The concept of playback theatre was formalized in the 1970s at the intersection of improvised theatre, music and activism. I don’t think it would be an unfair to assume that playback is an unfamiliar form to most people, theatre-goers or otherwise. But having experienced my first professional playback performance at Melbourne Playback Theatre Company’s The F-Word, I have to say that is a real shame, as it is a truly unique experience of community bonding, building, exploration and celebration that is difficult to describe justly to anyone outside that space.

Playback theatre has a simple premise: an MC speaks directly to the audience, asking questions, drawing out stories and reactions, and a team of actors and musicians present those stories. The presentations range in length and form, including original songs filled with beautiful improvised harmonies, ‘travelling moments’ where the performers glide across the stage embodying the provocation from the audience, and short dramatic performances. It is a surprisingly enthralling form that reflects the audience’s experiences and respects their autonomy over their own truths as they always check in with audience members to ensure the presentation is an accurate.

Melbourne Playback Theatre Company was founded in 1981, but 2016 is their first ever public season. Previously, they have worked exclusively with private corporate and community clients, while running workshops for the general public. This year they are presenting six themed performances, centering around six of the most pressing issues in Australia, combining panel discussions with playback performance to deliver balanced, well-informed and community driven responses to each issue. The F Word was the first of these performance events, exploring issues facing female identifying people in celebration of International Women’s Day (March 8th).

Producer Rachael Dyson-McGregor brought together a stellar all-female team for this event, held in the wonderfully warm and inviting theatre space at Howler in Brunswick. While there were a few delays due to poor weather affecting traffic conditions, the bar and excited chatter kept the audience entertained until the event was ready to get underway.

The panel consisted of writer and editor Jane Gilmore, playwright Tammy Anderson, executive director of the Victorian Immigrant and Refugee Women’s Coalition Melba Marginson and writer Clementine Ford. Each woman stood and delivered stirring speeches on their experience of feminism and activism, addressing issues as broad and significant as gender in the workplace, domestic violence and the importance of intersectionality. Anderson’s effervescent energy and palpable pride in her achievements overcoming a life of terrible secrets through theatre was a stand-out. She was absolutely mesmerizing, her story illustrating just how deeply racism is ingrained in our culture and social structures in Australia but also that Aboriginal culture, the oldest surviving culture on earth, remains defiant and strong in the voices and stories of contemporary artists, activists, and community leaders.

Following the panel discussion, there was a short, succinct questions and answer session. Regular panel and key note address attendees may know that these sessions can often be arduous and unconstructive, but the audience at The F-Word matched the panel in their eloquence and consideration, delivering questions that cut straight to the point and generated even more fascinating discussion from the panel members.
But the playback performance, which begun after a short intermission allowing the actors and musicians to set up and take the stage, illustrated the importance of giving the audience a chance to make statements, not just ask questions, to achieve better diversity and inclusivity. The troupe of performers and musicians warmed up the audience with some songs and travelling moments led by the charming Alex Sangster, but when it came to the extended storytelling performances a strong theme emerged: the lives and experiences of LGBTI* people. The panel had made only brief reference to LGBTI* issues, and it suddenly became apparent that this represented a significant oversight in an otherwise diverse panel. But the nature of playback meant that the audience members who had come to the event hoping to hear stories of LGBTI* people – their own stories – were not left completely disappointed.

Sangster pulled three people from the audience to have their stories played out onstage: Artie, who spoke of her lifelong and tumultuous relationship with the label ‘lesbian’ and finding peace in old age, and Charlotte and her son Riley who had recently made the decision to live as Riley, rather than as Matilda, his previous name. Despite having only moments to wrestle with these stories that represented enormous social issues in lived experiences, the actors and musicians improvised performances with great respect, compassion and a wonderful sense of humour. The room was alive with an incredible energy of unity and support as Artie, Charlotte and Riley watched their stories play out, stories that are so often overlooked, as they somewhat were in the panel discussions.

While the event was somewhat long, running at two and a half hours, the enthusiasm radiating from the MPTC performers and staff drew the audience in and sustained us for the entire time. MPTC’s event is SticksnStones, which will take place on May 27 to mark National Day of Healing, addressing issues facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. If this excellent event is anything to go by, SticknStones is a must see for anyone who seeks a balanced and well-informed response to these issues, and one that truly reflects, explores and celebrates the experiences of the community.