By Colombo's Basement Theatre Playback Company
Every day we live is an amalgamation of stories. We may not be aware of this array of stories that later become our day, but every moment passed has a story of its own. To fulfill our ontological existence as human beings, we need to acknowledge and come to terms with our own stories as well as others’ stories that may or may not be detached from our reality to a greater extent. Only when we validate such stories on a communal level with the participation of various individuals belonging to multiple facets of the society can we validate our existence as essentially societal beings. Playback theatre is highly instrumental in this regard. A comparatively novel approach to traditional theatre found by Jo Silas and Jonathan Fox, playback theatre is an artistically engaging extension of improvisionist theatre that elevates the position of the viewer to that of the playwright. The distinction between playback theatre and improvisionist theatre lies in the former's liberal approach to theatre where the audience fabricates the script based on their personal stories as opposed to the latter's pre-set script which is contributed to by the audience at the time of the performance in terms of altering the content and the stage direction.
The Museum of Modern And Contemporary Art Sri Lanka, a bold initiation that came to being not-long-ago with its debut exhibition ‘One hundred thousand small tales’, takes a step forward in its ambitious attempt at shedding light on small stories of our times. In fact, the museum funds and hosts sessions of playback performances for kids aged 8 – 13. The sessions that take place in a cozy corner of the 17th floor of the Colombo Innovation Tower with its allencompassing view of the urban landscape rimmed by the ocean is facilitated by the Basement Playback Theatre Group. Founded in 2008, the group is made of 13 spirited individuals who come together in their shared interest in theatre despite many differences in age, nationality, ethnicity, and profession. Their most recent playback session was held on the 15th of February with the participation of more than 15 kids who became possibly the most enthusiastic audience ever as soon as the session spurred to life with the warm-up.
In playback theatre, the onset of the session – the warm-up is as important as the enactment of stories. In fact, the warm-up is a catalyst in encouraging the sharing of individual stories within the collective of the audience as it builds a safe environment within the performing space. The acting crew successfully achieved this with their strategic warm-up session that made the young audience swirl in enthusiasm and laugh out loud, transforming the usually quiet museum space into one that pulsates with vibrancy. During the first part of the warm-up, the audience was invited to whisper and shout with the use of their body parts through activities such as clapping and stamping their feet, making the audience familiarize themselves with their environment corporeally. The second activity involved the audience speaking gibberish with each other. The sprightly group of participants understood each other very well and responded accordingly, showing that a story, once articulated in front of someone, no matter how incoherently, is perceived, acknowledged and validated. The last activity involved a human train that went around the museum, stopping at certain 'stations' to observe the artifacts housed by the museum. It was evident that the warm-up activities were designed considering both the young audience and the immediate surroundings of the museum, and they proved to be highly effective in terms of getting the audience to participate actively and interact with each other.
As expected, the dramaturgic enactment of stories was the star-of-the-show. The young audience was more than eager to sit on the teller’s chair next to the coordinator and share their stories. The coordinator first allowed the children to reflect on a story they wanted to share, later proceeding to pick members from the audience to occupy the teller’s chair. Having extracted the setting and the essence of the story, the coordinator invited the acting crew to present the story as a dramatic performance. With a limited number of props that included several yards of clothes in different colors hung on the ‘prop tree’ and the few chairs available, the crew delivered a praise-worthy performance, masterfully tackling the inevitable element of surprise that accompanies the playback theatre. In fact, The Basement Playback Theatre Group presented the audience with a well-spent one and half hours of aesthetic and intellectual pleasure, transforming the museum into a stage for both spectacles and adventures. There were spectacles of fireworks that welcomed the new decade, there were adventures of lobsters escaping from fish tanks, there were tragedies of parting with best friends, and there were joys of winning sports competitions. It is no hyperbole to say that the stories shared by children were as exuberant and dynamic as they were. These stories came alive through the artistic expression of them by the acting crew, backed by the music improvised by other members of the group; the rhythmically wavering tones and tempos of the background music helped encapsulating the intensity of emotions felt and shared by the teller and portrayed by the actors. Indeed, the aesthetic experience enabled by playback theatre is one collectively created by the audience and the performers in a tapestry of mutual respect and sharedness that fuses artistic expression with social connection. It allows the audience not only to validate their reality but also to view it from the perspective of an outer entity. The children who shared their stories knew that they were being heard; reactions from their fellow members of the audience validated their stories. They reflected on their lives and relived certain chosen moments. They sympathized and empathized with the audience, engaging in community building.
Playback theatre is a form of art that allows internal communication with one's self. Its many benefits further include ensuring mental health and personal development. As qualitative reports state, playback theatre has a therapeutic significance while also enhancing the individual sense of connection, self-esteem and self- knowledge. Performed with the involvement of children, it helps the development of self-awareness, self-confidence, and involvement with the community at a young age. The zestful young audience that Filled The Museum of Modern And Contemporary Art Sri Lanka with laughter and merriment not only gained a lot but also had a relaxing and de-stressing time having fun with the members of the Basement Playback Performance Group who evinced that they are very well suited to work with children. Their expressive bodily movements, artistic facial expressions, and mastery at performing embellished the monthly calendar of The Museum of Modern And Contemporary Art Sri Lanka. The extolling feedback and the loud round of applause they received from the audience at the end were proof of the success of the session.