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Back to Play: An Interview with Roni Alperin of Playback Theater

"I regard the theater as a serious business, one that makes or should make man more human, which is to say, less alone." ~ Arthur Miller

I'm not entirely sure that the famous American-Jewish playwright Arthur Miller did say this sentence, but in any case, what I know for sure is that lately our need for culture and theater is greater than ever. When the window opens on my computer screen and Roni Alperin's face looks at me from the Zoom box, I discover that behind him there is a virtual forest. In answer to my question, he recounts that in August 2019, he participated in a Playback Theater leadership training program held at a palace in England, near London. In the picture you could see the orchard that led to the entrance to the palace. Throughout the interview, a fascinating, eloquent, and entertaining conversationalist is revealed to me. Roni chooses his words carefully and it is evident that he is very attentive and present in our conversation. So much so, that the screens that separated us seemed to have disappeared, and it was as if we were walking together on a path in that magical, royal orchard.

Roni Alperin remembers the defining moment in his life when he decided to choose theater and cling to his truth. It was in high school in Israel, where he fell in love with a girl who was in the theater department. At age 15, he was not at all into the arts, but he really liked this girl and wanted to be around her. Roni turned to the director and asked to join the theater program. One day, the director played classical music, arranged all the students in a row and asked the participants to dance cross the hall. Roni froze in place. Dancing to the sounds of classical music did not at all match the tough image he had for himself at the time. Then came the moment when he decided to go against everything he thought of himself. At that moment, his life turned upside down. He chose to go with his truth, and not with how he looked or perceived by others.

After high school and army service, Roni began studying dance with Nir Ben Gal and Liat Dror. Then he traveled for a year to India, where he made the final decision to study theater and explore an acting career. He returned to Israel and began studying theater.

While attending university, he appeared in a play with a friend, and that is when he first became acquainted with the Playback Theater movement. Roni did not know much about it, but he decided to audition for a group called "A Game from Life" lead by Aviva Apple-Rosenthal, the high priestess of Playback Theater. At that audition, Roni felt at home, that it was the theater he had always dreamed of. There was something so vivid, real and exciting about it, in the fact that you take someone's life story and express it on the stage.

[Playback Theater is a type of improv theater that takes stories from members of the audience and turns them into theater performances on the spot.]

Today, Israel is considered a global Playback powerhouse, but in the years 2002-2003 the movement was still in its infancy. Roni found himself performing with the Playback group close to thirty times a month. They performed at high-tech companies, in the army, for non-profit organizations, at birthday parties, and more, and this is how he got to know Israeli society in all its forms. Playback felt right to him, and from there on he never looked back.

He says, “Until then I knew that theater for me was self-healing, because it brought out the good in me. Through Playback, I began to see how to work with theater as a tool that offers healing options to individuals and communities. After four years in Israel, I decided to come here to the U.S. to study drama therapy, which means using the theater for healing purposes. Since then, for the past 17 years, I have been doing Playback with my clients one on one, Playback with groups for healing purposes, and Playback as a theater with an added value. Playback is a theater that connects people and creates a community, and the language we use is the language of empathy. Actors learn to step into the narrator's shoes, and the experience of the audience listening to the story and seeing it, is an experience that builds empathy and connection."

The Principles of Playback Theater

Roni explains, “The show starts with a short warm-up with the audience, after which we invite someone to come and tell a story about a moment in their life. The story can be anything from a childhood memory, something annoying that happened at work, to a moment with their son or daughter or a moment with oneself. There is a facilitator who interviews the narrator, and the actors listen and then come up and do a rehearsal in which they reflect the story. The working assumption is that there is a story within each story. There is a reason why the story wants to be told. It can be an emotion that is stuck and seeks to be released or some kind of celebration, victory or expression of love, which sometimes seeks to be revealed through the story. The actors are trained to discover this thing and reflect it from different perspectives and tell the story not only in words but also with the help of movement, music and dance. This is all called “witnessing”, after which the actors turn to the narrator and ask: Is this your story? Have you seen yourself in it? Were we able to get close? Usually, every show consists of three or four moments and three or four full stories."

What is the difference between Playback Theater and traditional therapy?

“The tools are the same, but the contract is different,” Roni said. “At the show you tell a story and the agreement between us is that I will create art from your life story, as if you were writing a play about a moment in your life or you were making a movie, and I provide you with this service. In therapeutic treatment, the contract is different. In therapy there is usually something you want to change and there are things you need to support for, whether it is painful memories or difficult feelings. In this case, in the therapeutic agreement between us, we use these tools to reach those memories and feelings. It's different, of course, in terms of exposure and vulnerability.”

Can you tell us about a story or two that left a special impression on you, without revealing anyone’s personal information?

