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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

TrueStoryTheater leaves  identity  at  the  checkpoint

Published: March 16, 2007
Section: Arts, Etc.

“I know we've done some good when we capture someone who was about to commit a suicide bombing,” says the soldier. “We think of the lives we saved. One time they killed a friend of mine who was on patrol…”

You'd never have caught me acting when I first came to Brandeis. In one club, the Jewish-Arab Dialogue, I first became more at ease with improvisational role-playing. There's something about momentarily stepping outside of one's identity that makes grappling with difficult issues easier.

More students may get a similar opportunity now with the formation of a new initiative, the Brandeis Playback Society. This week, together with the student club Teatro Revolucin, the club sponsored the True Story Theater Ensemble at Spingold to demonstrate the therapeutic power of a little-known form of expressive improvisational acting known as “playback” theater.

On Monday, in an evening reminiscent of my first year in the Dialogue group, we heard stories of the Arab-Israeli conflict from several Brandeis students in the audience who shared painful memories: A boy who had visited the Holocaust museum in Israel, a Palestinian girl who had lived in Lebanon during the 1992 invasion, and an Israeli soldier who had seen death up-close in many forms. I quote both the students and the actors loosely. In the playback style, it is the feeling that matters:

“What is this behind the glass?” asks the boy at the museum. His father answers: “This is what they did to us. This is the preserved memory of our fears. Look closer at the prisoners through the glass;

let me teach you to remember and fear…”

True Story Theater, founded by Christopher Ellinger in 2001, employs playback to promote social healing and community development. The performance style itself is over thirty years old. A volunteer from the audience recounts a true story, which is then improvised onstage by the actors in a brief skit. The playback method thus begins right at the core of emotion underlying people's experiences. Its effect is profoundly moving and quickly felt.

A bomb explodes in the street outside the museum.

The boy gazes out at the violence, then back at the exhibit: “The street looks just the same as this;

my God, I can't get out…!” He is part of the exhibit now, trapped inside the glass.

“Stay in here,” his father says. “Stay here behind the glass of fear and memory…”

Following the skit, a period of question and reflection follows. Often it is very hard for volunteers to speak after experiencing the powerfully cathartic performances.

“They show us just where to hide in the house,” says the Palestinian girl. “Which rooms are the safest and what windows to leave open. If our parents aren't home, we know whose homes to go to after school. We learn how to shut off the gas when the air raids begin. Then the bombs start falling and the grown-ups encircle us…”

True Story Theater addresses any issue relevant to the community. When dealing with matters of the conflict in the Middle East, there is no inherent political bias in their approach. At the same time, they don't try to gloss over or “sanitize” whatever slant is introduced by people's stories;

they merely acknowledge and affirm existing emotions through supportive performance.

“Our commander saw them coming and ordered us to take them out,” says the soldier. “So we fired. They turned out to be two unarmed boys… I fight during the week, but I protest at the rallies on weekends. My friend shouldn't have died. But those kids shouldn't have died either.”

Monday's inaugural playback performance in Merrick Theater was well-attended and enthusiastically received by students and staff. Additional events will be held in March and April with True Story Theater as well as another troupe, the Hudson River Playback Theatre.

“I returned to my homeland,” says the girl, now a young woman. “Though I carried a U.N. work-permit, the soldiers wanted to strip-search me in the street because I carried a West Bank passport. They beat me when I protested. But I am going back to the checkpoint to work another day. They can beat me, but they cannot stop me from returning…”

The new Brandeis Playback Society will hold its own debut event on April 29, exploring and acting out the varied issues pertinent to the campus community.

The boy is suddenly grown up. “No, Dad, I won't stay behind the glass of your fears;

I can identify with their fears too.”

Students are encouraged to get involved with the new group. Contact William Chalmus '07 — wchalmus [at] brandeis [dot] edu — for more information.