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Berkeley director Armand Volkas brings audiences’ stories to life through his Playback Theatre group.
By Rachel Trachten
STAGES OF HEALING | Berkeley director Armand Volkas brings audiences’ stories to life through his Playback Theatre group. | By Rachel Trachten
A tall woman with silver-blond hair steps forward on the stage, striking a pose with arms outstretched. “I see the festive lights and the joy on children’s faces, but I feel loss,” she says. “I miss you, I miss you.” She stands frozen in place, and, one by one, four other actors, all dressed in black, join her. One lights imagined candles for loved ones who are gone; another kneels, asking, “Is it okay to feel so sad this time of year?” Each actor freezes after speaking, their bodies connected to one another like branches on a tree. A violinist and a keyboard player add mood and texture. The scene ends in silence, the five bodies entwined in a living sculpture.
This two-minute improvisation takes place at Berkeley’s Live Oak Theatre at a December performance of the Living Arts Playback Theatre Ensemble. Moments before, the company’s artistic director, Armand Volkas, has turned to the audience, asking, “What do the holidays bring up for you?”
Audience member Ann Kroeber responds. “I feel grief,” she says. “This is the time of year that people closest to me have died.”
After her emotion is presented on stage, Volkas turns to Kroeber. “Did we capture the essence of your feeling?” he asks gently.
“Thank you,” she says, close to tears. “It meant so much to have that.”
Throughout the evening, Volkas, 59, conducts a series of performances, serving as the link between audience and actors. A broad, towering figure with a full white beard and mustache, he is a quietly commanding presence. As a youth, Volkas considered careers ranging from actor to rabbi to psychologist. “In a way,” he says, “I put all three together.”
Created in 1975 by director and social activist Jonathan Fox, Playback Theater—a more introspective cousin to the genre of improv—is now performed by hundreds of ensembles around the world. During his 21 years at the helm of his own Playback ensemble, Volkas has developed a unique company that not only puts on engaging theater events, but also uses Playback techniques for conflict resolution.
“Playback is about sharing a personal story in the community,” says Volkas, who lives in Berkeley with his wife and college-age daughter. “It taps into a primal need for humans to have their experience witnessed and validated.”
During a Playback event, Volkas warms up the audience by asking for words or phrases to describe what’s on their minds. Later, he’ll invite longer stories for the actors to perform in enactments lasting five to 10 minutes. On this evening at Live Oak Theatre, along with “grief,” suggestions include “procrastination,” “puppy love,” “skunk,” “hypocrisy,” and “tax cuts for the rich.” (“No, no, no, Obama, what are you doing?” one actor moans in response to the “tax cuts” prompt. She falls to her knees, adding in a plaintive voice, “I’m wearing your T-shirt.”)
“It’s not just a theater event,” says Volkas. “Something more happens than when you go to see a scripted play.” Audience member Kroeber, a resident of Richmond, says that after the performance, several people thanked her for sharing her grief. “It was cathartic and lovely,” she says, adding that the way the actor (Christine Kalb) called out, “I miss you, I miss you,” made her feel less alone.
Early in life, Volkas, the French-born child of Holocaust survivors who eventually settled in California, turned to theater as a way to work with his own emotions. “Being essentially a shy person,” he says, “theater was therapeutic for me because it helped me give shape to feelings and to express myself.” He earned a master’s in fine arts in theater from U.C.L.A., and wound up in the Bay Area in 1984 at San Francisco’s Antioch University, where he became a psychotherapist specializing in drama therapy. In drama therapy, Volkas explains, instead of describing her mother, a client might pretend to be the mother, while the therapist acts out the part of the client. To demonstrate this concept, Volkas, still a practicing therapist, faces two chairs toward one another and scurries between them, playing the roles of both therapist and client.
“I’m the stereotype of a therapist,” says Volkas, a tiny twinkle in his eye, “except that I don’t drive a Volvo or smoke a pipe.”
