What are audience members in for when they go to a performance by Essential Theatre Company? "They're going to experience stories from their lives," says artistic director and performer Susan Southard. "Stories from the audience become the works of art that are performed."
More specifically, it works like this: Members of the audience volunteer personal stories--sometimes from their seats, sometimes after being brought up onto the stage--to a company made up, usually, of three actors, two musicians and a "conductor," who serves as the evening's facilitator. This ensemble then "co-creates a work of art that honors the story and the storyteller," as Southard puts it.
This unusual form of improv, known as "Playback Theatre," was started in the mid-'70s in New York by an actor and director named Jonathan Fox, who "was interested in doing more work that was directly relevant to the lives of people in the audience. He studied psychodrama techniques, but this isn't psychodrama--it's a theatrical event." It's now practiced by companies all over the U.S. and in at least 20 other countries.
At the center of the performance, which on any given night may incorporate music, movement, metaphor, story, song, spoken improvisation or all of the above, is the "conductor," whose job is "to sculpt the performance, to sculpt the journey that we all go on. It's everything from talking to the audience to mining the stories to keeping things moving so that it stays theatrical." The two musicians, who between them play percussion, keyboard, sax, flute and many other "soundmaking devices" and also use their voices, keep the performances musical as well. Says Southard, "Music is so fundamental to the show, it's like the glue that holds it together."
Phoenix's four-year-old Essential Theatre Company performs 200 shows a season for audiences ranging from incarcerated, paroled and at-risk youth to homeless adults, women in domestic-violence shelters, public school children and educators. The company also performs for statewide and national conferences and in corporate settings around Arizona, and is beginning to tour elsewhere around the West. Each season it also presents five public performances at various venues around the Valley, most commonly at Scottsdale Center for the Arts. While retaining the same general structure, each of the shows has its own, more specific theme. "The essence of the performance is the same, but the theme and the kinds of stories that are told and performed are different each time," explains Southard.
These themes are often summed up in catch phrases or movie titles. Already this season, the company has performed Do Ask, Do Tell, about the life experiences of gays and lesbians; an exploration of "risk and the ensuing repercussions" titled Risky Business; a study of prevarication called Secrets and Lies; a tribute to romance called Love Stories, in honor of Valentine's Day; and another seasonal offering titled Unwrapped! Holiday Gifts and Revelations.
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Essential Theatre's final show of the season is Dream Stories, which is just what it sounds like--an opportunity for the audience to see its dreams acted out. What if, however, the company gets handed a real dog of a story?
"Ha! That's a good question!" says Southard. "But you know, I can't say that that happens that much. People who raise their hands have stories that really matter to them, that they really want to share, so they're usually pretty good. I can't remember a time when a story was told in a public performance that just made us all say 'ugh.'"
--M. V. Moorhead
Essential Theatre Company's Playback Theatre: Dream Stories is scheduled at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 26, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts Cinema Theatre, just off the main lobby. Tickets are $12, $10 for groups of 10 or more. 7380 East Second Street. 480-897-6711.