Over the last two years, I’ve been part of several Playback Theater performances designed to honor environmental justice advocates and share their stories. Not as an actress, mind you, but as someone helping to bring together the actors, activists and audience so the magic can happen.
Playback Theater is a unique type of theater that asks audience members to shape the performance by sharing stories from their lives. The director solicits personal stories from the audience, invites a volunteer up to the stage to tell their story, and asks a few follow-up questions to get more details. The story-teller then choses one of the actors to play herself, the actors take a moment to wordlessly soak up the story, and then re-enact it on stage. It is all based on improv: nobody knows who will share what stories or how the actors will interpret them until it happens on stage. In some cases the director will also ask for reactions to the story from the audience, and the actors briefly interpret those reactions too. When it works it is electrifying.
I can’t say what it was like for the environmental justice activists who shared their stories to see their lives retold on stage. But I know from seeing my own stories brought to life during rehearsals that having so much respect, care and attention given to your own experiences can be deeply meaningful. And I can attest that a number of the audience members unfamiliar with the issues found the performances profoundly moving, and still carry those memories with them.
The idea for doing these shows came from my very talented friend John Chung, who some of you know as Jiwon. John and I were having dinner at a great Korean restaurant in Oakland one night while I was chewing over the usual grad student dilemma of how to do research that actually has some real impact in the world. I had already developed the basic idea of doing oral history interviews with women environmental justice leaders from the Central Valley, which I could analyze for my academic writing and also edit into stories to help educate the public (more on this later). John suggested adding Playback Theater performances into the mix, and I thought it was a great idea. I had some familiarity with the technique through having seen him perform as part of the Living Arts Playback Theater Ensemble, and from having attended a workshop series on Theater of the Oppressed taught by John and other members of the Bay Area Theater of the Oppressed Lab. (Those of you familiar with popular education will be particularly interested in Theater of the Oppressed. It was developed by Augusto Boal, a Brazilian contemporary of Paulo Freire.)
The photos above were taken by Peter John Olandt and myself. They depict three separate performances at:
- UC Davis, organized by myself and the John Muir Institute of the Environment as the closing event for the “California, the University and the Environment” conference in 2009
- the Women’s Center in San Francisco, organized by Greenaction for Environmental Health and Justice to honor activists in Kettleman City and Bayview Hunter’s Point on Earth Day, 2010
- the United Farmworkers of America’s “40 Acres” in Delano, organized by myself and the Women’s Foundation of California as the opening night of their 2010 San Joaquin Valley Funders’ Tour
Putting this slideshow together has been a lovely way for me to remember what a special experience the performances were. I hope they give the rest of you a taste of what transpired. Thank you again to the Kairos Theater Ensemble for making it all happen. Their work is truly a labor of love.
Kairos Theater Ensemble:
Deborah French Frischer (Actress)