Promising Personal Performances

Today, playback theater is taught and performed all over the world, but the form was originally born in the Hudson Valley.

The Hudson River Playback Theatre (HRPT), founded by Artistic Director Jo Salas and Jonathan Fox, started the form in 1975. HRPT has been active in the Hudson Valley since beginning in Beacon and has since made its presence known in New Paltz through public performances.

HRPT performed “Promises” at Deyo Hall on Broadhead Road on Thursday, Oct. 18 at 8 p.m. During the performance, six players turned audience members’ stories about promises into theater on the spot.

Public performances are based on themes that HRPT thinks will “intrigue and interest people,” whereas their signature programs — “No More Bullying!” and “Immigrant Stories”  — have a clear “setting” for stories, Sarah Urech, assistant director of HRPT and performer, said.

Urech said both types of performances follow the playback format.

“We listen to the stories of people in the audience and then we play them back using dialogue, movement, music, metaphor and through that we create a community dialogue,” she said.

During Thursday’s performance, the audience shared what the word “promises” means to them. After a short warm-up with “twitterbacks” (anonymous stories from the audience about their day), the performance started with interpretations of short stories about the theme, which were more meditative than narrative.

Three audience members acted as “tellers,” sharing a longer personal story and casting the roles for a comprehensive sketch. Two people shared stories about deaths of loved ones, and despite the subject matter, performers did provide some levity.

Tellers remarked that HRPT “got it” in terms of conveying their stories’ emotion, while audience members expressed admiration for the performances’ universality.

“Whether you share a story or not…they find a way to connect it to a larger [theme]…He took my thought and connected it to our world,” Elisa Tucci, a resident of Woodstock and playback fan, said.

Jody Satriani, a five-year member of HRPT who participated in “Promises,” said their brand of improv follows a framework, and performers using various forms construct their storytelling.

“You have a body, but you don’t know what you’re going to put on it,” Satriani said.

Penny Clayton, a guest performer at “Promises,” said performing and teaching playback is a “deeply fulfilling experience” and spoke of the community it fosters.

“I’m co-creating with my ensemble…together we’re co-creating with our audience,” she said. “That sort of magic that can happen when we’re all creating together…We can elevate the lives of humans into theater and validate our experiences. It just really reminds me of our own humanity. It’s such a deep reciprocity of gifting that happens.”