Profile: Tapestry Playback Theatre

Published on 9 May 2016

All Tapestry Playback Theatre performances feature the audience as the star. Here’s why.

BY JO TAN

Ever found it difficult to relate to characters onstage? Well, in Playback Theatre, the actors relate to you instead.

“We start off checking in with the audience, circulating among them and talking to them,” explains Michael Cheng, artistic director of Tapestry Playback Theatre — Singapore’s only professional Playback Theatre company. “We might play a game together, and we start asking simple questions, like, ‘How was your trip here?’ Later we might ask, ‘What do you think love is?’ As the audience warms up, their sharing becomes personal. Then we invite the audience to come onstage to tell a story they’ve experienced, while the actors act it out. One story inevitably triggers another story to be told and acted, and then we have a community dialogue.”

Playback, a form of original improvisational theatre, aims to connect, rather than just entertain. “Part of the Playback ethos is that everybody has a story, and every story is valued and respected. We don’t play back their stories for laughs. Playback performers want to understand how the storyteller is feeling. Playback is a tool to bring issues out into the open, as a coping mechanism, or to build a community.

“This is especially so when we run Playback Theatre workshops for specific groups, such as one at a centre overseas for young people rescued from domestic abuse and prostitution. They hadn’t seemed overly willing to share their personal experiences with each other, but during the Playback, one girl began telling a story about being raped by her uncle. She broke down after a few words, but everybody in the room understood her feelings, and that connected them and opened a door to support each other emotionally.

“During the 11 years I’ve been involved in Playback, I’ve worked with many groups. I’ve seen people trembling as they finally share stories for the first time, then looking up and seeing the support and love of the people watching as the community comes closer together.” It’s not easy facilitating this very personal process. “Because it’s socially-aware theatre, we have to work on ourselves as well. We might go for psychodrama to work out our own issues, or social issues training to examine our own biases and privileges. You have to be very empathetic to tell someone else’s story,” explains Cheng.

Tapestry Playback Theatre will be having a rare public show this month, but Cheng cautions that this is merely a sampler. “Most of the impact of Playback work is not seen in public because there’s only so much community you can build in three hours. For public shows, our mission is to introduce Playback to people as a possible tool in community work. Many countries benefit heavily from Playback, which is why Taiwan has over 30 groups, but in Singapore it’s mostly us. My dream is to see many different playback groups making a big impact here.”

Clocks & Cockroaches — A Tapestry Playback Theatre Performance is on 21 & 22 May at the Toa Payoh Central Community Centre Theatrette. Get tickets here.

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