Experimental Young Actor Playback Theatre

– Young actors’ journey along the paths of their own stories

What is it like what we’re doing?
You know, it’s like building your own house, a house for a large family. I’ll tell you about my modest experience of creation of Playback Theater of Young actors, from the first meeting to the first performance. Why have I decided to work with children? What led me to this idea? When my playback company gave its very first public performance, there were a lot of children among the audience. Each kid was longing to tell his or her story, to be heard. They were putting their hands up and interrupting each other:
Oh, please, let me tell my story! – Listen to me! I have a story about a magic cave! – I got a story about my cat!

That evening I was deeply touched and impressed by their stories. It was at that moment that I first had an idea to create a play- back theatre for children. I was moving toward my goal at a very slow pace. There was so much to do. First, I had to get acquainted with children psychodrama and other techniques of children psychology and education science. I have multifaceted background. I have degrees in psychology and pedagogics. I also have some experience in various theatrical trends, pantomime, professional juggling, street theater, and some knowledge about systems of acting. All of this helped me to find an approach to teaching young actors and to identify the areas for development. At that time I was really concerned about the lack of comfortable environments for personal development of children in Russian communities. So, I took the challenge to find an appropriate form and to create a play- back theater for children. I put my heart into this project. I enjoyed the process working together with 12 young actors during 8 months. This is our story.

Project values
One autumn evening I sat down at my desk and wrote a list of project values. I focused on creating a comfortable environment with enough space for each participant. Freedom of choice and safety of young actors were also among the focal points. I also strived for diversity – each participant should be treated as equal, without regard to his or her age and social background.

Main risks
Of course, I had my concerns before the launch of such a project. I had to find a way to avoid things that would be in conflict with my values. I was worried about the safety of young actors. Can they possibly play each other’s stories without having or causing traumas of any kind? I decided to move slowly and to be very consistent. It was necessary to monitor the development of each kid in order to decide if he or she was ready to perform certain activities. Children in different groups, studios and at school often have an inclination towards depreciation of their own abilities and of each other. So I wanted to prevent our activities from turning into comedy.

In theater schools the learning process is often based on different mottos, such as: “You have to! You are to!” I think that such a process kills children’s spontaneity and doesn’t leave them any space for creative activities. Excessive inclination towards psycho- logical group – it’s another extreme, and I also tried to avoid it. There was one more risk factor: our group was mixed-age. There were participants from 9 (nine) to 13 (thirteen years old) – I think, it’s quite a difference. Since each age has its own interests and values, it was a challenge for me – what if they’ll start to get into stable informal groups based on age only? It was my deliberate choice, and this situation only stirred my interest. Each task which I gave to the participants fell into one of the following categories: Group tasks, Specific actor’s tasks, Rituals and narrative.

What helped me with group tasks? Maybe my personal drive to stand on an equal footing with children. I’m deeply interested in each child, and first of all, in his or her personality. That’s why our group is characterized by informal relationships between children and me. I think it helps them to feel their personal contribution to the development of our studio.

When using actor’s exercises in playback, I always adapt them to our original goals and age of children. Our exercises are a com- bination of contact improvisation, voice training, art of pantomime, street theatre, musical improvisation and so on. During eight months we have elaborated and successfully implemented more than 50 original exercises.

We pay great attention to playback rituals. Rituals are especially important for children. Their imagination is very vivid. For exam- ple, children tend to wander too far from the teller’s story. So, the rituals help them to stay focused on the main points of the story.
Narrative practice is also very important. We learn to treat our stories carefully and emphasize the key point. In my opinion, all of these goals should be set and achieved in combination. All of them are equally important.

Stages of development
Like any other small group, a children’s collective has several developmental stages. Although it was formed according to a preset organizational structure, it has its own dynamic because children themselves are always changing. The same is true of their per- sonal connections, relationships, psychological environment and so on. I decided not to plan anything ahead of time. Instead, I was going to build the program according to group dynamics and children’s readiness to this or that topic. At one of our meetings, after rehearsal, we were having some tea and discussing associations and metaphors – our topic for that day. Suddenly I was asked:
Nastya, what is it like what we’re doing? And why do we talk so much about mutual respect and other similar things?

