CS 83N, and my experiences with Playback Theater

To Ochun, Omer, and my fellow actors

April 3, 2023, 10:39 p.m.

It was like one of those cubical indents you see in a Minecraft interface. A tiny inlet located within a labyrinthine layout in the basement of Wallenberg Hall. The interior was as wan and geometric as the environment around it. Square tiles, white walls, a carpeted floor and a whiteboard with words scribbled in a language that was definitely not English. “Great,” I thought to myself, “welcome to CS 83N.” Though the course was named “Playback Theatre,” at that point in time, it screamed CS, STEM and seriousness.  Little did I know that those attributes would be the closest the course would resemble the stoicism I associated with CS.

Other students slowly trickled in. Truth be told, they looked as reserved and unsure about this course as I did. We all tried to take secret peeks at each other as if we were trying to reassure one another that we all felt like tourists who had lost their way in a foreign land. Very soon, the professor asked us to arrange ourselves in a circle, of which he, too, was a part. “Hello, Professor Reingold. I’m Arshya Gaur,” I said. Towering above me, he smiled and replied, “Hi Arshya. Nice to meet you. And please — Omer.” I returned a shy smile, while feeling an uneasy sense of freedom, or rather, “adulthood,” at the thought of calling my professor by his first name. Strangely, Childish Gambino’s “This is America” played in my head, though I’m sure it was the title that resonated with my circumstances rather than the lyrics.

The first class began like any other, with Omer giving an overview of the course. As I went over the sequence of events (course overview->introductions->lecture) that had imprinted themselves in my memory over years of taking classes at Stanford, I was abruptly stopped as well as surprised. “We’re going to be playing a game to introduce ourselves,” said Omer cheerfully. I wondered whether I heard him correctly. “Game?” I questioned myself. “He can’t be serious.” Sure enough, we were playing a game, which played out in quite an un-game-like manner. We all were asked to stand in a circle. A volunteer then started the game by looking at another person in front of them, stating their name as well as the name of the person on their right. The person who was looked at by the first person then continued by looking at a third person and stating their name as well as the name of the person to their right, and so on. Rather than turning out to be childlike, as I thought it would, the game very quickly proved how bad I was at listening, reflecting and acting — all tenets of playback theater. Following the name game, we did a few other exercises, which served as a trailer for what we could expect out of this course. It’s fair to say that after the first class, I was sure that Playback was going to challenge my perceptions and skills in unexpected ways. In other words, I was ready to bring my A-game.

Three weeks into the course, and I was finally beginning to understand the art that was Playback. It was truly one of the most unique forms of performing arts I had ever experienced. In fact, merely calling Playback a “performance” would be a gross disservice to the magic it actually is. Playback is connection. Movement. Emotion. Unity. Justice. Reflection. Humility. Trust. It is everything that one strives for in most forms of art, but loses sight of in the garb of making sure that they — the artist — and their art are the best. Indeed, Playback was my first encounter with an art piece where the focus was not the artist nor their art. It is they who give meaning to an artist and their art: the audience.

I am sure that my abstract description of Playback sounds more like a sappy advertisement for a wellness program rather than a college course. I’ve realized, through various failed attempts at trying to explain this through phone calls to my parents, that one needs to see it to understand it. Or, more colloquially, “see it to believe it” — in this case, “it” being the poetic beauty of Playback Theater. However, rather than directing you to a YouTube link, which you’re quite capable of doing by yourself, I’ll try my best to show you a Playback Theater performance through my eyes.

It was week 8 and all of us were now getting confident in our abilities to identify and use the different Playback forms — Chorus, Vignette, Internal Monologue, Voice Mail and Casted Story — to quite literally play back the story told by the storyteller. However, as I took my position on the chairs placed on the stage along with my three co-actors, I felt a little different this time. I was calm, tranquil even, as if I’d been ready to do this all along. I took a deep breath and exhaled the remaining anxiety out. Another class. Another student. Another story. This time, Bella volunteered to share her story, one which, at the surface, was a heartfelt tale about a daughter losing her mother to cancer. However, if you listened deep enough, looked deep enough, it teemed with pearls of wisdom and rough lessons — much like an ocean floor.

“My father looked defeated as he tried to tell my sister and I what was wrong with our mother.”

“I couldn’t really understand the gravity of it at first.”

“Even on the hospital bed, she nurtured us. She would save Rice Krispie Treats to eat when we visited her after school.”

“We celebrated her life in the same place my parents got married. It felt surreal. It felt right.”

“My sister often tries to fulfill the role of the nurturer. To be honest, both of us kind of fill in the voids in each other’s lives.”

“We’ve gotten closer.”

“I think I can say that my sister and I were forced to mature faster in a way.”

“I can look at the world differently.”

“I’ve learnt to live differently — better, happier, more content, more real.”

