This year’s Sorry Day (May 26) was marked by ceremonies, memorials and celebrations, recognizing past tragedies but also looking towards the future, a future that is looking a few shades brighter now that Treaty is finally on the agenda in Victoria – hopefully other states will follow.

The social and political discrimination endured by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country is a difficult subject to broach, it is so deeply ingrained in our history and culture since settlement and being both deeply shameful and likely to spark racist reactionism it is all too easy to place it in the too-hard basket.  The negative impact of Australia’s selective engagement with Aboriginal culture and history is too complex and widespread to be properly engaged with in a theatre review, but a necessary introduction to the work that Melbourne Playback Theatre presented at Federation Square on Friday, SticknStones of the Birrarung Marr.

For those unfamiliar with playback theatre, I suggest you buy a ticket to MPTC’s next show (On Our Shores, a production focusing on the experiences of refugees in Australia on 23rd of June) and experience it for yourself. I can give you a brief outline of the format of MPTC’s public productions, which are a new addition to the thirty-year-old company’s program in 2016, but words can’t really describe the energy that this sort of collaborative, community storytelling creates. It is something that can’t be described second-hand, or even witnessed, really, because it demands engagement and involvement from every audience member. Shy theatre-goers, don’t be put off; you are not forced to come on stage or speak up if you don’t feel comfortable, but the sense that the production is a group offering is inescapable and it is a wonderful thing to experience, though sometimes difficult to watch.

MPTC’s productions begin with a panel presentation and discussion. In SticknStones we were treated to talks from Jill Gallagher AO, Monica McDonald, Bruce Pascoe, Robbie Bundle and Stan Yarramunua. Each spoke of different experiences (and in different forms, McDonald delivering a powerful poem) each speech was powered by a tangible sense of the need for stronger paths to reconciliation, of past grief and future hopes. It was heartening to see a diverse audience there to listen to them speak, and a few from the audiences revealed that they were there as part of reconciliation action plans in workplaces, which is an indication that slow moving bureaucracy is taking effect. There was also a Q&A, deftly handled by MPTC staff.

The panel is followed by playback theatre; Ian David, the beaming MC, guides the audience through a series of simple questions, taking a few particularly emotive and evocative answers to be played back by the performers, Semsah Bin Saad, Diana Nguyen, Mike McEvoy, Emily Taylor and Lenka Vanderboom (who was the creative director of the evening, and should be congratulated for its success), supported by musicians Karen Berger and Ernie Gruner.

The performances start small with shorts songs, traveling moments and tableaux grappling with the essence of words and stories offered by the audience. Grief, shame, and cheeky defiance were played out on stage, the ensemble demonstrating strong instincts and impeccable group dynamics as they improvise each moment without any sort of discussion between them. That display of trust and collaboration alone is worth the price of admission.

The ensemble really shines in the long-form performances, when audience members are invited up onto stage to share a story, pick a protagonist from the group of actors and watch their story be played out in front of them.   Again, with no time for consultation or discussion, the actor playing the protagonist makes an offer, the opening image of the story that they’ve just heard, sometimes naturalistic, but often wrapped in a well-considered metaphor. The other performers engage and lay their own offers on top, layers upon layers, until the story wraps itself into a tight narrative chain, rich with evocative images and perfectly complimented by the music, also improvised. While the lighting could be left as a plain stage wash, designer and operator Alan Davies improvises along with the performers and more often than not hits the mark, pulling light into a tight spot in small, tender moments, flashing blues, reds, yellows as the tone of the story changes.

From the small sample of playback I have seen, I (as a naturally private person) have always been surprised by the incredible personal and highly emotive stories being offered to the performers, but you see, in the story-teller’s reaction, that this process of offering a story and receiving a collective acknowledgment and response to that story, can be a highly rewarding experience, and, as we have heard in recent debates about white-washing, absolutely vital to ensuring that all facets of the community feel the same sense of belonging. It must be daunting to have the responsibility of replicating a personal story only meters away from the storyteller, but the MPTC performers take on this challenge with sensitivity and aplomb. Several of the storytellers were moved to tears, and it was an immense pleasure to watch performers embrace the stories and then the teller. If you love the warm and fuzzies, you have to get along to a MPTC show.

But the greatest accomplishment of the evening, I think, was when the performers were faced with a storyteller whose story was one of prejudice not faced but perpetrated. One audience member told a story of wanting to go to an environmental protest but hesitating because of their fear of Indigenous people, of stereotypes, and she sought help to overcome those confessed fears and prejudices. The performers took on her story with the same gusto, respect and humanity that they had offered to the previous story of displacement and search for belonging. It was a warm, funny reflection of a life lived in a tiny comfort zone, but when it came time to overcoming prejudice as a perpetrator, they did not shy away from the silliness of stereotypes, highlighting their absurd presence in a room full of diverse and respected members of the community. They revealed this absurdity without mocking or alienating, and the story-teller left the stage with a smile on her face and determination to make their projection a reality for her.

Playback theatre is certainly not your usual black box theatre experience, but if the standing ovation that MPTC received at the end of this provocative performance is anything to go by, it is an incredibly rewarding one.