Today, Volkas’s nonprofit Center for the Living Arts includes his Playback Theatre company as well as two other programs that he directs: the Living Arts Counseling Center, and Healing the Wounds of History, a project that seeks, through theater, to resolve conflicts between cultures. At Volkas’s counseling center, with offices in Oakland, San Francisco, and Folsom, therapists incorporate Playback techniques into work with individuals and groups. “When someone is depressed, they don’t think of seeing a drama therapist,” says Volkas, who is also on the faculty at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. “There’s a sense that it’s fringe and not real therapy; people don’t realize that we’re clinically trained and that the arts are a powerful and legitimate tool.”
Volkas grew up in Los Angeles, hearing his parents’ memories of the horrors and bravery they had witnessed as prisoners at Auschwitz. Before they were captured, both parents had risked their lives by joining the Resistance: His Lithuanian father parachuted into Russia to organize in the Jewish ghettos; his mother joined the French Resistance, smuggling guns and leaflets and helping Jewish children escape to Switzerland. Knowing that his parents chose to join the Resistance, to take action, is important to Volkas. “What I can choose,” he says, “is how I interpret their story and transform it into constructive action in my own life.”
During the mid-’70s and early ’80s, while directing an experimental Jewish theater company in Los Angeles, Volkas began to wonder if Germans of his generation were also struggling with their legacy. In an attempt to understand the human capacity for evil, or what Volkas calls “the perpetrator in all of us,” he turned to theater.
In 1989, Volkas brought together seven descendants of Holocaust survivors and seven descendants of the Third Reich for a weekend workshop held in an Oakland television studio. The process, says Volkas, included arguing, yelling, drawing, painting, grieving, and playing. Participants acted out one another’s stories and dreams. Volkas also asked participants to imagine that it was 500 years in the future and Jews and Germans were commemorating the Holocaust together, and to create a healing ritual for all parties to share. Over the course of the event, through very different stories, both Germans and Jews expressed feelings of pain, guilt, and shame. “At the end of the workshop,” says Volkas, “what struck me most were the deep bonds that had been formed.”
Building on that initial workshop, Volkas continued to explore the use of techniques from Playback Theater and drama therapy to address personal and collective trauma. Today, the actors in Healing the Wounds of History (originally called Acts of Reconciliation) dramatize stories told by participants, or help group members themselves act out one another’s memories.
In one exercise, Volkas shows a historical photo and asks participants to become a character of a nationality different from their own, first through a posture, and then with words and movement. Before these enactments of emotionally fraught scenes take place—for example, a non-Jewish German might play the role of a young Jewish boy raising his hands in surrender, and a Jew take on the character of a Nazi pointing a gun at the child—Volkas uses his therapeutic expertise to help the participants develop an essential sense of trust and safety. Under his tutelage, Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans have come together to explore the aftermath of World War II, and African-Americans and European Americans have jointly explored the legacy of slavery. Palestinians and Israelis, and Turks and Armenians have also taken part. At these events, the focus is on sharing personal stories—not on arguing over whose version of history is correct. The goal, says Volkas, is to build mutual empathy.
The technique of Playback has been criticized by social change advocates such as the Brazilian Theater of the Oppressed (TO) for just this reason—because it empathizes rather than challenges. “That’s a different frame,” says Volkas of the activist style of theater created by Augusto Boal in 1971. “In TO, there’s a black and white kind of stance about oppressor and oppressed; it can be very shaming. In Playback, we need to empathize with the oppressor as well.”
“We are giving a gift to the storyteller,” says Roni Alperin, 35, a graceful, athletic actor who joined Volkas’s troupe three years ago after working with a Playback company in Israel. “Maybe there is an unspoken emotion that needs to be expressed. We come in and hear what is needed and give the unsaid emotion a stage.”
Whether in a workshop or a performance, finding the heart of the story is paramount. “We don’t want to reiterate the teller’s story but rather to delve deeper and play back the subtext,” says actor Ruth Jovel, 51, who has worked with Volkas for six years and incorporates her expressive singing voice into some of the performances.
The company recently took part in The Year of Civil Discourse Initiative, a project of speakers and workshops aimed at easing bitter divisions about Israel within the Jewish community. At Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco, the Playback actors conducted two workshops on this theme. Both followed a similar course: In a small classroom, 10 men and women, young and old, sit in a circle on wooden stools, uncertain about whether to speak up. “Is there anyone who would like to share a story?” Volkas asks. As volunteers tentatively emerge, he probes gently for details: “When does your story take place?” “Who are the characters in your story?”
