- Playing the Other: Dramatizing Personal Narratives in Playback Theatre
With this book, Nick Rowe substantially addresses two lines of scrutiny facing those who work with improvisational, audience-interactive, or auto/biographical theatre: (1) the need to theorize the work's theatrical values, and (2) obligations for the ethical deployment of materials that come raw from everyday life. He does this by rigorously testing, then blurring the binaries that undergird these dual demands. To illustrate requires a review of playback theatre (PT) and an introduction to Rowe's background and purpose.
Playback theatre is an improvisational ensemble form that, according to its founder Jonathan Fox, was meant to "recapture that kind of ceremonial enactment in which there is no distinction between art and healing" (20). In PT, a "conductor" invites personal stories from audience members; when a storyteller comes to the stage, the conductor publicly interviews the "teller," then signals, "Let's watch." Without consultation, the acting ensemble, accompanied by a musician, performs the story while the teller, conductor, and audience watch. Afterward, the teller is acknowledged and invited to comment. A performance consists of several story "tellings" and enactments framed and punctuated by short performance forms.
Involved in the company Playback Theatre York for ten years, Rowe is also senior lecturer at York St. John University (UK). Baz Kershaw advised his doctoral dissertation, parts of which contribute to this book. Rowe is a state-registered drama therapist and a past editor of the International Playback Theatre Network's journal Interplay. Not only is he conversant with a range of theatre literature, then, but he is also in close contact with PT practitioners on five continents and offers deeply reflexive examples of their practices as well as his own company's work. Articulating his purposes, Rowe states that the few PT books previously available were written by founders and enthusiasts to explain, justify, and describe it. As valuable as these are, he writes that "[a] canon of literature which exposes the practice to critique has not yet developed. This book aims to open up some of the debates related to the telling and performing of personal stories in public places, which are often heard amongst practitioners, but have not yet reached a wider audience" (13). While he succeeds in addressing those and other criticisms levied against PT, in the process he also discovers insights that enhance our vocabulary for articulating the values of staged personal narrative, improvisation, and performance in general. Limiting his focus to the actors' work in PT, Rowe calls for other studies to explore the demands of conductor and musician. The book includes two appendices: a description of a story, and a list of PT short forms.
Following an introductory chapter that includes a history of PT and a description of illuminating projects in the US, Israel, and India, Rowe introduces the term "openness" in chapter 2 as crucial to his theory. For Rowe, openness means more than the teller's willingness to disclose, more than the performer's sense of receptivity. Borrowing Umberto Eco's phrase "open work" to designate "art work [End Page 333] which has an unfinished quality that invites elaboration and exploration" (32), Rowe applies openness to the teller's story, not as a story that is written or memorized, but as it is spontaneously told in the public context of the conductor-teller interview—in process, contingent, unpredictable. He notes that open stories provide room for engagement; and he identifies several characteristics of open stories while contrasting them to closed or "finished" stories where little can be explored through dramatization. Later, he applies openness to the performers' responses as well, revealing how a PT enactment is less a replication of a literal story and more likely a symbolic transformation, accurate yet different, that evolves collaboratively in the moment and is itself not closed and determinate, but open. If openness is desired for aesthetics and healing, however, ethical risks can accrue regarding the volunteer tellers and their life stories. Is this "therapy without boundaries?" Rowe asks...