Therapy via improv theatre.
To the lay person, attending a theatre can often seem like a daunting prospect, requiring a certain amount of class, intelligence or knowledge to even begin appreciating. With community theatre, those are imagined boundaries that are completely tossed out the window, welcoming audiences from all walks of life, regardless of background, to attend and be a part of.
With Tapestry Playback Theatre, that form of community theatre goes beyond simply entertainment, becoming in effect, a form of therapy as the cast does interpretive improv performances of audience members’ personal stories live. In this particular iteration, the show took on the theme of Never Rarely Sometimes Often, taking inspiration from options from a survey’s Likert scale to encourage audiences to think on stories of frequency, and how that may or may not have changed in their life.
Conducted and facilitated by Tapestry artistic director Michael Cheng, while the lecture-theatre like community club theatrette initially didn’t appear to have much space for interaction, the team came up with an effective means of warming up, as audience members introduced themselves to each other via handshakes – the twist being that they couldn’t let go of the initial handshake until one of them introduced themselves to a new person. With that done, the atmosphere in the room became far more cordial and relaxed, somewhat dissolving the apprehension and
Performed by an ensemble comprising Peter Kwek, Laura Schuster, Evelyn Chye and Renee Chua (with Siow Ing creating various soundscapes from inspired instruments, from a xylophone to a thunder tube), Tapestry is obviously extremely experienced at their chosen art form, with good pacing that slowly but surely drew audience members into the magic of playback theatre. Starting out simple, each ensemble member sought to establish a single mood in each story, with repetitive phrases and actions to create short, often silly tableaus, for example, depicting various stereotypical phone-obsessed characters one encounters on a train, or when one audience member expressed how he linked stubbing his toe with coming to this performance.
The more short stories we encountered, the more comfortable we became with the form and each other, to the extent that audiences became far more comfortable with sharing more personal stories, with conductor Michael inviting them up onstage to shine a spotlight on the individual. It is at this point where audience members insert themselves directly into the performance by choosing one of the ensemble members to perform as them, making each segment that much more personal to them.
Through their interpretations, the ensemble escalates some of these stories to far more complicated, powerful statements to reflect on, helped in part by Michael’s line of questioning that gets them to open up – a journalist’s tale of not being good at Chinese becomes a commentary on media censorship, while a young adult in her gap year expresses the difficulty of adulthood, resonating with just about every single audience member. Occasionally, simple props are effectively used to add some colour to each performance, with Laura Schuster in particular utilising a black shawl to represent a bad singing voice as it ‘comes out’ of her mouth.
No topic is too taboo to tackle, and even heavy subjects such as death and depression are deftly handled with sensitivity, allowing the entire theatre to better empathize with the difficulties others are going through, with even a couple of tears shed during the night. If anything, it certainly is cathartic to be able to see one’s own story performed before one’s very eyes in this safe space without judgment, and impressive how the entire ensemble has been trained to think so quick on their feet with lightning reflexes to craft these performances out in minutes.
By the end of the evening Tapestry has almost certainly been successful in bringing this group of strangers closer together through their performance alone, opening up hearts and encouraging empathy for the situations of others, some stories even striking a more than familiar chord with us in their surprisingly universal humanity. Ending with a summative rendition of all the stories that we’ve heard, we are reminded that no matter whether never, rarely, sometimes or often, when we do engage with the arts, it has the power to unite, shed some light, and perhaps, even help make life a little easier to get through each day.
Performance attended 4/5/19
Never Rarely Sometimes Often played on 4th and 5th May 2019 at Toa Payoh Central Community Club Theatrette. For more information on their upcoming shows, follow them on Facebook here