“Yes, I have quite a few stories like this … I will tell you two stories, one funny and the other more touching. At one show, someone said she wanted to pamper herself and bought a ticket for a cruise, but she did not bother to read the fine print, and it turns out, it was a nudist cruise. She could not believe her eyes when she found out that everyone was walking around naked during the whole voyage. She went on to tell that one day she was sitting down to lunch, and one guy who was sitting and eating in front of her had the spaghetti falling down, to the loin area. To her surprise, he just picked up the spaghetti and continued to eat… We did slow motion on this moment with the help of a scarf and accompanied by a musical instrument, and it was very entertaining. The second story took place many, many years ago, but I remember it vividly. At a conference of social workers and therapists working in Israel with Holocaust survivors, a woman who took care of a Holocaust survivor came up to tell her story. She spoke in a soft and gentle voice, and she seemed to hold a lot of pain. She said that for 20 years she worked at a hospital in the Jerusalem area and her patient would always take her by the hand and lead her, while telling the story of his family. He told her how they marched at night in the village towards the river, where the Nazis planned to murder them. He managed to slip away, and on the way he saw his uncle's body hanging over the bridge. After he managed to escape, a priest hid him for two weeks in a dog kennel. The man may have survived, but mentally he never recovered from that experience. As she told his story, Edvard Munch’s The Scream came to mind. I played the character of the survivor and opened my mouth as in the painting, and we began to describe what had happened, except this time, we took all the emotions out. There was a lot of release in that moment and after it was over, we felt it helped all the caregivers release the emotions and do a sort of cleansing of the pain. It's part of the power of Playback that manages to break down barriers, and to overcome the conventions about which emotions we express in public and which we do not.”

What is happening psychologically during the Playback Theater experience?

“I think we go through certain experiences in life, and feel that no one can understand us. We have the need for testimony, the so-called need to be witnessed. There are at least two processes that can be pointed out here. One is the intensity or connection you can feel when you are understood, not intellectually and not just in your own words, but when someone perceives how it feels inside. There is a deep recognition of suffering in it, which can lead to a sense of visibility and a feeling that you are not alone in the world. The second thing is the ability to take on new perspectives. In Playback theater, suddenly you can see your story from different angles. What happens in this psychological process, and one can say it is the principle behind all art therapy, is that once we manage to take something out of us from within and bring it out, and embody it, whether in painting or movement, we create a projection of our inner world. Now that this world is out there, it can be clearly seen, followed by the interesting process of what I choose to bring back inside. On the way back in we can change painful memories or perceptions we have. The artistic process is emotional and physical, and just as the experience has happened to you in life, so too in theater, it is an experience that has a dimension of time and place. This process allows access to parts of us that words sometimes can’t touch.”

Did you experience this from the other side, as a patient? And if so, how did it impact your ability to transition back to being the performer or the therapist?

"For sure. You know, I think there's this archetype of the wounded healer. There are therapists who come from their personal story and from their own healing, and this is what gives them the insights and inspiration to be therapists and help others. The experiences of my treatment both in psychodrama groups and in person both nourish and support what I do.”

You and I both live on the border between two cultures, Israeli and American. We’re what I call “in-betweeners.” Are there significant differences between how Hebrew-speaking and English-speaking audiences process Playback Theater?

“First of all, I would like to emphasize that although so far we have focused on the therapeutic aspect of Playback, this is first and foremost about theater. I think it is different to do Playback with Israelis and Americans, because it is easier to talk to Israelis, and it is not for nothing that Playback is so common in Israel. We have a great need because we are a country with post-trauma, and also because people in Israel are more connected to the heart. Americans, in general, are a little more hesitant and there is more apprehension. I can see that Israelis are getting to deeper stories faster, to flowing stories. I attribute this to a few things; There is the Israeli directness or the "dogri" and the speech "from the heart," and there is the element of the tribe, that we go through a lot of things together and it is necessary to mobilize to get through them together. There is connection and unity in our collective experience, and you feel it in an Israeli audience. What is amazing about this type of theater is that a group of people from different backgrounds and classes enter the hall, and in the stories we find that we are all connected. Playback gives you a sense of connection to the people around you”.

How does Playback work during this time of COVID-19 restrictions?

“Playback works amazingly well on Zoom. It was shocking to me, because at first I thought a Zoom theater could never work. Then, meetings and initiatives began to happen in the Playback community and it was unbelievable. Players from all over the world have started to connect, teams began to offer lessons, to develop specific models and techniques to work with Zoom, with the squares and everything. This also raises the cinematic dimension of Playback because we have options to work with the camera. There are so many beautiful things and you will be able to see these innovations in a performance on Monday August 17 at 8:00pm. It will be an online event with a team created during the COVID-19 pandemic, with players from India, Norway, the Philippines, Macau, Germany and Russia. This is an international team that speaks eight languages and we sometimes also play in different languages. We got to know each other in a program of leadership in Playback and that’s how we connected, and when Coronavirus started we did a group talk and saw that it works wonderfully, so we decided to do a show for friends. The reactions were so enthusiastic, that we started performing, and now we perform once a month. Other than that, I personally, in partnership with the JCC in Los Gatos, am developing a Playback class that will take place once a week. So yes, Playback can be meaningful, fun and creative online as well.”

Playback Theater made it clear to Roni Alperin that the practice of healing through art is his element. In 2007 he chose to come to the U.S., where he studied at the California Institute of Integral Studies for a master's degree in psychology with a specialization in drama therapy. Since then he has been practicing healing in the theater.

For more details: http://ronialperin.com/

For details on the Playback Theater show this coming Monday, August 17: https://apjcc.org/event/connections-playback-theater-online-performance/

For details on playback classes starting next Monday, August 17: https://apjcc.org/communities/arts/classes-in-the-arts/

See you on Zoom!

Dalit Gvirtsman

dalit@gvirtsman.com


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