Playback theatre is a unique theatrical experience: a team of improvisers and musicians, fronted by a facilitating MC, speak directly to the audience, prompting and listening to their stories which are then ‘played back’ to the audience by the performers. Embracing our long history of oral storytelling, and drawing from interactive and improvised forms of popular theatre, playback theatre has thrived as a tool for activism and community building, bringing people together to explore local histories, have personal experiences expressed and acknowledged and to discuss major issues and possible solutions.

Melbourne Playback Theatre Company was founded in 1981 by Mary Good, after she returned from New York where she with Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas, who founded the first playback theatre company. There are over 100 playback companies across the globe, who often meet at International Playback conferences, but MPTC is one of the oldest. This year marks their 35th birthday, and to celebrate MPTC have planned a jam-packed, innovative and challenging year of workshops, forums and performance events.

At the company’s season launch – held this week at the delightful Billy Van Creamy icecream parlour in Fitzroy North – actor and producer Danny Diesendorf recalled Bertolt Brecht’s assertion that theatre is not a mirror to reflect society but a hammer to shape it. ‘Playback,’ Diesendorf said. ‘can do both.’ He explained that in order to shape society in a more equitable and sustainable way, we must first recognise the issues and social disfigurations that are currently plaguing us; playback theatre, drawing out the community’s stories and experiences, is a mirror that facilitates that recognition, before transforming into the hammer that transforms those stories into a call for action.

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Previously, MPTC has worked privately with corporate clients and community groups, it is a completely independent company, receiving no federal or state funding, using the money earned through corporate and private events to subsidise community programs. But in 2016, MPTC are having their very first season of public events. This season reads like a checklist of the most significant issues facing Australians today: The F-Word, celebrating International Women’s Day; SticksnStones, a First Nations themes show to be held on Sorry Day; On Our Shores, bringing refugee stories to the stage during Refugee Week; Climate for Change addressing climate solutions in Science Week; and Voyager an exploration of mental health during Mental Health week in October.

Rachel Dyson-McGregor is an actor at MPTC and is producing both The F-Word and Voyager. Considering the community engagement and facilitation aspect of performing playback theatre it is common for performers to move into producing roles, with each of MPT’s public events produced by a company actor. At the season launch, Rachel explained that each of the events was chosen for its social significance and then scheduled to coincide with national events so that the discussion generated from each performance will contribute to a national conversation at a time when it is its loudest.

Each public event will include a forum with a panel of experts, followed by audience Q&A and finishing with a playback performance. Panelists for the first two events – The F-Word and SticknStones – include Clementine Ford, Celeste Liddle, Melba Marginson and Bruce Pascoe. This connection between community and experts is a key feature of MPTC’s practice, ensuring that each event artfully combines community expression and the communication of important information, the mirror and the hammer.
Lenka Vanderboom, an actor and producer and Yawaru woman, is producing Sticknstones and spoke of the exciting potential that playback has to connect communities and communicate authentic and important stories. Authentic storytelling and representation has become a significant issue in Australian culture, and indeed globally, with increasing awareness of cultural exclusion and appropriation.

Vanderboom explained that authentic storytelling is particularly significant for Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people, who use storytelling to preserve history and culture. Playback theatre, Vanderboom continued, creates a safe space for people to share their stories, and to see themselves appropriately represented. She recalled during one playback event a man she knew had opened up about his experience as a child of the stolen generation, something he had never disclosed before.

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MPTC’s first public season reflects a growing interest in theatre that breaks traditional borders between actors and audience, engaging with communities, inviting everyone to reflect upon and represent local interests and issues. Vanderboom described this 2016 season as ‘like sitting on the cusp of a great wave’ as theatre groups and the wider community move back towards theatre as a tool for community building and problem solving, including, significantly, a renewed interest in the traditional storytelling forms and histories of First Nations People.

It is not only the increasing popularity of the community-based theatre that is driving MPTC’s growth, but their innovation in representation and form that reflects the diverse interests of their audiences. The F Word will boast MPTC’s first all-female panel, cast and crew, to coincide with International Women’s Day. Surmsah Bin Saad, a company actor, is also a trained dancer and although traditionally playback engages with oral storytelling, he says he is introducing more dance elements into the work he has done, which provides yet another expressive perspective of the issues each performance seeks to explore.

Not to be overshadowed by the public season, Co-Artistic Director Mike McEvoy assures that MPTC will still continue to work privately with community and corporate groups. Plus, they are currently running an extensive range of workshops in storytelling, performance and playback.
McEvoy finished his address to the crowd gathered at the season launch by saying that his work in playback had taught him two very important skills: listening and empathy. Listening and empathy are at the heart of the MPTC’s practice and their public season in 2016. If this is the future of theatre, one that combines the mirror and the hammer to listen, empathise and engage with community issues, it is a future I would love to be a part of.

You can be a part of it too, tickets to MPTC’s season of public events, plus information about their workshops and training programs, can be found at melbourneplayback.com.au

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