Thursday, June 8, 2017

Creativity and Connection

This past Tuesday, Austin Playback Theatre was gracious enough to invite our organization to be the featured nonprofit for the June edition of their Tuesday Night Stories, a monthly improv performance series where all proceeds of each performance benefits a different local nonprofit organization. I didn’t know exactly what to expect from Austin Playback Theatre, but I must say I had a really good experience listening to other people’s stories and then seeing those stories expressed through improv.

For any of you unfamiliar with Austin Playback Theatre, it's an improvisational theatre in which the troupe elicits impressions and stories from the audience and then plays them back via improv. The troupe collaborates with the First Unitarian Universalist Church on Grover Street in Austin, who provides a space to perform at no charge so that all donations can go directly to the featured organization.

It was quite an intimate setting. A musician off to the side provided an ambience for each piece performed. Each actor stepped forward, gave their name and a short little story. Then the ensemble acted out the story, giving the audience a flavor of what the night’s improvisations would look like.

Improv actors portraying a story

A representative from VSA Texas gave a brief history of who we are, and then the emcee asked everyone in the audience to think of something we had recently experienced, basically a feel good moment, nothing elaborate, just something that we had connected to during the day. One story related an experience of rain, no power, eating pretzels and cheese, and playing scrabble by a lantern. The ensemble gave their interpretation of the story. It was amazing because I realized that through simply listening to the vignette, they were able to capture the feeling, the nuances of the experience, and relay it to the audience without much to do or say. It was a physical expression of the verbal story.

Improv of story

Several little moments from the audience were shared and played out in the same way, which primed us to share larger stories of how we connect with others through creativity, the theme for this month's performance. Soon, the members of the audience became storytellers: each would share a memory, and through answering brief questions from a moderator, a mini-play evolved.

Improv of story

The ensemble again caught the nuances with minimal activity. Stories were about sorrow and death, kittens, epiphanies of personal discovery, unity in a comical physical condition. The evening ended in a unified creative moment, and what happened was we got to know more about the other audience members. There were intense moments and funny moments, but no pressure to say anything, just observe or share. It was a very safe setting.

Relating a story to the improv facilitator

A little history about improv that I found interesting: unlike the foundations of professional acting, few historical records clearly pinpoint the official beginning of improvisation. To understand the importance of improvisation in a theatrical education, one must look at the first major occurrences of improvisation throughout history. There have been texts created at the moment of performance, referred to as improvisatory presentation, which was likely how the Atellan farce – improvised farces dealing with family problems or poking fun at historical and mythological figures – came to be so popular among Roman citizens. The Atellan farce became a literary genre in the first century B.C.E., as Roman authors began to write down the humorous and unplanned antics that occurred on stage, making the Atellan farce arguably the first well known improv troupe in recorded theatre history.

The improvisational theatre movement in America started in the late 1930s by Viola Spolin. In her twenties, she worked for the WPA as a social worker and “drama supervisor” at Hull House, Jane Addam’s famous settlement house in Chicago. Spolin used traditional children’s games and invented dozens of new games in workshops with immigrants to help empower them to become more spontaneous and less self-conscious and to build a supportive community (her games are collected in her seminal book “Improvisations for the Theater”). This little commentary is only a brief bit of trivia that offers us a window into the long history of improvisation.

Back to Austin Playback Theatre: their goal is to help nonprofits in Austin build community and awareness while raising money and building ties among Austinites who enjoy helping others & creating strong community connections! You can visit Austin Playback Theatre on the web for information on how to get your nonprofit featured in one of their shows.

Thanks again to Austin Playback Theatre for choosing VSA Texas as one of your featured nonprofits!

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