Building bridges, through playback theatre

Building bridges, through playback theatre

The motley group of fifty sat in rapt attention, their eyes glued to the well-lit stage at Atma, a theatre space on CMH Road, Bangalore


Facing them, stood the five actors, ready to don the masks of characters chiselled out of personal stories captured from the audience. Soul-stirring episodes, anecdotes distilled from memory, slapstick situations with a generous dose of humour, the actors had a mindboggling range. But they had to act it out, adding a dash of drama. Then, there and rightaway!

Unfolding before the audience in all its dramatic splendour was Playback Theatre (PBT).

Spontaneous, raw, energetic and deeply engaging, the unique interactive drama form had just carved out another ambience. And guiding the actors, talking techniques was a group of nine avid playback artistes from around the world. They were in the city, representing the International Playback Theatre Network (IPTN), a collective of an estimated 2,000 such creative heads from over 40 countries. 

“Playback is about personal, real stories. Improvisation is the core of this theatre form. It is about honouring stories,” explained Cymbaline Buhler, an IPTN Board member from Australia. The enormous potential of this platform to get onboard marginalised voices had several social activist groups and liberals from across India and abroad queue up.

Buhler and her fellow artistes had seen that happening in cities across India, in Afghanistan, in Palestine, in Bangladesh...

In Sri Lanka, IPTN had tracked playback theatre groups engaged in peace-building work. It was a powerful medium to reconnect people, to bring together communities estranged by long years of the gruesome war. “There is a huge playback theater community in Russia. Many groups are linked to psychological communities oriented to personal development,” Buhler informed. But what surprised the IPTN Board was the passionate adoption of the theatre form by activists in reaching out to the underprivileged. The works of Jeevika, a Bangalore-based group was particularly impressive. Noted a German member of the Board, Juergen Schoo, “Using the PBT medium, Jeevika has had a big emotional impact in its efforts to help bonded labourers. They have nurtured a culture of sharing experiences.”

Highly flexible, the playback format is dynamic in its acceptance of experimentations in forms, contexts and even language. As Buhler pointed out, “There are lot of groups experimenting, some theatrically, some socially. Troupes such as Your’s Truly Theatre (YTT) in Bangalore does both.” Incidentally YTT is hosting the Board’s meetings and workshops. 

Formed in 1990, IPTN links playback practitioners, groups and suppporters across the world, fosters networking among this global community and strives to deepen collective learning on the theatre format. The Network’s vision: “We recognise the universal longing for affirmation and for connection with others. The spontaneous enactment of personal experience in Playback Theatre builds connection between people by honouring the dignity, drama, and universality of their stories.”

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