Playback Memphis is a theatre company that takes personal stories shared on the spot by audience members and brings them to life in improvisational performances.
This weekend, when Playback Memphis hosts its next installment of Memphis Matters, a show “exploring what is rich and wonderful, as well as complex and challenging about life in our shared community,” there will be some special guests in attendance. Formerly incarcerated individuals and police officers who recently completed the Playback Memphis program Performing the Peace will be among the performers and potential story sharers.
Performing the Peace is a 12-session initiative done in collaboration with LifeLine to Success, a re-entry program in Frayser, and the Memphis Police Department. The program was launched in 2014 to strengthen community-police relations. Participants go through several circle sessions using the Playback Theatre model to bring concerns to the surface and stimulate dialogue.
Playback Memphis founder and executive director Virginia Reed Murphy says that Playback theatre as an art form is particularly effective in generating empathy among groups with a history of conflict and mistrust.
“So much of our lived experience is beyond thoughts and words, and yet our processing is usually limited to these modes. The embodied storytelling of Playback touches people in a very deep way. It helps us become more human to ourselves and to one another. It’s astonishingly simple and very powerful at the same time.”
In the first four sessions, MPD and LifeLine members meet separately to have honest conversations among themselves, which is no small feat considering that participants live and work within environments where emotions are so often stifled.
For the next eight sessions, MPD and LifeLiners come together to reflect and share learning from their independent sessions, have their stories “played back” by the professional ensemble, learn the Playback Theatre method and continue exploring police/community relationships, experiences of collective trauma, and other themes that emerge.
“It’s hard to share, because I’m not the type of person to share. I hold everything in,” said Gabrielle Cole, a LifeLine team member. “When I seen the police officer shed tears and we like, tit-for-tat, it made me feel a little bit better, made me just go down a notch. I got a lot of work to do, but I’m opening up.”
The final two sessions are used for reflection on what the officers and LifeLine team members have learned together and how they can carry those lessons into their communities to improve relationships and quality of life.
MPD Officer Karen Lesley participated in the most recent round of PTP and spoke about her own feelings of healing and transformation.
“It made me realize we’re not alone. I’m not alone. Just because I wear a badge and a uniform…that’s my job, that doesn’t define who I am.”
Officer Lesley says that the process of getting to know others in the program changed her approach to her job.
“It humbled me and made me more human. It helped me remember why I decided to become a police officer was to help others. I started noticing that I would speak to people differently and make eye contact and actually care. I actually took the time to listen. That’s one of the things I love best about Playback. It’s made me a better person and has made me a stronger officer.”
Murphy says that the relationships formed in PTP have carried over into daily life and there have been several moments where program participants report seeing one another ‘on the street’. “I love how they talk about onlookers’ reactions when they relate to each other in such a warm and friendly way and how their connection is perceived by others. They are changing public perception of what’s possible in community-police relations and this is powerful.”
With evidence that Playback’s method is highly effective on a small scale, the theatre company is looking to broaden its impact by growing the program to scale.
We are in early stages of exploring integrating Playback into training of recruits and overall helping to build an officer led movement that ushers in a culture change at MPD focusing on officer wellness, cultural sensitivity, and whole hearted leadership rooted in empathy and deep listening.
Playback is also focused on continuing to develop their connections to LifeLine team members after they complete the the PTP program. They have the opportunity to keep performing with Playback as part of the Frayser Apprentice Ensemble. They then become paid performing artists with Playback Memphis. Past graduates of PTP from 2014 and 2015 are in the early stages of developing Playback offerings to address community and youth concerns in Frayser in partnership with schools like Trezevant High School and MLK Prep.
The upcoming Memphis Matters performances will be followed by a talkback and the audience will have the opportunity to ask the PTP program participants questions about their experiences. Learn more about Playback Memphis on their website and follow them on Facebook.