About to hit the big 3-0, Melbourne Playback Theatre is an interactive theatre company that’s somewhat of an institution in Melbourne. Striving to refine and investigate the practice of storytelling; they work in the corporate, community and private sectors and during the past 30 years have given some 1200 performances, created from more than 5000 stories, with over 65000 audience members participating.

Co-Artistic Director and ensemble actor Mike McEvoy gives us a little more insight into the machinations of this company, and how important this great milestone is for them.

Milestones | Melbourne Playback TheatreHow would you explain a Melbourne Playback Theatre Company show to someone who’s never witnessed a performance?
In playback theatre, audience members provide the stories and a team of performers (5 actors and 2 musicians) immediately transform them into theatre. It's improvised and every performance is utterly unique as it responds directly to the audience there on the night. A facilitator opens up a conversation with the audience and elicits thoughts, reflections and anecdotes. For our commissioned work in the corporate, community and education sectors these can be in response to a theme, or in the case of public performances they often follow the fancy of the audience that's there on the night. And rest assured, there's no pressure to participate if you don't want to... it is just as enjoyable to watch and listen as other audience members share small windows into their worlds. Like all good theatre, it's bound to entertain, provoke, inspire and move you.

is really more than just another show for Melbourne Playback Theatre Company – talk to us about the history of the company and why it was formed.

Melbourne Playback Theatre turns 30 this year! It's one of hundreds of playback theatre companies around the world. In fact, I think it was one of the first playback theatre companies to form outside of the USA. There's an unconfirmed rumour that we're the longest continually running playback company. But that really is an unconfirmed rumour! Our company was formed after the form's creator, Jonathan Fox visited Australia on the invitation of our company's founder Mary Good and a few others in 1980. They had a few workshops and demonstration performances and taught the basic forms.

Playback Theatre is such a simple but potent concept that it doesn't take much to capture the passionate devotion of people from a range of disciplines. In the early days, Melbourne Playback was made up of people from a range of fields – it comprised psychologists, social workers, teachers, engineers... all sorts. Over the past thirty years our company has gradually changed so that now it is comprised entirely of professional performing artists (we're still a pretty diverse bunch!). I think that what attracts people to playback theatre is it's grounding in story and storytelling, the fact that it is egalitarian and that it affirms our humanity. As theatre-makers it is a great privilege to be given the opportunity to listen to stories from all kinds of people and to bring these to life in a way that is theatrical but also honours the unique perspective of the storyteller.

Melbourne Playback is a part of a world-wide network of independent Playback Theatre companies. How many are there in the world, and where did this style of theatre originate?

Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas founded this style of theatre in 1975 in New York. It's really hard to know for sure how many playback companies there are in the world. Hundreds I'd say. Most of them are non-professional community-based companies.

What was the catalyst for you wanting to work with this style of theatre through Melbourne Playback?

I'd seen a Melbourne Playback performance as part of my honours research at Uni because I was interested in how theatre can have a positive impact for individuals and communities. A few years later when I saw an ad calling for actors to audition I almost wet myself. Here was an opportunity to join an ensemble of highly skilled performers that I respected... plus it was an opportunity to be part of theatre that is immediately relevant to it's audience and that can really make a difference in the world. I'm so glad I got through the interview and audition process. Working with Melbourne Playback has taught me so much about myself as a performer and the craft of theatre-making. It continually feeds my other theatre work and helps pay my bills (an unusual gift for an actor!) And it also gives me insight into a whole range of different worlds as we perform for corporate executives, schools, hospital staff, community groups, organisataions, all sorts – even private parties! I feel like it makes me more 'worldly' somehow and it's often great character research.

1200+ performances from 5000+ stories with over 65000 audience members; they’re some pretty impressive stats. Can you tell us about a show you worked on that was a highlight for you, and why?

Yep they're some big numbers! I'd say that in the 6 years I've been with Melbourne Playback I've probably done somewhere between 180 and 250 performances. It's hard to remember specific gigs! There have been a few for community service organisations that have been incredibly inspiring. Performing for groups of nurses, teachers or social workers is always amazing. They have so much passion for what they do. Another highlight was our season of 4 shows in Albury at Hothouse Theatre in 2009. It was really moving to hear similar themes emerging from the audience each night. We heard about the river, the drought and the health of the land. And we also heard about a tragic incident involving a cyclist that occurred just prior to our arrival. It was clear that these stories were resonating within the community. It gave a real sense to me of how important story is to community.

The improvisational nature of what you do must be tricky at times, with no script in hand and working solely with stories provided by the personal experiences of audience members – have there been any moments where a particular story has proved difficult to tell, and why?

Ha! It is continually tricky! Every show has its challenges and with improvisation it's rare that as a performer you come away feeling utterly satisfied. There's a short moment after the audience member has shared their story before we start playing it back and it often happens that we all look blankly at each other with no idea how we're going to assimilate all the information we've heard into something resembling theatre! But then someone starts with the first offer and we build it together. I'm often so grateful for the collective wisdom of the team.

I remember my first show. It was at a high school and I felt like a rabbit in the headlights... it was the strong leadership of the experienced team members that helped give the stories shape and metaphor and physicality. Along the way I've picked up the skills that help you frame and shape and illuminate story. Rambling storytellers, deeply personal or painful stories and abstract or conceptual stories all have their challenges, but we usually make it work!

Melbourne Playback Theatre Company also does work in the corporate sector – how do you use this style of theatre in that area?

We work in all sorts of ways with the corporate sector. We're often brought in as part of leadership training programs (like our work with Melbourne Business School). We can be used for a group to reflect on their development or for staff to reflect on the big picture. We model creativity and lateral thinking, emotional intelligence, team-work and listening in our work and corporate trainers will often use us to demonstrate these kinds of skills. But we're also good value entertainment. Our performances will get the group laughing and thinking and reflecting. It's a great ice-breaker or circuit-breaker. We can really shift the energy in the room and add some spice to an otherwise dry or cerebral training day.

Why do you think this style of theatre is relevant and how does it differ from others?

Playback theatre is unique because it is directly relevant to its audience. It's the fact that the stories come directly from the audience and that the stories are as contemporary as you can possibly get – they're told by people who are alive right now and who are responding to the world in this very moment. It's also spontaneous and that sets it apart from a lot of other documentary-style or verbatim theatre styles.

What’s next for the Company after this milestone?

Let's hope that the company continues for at least another 30 years! In the rehearsal room we plan to continue to investigate and interrogate the playback theatre form, responding to contemporary theatre practice and flexing our ensemble performance skills. And we hope that business will continue to grow for us, so that we can continue bringing high quality theatre into all kinds of organisations and communities, and continue to engage people with the value of their own stories.

...and most importantly – given that Milestones is about celebrating Melbourne Playback Theatre Company’s 30th birthday – will there be cake at the show?

Excellent idea! I'll get in touch with Malthouse Kitchen.

Milestones plays on December 2 and 3 in the Tower Theatre at the Malthouse. Full details can be found on the Malthouse Theatre website – www.malthousetheatre.com.au

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