Cross-Cultural Storytelling through Playback Theatre

Students who have participated in a cross-cultural experience were given the opportunity this past Sunday to share their stories through a form of improvisational acting known as “Playback Theatre.” The event took place in the Black Box theater at 6 p.m. on Sunday, and while the group was small and intimate, more people showed than expected. This allowed for a variety of stories by both students and faculty who went abroad, with people who went to many different countries, which added to the fullness of the experience.

Alumna Liz Gannaway, graduate student Bridget Mullins, Theatre Department Chair Heidi Winters Vogel, and Senior Isaac Tice performing one student's story.

Alumna Liz Gannaway, graduate student Bridget Mullins, Theatre Department Chair Heidi Winters Vogel, and Senior Isaac Tice performing one student’s story.

The event utilized five actors who performed the experiences of participating audience members in various forms. To start off, the audience expressed aloud different feelings they had before, during, or after their cross-cultural, and the actors would sculpt these emotions by coming together to portray different sounds and actions that expressed the emotion in repetition.

When the audience started sharing more complex, multi-layered emotions, the actors would pair up, with each member of the pair sculpting one aspect of what the person felt to show multiple versions of these complicated feelings.

As audience members began telling specific stories of their experiences the actors adapted their styles of improvisation to the stories. For some stories, three actors would line up and each act out a different phase of the story. For more complicated stories, the storyteller would choose actors to play different characters and the actors would perform the experience as a chronological whole.

In one participant’s story about her return home from cross-cultural, Heidi Winters Vogel, chair of the theater department, played the storyteller and creatively used props to demonstrate the connections made between the storyteller and her father. As the storyteller was able to bond with her father through sharing her experiences, Vogel illustrated this by wrapping one scarf around her own neck and one around the neck of the actor playing the storyteller’s father, and tying the scarves together as they talked.

At the beginning of the event audience members seemed hesitant about participating, but they warmed up to Playback Theatre as the event went on. The facilitator of the event, Roger Foster, noticed this along with the richness of the stories that were shared. He concluded that the reason students had been hesitant to share at first had less to do with being unwilling to tell their stories and more to do with an unfamiliarity with Playback Theatre.

Playback is relatively unknown among the EMU student body, and even among cross-cultural leaders. As more people learn about Playback, and it becomes more common for those returning from cross-cultural experiences to participate, perhaps the use of this theatrical form will deepen in richness and success.

That being said, Sunday night’s Playback event was successful, even if there was a level of uncertainty. Many stories were shared, and it was clear through the reactions of the audience of “mm-hms” and nodded heads that the stories shared resonated with multiple people. Also, the increased audience engagement as the night went on proved that this form of theater was helpful to those who participated.

The next Playback event will be held in the spring semester and, while targeted to those returning from Fall cross-culturals, all who have participated in a cross-cultural experience already are invited to come. Foster says that “a successful storytelling event requires an empathetic audience working to create a learning community of fellow ‘pilgrims.’” The more people who have completed their cross-cultural experiences that come, the better this form of processing can be for all who participate.

-Bethannie Parks, Style Editor; photo credit, Colt Duttweiler

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