Tag Archives: Playback Theatre

Coverage from Lancaster Newspapers: How River Crossing Playback Theatre helps loved ones grieve

Article by Gayle Johnson appear in LancasterOnline, February 13, 2022

Preface: Kudos to Gayle Johnson from LNP/Lancaster Newspapers including her patient research to get both a deeper and broader perspective of how Playback Theatre heals.

Karen Carnabucci’s mother-in-law died during the height of the pandemic, when houses of worship, schools and most public life shut down or went online. The Lancaster therapist couldn’t gather with friends or cry with extended family members to process her overwhelming grief.

Cary Miller tells a different story. The Lancaster education consultant’s father died in January. Miller was able to travel to New Jersey for the burial, where she hugged and held hands with loved ones who mourned with her. Still, devastating sadness remained.

Both women say they found healing online through River Crossing Playback Theatre. The volunteer organization, which started in 2007, combines improvisation, music and audience participation to honor and show empathy for individual stories. Founder and director Chris Fitz, of Marietta, says participants are welcomed into an atmosphere of compassion and understanding.

“Most people can relate because they’ve experienced similar feelings or incidents,” Fitz says. The theater troupe, which counts on donations to operate, serves south-central Pennsylvania and has eight members, down from about 10 before the pandemic.

For Carnabucci, help came from an online memorial that featured troupe members recreating events in her mother-in-law’s life. Friends and family from around the globe were invited to participate. The solace from that event “was an exceptional way to create community,” recalls Carnabucci, who was a features editor for the former Intelligencer Journal, now LNP |LancasterOnline.

Miller said the same of her own experience. “It was deeply healing on an emotional level.” She participated in an online open rehearsal in which audience members shared a difficult or painful memory. Miller talked about her feelings from her father’s death and other life changes, then watched as actors processed and interpreted those feelings through short improvisational vignettes.

“I’m a very creative and expressive person,” Miller says. “I needed a space to be spontaneous and creative with a sort of therapeutic element.”

Before the pandemic, River Crossing used auditoriums, rooms and church basements in Lancaster and York to bring people together. These days, actors, musicians and participants meet on Zoom, although Fitz hopes that may change this summer.


River Crossing Playback Theatre’s holds open practices every Third Friday this spring, 7-9 pm. To register and donate, click here.

Humanizing stories

Playback Theatre has roots in psychodrama, a form of psychotherapy that encourages clients to role play and act out issues or problems. The playback movement began in 1975 in New York before it spread across the world, says Clarissa Worcester, who coordinates Playback North America. The group brings together troupes in the United States and Canada for information, training and advice.

“In some ways, Playback Theatre has weathered the pandemic much better than other theater forms,” says Worcester, who is an assistant director of the Chicago Playback Theatre Troupe. “One major power is simultaneously validating and uplifting an individual while collecting stories.”

Worcester notes that Playback is not a substitute for therapy, but it can be therapeutic.

Lesley Huff holds the same view.

“There’s tremendous power in relationships and connections with other people. It doesn’t always have to be with a trained therapist,” says Huff, a licensed psychologist with Samaritan Counseling Center in Lancaster.

Huff teaches an online eight-week seminar called “Change Through Compassion,” which promotes resilience and self-compassion. The psychologist says she has studied Playback Theatre.

“When we talk about things at an intellectual level, we stay separate enough that we don’t have to experience it,” Huff says, explaining that people often remain numb to their feelings. Participating in playback, though, may result in a “guttural, emotional, nonintellectual moment,” she says. “To feel seen and validated has a tremendous amount of healing.”

Local productions

Locally, the two-hour River Crossing gathering, called an open rehearsal, begins as the leader checks in with the audience, asking participants about their day and their feelings. An individual receives an invitation to share a memory, problem or good news through a one- to five-minute retelling. Volunteer actors immediately process and create a spontaneous performance to bring that story to life before the audience and the author. The leader asks if the retelling seems true to his or her emotions. If not, the actors try again.

Joanne Walcerz, of Elizabethtown, began volunteering for River Crossing about 10 years ago.

“It’s important to listen to a person, hear their story and bring your own life experience to it,” says Walcerz, a massage therapist. “It’s very poignant.”

