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הרצאה שנשאה במסגרת הכנסה הבינלאומי IMAGINE
אוניברסיטת לסלי
על `דרכים יצירתיות להתמודדות עם קונפליקטים בקבוצה, משפחה וחברה`.

Imagine: Expression in the Service of Humanity:
Creative Approaches to Dealing with Conflicts in Groups
An International Conference
6.4.06


Playback Theater:
Discovering the Unspoken Voice in a Spoken Narrative
N. Lubrani Rolnik

The task of trying to illustrate in formal words, the impact of an improvisational form such as playback theatre, is almost contradictory.
When I teach my students improvisation I encourage them, to give up their need to think, understand or discuss what they do, and rather plunge into the pool of the unknown; what is recognized in improvisational language "The state of not knowing what is going to happen next."
Today however, I will attempt to share with you some retrospect reverberation of the playback group process. A process that its artistic fire nourishes on real life stories, told during performance or a show and played back by a team of improviser ? actors and musicians.

In contrast to written life accounts, spoken life stories are transient and illusive by their nature. Often perceived as the "background noises" of our daily experience, they leave no literary trail behind, nor documental mark.
Yet, these oral stories passed, on daily basis, from one person to another, serve us in different ways: We use them for interacting with one another, we narrate and listen to them, so we can reflect, process and release our accumulated, ordinary and extraordinary experiences. Moreover, as they shape and express our perceptions and interpretations about ourselves and others, they formulate and recompose our life histories.

As we voice our thoughts, feelings, impressions, needs, inquisitiveness and comprehensions, we arrange what we wish to convey to others through narration.
While narrating our life stories in different styles and tactics we compose our experience through adjusted tones, qualities, accentuations, exaggerations, characterization twists and turns. This process enables us to put order in our mental commotion, not only through the selection and placement of life materials but also through the use we make of our audiences- our story listeners.
These daily audiences; friends, colleges, family members, acquaintances, have the capacity not only to listen and respond to our stories but to influence the way we perceive and narrate them.
Moreover, these receptive spectators endow our life stories with meaning in their attentiveness, concentration, silences, private association and thoughts. Even in their objections or subtle reservations.
In other words, the quality and meaning of the story I keep telling myself only, change and transform when I finally tell it to someone else.
These daily exchanges of spoken narratives take place in a primal (virtual) theatrical setting; where life stories enacted and interpreted in the imaginary stage of the both teller and listener.

Playback theatre was founded in 1975 by Jonathan fox in New Patlz, New York. Derived from Psychodrama, improvisation and story telling, it is a form of improvisational theater where personal stories told by people in the audience are played back and brought to life on stage.
The playback ritual invites a group people to share their life stories with one another and watch together a process of their artistic enactment. Through the improvisational art form a dialogue is created between members of the audience and a team of actors, musician and conductor; A dialogue that allows the voicing of personal and collective themes.
In many ways what makes this non scripted theatre a simple yet a useful innovation (this art form is practiced in more then 26 countries around the world) is that it broadens, revive and support a dramatic primal process of personal story telling. As it allows the suspension of both evasive and constitutive life experience it creatively and sensitively explores the way spoken narratives envelop and convey them.

Today I will try to look at what actually happens to a life story when it is told in front of and audience and what happens when a personal story is played back to us in an improvisational form. In a playback show or workshop one phase follows the other (we listen to a story and then watch its enactment) but I believe both phases are potent for voicing unspoken themes among individuals and the collective group. I will also try to demonstrate the way life stories spontaneously respond to one another; thus creating a chain of narratives which enabling a group to explore and voice a mutual theme that that in different context could be either silences or concealed.


While telling a story during playback performance or workshop a teller can not predict how she and other participants of the event will hear and comprehend the story. The fact that she knows what she wants to tell is not relevant, because the moment she sits near a conductor and faces a group of people (witness) and a team of performers (who concentrate on her and are tuned not necessarily to the sequence of what she is telling but it`s emotional and creative effect on them, she will be able to voice her life experience in an unexpected way. Her voice may change. She may feel excited, shy, boisterous or awkward. She may find herself emphasizing for unconscious reason one part while skipping the other.
In many ways a story teller, like the improvised artist ? the actor ? can not predict what will be addressed in one point of his personal narrative to another.

