Story Lessons from Playback

2016-05-09 20.40.09-2

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend a training session with the artistic director of Melbourne  Playback Theatre Company.  Our AD at Impro Melbourne set it up, and it was one of the most satisfying evenings of improvised theatre I’ve had in awhile. I love improvisation for its lessons in storytelling, character, and failure.  Improvisation teaches you where storytelling isn’t quite working because the errors are right there in your face. Everyone inside the scene and watching can feel it.

Playback theatre explores a more personalised form of storytelling.  In playback, the host or moderator asks for people in the audience to share a story from their lives. The performers then recreate the tale but tell the story through a different lens or non-literal context.  The performance is often physical, symbolic and emotionally rich.

My favourite takeaways from the class came from the above whiteboard image and an exercise in finding rich metaphors and similes.     I’ll explore the simile exercise first because I admit that is something I struggle with in my writing.

My favourite Similes are emotionally driven or being used to express or elicit an emotion from the reader. They’re like a double whammy.  But how to find them?  The answer is simple – Improvise!

If I want to find a good simile for heartbreak, love, grief, rage, depression, death, being fired from a job, then we can use this simple exercise.  Outloud say the following phrase:

Heartbreak is like…

Now complete the sentence immediately.  Say whatever comes to mind it doesn’t have to make sense. Because we are going to repeat the phrase twelve times.  Then we pick the best one.  How simple is that? I repeat though, it is important to say the phrase out loud. It will force your brain to come up with an answer.

The next takeaway is listening. Specifically, how to listen.  For writers, I guess that is reading. Perhaps a newspaper article, or a magazine or a book.  Maybe you are trying to crack a genre.  The words in the image above provide us with different lenses to look beyond the surface.  What’s going on underneath what is written?

For instance, we might look at a news item, like Trump.  I’ll use that because it is familiar and all over the news. What is the social or political context behind the news media article? The Trump bashing?  It’s concern for the future of America.  It’s a question about the sort of country America wants to be,   who it wants to be led by, and how does it deal with the people it has ignored or disenfranchised for so many years.  Could be an interesting idea for a story.  You could change the context, but still use those questions for inspiration.

What is the prevailing image of his campaign? Maybe it is the Hitler-like salute , a giant wall. I don’t know.  But there are things there that could be used to launch a new story.  A story that has something to say.

To be honest ,this technique is probably better for short stories than Novels, but I think there is something here. I’ve used it a bit, and I plan on using it more as I grow as a writer. I hope you find it as useful.    If so, please leave a comment and let me know.