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.

#1 – Playback mobilizes action

Which would you prefer:  to listen to a panel of experts with Power Point slides?  Or to see theater?

Recently, True Story was the “opening act” at an educational event, “Preventing Senior Abuse” attended by 150 seniors and professional advocates Arlington Town Hall.  We had just 30 minutes, but in that time enacted three powerful, pre-selected true stories from seniors who had faced abuse: financial scams, hurtful family members, enforced isolation.

At one point, Felix played an alcoholic son whose anger made his elderly mother feel like a hostage.  After the show, we learned that an audience member left after his portrayal, telling a volunteer at the resource tables, “Give me one of those information sheets.  I see now I need to do something about my home situation.”

The panel of experts who spoke after our show enjoyed a warmed-up audience that truly understood the importance of their message.  It was a vivid illustration  of how Playback can amplify the impact of more traditional-format presentations.

#2 Playback reaches across divides

True Story Theater is often invited to perform or teach with the aim of building bridges between participants across differences such as  age, race, class, organizational position, or sexual orientation.  These have been some of our most satisfying experiences.

We are always hungry to hear whether and how our work makes a difference.  Recently, we were thrilled by this testimonial:

“As a Palestinian in the US, I often feel alone and afraid of prejudice at social events.  So I keep my identity hidden.  After True Story Theater played back my experience at a conference, I felt so encouraged that I reached out to an Israeli conference participant and we made a genuine, positive connection. It was a breakthrough for me!  Without that Playback experience, I would have avoided him and certainly wouldn’t have revealed my ethnicity.”
– R. Khouri

Like many people, we are heartsick about the violence between Israel and Palestine.  Every tiny drop of positive connection between people in the Middle East feels valuable. We believe Playback has huge potential as a potent vehicle for helping people hear each other and heal.

Three years ago, my husband (and True Story founder) Christopher and I offered a Playback training that led to one of the first Arab Playback companies in Israel. This summer, our beloved friend Uri Alon (who lives in Israel but was part of True Story for two years) conducted several shows for Jewish people who had to leave their kibbutz because of the bombings.  For several years, Ben Rivers and The Freedom Bus project has worked with Palestinian communities, spreading Playback and other theater and organizing methods.  We hope it keeps spreading.  There is so much to be done, both here and abroad.

The Power of Playback

This is one of the first — and best — things I ever wrote about Playback.  I think I had been performing only a year or two at that point.  I’m glad I put my passion into words while it was still fresh. — Anne


Why do I love Playback Theatre so much?  I’ll try to explain it to you…

Playback says, “You deserve to be heard.”

In a Playback performance, one actor is the facilitator or “conductor,” who asks questions of the audience members to draw out their stories. The conductor listens in a deep and skillful way that many people rarely experience in their everyday lives: listening with empathy but not sympathy; not trying to advise or change the teller’s feelings; not waiting for a pause to then tell his or her own story; simply listening, with focused acceptance. And when the troupe then performs the story, they are again modeling a powerful form of listening: distilling the emotional essence of the moments described and embodying them with sensitivity and respect —simply honoring the experience.

Amidst a culture where judgment, competitiveness and blame are the norm, Playback offers a glimpse, a vision of the listening we could offer each other daily if only we had the skills and the commitment. It is beautiful to witness. After a number of stories, the whole room glows with shared intimacy.

 Playback says, “You count.”

Let’s say we’re in a performance. The conductor asks for a moment in someone’s day, and calls upon a young woman. Let’s say we learn her name is Eliza, and she’s a kindergarten teacher, and her moment was about a difficult exchange with a fellow teacher. When the troupe plays back her story, we are saying in essence, “The ordinary moments in your life are precious: worthy of listening, of attention, of respect… yes, even worthy of art.” And every audience member feels that implicit affirmation. Playback is a cultural antidote to the glitz of TV and movies, where the majority of people portrayed are gorgeous, white, wealthy… or at least famous in a way that makes our own lives feel dull and insignificant. Playback says, “You don’t need to turn on the TV to be moved and inspired. Just to be human is enough.”

