Music, sound and song with the Arab School of Playback Theatre

Music, sound and song with the Arab School of Playback Theatre

By Steve Nash

In June 2017, while we were both studying Playback Leadership in Brazil, Soline Daccache asked me if I would run some music workshops for the Arab School of Playback Theatre. Such invitations always prompt in me a familiar reaction – on the outside there is flattery and delight, whilst on the inside I start to panic. I have come to know this response of mine very well. Every international playback adventure I’ve made begins this way. And so it came to pass that in early May 2018 I ran two workshops, one in Cairo (Egypt) and the other in Adonis (Lebanon). This is my brief account of what happened, including an introduction to the way that Playback is established in this part of the world.

The Arab School of Playback Theatre

The Arab School of Playback Theatre (ASPT) is an affiliate school of the Centre for Playback Theatre (CPT), New York. It offers introductory, intermediate and advanced-level training in Playback Theatre and it is currently directed by APTT Soline Daccache and Ben Rivers.

The school was established in 2012 by Ben Rivers while he was working in Palestine. It operates in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA region) respectively in Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan, and is ready to expand its services to other countries in the region including Arab countries. In addition, ASPT has conducted specific training programs in India.

There are five faculty members, from Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine and Australia, and they offer support and capacity building to all the Playback Theatre troupes in the region – seven at the time of writing this article.

My workshops

Cairo, Egypt

Stepping out of the hustle and bustle and heat of the Cairo streets (and even the locals were saying it was hot), into the arts and wellbeing space at Dawar immediately calmed and inspired me. The centre is welcoming, well organised, and peaceful. The spacious, high-ceilinged main room, with its fine wooden floor, provided a great acoustic. A good place to sing![1]

Folk started to arrive and before I knew it I was stumbling through the little Arabic welcome and introduction my friend Sarah Atallah had taught me. The group was made up of 13 participants, including members from all three Playback troupes in Cairo (Dawar, Khoyout, and Macarona) along with a few other aspiring practitioners who had attended the core training. I learned later that this was the first time all three companies had been represented at the same training weekend, and it felt like a special opportunity. Everyone was eager to play and keen to learn, and many spoke good English, and my initial concerns about being culturally aware and appropriate melted away in the warm atmosphere that we quickly created together. One exercise I recently learned from Veronica Needa encourages participants to spontaneously share songs from their lives, around particular themes such as childhood, love, protest, and celebration. This was very well received and I was deeply impressed by the passionate Arabic voices that surrounded me. It’s an effective way to demonstrate just how much music and singing permeate our lives.  Later on the Friday evening, and on Saturday morning I focused on lots of voice and sound, and I introduced two short forms that help to emphasise the use of singing and song – Three Voices, and Singing Fluids.

Things were going really well, and the spontaneous songs participants created were funny, pleasing and moving. However I was increasingly aware that in addition to being the trainer, I was the only person who could play a backing instrument (a guitar). Then, one of the group commented that my musical style was very western, and asked if it was possible to introduce rhythm and melodies from a more Arabic musical tradition. In my preparation for these workshops I had tried to be aware of any over reliance on English words and Western values; but somehow I hadn’t thought enough about the differences in musical styles. I became concerned and doubtful. Fears about my work being too rooted in my own cultural experiences rose to the surface of my conscious mind.

Together we began to experiment, to try and find ways to adapt my exercises and forms based on the use of Western harmonies and chorded accompaniment, so that they could work instead with solo singing and drumming. And somehow we succeeded, and we stumbled into a very creative place. In all the best workshops, the trainer is learning along with the students.

On the Saturday evening a performance was organised by Dawar Playback Theatre Troupe. Despite the fact that some of the actors (and the musician) had not been in the workshop, I was delighted to see the many ways that individuals were introducing sound and song. And then it was Sunday, and time to focus on longer stories, taking risks with the use of voice, introducing the idea of the ‘ninja singer’[2] , and picking up on musical cues as an ensemble and consolidating everything we had looked at into a coherent artistic whole.

Adonis, Lebanon

This group was made up of 11 participants, members of all three Playback troupes in Lebanon (Wasl, The Red Bridge, and Sada) and again there other individuals who had attended core training.

This time the space was a large room with a stone floor, in an apartment on the sixth floor. It felt less grand, and I knew that acoustically there would be less resonance; but perhaps more intimate.

Once again the Friday evening got off to a very positive start, and once again I felt fortunate that so many people around the world speak English (and often much better than they will admit). Saturday also began well, and the idea of using more a traditional Arabic musical style was incorporated from the start. But by the end of the day, despite everyone’s hard work and genuine sharing, I noticed that I was feeling a little distant and tired. I had a strong sense that I needed to review the activities I had planned for Sunday. Yes they had served me well in Cairo – but one cannot step twice into the same river. I spent Saturday evening scribbling down one possible exercise after another, never feeling quite sure of the problem, let alone the answer.

I began Sunday with a period of relaxation and then created two simple exercises I had never used before. In the first exercise, people shared a moment in pairs, and it was then played back by their partner, first as opera and then as a lullaby. In the second exercise, working in two groups,  each person told a three sentence story, and then had this played back as three solo performances, the first actor only using voice, the second actor only using an instrument (in some cases simple percussion), and the third only using movement.[3]

This felt risky – but thanks to the dedication and commitment of the participants, the level of listening and giving was of the highest order, and as a result we developed our shared sense of the powerful ways that sound, voice, music and rhythm can be used to honour someone’s story without words or conventional use of language. This confidence spilled over into the rest of the final day, and the work on longer stories featured a delightful variety of musical offers, from musicians and actors alike. This in turn allowed us to focus on how to work as an ensemble to make the most of such offers.

Final thoughts

My trip to Egypt and Lebanon taught me a great deal and I felt I learned a huge amount from my colleagues in the Arab School of Playback Theatre as a result of the sound laboratory that we co-created. In particular, I think I am more ready to adapt ideas informed by my own musical style to a different cultural tradition, and more able to let go of my tried and tested structure in order to respond to the here and now needs and dynamics of the group. I’ve been told that the participants also felt they learned a lot and that for some there has been a measureable increase in the use of music, sound and song in subsequent performances. One person has even told me they finally started to learn a musical instrument since attending my workshop, finally fulfilling a lifetime ambition. This makes me smile.

Steve is founder member, actor and musician with Playback Theatre York, the longest running company in the UK. In 2014 he started a new playback group in his home town of Newcastle upon Tyne. He is a graduate of the Centre for Playback Theatre’s Leadership Programme (Brazil 2017), and a practitioner member of IPTN. Since 2014 he has been a trainer at the International Playback Theatre Camp. 

[1] Dawar is an arts and wellbeing organization based in Cairo, Egypt that utilises participatory theatre, therapeutic drama and other arts-based processes for healing, dialogue and societal transformation from the grassroots up.  

[2] The term ‘ninja actor’ was originally coined Kayo Munakata from the Japan PT School to describe the flexibility and adaptability required of the uncast actor in the enactment of longer stories.  I am increasingly interested in the idea of the ninja singer.

[3] I later learned that Hannah Fox describes a similar exercise called ‘Movement, Sound and Text’ (in Zoomy Zoomy, Improv Games and Exercises for Groups, Tusitala Publishing (March 22, 2010)