Playback Memphis’ collaborative acting promotes healing, compassion

Bill Baker makes a point during rehearsal at First Congregational Church for Playback Memphis. The group is scheduled to perform at the North American Playback Festival this weekend in Washington.

Photo by Dale L. Anderson

Bill Baker makes a point during rehearsal at First Congregational Church for Playback Memphis. The group is scheduled to perform at the North American Playback Festival this weekend in Washington.

Diversity is at the center of Playback Memphis, a professional ensemble made up of a dozen actors and musicians. Their focus: to offer healing through drama, and in the process, tell the story of what it means to be a Memphian through the experiences of its citizens.The mission of Playback Memphis is to "transform this ethos of Memphis that has been one of anguish and brokenness to one of connectedness," says the company's founder and director, Virginia Murphy. "Our work is about love and forgiveness."

A Playback production is a collaboration between performer and audience in which an audience member is invited to tell the story of a moment from his or her life and

then watches as the actors improvise that moment, "listening for really what is the essence of what this person is saying — what is the heart of their story," Murphy said. "Their (the actors') job is to communicate the feelings and the thoughts of the teller, and those layers of feeling, because so often in life we don't have just singular feelings. They do that through movement and music; we use a lot of metaphor, and it's just very symbolic, embodied expression."The troupe puts on a regular series of shows titled "Memphis Matters" at Theatre South in First Congregational Church in the Cooper-Young area. The series was born of the idea that Memphis "is an intense place to live, no matter who you are," Murphy said, "and there are aspects of life here that make it uniquely rich and wonderful, and aspects that make it really complex and challenging."

Performances aren't all about civic pride, though they do speak to the heart and soul of the citizenry no matter its level of income or social stratum. Robert Neimeyer, a longtime professor of clinical psychotherapy with the University of Memphis, has worked closely with Playback. He and Murphy are collaborating on a chapter of a book on grief and the expressive arts.

In Playback's work with Victims to Victory, a group that works with people who have lost loved ones to homicide in the city, we can see "the gravity, the seriousness of the social problems that Playback can help address in addition to building a kind of civic spirit," Neimeyer said. "This takes it to an entirely different level. … One might almost think of Playback theater as a form of social therapy, a kind of community therapy that addresses not only the pain of individuals, but also in some way recruits witnesses to their story of love and loss, both their suffering and their resilience in the light of that loss."

Playback is available for corporate functions and has partnered with such groups as the Child Advocacy Center, Catholic Charities, Bridges, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Caritas Village and Leadership Memphis among others to bring their unique brand of storytelling and catharsis to people.

"Very therapeutic," Mary Jordan, director of Catholic Charities' Genesis House, said of Playback. "We do affirmation and mirror exercises that help our clients to work through issues of low self-esteem and self-worth, but when the clients saw how the actors portrayed their feelings, their emotions, all of those internal mechanisms and feelings that go on, all of what they couldn't put in words, it was powerful; it was emotional. There were tears, there was laughter, all in a positive sense."

With a grant through ArtsMemphis, Playback has created an anti-bullying campaign that goes into schools to train students to perform their own Playback productions for peers.

"The people with the most power to effect change in the school culture from one of tolerating bullying to one of being invested in building a culture of respect and safety lies with the witnesses, so the program empowers those young people to take action and also gives them the tools," Murphy said.

Playback North America, the organization that connects the 76 companies on the continent, has recognized the model for engaging the community that Murphy and her colleagues have built here, and has invited the local group to be one of six Playback companies to perform at the North American Playback Festival this weekend in Washington. Murphy also will give a presentation on the anti-bullying campaign.

She looks forward to representing Memphis on a national platform. "We have such a deep love for one another, so the community that we have created in doing this work … really reflects who we are, and there is no experience of more diversity than when you go to the 'Memphis Matters' show."

Playback began in 1975 in upstate New York after founder Jonathan Fox had an enlightening experience while serving with the Peace Corps in Nepal, "where they still used theater as a way to grapple with the issues of the day," Murphy said.

As a practicing and research psychologist, Neimeyer has a deep appreciation for their mission at a practical level and has found a wealth of possibilities in his scientific investigation of the impact of Playback's work.

"At its root, as most of us practice it, we therapists are in the practice of going into small rooms with unhappy people and trying to talk them out of it," Neimeyer said. "Often enough, we are helpful and successful … but I think what Playback offers uniquely is taking these stories, not into small, private rooms where they're heard by a single person, but instead taking them out into the social world, a world where people very much want to be heard and seen and understood. ... So I think that sense of lifting above one's own particular suffering to achieve compassion for the suffering of others is one of the therapeutic gains that is realized by Playback."

Murphy was introduced to the Playback model at the California Institute of Integral Studies, where she received a master's degree in psychology with a concentration in drama therapy. She met her husband, Joe, while living in New York, and the two moved back to Memphis, where Murphy grew up and attended St. Mary's Episcopal School, and began Playback Memphis. The couple now have two sons, and Joe Murphy, an actor with Playback, has also created the popular "Music for Aardvarks" program for children.

Being a part of the Playback community, she said, "really gives us this sense of all that is wonderful about Memphis. We have the good fortune of partnering with all of these organizations and people, and stepping into this amazing work that's happening all over Memphis, whether it's in education or in the business or at the city government level. … We get to connect with people from a broad cross-sector, and I think it gives us great hope in where we're headed."

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