Though Walcerz has theater training from college, troupe volunteers need no acting experience. Online and in-person training outlines the basic tenets.

“We need to listen to one another in these challenging times,” she says. For instance, actors tell their own stories during private rehearsals. “I consider the people in my playback troupe my family. They know everything about me.”

Colleen Schields, a troupe actor and registered nurse in York, said the concept intrigued her. Schields, who has no prior acting experience, describes River Crossing as “an opportunity to tell stories with more than just our voices.” The process helped Schields become more expressive, she says.

River Crossing will host open rehearsals over Zoom on the third Friday of every month through May. Then, Fitz says, troupe members hope to offer in-person gatherings. People can register for the online meeting at the organization’s website, rivercrossingplayback.org.

Credit: LancasterOnline: original article at: https://lancasteronline.com/features/entertainment/how-river-crossing-playback-theatre-helps-loved-ones-grieve-through-performance/article_dad5a98c-8b40-11ec-8557-77c4799c2958.html

Open Practices Return Monthly via Zoom in 2022

Feeling the itch to play? Have you shared it — to extend this embodied, beloved community, to use a vision from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Friday, January 21, 2022 is the kick off of River Crossing Playback’s Third Friday Open Practices? Register now! 

We’re excited to invite you every month this spring to watch, listen, tell and play with us, developing a community of practice together. All levels of players are welcome as we continue to find meaningful, authentic joy in this work and play, even via Zoom. Here’s when:

  • Friday January 21, 7-9 pm
  • Friday, February 18, 7-9 pm
  • Friday, March 18, 7-9 pm
  • Friday, April 15, 7-9 pm
  • Friday, May 20, 7-9 pm

Each session engages our deep listening and improv skills, building a group “practice” of listening, telling and enacting stories through games, warm-up activities and Playback Theatre forms. Curious to join us? Read on…or register now

“I was honestly surprised. What started out feeling like obligation with a bit of curiosity turned into connection and amazing creative energy. I’m glad I came to this Open Practice.”

Cary Miller

Each evening follows this schedule (approximately):

7:00 pm – Arriving and welcoming each other
7:05 pm – Warming up and centering, physically and mentally
7:30 pm – Welcoming feelings in the room with Playback Theatre forms
8:15 pm – Welcoming stories in the room with Playback Theatre forms
8:45 pm – Reflections and closing

Why this? We offer Open Practice to build our expressive skills, our community connections and our capacity to create beauty and healing. We hope it leads to more transformative theatre throughout South Central Pennsylvania and beyond.

Arrive a few minutes before 7 PM to set up your Zoom connection. A computer and webcam is encouraged since handheld devices limit visibility and playing. Bring your favorite beverage…and loose-fitting clothes. So, see you there?

Register with your name, email and a $5-25 donation below. A Zoom link will follow. Donate $50 or more, and you’ll be registered for all five Third Friday practices! Contact us at rivercrossing@jubileearts.net or (717) 382-8292 with questions.

Where Have All the (Young) Men Gone?

The Challenge of Men doing Playback Theatre in North America:
A Workshop Case Study

By Chris Fitz, for the 2014 Centre for Playback Theatre Leadership Course. Quote with citation.

I didn’t know what exhausted me emotionally until that moment…I realized that the experience of being a soldier, with unlimited license for excess, excessive violence, excessive sex, was a blueprint for self-destruction. Because then I began to wake up to the idea that manhood, as passed on to me by my father, my scoutmaster, my gym instructor, my army sergeant, that vision of manhood was a blueprint for self-destruction and a lie, and that was a burden that I was no longer able to carry.

Utah Phillips, “The Violence Within” (1992)

Ned playing it back at Cafe Garth March 2014 


Where are the men?  This essay began with a practical and timely question.  The Playback Theatre company I founded in South Central Pennsylvania seven years ago is now finally thriving and growing with nine committed core members.  But apart from the musician and me, the rest were women.  Our troupe wasn’t alone in this dynamic.  Without a comprehensive survey, the majority of volunteer Playback Theatre troupes I know in North America seem to share this challenge.  Like Pete Seeger did after the US-Korean War in 1955, I find myself lamenting, “where have all the young men gone?”