The tales gradually unfold: a longtime married couple so divided over Israel that they cannot discuss it in their own home; a man struggling to maintain his commitment to peace after his sister witnessed a suicide bombing; a woman who feels confused and taken advantage of after trying to help an Arab mother whose baby was ill.
“Playback can be a healing tool,” says actor Vicki Dello Joio, 58, an Oakland resident, who has been with the company for 14 years. “It deepens people’s ability to hear one another.”
During the Live Oak Theatre performance, 67-year-old Mick Renner of Berkeley gets his own chance to be heard. Sitting on stage next to Volkas in the “teller’s chair,” Renner shares a memory of being 7 years old and traveling by plane to meet his father for the first time. All the actors take part in each story, but Volkas asks Renner to choose an actor to play himself as a child, and one to play his father. “Let’s watch,” says Volkas, his standard introduction to each scene.
Renner looks on, rapt, mouth open, as the actor playing his boyhood self exits an invisible plane and encounters an airport worker. “Are you my father?” the boy asks. But the father turns out to be “a skinny, dopey-looking guy,” and the boy’s disappointment comes through as his character falls to the ground, banging a fist down in anger.
The father’s confusion is also revealed: “When I see this child, my son, I don’t know what to feel; I don’t know how to be with him,” he says. The final moments of the piece portray the essence of an uneasy father-son relationship: The boy and his father approach one another warily, each tentatively reaching a hand toward the other, barely touching, gazes averted.
“I needed to move into a state of empathy, to let his story move through me,” says Dello Joio, who played the role of the boy’s father. “I went for the sense of him being split, a tug at his heart but also discomfort.”
After the performance, Renner pronounces it “true to my reality,” adding, “I appreciated the clarity with which they approached it and the 100 percent commitment to the moment.”
Stories like Renner’s are a gold mine for the actors, but others lack emotional depth. On the same evening in which Renner shared his memory, a silly tale about a dead fish fell flat. Sometimes an audience is reticent, as happened at a workshop in celebration of adoption at Oakland’s Beacon School. With their children present, parents didn’t divulge painful or conflicted emotions, and the stories had a Hallmark card feeling. But at the event’s close, one actor probed for greater depth with a suggestion that perhaps someone had a story they’d been unable to share. On similar occasions, the company breaks the ice by acting out the silence of the audience and possible reasons for it. Reflecting on the adoption event, Volkas says that performing for the parents and children separately would have been a better choice.
Stories proposed by a provocative teller—one who is highly opinionated, intoxicated, or has an ax to grind—present a different type of challenge. One of his most difficult audiences, says Volkas, was in Kyoto, Japan, where he conducted Tokyo’s Playback Theater AZ ensemble in a public performance about Japanese war crimes during World War II. First to speak were two enraged participants—one who angrily challenged Volkas about why he hadn’t learned to speak Japanese, and the other ranting about Red China in an authoritative, militaristic voice. With the permission of these speakers, the actors dramatized their fury—twice—before the second man was satisfied. “Then the audience trusted me,” says Volkas, adding that although it might have seemed logical to call security, Playback can be a useful tool for taming rage.
The Playback technique has a strong presence around the world, with companies in 30 countries affiliated through an association. Like Volkas’s group, many companies perform in a range of venues—at theaters, workshops, and events like birthday parties, weddings, retirements, and conferences. Some address specific needs: In London, the Chinese company True Heart uses the Playback method to make the experience of Britain’s Chinese community more visible; in Gainesville, Fla., Reflections Playback Theater at Shands Hospital performs at bedsides and in the hospital’s public spaces. In its many variations, Playback belongs within a larger context of theater dedicated to purposes beyond performance. Groups such as Theater of the Oppressed, Action Theater, Body Tales, and self-revelatory theater share Playback’s central impulse—to give shape to personal experience and to offer a witness to that experience.
The reason Playback is so well received across cultures, says actor Alperin, an Israeli, is that it works in the language of emotion. This may also be why Alperin is currently the only male among the seven actors who perform with the company. (Three male interns may eventually find their way to the stage.) “This type of theater requires an act of service and emotional generosity and a capacity for deep empathy,” says Volkas. “In our society, men typically aren’t programmed to do that.”
