Playback Memphis Works to Expand Reach

by Andy Meek

The Playback Memphis organization is looking to expand its reach this year and is preparing to host three training courses at the Pilgrim House Hostel and Retreat Center at First Congregational Church in Midtown later this month.

The idea behind the improvisational theater troupe is to have audience members offer performers ideas or stories to tell and then watch as actors bring those stories to life. The concept is art, but it also carries a bigger purpose – organizers say it promotes healing and shared understanding.

To continue spreading and supporting that concept in Memphis, the local Playback nonprofit is preparing to offer a series of multi-day training events led by experts from the national Centre for Playback Theatre.

“What we do … has become recognized across the city as a valuable tool for addressing community concerns and creating a safe space for talking about difficult issues.”

–Virginia Murphy,Playback Memphis

The three courses span different stretches between Feb. 13 through Feb. 21, and fees range from $600 to $800, which includes meals.

Playback Memphis executive director Virginia Murphy said the courses present “a wonderful opportunity” for the organization’s professional and apprentice ensemble members alike to learn and practice the form with students from around the world.

“In the last two years, what we do at Playback Memphis has become recognized across the city as a valuable tool for addressing community concerns and creating a safe space for talking about difficult issues,” she said. “Offering these trainings in Memphis gives us an opportunity to share the success of programs like Performing the Peace, which has used Playback to bridge understanding between (Memphis Police Department) police officers and ex-offenders from Lifeline to Success.”

That’s been one of many examples of Playback Memphis teaming up with local entities and other organizations – in that case, pairing police officers and ex-offenders who took turns acting out stories together during their sessions.

The first course being offered at First Congo from Feb. 13-16 is a “core training” offering in which students will immerse themselves in the atmosphere and dynamics of the playback experience. Different playback forms like scenes and stories will be taught, and students will get a chance to try different roles, as well.

The next course, meanwhile, is for new and experienced “conductors” – the playback participant focused on interacting with the audience. The “active conducting” course will be held Feb. 16-19 and offer an investigation into the many facets of so-called conducting.

Among other things, students will practice finding the essence of the audience-generated story, the right questions to ask, and more.

Finally, Murphy herself will teach the “building the beloved community” course from Feb. 19-21. It’s geared toward Playback troupe leaders and will help students explore ways of making their troupes grow and thrive.

The goal is that participants will leave with concrete tools they can use to translate into better Playback troupes and experiences.

Murphy and her husband participated in a version of Playback theatre in New York from 2002 to 2005, before she moved back to Memphis, which she credits in part for her current work here.

She saw an opportunity to create a local Playback company to support and promote the narrative of the city, a concept built around the idea that audience members have stories to tell, and the troupe exists to help bring them to life.

As for what’s next for her organization in Memphis, one of the Playback Centre faculty members who will be in town for the courses is Tim Vann Ness, an organizational effectiveness consultant.

He and Playback Memphis are currently working together to develop a line of fee-for-service offerings for the business and non-profit sector that will launch this winter.

Tennessee Arts Commission
Tennessee Arts Commission
First TN Foundation
Hyde Family Foundation

Playback Memphis is proud to be supported by Arts Memphis, the Tennessee Arts Commission, the First Tennessee Foundation and the Hyde Family Foundations.
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