Continue reading

Laughing to Live: what a few comedians can teach us

Chris at Play in River Side Stories and Playback Theatre - 2013

Seriously funny? Sometimes I’m confused too. Photo credit: Remi Crist

By Chris Fitz

The recent death of one of the funniest Americans of our time, Robin Williams, spurred me to release these words into the wild.  For my capstone course in Playback Theatre this year, I confronted a Creative Project of my choosing that was supposed to be “out of my comfort zone.”

So when you enjoy improvisation, what could be possibly out of your comfort zone? How about scripted theatre?  No, better:  how about scripted comedy?  The idea hit a funny bone that jerked me into saying, “yes” before I knew what I was getting into.

Continue reading

Going to Deeper Waters in 2014

For the second year, River Crossing Playback Theatre begins its season at Cafe Garth in Columbia, PA. This year though, we have a slate of public performances that touch on some key timely cultural issues.

Cintra and Colleen play a "Pair", two feelings in tension

Cintra and Colleen play a “Pair”, two feelings in tension

When i started exploring embodied improvisation seriously in 2004, it was to do exactly this–tackle the toughest questions and social strife in our world. As one of the discipline’s founders responded when i asked why we didn’t spend more energy teaching the whole world Playback Theatre, “well, yes, everyone can do Playback Theatre, but it’s hard to do well.”

I admit, in the beginning, i was impatient to tackle the toughest work. I got into interactive performing arts originally to work on “important” crises: bridging racism, transforming conflict, and healing from violence and trauma. You could call it, moth-to-flame syndrome. Or ambition. In the first story of the first Playback performance I conducted, a woman told a story about how her husband’s grandmother had been murdered and she’d found a measure of redemption in the most unlikely place–a movie theatre. While the freshly trained ensemble played it admirably, key pieces were missing, especially from my conducting. A respected performing artist in the audience, who’d experience the tragic loss of a family member, later shared with me that he was disappointed and didn’t see how such an art could hold this kind of trauma in a public space.

Ten years later, i continue to gain sobriety about the challenges we face when we apply improvisational forms to a community experiencing myriad potentially traumatic personal histories. On the other hand, i see how it works, how traumatic histories get re-written, re-arranged and re-formed into empowered stories. But whether i liked it or not, the collective training of our ensemble determined how far we could sustainably venture into such fast-moving waters.  And for much of our beginnings, River Crossing did not have a critical mass of continuous, highly trained players.  Not until recently.

Now River Crossing Playback has four conductors in six core troupe members, all with 2+ years of training. River Crossing Playback is stepping out or back into its native territory–the bridging of vital community gaps. Sure, we’ll still be funny…i hope. And sure, we will play whatever story is right for the moment. But our themes, playful in 2013, now venture into deeper–perhaps faster moving–waters.  Perhaps. Because while i still feel the gravity of these bigger issues, i’ve also been changed by the subtleties of this craft. I’ve come to realize that even seemingly benign stories about seemingly uncontroversial issues can hold a hidden potential for enlightening their teller–and the audience. Story by story, we find ourselves becoming more whole, present, alive. As a result, I’ve become more patient with our troupe’s progression toward “hard stories,” because the journey with all its “little” stories has already been profound.

So here’s our dip into the faster waters of 2014:

  • Saturday, March 15: Living Whole, Body & Soul, an exploration of our health and health care
  • Saturday, May 17: Crowds: the Ins and Outs, delving into the dynamics that allow for bullying and isolation
  • Saturday, September 20: Technology: Connected & Dis-Connected, exploring how relationships and community are affected by the online world
  • Saturday, November 15: Overstuffed, What is Enough? on drawing healthy boundaries in our culture of consumption

I hope you can join us for these performances. Lend your voice in what is becoming a community dialogue of concerned fellow river crossers–those willing to step outside their comfort-group and engage in an active telling of community in Central Pennsylvania.

The ensemble performs in “River Side Stories” on four Saturdays in 2014 at Cafe Garth, 22 South Second Street in historic Columbia, PA. A diverse Open Mic hour opens at 6 pm, and the Playback Theatre performance begins at 7 pm. $7 suggested donation at the door.

Click here for directions.


Learn more about Playback Theatre here…