Interview with Victoria Howden about Playback Theatre

Playback theatre is a unique, original and invigorating form on improv theatre centred around life stories. An audience member
tells a story and the actors turn it into a scene on the spot. It
builds communities, brings people together and gives you a chance to see
you story come to life in a creative and imaginative way.

When I was first getting into impro I was also going along to Playback Theatre classes and found them amazing at finding the truth and honesty in a scene. I’ve often wondered why there wasn’t a stronger link between the improv scene and Playback Theatre, so when I met Victoria Howden from the new Playback Theatre company Plays of our Lives I was keen to support them and find out more. We’re getting her in for a workshop on Saturday 14th February, and our interview is below. I hope this is the start of more crossovers between impro and Playback Theatre.


How did you get into Playback Theatre?
I was looking desperately for a theatre project when someone suggested Playback theatre to me. I didn’t even know what it was but I wrote to all the Playback theatre companies in Israel (where I was living at the time) and one replied and told me to come and see a show. I was blown away right from the start , I could’t understand how the actors hear a story and turn into theatre without rehearsing. The facilitator asked for a story from childhood , I don’t know what came over me but I put my hand up and told a hard story from my childhood. The way the actors played it back completely changed my life , they gave me strength and made me see other sides to my story. It was at that moment that I decided that is what I want to do. The theatre’s director told me they where not looking for actors , I didn’t care , I knew I was going to be part of that group , I took their playback theatre course and 2 days after we finished the Director called me and asked me to join the group.
I was with the ensemble for 3 years , heard some amazing stories and have had the privilege of helping people along the way.
How is Playback different to impro?
The main difference is that Playback is based on true stories , which the actors must stick to, while in impro you can start with an idea and go anywhere with it. In playback you are true to a story, we improvise with guidelines .

Doe Playback Theatre and impro help each other?
I think it most definitely can and I believe that if you take the sensitivity, active listening and staying true to a story from playback and the sense of freedom and playfulness from impro you have yourself an amazing thing.

What’s your big dream for Playback Theatre in England? 
My dream is to make it as popular here as it is in Israel, my dream is give people here from all strokes of life a place where they can come and share stories , see their life stories come to life and by doing that bring people closer together. My dream is that in a few years there will be 50 playback groups in the UK that go into the communities and bring people together because we are all made up of our stories. How amazing would that be?

What can Playback Theatre offer the audience that nothing else does?
It offers them a chance to be heard, seen and their stories validated, it is a unique collaboration between the actors and the audience that exists only in Playback. It gives the tellers a chance to laugh at themselves, to have closure and see them selves as we the actors see them.

What does Playback Theatre offer the actor that nothing else does? 
Playback actors are not just improvisers , we are also listeners, the teller has given us a gift, their story and we have to treat it with great care. Playback offers the actors  the ability to read between the lines, listen actively to the teller and to the other actors, find the freedom and stay true to a story at the same time.

What kind of stories do people tell?
I have heard so many stories over the years: Two kids playing in the sand dunes outside their house found a baby in a box , they wanted to know now 20 years later what happened to him , of course we don’t know but we could give them a reunion. A little girl who had pet cockroaches and we made a roach musical, people telling about people they have lost, trips gone wrong and many many more. Any story is welcome whether happy or sad , big or small, happened today or 50 years ago.

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