photographs by Jamie Harmon
It’s difficult for students to tell what exactly is about to happen as the actors take the stage. This is neither a musical performance nor a play. There are no props; no elaborate costumes. Yet the students themselves are soon defining the term “bully” and joining in the discovery process.
This is a Playback Memphis performance, where audience participation isn’t just mandatory — it’s essential.
As audience members tell their stories, Playback ensemble members and students learn their roles. After each story is told, the troupe creates a scene without the help of a script or rehearsal. Playback Memphis, through this use of story recreation, allows individuals to share their perceptions and find common ground with other audience members. By finding the universal emotion through personal experience, one is touched more profoundly.
Virginia Murphy, who runs Playback Memphis with her husband, Joe, and others, founded the troupe five years ago. She had been part of a Playback ensemble in New York, where she obtained a graduate degree in drama therapy. After working with the Memphis troupe Our Own Voice, Playback began developing its own space in the community. The topics vary, but all aim to bring emotional enlightenment to both participants and audience members. They’ve worked with a sickle cell support group, done a series of public performances called “Memphis Matters,” and helped Victims to Victory, a support group for people who’ve lost a loved one to homicide But Murphy says they are now focusing on further developing the bully program.
“People don’t realize the consequences” of bullying, she says. It’s her hope that their program can change that.
EXPRESSING WHAT YOU’VE BEEN THROUGH
“How was your morning?” Virginia asks a student.
“Bad,” he replies.
The actors quickly move into position, creating a moving snapshot of a scene depicting a “bad” morning that brings laughter from the audience.
The exercise doesn’t attempt to recreate the child’s morning. Instead, it conjures up emotions, communicates feelings. Under Virginia’s expert guidance, the performance quickly takes shape. The focus gradually shifts from, “How was your morning” to the realm of bullying, as the children begin expressing their own thoughts on what bullying looks like and how it makes both the bully and the bullied feel.
Says Playback member Susannah Hyde, “This is a way to express what you’ve been through. It is about them performing for their peers. We’re just here to back them up because it is still so new to them.” In expressing what one has been through, you allow others with differing experiences to share, almost live, the experience themselves.
The evidence of the method’s effect is obvious. As the children learn the difference between bullying and fighting, as they discover they share similar feelings about being bullied, their attention to the scenes grows. Now they sit at the edge of their seats, almost every hand shooting up when the next question is asked. The children recognize that their peers have the same feelings, the same doubts and questions that they have. There is enlightenment.
“This is more intuitive than just hearing about it,” notes Playback member Darius Wallace of their method. “Working with intense subject matter, you see kids gaining transformative ideas during the process.” In mid-performance, one student takes a seat at the front of the audience and tells the story of his own bullying experience. The actors, both adult and student, take on the roles of those involved.
The boy’s experience comes to life once again, but this time, his situation become a learning experience for all.