The Melbourne Playback Theatre Company knows how to work its magic

Saturday, 5 September, 2015

“What happens when an expert panel and an interested audience talk about climate change – especially when there’s a bunch of improvising actors and musicians listening in?”.

That was the tagline of an out of the ordinary event that was held at the Union Theatre on August 14; its name was “Our Climate – Personal Stories, Global Change” and I had the great pleasure to witness it. Presented by the Melbourne Playback Theatre Company it involved a diverse panel of specialists to discuss climate change and an improvisation space to reflect on the audience’s stories.

For those who are familiarised with the MPTC the previous description must have made sense. For those who aren’t, let me explain what they do:

The MPTC makes improvised performances on the audience’s personal stories, the actors and musicians of the MPTC listen to those stories on stage through a facilitator who is constantly interacting with the public. In the words of Danny Diesendorf (facilitator and actor of the MPTC), “the actors come ‘deliberately naive’, that is, they try to approach the performance without preconceptions”. With very little time, they create a performance interpreting the audience’s thoughts, fears and joys.

So let’s check if we had this right: a facilitator asks questions, someone raise their hand and shares their answer, in no time the actors and musicians of the MPTC create a performance interpreting the feelings or story shared. Where does the climate change panel comes to play? In this particular event, climate change offered a theme for the night, a reason to stir feelings, and thoughts in the public.

Our Climate began with a short talk by each member of the panel of experts. The panel was formed by Professor David Karoly, internationally recognised scientist, expert in climate change and current professor at the University of Melbourne; Dr Stephen Bygrave, CEO of Beyond Zero Emissions, focused on renewable energy and energy efficiency; Isabella Morand, a climate activist and co-ordinator of Australia; Marita Davies, writer, arts producer and creator of the website which discusses multiple issues in the pacific country of Kiribati. All of them were passionate and made very clear the need of urgent social awareness and action to keep climate from changing drastically, affecting life as we know it. In Diesendorf’s words, “the panel comes first to provoke, inform and stimulate the audience”.

After all of them shared their knowledge and experience with the public, the panel joined the audience and the MPTC took their place on the stage. As politics and religion, climate change activism usually generates strong and confronting thoughts within ourselves, the facilitator’s goal was to find them and very gently, let them bare in the theatre. At first he was only asking for one word, so people would deliberately say out loud a word related to their thoughts on climate change. Then he asked to the person to elaborate on that word. After we all listened, the facilitator would say “let’s watch”, immediately the lights went out, the musicians started playing and the performance begun. Other times the facilitator would say “let’s hear it as a song” and the actors started singing. The next stage of the event went deeper, anyone in the audience could raise their hand and tell a short story about their lives, you could pick one of the actors to be you. The improvisation ensemble would represent the story shared, not only interpreting specific actions and situations, but transmitting feelings that were often too difficult to unfold in the short time of the storytelling. Far from being awkward, the audience started to feel familiar and soon everyone was trying to find a personal story to share.

What I witnessed was a confronting and healing experience. I felt confusion, sadness, anger, gratitude, guilt, distress and love. I laughed and cried in less than two minutes, I understood and accepted my contradictions as a complex human being in our upside down world. It was the most human collective experience I have had and I strongly recommend it to everyone. The MPTC knows what it is doing, and if you ever have the chance, let them use their magic on you, relax and enjoy the journey.