This power is especially evident when Playback elevates the stories and strengths of the kinds of people who are generally invisible in the culture. We have worked with inner city teenagers, playing back stories about their friends being murdered on the streets; with people who used to be in prison, playing back stories about the challenge to build new lives; with low-income elderly, playing back memorable moments of their youth. Every story is valuable. They all count.

Playback says, “We are each unique, yet all the same.”

Playback illuminates both the individuality and the commonality of our all-too-human stories. It enables us to see each other in a new, often more compassionate light, especially across differences of background, role, or values. We performed a while back in a nursing home, and a frail old man revealed that he was a singer most of his life. He told an amazing story of being the only white man in a platoon of Black soldiers in WWII, all singing “Old Man River” together, and his voice in the telling was transformed, strong and resonant. The other residents, who had lived around him for months or years, clearly hadn’t even known that he used to sing. I believe they will never again see him the same way.

Sara and Giles, both Board members of a nonprofit, always had tensions between them. Months after a Playback performance, Sara told me that whenever she’s feeling irritated with Giles, she remembers his Playback story about raising three boys, and she feels more connected and patient. Once we performed for the entire staff of a school for severely disabled children. Clearly, there had been tensions between the different status levels of the staff, between the administrators and teachers and support staff, as they struggled to carry out heartbreaking work with insufficient pay. But the stories they told us, and we played back, had them all roaring with laughter together. They could notice how much commitment they all shared.

Playback says, “You’re not alone.”

At a recent performance, a woman on crutches hobbled to the teller’s seat, saying, “Well, what I want to say is just mundane, not really a story.” She talked about her last six month’s experience of injury after injury, and her struggle not to feel depressed and worthless without the usual use of her body. Was there a soul in the audience who couldn’t relate? When, through Playback, we see how often our “mundane” feelings and experiences are shared, we get a break from the isolation and alienation so many of us carry as incessant background noise in our minds. As this teller said, it helps to fill “the potholes in our souls.”

Playback says, “We can overcome deep differences.”

Playback is being used in 40 different countries, often is situations where people need to hear each other. It’s being used in Burundi, a country of Africa torn by years of civil war; in India, to bring out the stories of the “untouchables.” It’s being used in the U.S., with audiences of Jews and Palestinians, with audiences bringing together descendents of Holocaust survivors and descendents of Nazis, with suburban whites and inner city blacks. By creating a container where people get glimpses into each others’ hearts, Playback sows seeds of peace.

Playback says, “You can heal.”

Not infrequently, audience members describe experiences that have been troubling them, sometimes for years. A young woman shares her regret about missing the moment of her mother’s death. An older woman describes her own lack of courage to reach out to people she injured in a car crash. When the troupe plays back such stories, we take care not to “fix” them, not to give them happier or more resolved endings (unless explicitly directed to by the teller). Yet by simply seeing their truth played back, tellers gain insights and sometimes are able to let go of incidents that have been troubling them for years. From time to time, after such a story, the teller will wipe away tears, visibly relax, and say that they now feel a sense of closure.

Playback says, “Magic can happen when we work as a team.”

In a strong Playback performance, what is breathtaking to watch is the seamlessness of the ensemble creating theater improvisationally. No script. Not even a “huddle” as improve actors will do. Instead, the actors and musicians simply begin. Through actively listening and accepting whatever each actor contributes, ensemble creates an emotionally potent and aesthetically satisfying whole. Playback models this intimacy and teamwork, and says, “This is what’s possible! You, too, can dance with the others in your life.”

Playback says, “Come play!“

In case all this makes Playback sound terribly intense and heavy, let me make clear that in most Playback performances, the audience can see that the actors are having a fabulous time. Playful, spontaneous, expressive, emotional… they and the audience get to revel in the joy of being with each other in the moment. This way of being acts as a wake-up call, an antidote the trudging nature of our daily lives, where we’re admonished to do it right, to be perfect, to stay within our narrow roles. Playback says, “On the contrary! Jump in and get muddy!” As True Story Theater, we invite people to open rehearsals and workshops to try on this playful and deeply attentive spirit on for themselves.

These are the things I believe that Playback, in its straightforward and simple way, brings out into the world. It is True Story Theater’s vision and purpose to spread these qualities through its work; and we support the International Playback Theatre Network to spread these benefits of Playback far and wide.