FAQs about a show
When you walk into the room you’ll notice that the feeling is friendly and informal. At most shows there is no stage. The room stays lit during the show. The audience sits in curved rows rather than straight rows, so you can see each other, and people are asked to sit close to the front rather than spread out through the room to increase the feeling of community connection. While you wait for the show to start you might be invited to think about the show’s theme, or one of the actors might stop by and introduce themselves.
What happens once the show starts?
There’s an emcee (called “the conductor”) who will facilitate the performance. They will describe Playback and say a little about the show’s theme. Then the actors (3-5 others) will introduce themselves by sharing how they personally relate to the show’s topic.
Then the emcee invites volunteers from the audience into a brief conversation — usually just a few minutes — to share their own thoughts, feelings or experiences related to the show’s theme. After each conversation, the actors and musician will immediately embody the key feelings and actions they heard through movement, music and dialogue. All of it is improvised–the actors have never heard any of the stories before and they don’t plan anything with each other before they start the action. During the course of a 75 minute show, about 6-8 stories will be enacted.
Is this like The Moth, StoryCorps or story slams, where people read or perform stories?
Similar to these popular storytelling formats, the event is a chance to hear often compelling true, personal, first-person stories, usually on a pre-chosen theme. But Playback Theatre (the improv story theatre form True Story Theater primarily uses) is completely improvised–both for the audience members who speak, and for the performers who then reflect back dramatically what they heard. Nothing has been pre-planned.
Is this like “What’s My Line?” or comedy improv?
Similar to comedy improv, it’s often fun and amazing to see what the performers create without any script, and many Playback Theatre shows have moments of laughter. But Playback Theatre aims for each audience member who shares to feel deeply heard and respected, and for audience members to leave feeling connected to each other. Often, quite serious topics are explored. Tears are as common as laughter. People often get fresh insights about the topic of the show and about their own lives.
Sharing your own story
Can I just listen and not say anything?
Absolutely. You are welcome just to watch. But we hope as the show goes on you might feel moved to share your own experience. We will help you warm up to the show’s theme in several ways. If you feel an unexpected urge to raise your hand, don’t hold back, because the show goes by quickly! Seeing your own life and feelings re-enacted is a special part of the Playback experience, different from just watching others’ stories.
If I want to share something, should I prepare?
No. In fact, we request you not plan ahead what you will say. We hope you will surprise yourself. If you are chosen by the emcee, they will engage in a conversation with you.
Do I need to share a “story?”
No. Feel free to just explore your thoughts and feelings about the show’s theme. We prefer fresh explorations to “stories” you’ve told many times before. It feels more immediate and real. The emcee will actively help you to shape–and often, to focus–what you share, so that the actors can use it well. Playback works best with fewer details rather than more. Please let the emcee help you to be concise.
If I do say something, will the actors make fun of me?
Absolutely not. Unlike comedy improv, we are not trying to be clever or funny. Our goal is to listen as deeply and accurately as possible and to do our best to honor your experience. And after each enactment, we always check back with the person who shared. It’s fine to make corrections or even ask for a re-do if you feel misinterpreted.
Is anything “off limits” to share?
Please share only your own experience, and do not disclose private things about other people, especially about other people who are in the room (e.g., your life partner or friend). If you want to tell a story that includes them, ask their permission first. In addition, the emcee is looking to keep the room safe for everyone, and will interrupt profanity, bigotry, or other conduct they judge as inappropriate. Other than these limits, know that people may share things that are vulnerable and personal and not often talked about in public.
Witnessing others’ stories
What is meant by “witnessing others’ stories?”
Being an audience member in Playback Theatre is not a passive role. You are as important as the actors. The quality of each audience member’s listening, attention, and support for the people who share will greatly affect the level of risk-taking, and hence the depth and beauty of the show.
During the show, can I comment on what I’ve seen?
As you’ll see, Playback has a clear format where audience members do not spontaneously comment or ask questions about what they’ve seen–or talk to others who shared a personal story. The boundaries are designed to create greater safety and trust for people to share from their heart. After the show, it is fine to ask someone who shared if it’s OK to talk with them about it. Please respect their wishes if they would rather not. True Story Theater always welcomes your honest feedback after the show (see below).
Can I take a picture or video?
You may take photos of actors (no flash, and no videos). Do not photograph any audience members without their express permission. You are welcome to have a friend video the telling and Playback of your own story.
What if something during the show upsets me?
Playback shows are often emotional, not only for story volunteers but also for the audience witnessing. We welcome both laughter and tears and believe that authentic emotional response to our work is natural and healthy. However, if you are uncomfortably stirred up and want to leave the room, please do. Helpers in the back of the room may be available to listen to you if you wish for it. You can come back in whenever you want.
After the show, is it ok to share what happened
You are encouraged to describe your own experience and describe in general terms what people shared. For example, “A woman talked about her trip to Florida and being scared on the plane flight. It reminded me of when I used to be terrified of flying.” Please do not name the storytellers and don’t repeat any specifics that would disclose who they are. We want audience members to feel safe to be vulnerable, and your discretion will support that.
About Playback Theatre
Is Playback Theatre a kind of therapy?
Playback can be experienced as healing, but its goal is artistic enjoyment, insight and community connection, not therapy. As with all good theater, we welcome genuine responses of emotions, from laughter to tears.
Did True Story Theater invent this kind of theatre?
No, Playback Theatre was developed in the 1970’s in New Paltz, NY by Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas. True Story Theater is one of hundreds of Playback Theatre troupes in over 70 countries. True Story coordinates Playback North America, a network of 50+ Playback companies in the U.S. and Canada. Contact Christopher@PlaybackNorthAmerica.com if you’d like to help Playback spread.
Nuts and bolts
Is there a break or intermission?
No. Usually a show lasts about 75 minutes. Feel free to use the bathrooms whenever you need or to leave and return if you need for another reason.
Are children or teens welcome at public shows?
So long as they don’t disrupt, usually, yes, but we do not control what is shared. Use discretion; step out of the room with your young person if the story is not one you want them to hear.
Are there refreshments?
Almost never, although it is fine to bring water and quiet snacks if you need them.
What special needs can you accommodate?
Please contact us ahead of time so we can think with you how to make the show work for you. Our shows can still be enjoyed by people who are hard of hearing, who are blind, who have developmental challenges, and who know little English. Most of our venues are accessible for people using wheelchairs. If they are not, it will be clearly acknowledged on the publicity materials.
If you want more
If I like the show I go to, where can I see you again?
We hold a public show at least once every month. Please come again – and bring guests! Each month we focus on a different theme. With 20 members of our company and 5-6 performing at a time, at many performances you can expect to see different cast members.
Also invite us to perform for your business, community group, religious organization, birthday… you name it! Most of what we do is for specific organizations or constituencies. Look on our website to see the full breadth of our work.
How could I learn Playback Theatre?
What we do might look like magic, but it mostly takes just finely-tuned listening and trusting yourself. All are invited to try it out, whether or not you’ve done any other acting or performing. Most people find it fun and satisfying. Look on our website under “classes” to check it out or write to express interest.
After the show, if you’d like to give feedback, please email your thoughts to our director, Amber@TrueStoryTheater.org. We welcome raves, concerns, questions, suggestions… anything you want to say. Please join our True Story Theater Facebook page, comment, and share with your friends. Our work spreads mainly by word of mouth.
We hope you enjoy your first True Story Theater experience!
From all of us at True Story