“Play(it)Back So I Can Listen”: Kindness and Bravery in Community Theater

September 03, 2021

By Khawla Nasser AlDeen

Khawla Nasser AlDeen (she/her/hers) is a junior public health researcher from Lebanon, focusing on mental health, migrant wellbeing, community health, and health promotion. She studied Public Health and Psychology in college, where she wove community engagement into her academic journey. In 2018, she served as the youth representative to the UN of the International Association of Applied Psychology, advocating for mental health and wellbeing on the international agenda.

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Myriam Ali-Ahmad’s story started when she found growth, liberation, freedom, and peace in her theater classes in school. Her passion for community theater bloomed from hoping to support others to express themselves and find safe spaces in arts and theater. She practiced that in her role as part of a community theater ensemble in Lebanon, the Red Bridge Ensemble. Learn more about her story, reflections, and the power of collective storytelling in building a braver and kinder world.
Playback theater is an interactive improvisational type of theater. It can be used in a workshop setting or in a performance. We have a facilitator/conductor, a group of 2-5 actors, live musicians, and the audience. The conductor serves as a facilitator, a bridge between the participants and the ensemble. The most important part of the performance is the audience. They share stories of their lived experiences, and after attentive listening, the ensemble improvises that piece of the story and delivers it back in a metaphorical artistic way.
Every single playback theatre performance is a memorable experience for me. No performance looks like the other because the stories, the people, the space can be different each time. We create something new each time. I am always inspired by the bravery in these shared spaces. Bravery radiates from everyone, from the people who share their stories and from the performers, musicians, and the conductor. It is brave to tell stories, sometimes difficult to tell, and invite us to listen and embody these stories. To me, to be present in the moment and improvise, without having prepared anything at all, is a significant practice of bravery.
We shared spaces with many communities in Lebanon. For example, we had some community story performances with a group of refugees, with individuals who experienced gender-based violence, and other public performances open to anyone who wants to join. Our public performances are free of charge, allowing spaces for all people to enjoy theater and collectiveness.
Community theater can create safe spaces because it allows people who usually don’t have a voice to have a voice – whether it is directly through sharing stories and seeing their stories being improvised, or by listening and joining the space and resonating with other people’s experiences, this atmosphere creates collective affirmation and comfort. We are very intentional in making the space safe through various elements – the welcoming, warm music, the setting itself, and the way we look at the audience. By looking, I mean not just looking with the eyes, but also looking and noticing everyone in the audience and acknowledging the presence of every single one. We don’t usually have a stage – most of the time, the actors are on the same level as the audience. At the beginning of the performance, the conductor warms up the room through an inclusive welcome practice to acknowledge and celebrate the diversity that each person brings to the space. We also warm up the space by the actors themselves sharing stories from their lives, initiating trust, and modeling how it is like sharing a story and seeing our story being played back to us.
When we enter a conversation in our daily life, we might hear people, but it is possible that we are not actually listening. We might interrupt often, listen to give our opinion, or cast a judgment, or suggest a solution…In playback theater, I learned how to listen. In collective storytelling spaces, audience members have the chance to share their stories without being interrupted. Watching together the story being acted out opens room for creating healthy dialogues, bringing people together, and introducing them to different perspectives. It creates a space of affirmation.
For me, building a kinder world is to listen. Listening without judgment. Listening with an open heart and one that is ready to understand and not to fight and jump to conclusions. Allowing space for people to express themselves, share their stories, and tell us why they are feeling what they are feeling. We can all share kindness through listening.

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