Playback Theatre Plays Out Climate Change

Climate change is one of the most serious crises facing our planet in the 21st century. It poses not only a serious risk to the natural world and wildlife, but it threatens our existence as a species. It seems like time is running out to save the planet. 

On Thursday, Oct. 24, the Hudson River Playback Theatre (HRPT) visited SUNY New Paltz to explore these concerns through their style of improvisational theatre known as Playback Theatre. The event was hosted in Room 100 at the Student Union Building and sponsored by SUNY New Paltz’s Climate Action Club (CAC) and by Climate Change Theatre Action (CCTA).

Playback Theatre, a theatre style and a company, was developed in 1975 by Jo Salas and Johnathan Fox. It distinguishes itself from other forms of improvisational theatre in that audience members are asked to share their experiences with the actors, which are then acted out in brief or long form sketches. The original company ran from its inception until 1990, with Salas developing HRPT as its successor. According to Salas, the main goal of this style of theatre is to not only to highlight someone’s lived experience through acting, but to also build community as well.

“Our goal is to reflect people’s experiences so that we can all understand what that person’s life is like in that moment, and in that way to build connections and build change in society,” Salas said. “We use improvisational theatre as a means to that end. We’re improvising stories so they have that immediacy,” Salas said. 

As part of CCTA, the event’s primary focus was on climate change, and audience members were asked to discuss their own feelings on the subject amongst themselves, with Salas and fellow HRPT actors Lauren Ardman, Aidan Koehler and Matteo Undici. Ann Belmont provided backing music for each performance. 

The actors covered a wide variety of topics, as provided by the audience. The topics ranged from being in awe of the natural world, the uncertainty of the future, and people’s own call to environmental activism. The were able to perfectly match the tone of each story told by the audience, knowing when to play up the humor of a story or act more reserved and dramatic. 

In addition to the improvised performances, there were two scripted performances in the beginning and midsection of the event featuring guest actors from the local area. The first performance was “The Butterfly that Persisted” written by Lara I. Nasser and performed by Valerie Lynn Brett and Koehler. The next scripted performance was “The Donation” by Jordan Hall, performed by Noel Carey and Brittany Proia, and was directed by Jody Satriani. 

Undici hopes that people walk away with a renewed sense of community in the face of the climate crisis. 

“Our hope, and what we see happen time and time again, is that a sense of connection is built, there’s a spirit of honoring and witnessing people’s stories,” Undici said. “Reducing isolation creates more hope and more resiliency…and I think that as we face environmental issues on the planet or other social justice issues…there’s a way to have a sense of connection and a sense of community.”

Benjamin Norrito, third year geography and German studies major and president of CAC, oversaw the efforts to bring HRPT to campus after they reached out to him. Norrito saw this theatrical approach as a unique way to explore the climate crisis.

“The whole idea of improv is a very interesting way to go about discussing the issues that I never really thought about and considered before,” Norrito said. “We all process emotions differently, it’s a very impactful thing. We’re facing the possibility of the death of our planet, so that’s a very complex thing you have to deal with in a way that suits you best, and for some people seeing their stories performed in front of them might do that for them.

The HRPT will be performing again at the Denizen Theatre on Sunday, Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m., and will feature more public events in the future. In addition, the CAC are promoting several composting programs across the residence halls and are hosting a child education event on Nov. 3.