One minute, a member of the audience volunteers to tell a personal story. The next minute, the audience is watching that story enacted onstage. No script. No rehearsal. Just a story and a group of actors, plus a drummer to mark the time. That's the gist of an evening watching the interactive, improvisational group Playback Memphis, and that was the case in December at a fund-raiser for the company at TheatreWorks. It wasn't your usual run of holiday fare.
A woman recounted the story her father would tell about growing up in Chicago and his job, at the age of 12, distributing racing forms to the likes of Al Capone. Then the actors laid it out, through movement, through speech, with a chair or two as props, all in the space of a few minutes. End of story but a round of applause.
A struggling actor from the audience then recalled the time he did a favor for a friend in New York. But the favor backfired when said friend and a noted screenwriter left the poor actor trailing their town car on Broadway. Again the Playback actors got to work, and again the audience got a taste of some mighty quick stagework.
Then there was ... nothing. No audience volunteers to get the action going again. An uneasy silence. But that's okay. "We're used to pregnant pauses," assured Playback Memphis' Virginia Murphy, who was helping the evening along, explaining what Playback is and does and gently coaxing audience members to share something of themselves.
Then a hand from the audience, a sign of someone with something to say. A simple, but not so simple, situation: A wife's parents, who'd moved from out West to join the couple in Memphis, were having trouble making a new start. And then there you had it, in no time: actors playing the younger couple and on the backs of that couple the actors playing the parents. It was humorous, but there was an issue. And it hinged on the ability of this acting troupe to illustrate that issue in no time.
How do the actors do it? By having first and foremost a good ear, according to Murphy, who began work on Playback Memphis with her husband Joe in the spring of 2006.
"It takes a particular kind of person to have the combination of skills you need to be a good Playback actor," Murphy says. "You need to be an exceptional listener, and you need to not want to be the star. This is very much ensemble work."
In other words, for the eight Memphis men (including Joe) and women who make up Playback, they know to leave their egos at the door.
Murphy, who grew up in Memphis and studied counseling and drama therapy in college in California, is onstage not to act but to "facilitate," to serve as emcee, as "conduit." "Director" isn't the right word at all. How could it be? The work is improvised. Plus, it would fly in the face of all that Playback stands for, which is seeking — through movement and metaphor — the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Playback was conceived in upstate New York in the 1970s as a vehicle for social change and now includes 60 companies worldwide. Virginia and Joe Murphy, who worked for BigApple Playback in New York, are now working to bring Playback to Memphis stages. And not only stages.
Playback Memphis has worked with the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. It's worked with a local nanny support group. And it's worked with the Memphis Theological Seminary. All of which is fine by Murphy and her diverse team of players — men and women, black and white. As she said: "The idea of Playback is you're taking the work out into the world. It's critical that our acting company be diverse, because we want the company to reflect the diversity of the audience. And this troupe we have now: I've been astounded. I didn't imagine the quality in Memphis would be as stellar as in New York's Playback."
It's not the only thing that's surprised Murphy about her hometown:
"Memphis is hungry for something like Playback. It's an intense city — people 'managing' the complexity. Individually, you're challenged to hold in a lot. Playback is an invitation is give voice to that, to connect with other people ... to have a space where other voices can be heard, an empathetic space. It's safe. It's grounding. When a performance by Playback 'sings,' it changes the energy in a room. I've seen it happen. People end up transformed."