During weekly rehearsals, the actors keep their skills sharp by performing stories from one another’s lives. Because acting doesn’t pay the rent, they have day jobs, some as drama therapists, others in fields outside of theater. “My other members are like my family,” Jovel says. “We are witness to each other’s lives, and this breeds trust and love that I know has only made us that much stronger on stage.”
The results of this intimacy can seem magical. In reality, though, the actors rely on standard structures as the foundation of their improvisations. To create the short scenes inspired by a word or phrase, they choose from about 10 “short forms” or templates. The audience makes a suggestion, an actor takes the initiative, and, based on his or her cue, the others immediately follow suit. For example, when she heard the word “grief,” actor Christine Kalb walked toward the front of the stage and struck a “tree-ish” pose, alerting the others that the tree form would be used for this piece. Before the longer scenes, the actors huddle for a few moments to make a quick decision, like “Let’s start with a soliloquy” or “Let’s enact this story as a fairy tale.”
Playback companies typically use no scenery or costumes because characters and scenes change fluidly and quickly. The only props are brightly colored opaque scarves that hang on a standing rack. The scarves turn up in surprising ways: In a skit about a woman injured in a car accident, the actors use them to create screens in front of their bodies. Standing behind a screen, each actor portrays one of the woman’s multiple reactions to her trauma (My side still hurts; I’m happy to be alive; Why did this happen to me?). In a humorous piece about a Thanksgiving dinner gone wrong, a red scarf becomes the tablecloth and a blue one is the water burbling up as the sink clogs and kitchen mayhem ensues.
Improvised music enhances the action on stage, but must be subtle, according to violinist Rae Ann Goldberg. Like the actors, she and fellow musician John Kadyk take part in rehearsals, workshops, and performances. “Our role is to support the story, but not to distract from what the actors are doing,” says Kadyk, who plays keyboard, clarinet, and percussion. Musical choices are based on the mood and trajectory of the story, he says, noting that the piece about the boy meeting his father called for a strong emotional buildup, followed by a darkening and a letdown.
In any venue, the heart of Playback is a sharing of common humanity. At a 2003 performance at Concordia University in Montreal, captured on video, Volkas brings together a mixed group of Israelis and Palestinians. Nada, a Palestinian woman, sits in the “teller’s chair” as she describes being trapped in Beirut in 1982, just as the Israelis invaded Lebanon. “We saw the bombardment day and night,” she says, adding that she was one of 15 relatives sharing an apartment without water or electricity. With the borders guarded by the Israeli army on one side and the Christian Phalangists on the other, Nada and her family feared imprisonment or even death if they tried to return to their home in Saudi Arabia.
Nada tells Volkas about her internal struggle not to hate all Israelis, even as she was surrounded by war and destruction. “You want to keep your humanity, your integrity,” she says.
“Let’s watch,” Volkas says.
“I cannot believe this—it just started as a holiday,” says the actor in the role of Nada.
“How long are we going to stay?” asks another actor, playing Nada’s young daughter. She tugs at her mother’s arm. “Mom, I want to go home.”
One actor creates an impression of dark smoke by repeatedly waving a black scarf in the air. A whistling sound reminiscent of bombs dropping is heard. Nada’s husband is on his knees. “I just want to live in peace with my family,” he pleads.
Nada walks with her arm around her daughter, the other hand holding on to her husband. Two actors dramatize Nada’s internal conflict. “It will be difficult,” says one, speaking from just behind Nada, “but hold on to your integrity.”
“Hate them!” the other calls out.
Nada turns toward her daughter. “It’s useless to hate them,” she says. “We have to remain human. This is what I want to pass on to you.”
After the performance, Volkas turns to the actual Nada. “I see you are in tears now,” he says, and asks if she is able to respond to the story.
“The actors expressed what I couldn’t,” she tells him. “They felt what I wanted to say, but was not able to say.”
The Playback Theatre Ensemble performs Saturday, March 5, 8 p.m., at the Live Oak Theatre in Berkeley. For info: (800) 838-3006 or brownpapertickets.com/event/146065.
Rachel Trachten is a Berkeley writer and editor and a frequent contributor to The Monthly.