I paused for a moment and gave it a thought. How should I explain it to them? And then I said: You know, it’s like building our own house, a house for a large family. You do your best and put all your heart in your work. And you’ll never be able to build this housealone; you need somebody to help you. Moreover, these helpers should be reliable and honest. So, would you like to build a nice house for all of us, where everybody will have enough space and feel comfortable and interested?

So, we started to build that house.

I analyzed everything we had done within 8 months and divided the project into 3 stages. Each stage is characterized by specific objectives, and now I’ll try to describe them in detail.

1. Group formation and initial consolidation of participants
2. Work in progress
3. Constructive cooperation

Group formation and initial consolidation of participants
When you build a house, first of all you need a solid foundation. This stage took us about 2 months. During this period, while chil- dren were getting to know each other, there was an overall emotional tension. And mostly because children were not clear about group objectives, rules, norms, their possible role within the group and so on. Children were testing boundaries of the trainers and other participants. So, when setting group tasks, I wanted to highlight the role of each participant, without regard to his or her nationality, cultural and social background. What helped us to resolve these group tasks?

It was the rules. In children playback it’s especially important to give young actors something to rely on. We tried to communicate our rules in a playful manner, with the element of magic, so that our young actors could easily accept them and grasp their mean- ing. At our first meeting we “invented” the following rules for group interaction: Magic of a Game, Treasury of Ideas, Invisible Mi- crophone and Magic Glass. For example, in Treasury of Ideas: each of us has an imaginary storage of ideas, where we can al- ways find new and interesting things. Even if you partner has used your plan, don’t worry – you can always draw something equally interesting from that “secret place”.

The most important decision was to exclude formulas like YOU OUGHT TO! YOU HAVE TO! I tried to give our participants some freedom of choice. If you don’t want to do something, please, don’t do that. Feel like jumping- jump! Feel like coming on stage – do come! What about our specific actors’ tasks? We spent quite a lot of time on two important topics – active listening and active attention. To continue with our “house” metaphor, we had to check our building tools, to “handle” them. We introduced our stu- dents to a basic actor’s “toolkit”: voice, songs, speech, musical instruments, dance, fabrics, requisites, body language, facial ges- ture, body mobility etc. We gave each of these tools a try through a set of amusing exercises.

From here, we focused on narrative practice and got acquainted with various archetypes. For that purpose we used a method of story modeling. We started with role-playing of various models (fairy tale, heroic epic song and so on). Our students made up their own stories on behalf of some well-known characters. They designed their temper and mood, as well as their social role in the fairy tale. They also invented the plot of the story. Step by step we explored the role of objects, animals, observers, main and minor characters of each story. Thus, there were stories told on behalf of trees, houses, main hero’s body parts and even hy- giene items. This exercise allowed us to get to know main archetypes and to touch upon various theatrical genres. It also helped children to immerse into narrative practice. In this stage children played the stories in free format. It was our original plan – to let them come to the conclusion that they do need some framework. Eventually we moved to the next stage:

Working in progress
The goals of the previous stage were successfully achieved, and now we were ready to climb to the next level. This stage took us 2 months. Now we were actually building our house, brick by brick. And, consequently, some new tasks emerged. Our priority was to create common values. To assist children in setting and achieving the goals of social importance. We were never advocates of direct instruction. Here is our approach: If you want, I can show you how to do this. Do you want to do the same? I can show you how. We gave special importance to joint activities outside rehearsals. We tried to create a favorable climate for children’s pro- activity. The first joint activity was our visit to the performance of adult playback theater. And after that we went to the zoo. Howev- er, it wasn’t a typical zoo walk – it was an exciting role-play. In the course of this game we studied animal behavior and polished our land navigation skills.

Our first discoveries
Soon our little actors made a new discovery. It became clear that sometimes our ideas were getting lost. So we decided to write some interesting ideas. Each participant started a special journal called “Pilot’s diary”. Why did we choose such a title? Perhaps you know that each pilot keeps a “flight diary” with relevant information: amount of flying time, any problems during the flight etc. And we decided that we needed similar journals, where children could put down various roles, any important issues or ideas. Chil- dren also used it for other goals: they make up funny questionnaires and even created graphic novels inspired by playback! Thus, the diary was inspirational and educational at the same time. Then another idea came and it was a surprise for all of us.
-Hey, Nastya, and will other people follow us?
It was an unexpected question for me.
-Of course, they will! – I answered.
-But what will we give to our future followers? Let’s make a surprise for them!

