Chris Molloy is artistic director of the Maryland Playback Ensemble, a theatrical troupe which presents events where audience members are invited to share personal stories which will then be acted out on stage.
Monday, May 5, McDaniel College will host McDaniel Playback, where students will perform the roles of the improv actors. Molloy co-directed the show with Ron Miller. The Times caught up with Molloy to discuss improv, storytelling and more.
Q: What exactly is Playback theater?
A: Playback theater is a very intimate form of theater. It's improv, but it's not comedy improv. Americans, when they think of improv, are used to comedy improv like "Whose Line" or "Saturday Night Live." This is more of storytelling-based theater. We have an audience of people, just like anything else, a group of actors and a conductor who solicits stories from the audience. The ensemble of actors are each trained in different forms, and throughout the evening, they bring to light the different feelings they're getting from the audience and their stories.
Q: What is the history of Playback theater?
A: There's a gentleman named Jonathan Fox, who with his partner Jo Salas, basically invented the form in the 1970s in New York City. They wanted to figure out a way to interact with the audience in a spontaneous and true way. They wanted people to share information about themselves, and it led to a deeper story than the one they were actually sharing. It was a way to peel back those layers and see the heart of the story. It's all about the commonality of stories. One person will tell a story about something that happened which inspires another story. All of a sudden, they'll see that somebody down the street who they may not have had anything in common with are actually connected deeper than they thought.
Q: Could you tell me about a particularly interesting or memorable story that came out at a Playback show?
A: It's a little bit like "Fight Club," in that you don't talk about it outside of it. It's almost like a social work thing. There's a trust that the members will listen and the audience is completely in a safe space. It's what makes it exciting. Our culture has lost a lot of our rituals, but this kind of event is so based around the idea of ritual. Almost every person really has a deeper experience than they normally share. A lot of people will talk on Twitter and Instagram and they'll be shouting their opinions out there, but they're talking at each other instead of with.
Q: What is the importance of storytelling in culture?
A: I think that it's kind of a lost art. The most effective Playback stories are the ones that are considered open. We get a lot of what I call grandpop stories, where people go "Oh, here's the punchline, and this is the path we're going to go through to get to it." We're not looking for stories that are entertaining or polished, but stories that are present with feeling. With the decline of religious practices, people don't take the time to meditate or reflect on how they're feeling. Some people misinterpret and think it's more about being entertained, but the event is more therapeutic. There's a liaison between the actors and the audience, and it's up to the conductor to steer the ship and handle what feelings come up. The stories will follow sort of an arc throughout the night. The stories will either be related or in opposition to the ones they're following. The analogy I like to use is that it's like the teller offers us a mirror of their story, and it's almost as if it's fallen on the ground and broken into pieces. It's up to us to pick up one of the pieces and reflect the story back.
Q: What is the role of improv in the show?
A: It can be really stress-inducing going in with a traditional acting mindset. This is really about listening. It's based on intuition and listening to what people mean with what they're saying. I was an interactive theater major myself. My degree was in improv theater. There's so much overlap in job skills and life skills with improv. Someone who is good at improv is someone who listens and responds to what's coming at them. It's all based on listening. It's one thing to bring an emotion out of someone, but what do you do with it once it's there? Often times when you're doing acting, you bring up emotions. When Romeo and Juliet die at the end of the play, they'll cry, but there's no next step. With Playback there is a next step where we deal with these emotions. We're not therapists, though. Just because something is therapeutic doesn't mean it's therapy. We're here to honor your story.
Q: What should an audience know before they head out to the show?
A: It's one of the toughest things and the most simple things to just come and be yourself and be there. Some people worry that they're going to come to an interactive theater experience, and they think they're going to get pulled on stage and made fun of. This is very much about honoring the people that are there and viewing the world in a different way. Just come as yourself. One of the things we do is self-divulge stories about ourselves to make everyone feel more comfortable.