Where to begin? Let's start with the auditorium. I drove up the roadway alongside the railroad tracks on Press Street a block off St. Claude Avenue in Bywater and found myself in a scene reminiscent of the 1960s (or maybe, of the Great Depression). In front of a warehouse, there was a tented stand, where workers were dishing out supper to a crowd of young people in work clothes.
"Remind you of hippies?" asked Paul McIsaac, when he spotted me. McIsaac is the spokesman for Playback Theater, the group whose performance I had come to see. The young people eating their supper al fresco were his potential audience. They were volunteers for Common Ground Collective, a relief organization. They came here from all over the United States to sleep on floors in sleeping bags in crowded dormitory rooms in the warehouse. There is no hot water, so they take cold showers. The building has no electricity. But the ever-resourceful volunteers have set up generators and strung colorless Christmas lights in the hallways and rooms.
Common Ground Collective, according to Lisa Fithian (who hails from Austin, Texas, and describes herself as the "organizer") undertakes a bewildering variety of good works, such as bio-remediation (reclaiming contaminated soil), house gutting, medical care and the distribution of food, water and cleaning supplies to people in need. The Lower Ninth Ward is a particular focus of Common Ground's efforts.
All right, so much for the potential audience. When supper was over, people started moseying into the warehouse. They moseyed up the Christmas-lit stairwell, past "The Medic Cave" (where an on-duty attendant sat, staring out the door in glum readiness). Finally, they gathered in a large, industrial-looking room that was equipped with -- in addition to the ubiquitous strings of Christmas lights -- one, real florescent fixture. The audience flopped down on various benches, chairs and harder-to-define seating implements that were arranged in a vaguely semicircular fashion, amidst decorative touches, like a series of lampshades attached to the steel beams. There were also blankets hanging here and there on wires, as though to dry. Soon, the show began.
Playback Theater is an improvisatory group. Actually, Playback Theater is more a technique than a group, for there are more than 70 Playback Theater Companies around the world. The New York Playback Theater that was performing for Common Ground featured three youngish African Americans -- Mtume Gant, Kymbali Craig and Venessa Rascoe -- along with Paul McIsaac, the older white man and spokesman. All the actors wore black slacks and a black sweatshirt with a colorful Playback Theater logo. There were no spotlights or microphones.
McIsaac kicked things off. He talked about a trip his troupe had made that afternoon to the Lower Nine. "I thought I had seen destruction," he marveled, "but cars on top of buildings!" Then he turned to his three collaborators and said, "Let's watch." McIsaac was, in fact, introducing the audience to the ritual of "playback."
The other actors in the troupe had been listening carefully to McIsaac's words and to the emotional tenor underlying his narrative. Now they performed a short, abstract improvisation of sounds and movements (with occasional short phrases) that was meant to capture and dramatize the experience of the speaker.
After that, each of the actors took a turn as narrator. Then, the others acted out his tale. Next, it was time for a member of the audience to talk about what was on his mind, so the audience itself could enter the central cathartic ritual of the performance. Sometimes, a story (and the resulting improv) had considerable humor. One young lady told of being worked to a stupor because the man she was helping reconstruct his home was boundlessly enthusiastic.
At other times, the pathos of the situation overwhelmed the speaker. For example, another young woman told of the difficulties an 80-year-old grandfather experienced when he had to throw away his mementos that had been ruined by the floodwaters. In each case, the playback performance seemed to comfort and reassure the person who told the story.
How is one to judge such a performance? Certainly not by the standards that one would apply to the Saenger series or to any scripted drama. Playback Theater was attempting a very different kind of connection with its audience. The troupe provided entertainment, yes, but also a clarification of the real experience of one particular person on one particular day -- and through a sampling of individuals, a clarification of the experience of the audience as a whole.