Notes From the Playback Theatre North America Festival

Friday night we brought in most of the produce left in the garden. The forecast was for a hard freeze. Saturday morning there was a little frost on the tops of cars, but nothing on the ground. The tomatoes looked fine. An hour later the plants were clearly dead. The garden, save for the cold crops, has been put to bed for the season.

Over Columbus Day weekend we were at a major Playback Theater gathering in Washington, DC. I took the day Friday and went to the Mall to see art. I spent much of the day at The National  Museum of the American Indian, one of my favorite places. Following are some notes from the weekend.

We’re  sitting in Regan National, awaiting our flight home. Today is Columbus Day. It is also celebrated by some as Indigenous People’s Day. For the past four days we’ve been attending the Playback Theatre North America Festival. The festivals theme was “Making the Invisible Visible” and the focus was on race. We’ve spent many hours with folks who make theatre using Playback, an improvisational theatre form. Playback encourages inclusion, empathy, and compassion. After four days of talking theory and making theatre, several questions remain. Foremost in my mind is this: who is excluded by Playback’s brand of inclusion.

Playback seeks to be inclusive, yet this culture of inclusion is problematic. For instance, at the gathering session on Friday night, several negative comments were made about Republicans. The assumption appeared to be that Playbackers could not possibly be Republican. As the weekend progressed I spoke with others who felt excluded. One such group was composed of evangelical Christians who  struggled with issues such as homosexuality and gay marriage. They perceived very little room for them to express their contextually uncomfortable ideas.

This festival focused on racial identities and conflicts. On the opening evening, a troop of young Lakota musicians and dancers performed. The elders who accompanied them spoke about Lakota traditions and some of the issues facing the tribe. The next morning’s session was begun with Lakota songs and prayers. This brought out another exclusion. There were several folks present who identify as Natives from a variety of tribal heritages, including Metis, but who felt their cultures were invisible. (Most of us looked “white”; a different kind of invisibility.) This opened a conversation about the many ways those of us of light skin tone or Eastern tribal heritage may be dismissed as not “Real Indians.”

Yesterday Jennie and I led a workshop exploring disability and marginality in the Playback community. The truth is that issues of disability have a long history in the Playback world. They, too, form a sort of underbelly within the Playback universe. I imagine the community’s difficulty in addressing these issues arises, in part, from a preoccupation with normative ideas about artistic performance. The theatre world as a whole has come late to embracing disabled performers. Yet the resulting ambivalence and confusion limit the performative opportunities for persons with disabilities. The result is that playback is often performed “ON” those of us with disabilities, rather than by us.

The four days of the Festival offered many opportunities for performance, play, and theorizing. Many participants welcomed discussions about ethnicity and disability. The organizers were remarkably open and responsive to the needs of the group. Initially, there were two caucuses, a “white caucus” and a “persons of color caucus”. When it became clear that a large minority of participants perceived themselves as fitting neither category, efforts were made to create a third wave. When it became evident that the workshop on disability issues that Jennie and I were offering would have too few participants to run, a concerted effort was made to encourage Festival goers to attend. This effort was ultimately successful, as was the workshop.

As I finished writing these notes a blond, blue eyed woman with long braids sat down opposite us and began to swap “American Indian Day” stories with an unseen presence via cell phone. She was excited that “we” Indians were doing great things on a dreadful day. We were about to say “hi” to her when she closed her phone and, springing from her chair, darted away. We were left with big smiles, a little disappointment, and a reminder that Indians come in all shapes and colors. It seems possible that the Playback community may be on the verge of being able to say the same thing. I hope it is!

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2 thoughts on “Notes From the Playback Theatre North America Festival

  1. Thanks for writing, Michael. Taking your and Jennie’s workshop on accessibility was one of the highlights of the Festiva l for me. I hope you’ll post a link to your blog post on Playback North America’s Facebook page. Till we meet again! — Anne Ellinger (from True Story Theater, Boston)

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