said farewell to True Story so he could focus on other interests, including artistic pursuits of woodworking and painting at his Open Hand studio in Cambridge. We miss him already!  Three other treasured members are taking multi-month leaves of absence to handle the pressures of their non-performing lives:  Ani Nguyen, Nicole Brucato, and Kamau Hashim.

At the same time, we are happily welcoming three new, enthusiastic members:  Alysa Escobar, Emily Woods, and Paul Merrill.  View here the lovely faces of all troupe members, new and old.

We’re next holding auditions possibly in November, so if you or someone you know might be a good fit for True Story, please ask them to be in touch as soon as possible.  Being a part of this playful, creative family and getting to serve the community through Playback is supremely rewarding.

Eleven years in (written Sept. 2012)

I entered my relationship with Playback in just the same way I entered the now-32-year relationship with my spouse: blithely.  “This is fun!” I thought.  “I’ll give it a try.”  My philosophy in both love and art was to just let things unfold day by day, and the future would take care of itself.
Eleven years into doing Playback, I’m still in love with it… but in a far more complex way than those joyful days of the early honeymoon phase, when almost every performance was a high and our troupe members were simply thrilled to be together.
Now I’ve so many feelings woven together at once, I’m like a tableau of seven actors each portraying a different side of me. Let’s watch!
Actor A is on the ground, bruised and exhausted, heart torn open by all the comings and goings within the troupe, the conflicts resolved and the conflicts left hanging.   Right behind her Actor B stands peacefully on a box, accepting that almost every Playback company around the world goes through these growing pains if they stay together long enough.   Actor C leaps forward with gusto and confidence, delighted by her ever-increasing Playback skills, while Actor D weeps in frustration that he and the whole company are still so artistically clumsy compared to his vision. Actor E crouches defensively, feeling criticized and confused by the contradictory strands within wider Playback community, while Actor F happily gathers as much information as possible, intellectually stimulated by the diversity of views. Standing on a box, above the fray, the seventh actor stretches a sapphire blue cloth studded with stars, and sings a warm, continuous heart-opening note.
As I am with my life-partner, I know now that I am in this for the long haul, and there’s nothing blithe about it.   As with my life-partner, I know Playback and I will go in and out of many phases through the years, not all of them easy, not all of them fun.  Yet there is richness in the struggles and the consistency, and depth that can only happen through sustained commitment.