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.
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.”
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