"My story is very silly." tells a women in her a twenties who share with us a painful memory from her childhood being blamed by her mother for not watching her baby brother in the bath insinuating that she wanted to harm him. This memory took place when the teller was five year old. This is not a silly story.
"I wish to tell a funny story say a teacher in his forties. "Everyone is telling stories about fears so I -for a change- will tell a funny story.
Nicked named `Hezi the cat`, the tellers narrative seem focus on his role as mice catcher in a dormitory for children with difficulties (in communication). This mice hunting drama, which take place in a remote institution in the midst of a country field, may seem at first funny indeed. But when I ask him during the interview one question:
"Hezi everyone in your story except you is afraid from the mice, is there anything you are afraid from?"
At this point Hezi`s story change direction
"`Yes" he exclaim. "One of my greatest fear is that I wont be able to understand a child in distress, in a crucial moment where you and only you have to decide whether to take him to a hospital or not.`
As many story teller who tend to label (define) their story as weird, silly or humorous tale from his life were sincere.
As we ? tellers of spoken narratives - do not always recognize or acknowledge the emotional fabric of our life experience, the playback setting enable us in exploring our personal themes, in a non manipulative or interpretive manner. By endowing the story teller not only a stage but the attention, the concentration, the attentiveness and even this eager expectation to watch the story`s performance, a personal narrative is able to transform and free itself from any armor.
Thus a teller, audience and performers can sense and enact (in mind or on stage) not only the cartoon like (tom and jerry style ) aspect of the tellers experience but also epic parallels and margins between protectors and protégés, mice traps and professional traps (perhaps even conductors traps)
*


As different human beings might be from each other in their personality, history and life experience, they will always aim to discover common pattern between one life story to another.
If we were in a workshop setting and I would have asked you to place your thumbs on your wrists, listen to your heart bits and then utter your rhythmic pattern with your voice, we would have hear at first numerous versions of heart bits. Seeming at first disconnected and detached form one another they will gradually aim to resonate harmoniously and respond to one another through joint rhythmic pattern.

In the same manner individual life stories in playback theatre influence and respond to one another.
Often the therapeutic value of the playback ritual is recognized by the common thread that links together life stories of people who come form different walks of life.

(a common German phrase, used among playback practitioners around the world to describe the connecting elements of a story, is called the red thread. This phrase is a metaphor from weaving in which a red thread allows the weaver to follow a pattern.)
In a playback show the audience, the tellers, the conductor and the actors participate in an act of weaving. Through a common red thread participants are able to explore and intertwine a common theme in a multi narrative chain.




Let us look at a sequence of 4 stories that were told in a playback performance in Berlin:

The first story takes place in a quiet neighborhood in Berlin. The teller is a dog owner (or should I say a big dog owner) who takes his dog for a walk. While taking their routine path, both dog and owner meet another dog owner who strolls along with his very little dog. Suddenly, the big dog attacks the little dogs. The small sized dog wails in distress and panic and of course the owner of the big sized dog ? the teller of the story- is embarrassed and does his best to restrain his dog. The teller says:
"I was afraid that my beloved dog will eat the little dog. And I was scared and embarrassed by his aggressive behavior."

The second story takes place in busy highway. The teller is a woman who drives a little West German (Trabant?)car. In her story she speaks about her total frustration and fury dealing with drivers who make patronizing remarks towards the car and its unusual historic licensing number.
"I can not understand this!" she exclaims. "These constant rude remarks drive me crazy."

The third story takes place in the Schwartzwald - the black forest. The teller is another woman in her thirties who jogs alone in the wood paths, and suddenly find herself jogging along side with another jogger. The jogger is a strange man. He is friendly enough but alas he smells of garlic, which the teller naturally finds repulsive and off putting. However the jogger persists in being friendly and finally convinces her to have coffee with him. At this point the teller smiles at the audience and deliver the punch line of her story "The thing is" she says "that garlic man became my boy friend, yes. and he is here with us in the audience. ".

The forth story takes place in Tel-Aviv beach. (In fact not very far from hear near Hilton beach)
I am the last teller. I tell my story in English to a German audience. I am walking with a friend along the beach and notice a very old and confused woman dressed in a suit and coat, holding a small elegant bag. She is walking towards the water and it does not look good. As the water reach her waste my friend and I swim towards her and pull her out of the water. She gets angry at us. But then we manage to calm her down. Using our inquisitive tactics we learn that she has escaped from an elderly home and that she was indeed planning to put an end to it all. Without her full understanding we lead her back to her care keepers. As we hand her over, she looks at me disappointed, angry and heart. I feel that I have betrayed her.

