Leading Roles

By honoring the voices of ordinary people, a new form of theater aims to forge bonds.

 If there are 8 million stories in the naked city (to borrow a line from a famous police drama), how many could we find in the Bluff City?

Virginia and Joe Murphy believe we all have several inside us and all of them are worthy of attention. Through Playback Memphis, an interactive theater group the Murphys recently started, individuals can share those stories and, in the process, strengthen their connections to each other.

A native Memphian, Virginia Murphy attended college in California, where she earned a master's degree in counseling psychology with a concentration in drama therapy. There, and later in New York City, she became active in Playback Theater, which was created in the 1970s and now has 60 companies around the world. "Members of the audience are invited to tell their stories," says Virginia, "and those are spun into theater on the spot — it's all improv — by a team of actors, musicians, and dancers."

She hesitates to call the drama therapeutic because "that could cause people to run away from it," Virginia says. "But there's something healing in the process. That happens not by any kind of analysis, but within the telling and witnessing of the enactment. We want to affirm the story's worth."

While in New York, Virginia met Joe Murphy, an actor who has performed on and off Broadway and in such hit TV shows as Law and Order and Sex and the City. The couple joined the Big Apple Playback Theater, hear-ing and re-enacting stories told to them in prisons, hospitals, drug rehab centers, AIDS hospices, community centers, and homeless shelters. "That's where it really sings," says Virginia, "in places where voices aren't traditionally heard or where groups are in conflict. We also worked with Palestinian and Israeli dialog groups."

After they married and started a family, Joe convinced his wife to move back to Memphis. "I really like it here," says the Wisconsin native who also runs a children's music program. "All I see is potential, opportunity, good people. Sure, there's work to be done, but that's true everywhere. I'm very pro Memphis." The Murphys believe their company — which operates out of First Congregational Church — can play a role in the city's "community building" and help organizations with staff development, teamwork, communications, and creative brainstorming.

So far, Playback has been building its actor base with the help of Bill Baker and Our Own Voice theater troupe. "We share many of the same values," says Virginia, "in that we see theater as a vehicle of social change. The main difference is that theirs is rehearsed and ours is totally improv, so I've been doing some workshops to teach them our [approach]."

Playback has taken its enactments to a University of Memphis theater class, where a theme emerged from class members about being disappointed by people they love: a brother borrowing a car and returning with the gas tank empty; a daughter going on spring break and sticking her folks with a huge bill; a woman who appreciates her mother-in-law babysitting but not her meddling. Playback also performed at the main library, as part of a program whose goal is to discover Memphis stories. At each one, Virginia emphasizes to the audience that "the stories of ordinary folk are in fact extraordinary and as important as those of the Hollywood famous and infamous that our culture seems obsessed by."

Aiming to make Playback Memphis a paid professional company, Virginia hopes to partner with such groups as the Child Advocacy Center and the Literacy Council, as well as schools and businesses. She and her husband believe interactive theater can help strengthen any organization: "I've seen rooms transformed," says Joe. "At the beginning, people are quiet and self-conscious. At the end, after telling their stories and seeing them enacted, they're talking to each other. It breaks down barriers. And it can be very funny."

Adds Virginia: "I've seen groups who can't even sit around a table together because each one is so stuck with clashing visions and ideas. But Playback helps them find the humanity in each other." M

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