Melbourne Playback Theatre Company celebrate 30 years of creating and illuminating the stories of thousands of people, communities and organisations.

Milestones will be that celebration for this quite unique group of story tellers that work more from impulse and stimuli than scripts or more traditional theatrical instruction. The audience is, in fact, the scriptwriter which makes every performance completely unique, relevant and engaging.

I spoke with one of MPTC's artistic directors, Andrew Gray, to further understand the inner mechanics of this truly unique theatrical troupe.

Melbourne Playback Theatre Company seems to consist of a very talented blend of improvisers, actors and musicians.  Can you tell us the purpose of Playback and where it sits within the entertainment industry?

The purpose of Playback Theatre is to bring to life the individual stories – be they personal, work related, mundane, profound, humorous, tragic – of our audience. Using the power of spontaneous improvisation, our skilled performers seek to transform and bring new perspectives to the stories we hear.

Where do we sit within the entertainment industry is a tricky question to answer. We perform public performances at regular intervals throughout the year at theatres around Melbourne and regional Victoria- La Mama Courthouse, Kingston Arts Centre, Hot House Theatre, for example. However , the majority of our work is commissioned by corporate clients, educational institutions and government and community organizations. In these contexts we might be celebrating an organizations achievements, reflecting on particular issues within the culture of the organisation, or as a plenary session for a conference.

What has been your personal journey with Playback and what role do you undertake within the company?

I first joined Playback straight after leaving VCA where I'd trained as an actor. I originally joined simply because it was an acting job! I'm currently Co- Artistic Director, a role I've been fulfilling for the last 6 years, as well as a facilitator or conductor of performances. I love the opportunity that Playback provides of hearing a rich diversity of stories from people from all different walks of life. I've been blown away by people's courage and tenacity in challenging times, or by their honesty, vulnerability and dreams for the future.

What sort of challenges crop up in a company of this type and how are these managed?

The challenges are probably similar to most organisations – people leading busy lives with other work and life commitments outside the company and feeling time poor in relation to the energy necessary to sustain and maintain the company. Challenges around developing artistically as a company and managing the fact that we operate as a collective decision making body – so trying to ensure that each voice in the company is able to express themselves and yet balancing the need to also make decisions and keep a sense of momentum going. In our work we model active and respectful listening when performing and we aim to bring this into out  rehearsals and meetings.

I would imagine there have been many satisfying moments for yourself as a member of this collective. Can you outline some of these moments for us and describe the significance they have had for you?

Recently we performed for a community organisation to about 200 people towards the end of their 5 day conference and received a standing ovation. While the standing ovation was delightful to receive, the sense of spirit and community in the room combined with the artistry of the actors and musician was a real highlight of the year. At another performance this year a senior woman executive from a global accounting firm told an incredibly moving and honest story about the tension between the challenge and satisfaction she received from her work versus the pleasure and desire to spend more time at home with her young children.

Too many moments over the years – a manager at a major car company revealing his dream to open a gelato store; a man grieving for the loss of his 10 year old daughter, and the actors all being in tears after the performance; a child telling a simple yet beautiful story of looking at the birds in the sky.

Satisfying moments as a member of the collective – the whole company living and performing at Hot House Theatre in Albury-Wodonga a couple of years back; seeing new members do their first performances with the company and then go onto to take leadership roles within the company; seeing company member's artistic and professional work outside the company flourish and be well received by critics and public alike; sharing lifts together in gigs and simply catching up and chewing the fat. Going to the New Zealand Playback Summer School and having the opportunity to work with people from all over the world with an interest in story and process. Mary Good who first started Melbourne Playback returning to run workshops for the company and generously share her knowledge and wisdom.

Playback has quite an intimate team – is this a vital ingredient to the success of the company? Do you recruit from time to time and, if so, how is this facilitated?

It is a vital ingredient in our success. And sharing our own stories in rehearsal develops further our knowledge and understanding of one another. We  joke that we know more about each other's lives sometimes than our partners and families do!

We recruit as required, usually when a company member decides to leave. We normally advertise that we're seeking actors and ask for CV's. The next phase is to cull the CV's and arrange interviews with chosen applicants. From the interviews we then select a small group of actors who we'll audition , and sometimes we'll require a second audition before we reach a decision.

Playback's upcoming show Milestones  celebrates the company's 30 years in the industry – how will this show work and what should audiences expect?

A facilitator or conductor will be asking the audience questions around a theme – perhaps around milestones in their own lives- and then the actors and musicians will turn the audience's responses and stories into theatre before their very eyes. Because our shows are dependent on who is present on any particular evening, and we don't work with a script – the audience in a way are the scriptwriters for the show – we never know what will arise on any particular evening. Usually our audiences find themselves laughing, surprised, perhaps in tears, delighted, entertained and occasionally challenged by a story – but hopefully they'll walk away feeling they've really enjoyed their evening in the theatre.

Audience participation seems a vital ingredient to the success of a Playback event – what strategies, if any, are in place to encourage the audience that may be a little reticent?

Strategies: The facilitator asking a different question is one strategy, sitting with silence, asking the musicians to play some music to shift an audience, the actors revealing a story or short moments from their own lives, having audience members turn to each other and having a brief chat about something they've been reminded of,  the facilitator offering a story or an image that might relate to the theme(s) of the performance, the facilitator doing a vox pop survey.

What sort of preparation do the Playback artists undergo before performance?

The artists always warm up before each performance and this is usually around an hour or so in duration. It involves physical stretching- yoga and breathing work, singing, games, building a sense of team and ensemble. Then we practice some of the Playback forms that we might use in performance.

The warm up is to both prepare each performer individually and as a member of an ensemble that is creative, focused and operating with fluidity and spontaneity.

What is your personal hope that audiences take away with them after having participated in a Playback event and what is your hope that they take away with them after the Milestones experience?

That through the simple and yet complex sharing of story, something the human race has been doing for thousand of years, that the audience will feel a stronger connection with themselves, the friends they've attended with and the community or society to which they belong. That they'll have been moved and had their own sense of humanity affirmed.

Ben Okri in his book "A Way of Being Free" talks about story in the following way – "Storytelling is always, quietly, subversive. It is a double-headed axe. You think it faces only one way, but it also faces you. You think it cuts in only one direction, but it also cuts you…. When you think it is harmless, that is when it springs its hidden truths, its uncomfortable truths, on you…. Stories are very patient things. They drift quietly about in your soul. They never shout their most dangerous warnings… They infect your dreams, they infect your perceptions. They are always successful in their occupation of your spirit. And stories always have mischief in their blood. Stories… are living things… they never stop living, or growing, or mutating, or feeding the groundswell of imagination, sensibility, and character….. The subversion in storytelling is an important part of the transformation of human beings into higher possibilities."

MILESTONES will be  presented at the Tower Theatre – The C.U.B Malthouse on Friday, 2 December and Saturday, 3 December 2011.