Setting in motion group process, we can see how we untangle common threads from the rich fabric of multi-narratives.
We can see here how different life story talk and respond to one another. As the first story deals with the aggressiveness of a big dog towards a small dog in the second story aggressiveness and hostility is manifested among human beings rather then animals. But here, another dimension is added to the narrative exchange. The difficulty of human being to separate themselves from restraining walls that used to define personal identities. The third story completes the latter and in a way predicts the story that will follow. Like a dog that sniffs a stranger in his familiar territory the lady jogger is annoyed by the strange garlic odor of her companion. But soon the source of contempt transforms itself to source of mutual attraction. Her story explains to us that stranger ? the one who evoke our prejudice, suspicions and scorn ? reside within us in the group.
At this point the evening is concluded (whines off / sealed) with a story from a stranger in the audience. Told in English, the story takes place in a foreign country (with all its historical and political association) it introduced a topic that was the emblem of the strangers in the previous stories. I learned this from a spontaneous remark of a member from the audience who in respond to my story said that he feels that the story released the taboo of talking about dying and death.
Naturally there is more then one way to understand this narrative exchange. Obviously, in real time we are not necessarily aware (or wish to be aware) of the red thread that links together our life experiences.
Indeed there is something subversive about playback theatre as it allows us to voice evasive, sensitive issues and taboos
*

Personal narrative boundary lines are re shaped twice during a playback event. They change form once they are told in the stage arena in front of the audience and they take shape once again as a life story is enacted on the spot by the team.
As the creative tools, used in playback theatre, adhere to universal and metaphoric language, they possess the ability to explore narratives in a blind folded way by utilizing the uncertainty and using intuition, imagination, feelings and empathy.

During a playback workshop for medical equipment company, a story was told by one of the manager. She was eager to tell her story but her story was laconic and for some reason depleted.
"My story is about last year. Exactly one year ago we had here an executive gathering, for the same purpose we are gathered to day ( to talk about company missions and goals ? I remember the last meal we had together with people that are not here with us and now we have other people replacing them instead. And here we are again talking about new goals and mission. I am thinking that I am also ill and I also almost did not come today to work. This is the story!"

In the playback enactment an actress enters the stage and talks about her loneliness. She talks about how she misses her colleagues. While delivering her monologue another actress enters the stage she sings `Ave Maria` while plucking apples from a tree. As two more actors enter the scene the singer offers them an apple and prepares for the last meal. Each member takes the apple, eats it and then approaches the protagonist and bid her farewell. As they leave the scene the protagonist stays by her self and wanders how close she is to leave with the rest of them.
This is an example how improvisation explores a story not intellectually but intuitively. The actors in this case listen to the story attentively though the they were ignorant of some essential information about the teller and the tragic turmoil which befallen the company; colleges had to leave because of cancer, the teller had cancer, and on of the mangers died in a suicide bomb attack.
The ignorance of the actor enabled them to be tuned to the story in a different way. Instead of concentrating on the sickness the actors concentrated on the emptiness and loss of companionship. We feel death hovering through the last supper image. The image of apple reminds us of the banishment of Adam and eve and the poisoned apple in a legendary tale.


Their enactment is puts in actions what we feel, sense and imagine when we listen to a story.

It is useful to distinguish between the content of a story and the way it is been narrated. The playback improvisers will very often try to break the story and use its elements to re shape the narrative.

It is not a co incidence that improvisation is a very potent tool for the exploration of a life story. As improvisation denounces rationality and operates from the unknown unexpected moment it explores the story in a creative open way. Improvisation can not force meaning. It works with what happens in the moment of exploration. It invites us to be part of a searching process. In a way it takes us to a journey and explores not only what was the tellers experience but what her experience evokes in the actors and audience.

Improvisation in playback ensures that life stories will return to a teller and an audience as innovative, original sketches. These artistic sketches are faithful to the original life material ( I mean true to the spirit and the heart of the story) but it is still a free sketch, as it allows actors to process personal themes from numerous cracks of possibilities in a kaleidoscope perception.
Playback theatre teaches us that in order to understand on another we should listen to personal narratives as empty vessels. Ready to be not only to be filled by new understanding but to be touched by a poetry of life substance and imagination.







.




נילי לוברני רולניק נילי לוברני רולניק, מייסדת אנסמבל הפלייבק הישראלי (1998), מחברת `חיים בתוך סיפור ? תאטרון פלייבק ואמנות האימפרוביזציה` (הוצאת קיבוץ מאוחד, מופ"ת), בעלת תואר MEI ביזמות וחדשנות ? אוניברסיטת סווינבורן, אוסטרליה, מרצה לטכניקת פלייבק ואימפרוביזציה ב

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