Using Improv To Tackle Social Issues


There’s a troupe of actors, but they don’t put on a play. It’s improvisation, but it’s not about comedy. There’s a story line, but there’s no script. Welcome to Playback Theater, where re-creating the stories of people in the audience is what drives the action on stage.

And the audience isn’t necessarily in a theater.

The point is to dramatize simple moments from people’s lives that aren’t as simple as they seem. The stories come from audience members who volunteer a snapshot from their lives. Live theater is given its life by a group of players enacting the story on stage. And if they don’t get it right, the person who shared the story tells them where they went wrong and the group tries it again.

Through sharing and witnessing stories from everyday life, the bonds of shared humanity become clear, said Playback actor Paul McIsaac of Sagaponack and Manhattan. The original Playback Theater was founded in 1975; Mr. McIsaac co-founded Playback NYC in 1998. The Manhattan group joined nearly 100 other Playback companies in different communities around the world.

Each Playback company shares the same methodology. Improvisational techniques—minus the slapstick and impromptu comedy—mix with a deep-seated honoring of the story and the story teller to recreate a human experience in the truest way possible. There is a host—known as The Conductor—who facilitates the storytelling. He also signals the transition from a personal story to one witnessed by the audience, and moves the series of stories along to create an entire experience.

The overarching effect is that of transformation, Mr. McIsaac said. Because each person’s story is “honored” by The Conductor and by the troupe, the audience also follows suit. The result is a deeply moving experience for everyone involved. Mr. McIsaac’s experience with Playback NYC has been so positive, he hopes to form a Playback East End for his adopted home.

Since he began talking about his intention, area actors, social workers, directors and others have expressed interest in finding out more. The Organizacion Latino Americana (OLA), is interested in discovering ways the theater project could give a voice to the Latino population for sharing their experiences.

To find other organizations or participants that might find Playback a worthy or interesting tool, Mr. McIsaac is bringing Playback NYC to the East End for a local public performance, on March 22 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork in Bridgehampton. Tickets are $15. If there is enough interest, training for the new regional troupe will be held in April.

One critical requirement is that the players must come from diverse ethnic backgrounds. If only Anglo-Saxons turn up, Mr. McIsaac won’t be able to follow through on the idea of forming an area company. Having representation from different races is the only way the company can reach out to a variety of cultures, he said.

“You’re not going to find Playback in area theaters,” he said. “Playback NYC has performed in theaters and in Madison Square Garden, but that’s not the point. We work mostly with organizations … We help resolve conflicts by showing our shared humanity.”

Actors are not the only candidates for Playback players—social workers, musicians, educators and administrators also make great players. So do people who acted in high school and now feel the urge to get back on stage. Once formed, a Playback group receives training and rehearses regularly until they are ready to enact public stories. After achieving a certain level of expertise, the group will accept commissions.

The heart of Playback Theater is found in the troupes’ ability to spark social change and to help people deal with emotional hurts, Mr. McIsaac said. The stories selected for reenacting are usually symbolic of larger issues. Sometimes the elephant in the room—racism or stereotyping, for example—isn’t in the details of the story that’s told, yet it casts a shadow on every story that evening. Other times, the expected conflict takes an unexpected turn.

In one instance, Playback NYC was brought in to alleviate racial tension in a New Jersey school where the ethnic mix in the student body was changing. High school students were dividing according to race, black and white, discarding childhood friendships. While the student divide seemed to be the problem, student stories revealed another chasm—a racial divide among teachers and racial prejudice as expressed by teachers in their dealings with students, he said.

The Playback experience proved a success because students reconnected with friendships they had let slip away, he said. The more difficult bridge to build was between teachers, he said.

Playback NYC has also seen people connect with each other in groups traumatized by such events and issues as the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Iraq war, and conflicts inside the work force. Locally, Mr. McIsaac believes Playback can give voices to seniors, veterans and students. He believes Playback could transform hurt into healing in stories from the Latino population, the bereaved and anyone experiencing conflict.

Mr. McIsaac is an actor and director for theater, film, radio documentaries and television. He has hosted live free-form radio shows for National Public Radio, Pacifica Radio and the Canadian, Australian and British Broadcasting Corporations. His film directing credits include “Justice/Injustice” and “Face: A Portrait” for Public Television and “Sitting in the Fire,” a six-hour video series on diversity and conflict resolution. He also founded a Playback Theater group in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Playback NYC will give a performance on March 22 at 7 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork, 977 Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike, Bridgehampton. Tickets are $15. For reservations or for information on Playback East End, call 631-823-5119. Information on Playback Theatre can also be found at

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