After Bella finished telling her story, the room was silent, as if we all agreed to take a moment to pay our respect to Bella’s mother. “We’ll see this as a Casted Story. Bella, which actor would you like to cast as yourself?” I was sweating, unable to decide whether I wanted it to be me or not, but before I could make up my mind, Bella had already declared it would be me. I felt a tremendous weight on my shoulders. “How am I going to do justice to this?” I thought to myself, as Omer now asked me and my co-actors to take our positions on either side of the stage. As we stood, two on either side of the stage, we looked at Bella and Omer sitting on the right side of the audience, eagerly waiting with the other students to see what we could come up with. “Just go back to the heart of the story.” I remembered Omer’s golden words to us, and with that we began.

Scene 1: Peter and Anna assumed the role of A’s parents, casually making dinner in the kitchen. Then, I — Bella — entered, embracing my mother from behind like a child who returns from school to her mother as if she’d been away for months. Following me, Nate — Bella’s sister — entered as well. The warmth of the scene eventually descended into an icy solemness, as if a metaphorical and physical fire had stopped burning. This was it. Peter — dad — had to break the news. “Kids. We need to tell you something.” The inevitable took place.

Scene 2: The first scene conveyed how that was, perhaps, the last time Bella and her sister were children. They’d sort of adulted over mere days. Maybe weeks. A few months. Hand in hand, they — Anna, now playing Bella’s sister, and I, still playing Bella — walked, wondering how life would be without mom. We then started feeling cold.

Scene 3: I entered the stage alone. Shivering, hopeless, unable to feel anything at all. That’s when my stage-father — Peter — entered and reignited the fire. He put his hands on my shoulders and looked me into the eyes. “I like this,” I said. “Let’s keep the fire burning.”

Scene 4: My — Bella’s — mom was gone. The family of three received condolences from a friend, played by Anna. The fire burnt vivaciously.

Scene 5: All three of us stood together and looked straight into the fire, burning brightly in all its glory. We felt a bond. Me, my dad, my sister and my mom. The fire that kept us warm. “Let it burn,” I said. “Let it burn.”

Like any other Playback performance, none of this was rehearsed. There had been no communication between any of the actors about how many scenes we would do or who would play which role in which scene. There hadn’t even been any discussion about which scene we would do first, who would enter, exit, hug, light, laugh, cry, hold hands, walk, etc. And yet, we had managed to synergize in the best way possible. Such was the magic of Playback. Granted, the performance, like other Playbacks, was only 3-4 minutes long, but for the storyteller Bella, Omer and the audience, it seemed to have been an elaborate act they had been watching for quite some time. Personally, I felt the weight lifted off my shoulders as the four of us stood in a line and took a deep breath while looking at the storyteller — a ritual marking the end of every Playback performance. But more than that, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratification for what I, we, had just been able to create. It was reassuring to know that Bella felt the same way we felt about our performance. She said she felt “fulfilled,” which was uncanny since I felt it too. I guess it was a sign of good art, when both the artist and the audience felt fulfilled in their respective roles related to the art. Broadly speaking, it brought everyone to a state of peaceful stillness and closure like one you would observe if any of us were actually invited to celebrate Bella’s mother’s life. “That nearly brought me to tears,” affirmed Omer. I looked at him, thinking to myself, “me too.”

This was my first vivid experience of the power vested in Playback. The metaphors, spontaneity, unspoken communication, expression and community all came together to produce something that was way more poignant and sophisticated than the word “performance” can convey. This feeling was confirmed by the audience who watched us put on a proper show, our final “test” at the end of week 10, for Omer decided to share our craft with our dear friends who would come and watch what we had been working on for the past nine weeks.

Omer had already informed us that nothing — except the audience and, therefore, the stories — would be different on show day. However, there would be a special ritual, a song we would sing to mark the beginning and end of the show: “Ide Were Were Nita Ochun.” It’s fair to say that while the lyrics of the song were foreign for all of us, its meaning was not. It was a song dedicated to Ochun, “the goddess of intimacy, love, beauty, and wealth, and Mother of the African sweet or fresh waters.” It spoke about a necklace, which was meant to be an initiation of love. In the context of the show, the song was a heartfelt expression of our commitment to the audience. A commitment of our confidentiality, sensitivity and respect for the audience’s stories, and a humble prayer asking them to trust us, and of course, Playback, with their stories. Throughout the 90-minute runtime, we were able to form a strong connection with our audience, contributing to a visceral presentation of their stories. We didn’t need ticket sales to tell us how we had done. Just meeting the eyes of each and every person sitting in the audience was enough to suggest that we had succeeded.

That day, I finally understood the premise on which our show, and Playback Theater, succeeded. It was never about the art, nor was it ever about the artist. That lesson had been Omer’s goal all along: to help us realize that art’s purpose could transcend individual satisfaction. That art could serve. That art’s value could be more than the art itself. That all along, art was just another word for a connection beyond words. That we were all like beads in Ochun’s necklace — bound together by the thread of human emotion.

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