This led us to create a funny “Playback Manual for beginners”. Children drew pictures in their “Pilot’s diaries” and then we shared our “findings”. It was such great fun. Our acting tasks became more specific. We started to work with voice and body mobility and discovered more and more opportunities. Our motto was: let go off our concerns! Everyone can play, sing, dance and do other exciting things. I wanted my students to realize the importance of rituals and rules in playback. We talked a lot about different ritu- als and their meaning. We studied different examples – primitive African tribes, Maya people and even animal communities often ruled by rituals. What are our stories on that stage? Let your mind go back to the time you were kids. Do you remember how we enjoyed sharing stories about our pets! It was an exciting and safe topic to discuss. In our studio we used the same tactic.

Our first stories were all about pets. They helped children to build initial trust, to share their mood and to get support. So then we moved to the next stage:

Team formation by means of constructive cooperation.

Our group tasks for this stage were: to give each child an opportunity to find himself as a member of creative team; and to help them to understand and reinforce acquired knowledge and skills in social context. This stage is characterized by formation of so- called “team-effect”. Children start to realize that together they can do more and better, than each taken separately. Each time we have more and more specific acting tasks, but that doesn’t mean that we give up previous tasks. That only means that we are growing. We are climbing steadily up to the pinnacle of theatrical art. And one of the most important objectives was to captivate the children with the prospect of self-improvement. The more we grow, the more discoveries await us.

And what happened with our stories?
It happened at a rehearsal one day; after the rehearsal a little girl Masha said in a very low voice:
-I want to share my story with you. Would you, please, play my story.
And she told us a really troubling story that happened to her at school not long ago. It was the first traumatic story for us! Young actors performed that story in the form of chorus. And it was a true miracle! After the story was performed, the actors froze and turned toward Masha… It was a long silence… and then we saw tears in Masha’s eyes. Then she sprang up from her chair and went to the stage to embrace the actors. I was also deeply touched by another episode. One of our participants, Michael, came to Masha and, looking in her eyes, asked her: “And may I also tell you my story?”

Masha‘s story marked an important point in our way to the top. Now we were one step higher. Now we could play stories about our parents and friends, our fears and joys, our accomplishments and worries. So, now it was time to build the roof and even to add some style in our rooms. You may ask which playback forms we use. We know several brief forms, such as chorus and pairs. We’ve also created some original forms – Ages ago, Role Fairy Tale and Singing Palette.

Our first performance took place in June. The hall was full of people – adults and children. They wanted to share their stories and to celebrate a birthday of our theater. Joszef Paradi and Aviva Apel also came to see us. The stories were very different. About the very first journey of a baby, stories about children’s dreams and even our first love story.

By permission of our beloved young actors I asked their parents some questions. Here are some of the changes the parents observed in their children’s behavior over the 8 months:

  • 80% of parents reported rapid growth of tolerance in children
  • 70% reported improvement of mutual understanding with their children in the family
  • 60% reported an increase in performance of their children in school
  • 60% of children have changed their interests and hobbies

I can also assume that playback studies can accelerate the process of maturation and to round off rough corners of the awkward age. Two weeks after the performance we had another experiment. Along with my young actors we held a workshop at the Inter- national Moscow PD Conference – Playback Theatre for Children. The workshop lasted about two hours. There were children from 8 to 11 years old. My little actors were my co-trainers! Our workshop resulted in an evening performance for children and their parents. Surprising, but true – we dealt with this task! The tone for our performance was set by the youngest participants. It was their first meeting with playback and they didn’t have any experience except for our workshop. They showed us a Role Sculp- ture. And then their initiative was taken up by our brave young actors of Children Playback theatre. Of course, there are still so many things we need to learn. This process never ends. And I already have some topics to work with in September. Our theater has many plans—to give a series of performances in orphanages and retirement homes; and to hold a special program for children – an International Playback Camp for Young Actors.

Dedicated to my little friends I grow together with you…

Anastasya Vorobyova is heavily involved in playback initiatives within Russia and across east and west Europe. Leader of Moscow Children’s Playback, she is also a member of more than one of Moscow’s Playback Theatre groups and the Director of Playback Studio. More recently she has founded a new project in Russia—Queer Theatre. Each year she hosts the annual Inter- national Playback Summer Camp in the Crimea.