From Chapter Two, “A Musical Tornado”
The next session Rafael stormed into the room, escorted by the crisis supervisor in whose custody he’d been since lunchtime.
“I want to play the synthesizer! By myself!”
It was clear that something had gone seriously wrong in his day—and that he’d been looking forward to his music session as an opportunity to express his distress. For twenty focused minutes he improvised first on the synth, then the conga drums, then the guitar. I sat and listened. He had the true musician’s ability to find the music in any instrument, regardless of how little he knew its technique. The language of music, its inherent patterns of tone and rhythm, was Rafael’s language. It spoke for him, giving him a voice for feelings too distant from words.
At one point, frustrated when he couldn’t get the sound he wanted, he swung the guitar over his head.
“I’ll smash the fucker!”
He put it down gently. “I wasn’t really going to.” He sat down again at the synthesizer and started playing. “This sounds like movie music,” he said after a few minutes. “Like aliens. Let’s make up a story.”
Collaboratively, we invented a story in four scenes. Rafael created synthesizer sounds for each part of the story, experimenting until he was satisfied. I had never seen him so absorbed.
Rafael and I improvised our way through the music, pausing when it was time for him to set the synthesizer for the next phase. He was purposeful, his playing coherent and inventive. A jaunty little theme at the beginning of the story segued into ominous echoing bass sounds, followed by a screeching melisma in the upper register, and finally slow, broad chord clusters with the synthesizer’s woodwind voice. “Let’s practice one more time,” he said when we finished. We went through it a couple more times, then taped it. “All right!” he said, delighted, when we played it back. “Let’s act the story now.” Cued by the “soundtrack” and directed by Rafael, I played the role of the aliens who are scary at first and then turn out to be harmless and lonely.
“Let’s do it again!” said Rafael as the synth’s final chords faded. He wanted to do it several more times, thrilled with his creation.
It was time to leave, always a tense moment with Rafael.
“I want to have that tape,” he said.
“The tape has to stay here, Rafael, because we’re going to use it to record lots of things that you do.”
“I want it for my own!” he shouted. His peaceful mood had vanished.
“You’d like to play it for the others upstairs, right?”
“I want it!” at the top of his voice.
“You could borrow it…” but Rafael had run from the room. I followed him as he disappeared around the corner and out into the playground. I summoned him sternly from the door. He scowled at me and ambled back, kicking stones.
“Hey, don’t spoil it,” I said as we walked toward his classroom. “That was wonderful, that music and the story.”
“Yeah,” he said, his scowl instantly replaced by a happy grin. “Sorry I ran outside, Jo. I was only pretending to be mad, you know.”
I dropped into the nearest chair after bringing him back to Amy, wondering if his last-minute tantrum canceled out the earlier triumphs of the session.
From Chapter Six, “Do My Story!”
We met for our first show, excited and a little apprehensive. Fifteen kids scrambled into the gym, chattering their way to the folding chairs waiting in curving rows. A pair of large scoop lamps bathed the stage area in warm light. I stood in front of the children holding up my hands for quietness. They settled down and we began.
“How’s your day been so far?” I asked.
“Better than yesterday.”
“I had to go to the crisis room.”
“Lovable!” Calvin called out.
We acted out their comments in high-energy “fluid sculptures,” adding sound and movement one by one to express the teller’s feeling. The kids roared with delight.
Doreen, a plump, sweet-faced girl from the Teresian group, came to the teller’s chair with the first story.
“It’s about when my dog bit me,” she said. She told the story of the mean dog, and the comfort she received from her mother and sister; both of them, I knew, long disappeared from her life. She chose Abel to play the dog, and he caused a near-riot when he pretended to pee against a piece of furniture and got spanked for it. The actors onstage waited out the screams of laughter so that they could show the tenderness of the moment between Doreen and her mother.
“Do my story! Do my story!” shouted five or six kids as soon as Doreen sat down.
My hope with Playback Theatre was to give the children a chance to tell their stories—to provide Playback’s accessible stage as a forum where they could speak and be heard. I knew that they had remarkable stories to tell, that they were full of lively response to the world around them, and that in the rough-and-tumble of institutional life there were few opportunities for them to be heard other than in one-on-one therapy sessions. I thought that the ritual of Playback might prove a strong enough frame—even in this environment—for the children to bear witness in front of their peers.
Although our performances followed the traditional Playback format of tellers coming forward to tell and watch a story, we learned quickly to adapt it so that it worked for this special audience. We found that the children responded better to acting that was literal and concrete rather than metaphorical. Extra attention to opening and ending shows was called for. We sang with the children at the beginning to settle them into receptiveness and keep them occupied as latecomers straggled in. As the show ended we allowed time for verbal sharing, more singing, or art activities. More children wanted to be tellers than we had time for, and our closing activities gave the disappointed ones a chance to express a small part of the story they didn’t tell.
In spite of occasional frustration at not telling their stories, the children were delighted to come to the shows, which they thought of as a treat, not therapy.
Soon, teachers in St Mary’s school invited us to do shows in their small classrooms. In one classroom performance, six-year-old Courtney told a nightmare about a witch who came to her while she was asleep and put horrible stuff on her nails and pricked her skin.
“What was the scariest thing, Courtney?”
“I’m scared I’ll be like the witch.”
During the enactment she yelled at the witch: “I’m over here!” I reminded her that Diane, the actor she’d chosen, was being Courtney in the story, that she herself was just watching. She was very excited. I held her closely on my knee. When it was over, I asked her if she’d like to make up a different ending for her story. It was at first hard for her to understand the possibility I was offering. Then she got it. Her eyes lit up. “I want to kill the witch, and I want my mom to hug me and say ‘Good girl.’” With satisfaction she watched this amended scenario acted out.
Gary, who’d been full of scathing complaints earlier, wanted to be the next teller. But when he came to the chair, he didn’t have a story. It wasn’t unusual for children to long for the experience of being a teller while being not at all clear about what they wanted to tell. It was our job to find a story, however minimal, in whatever elements they could offer.
“Who’s someone who might be in your story?” I asked Gary.
“My grandma,” he responded immediately. I had heard that Gary’s grandmother had died recently after a long illness. Soon a story emerged about the time she had entrusted him and his brother to go to the store for her. “She wasn’t sick, she just too busy. We got everything and we gave her some change and she was real pleased.”
We acted out the story, Gary calling out additional details from the side as he remembered them. “She wanted soup!” he yelled. Without missing a beat, the teller’s actor added soup to the grocery items he was putting in his imaginary basket.
“Thank you for telling us about your grandma, Gary,” I said when the scene was over.
“Thank you for acting my story,” he said, peaceful and gracious.