Playback Theatre with Children – Chetna Mehrotra

(This article is based on a series of questions that I asked Chetna about her work with children)

This article explores Playback theatre and its relationship with children. It talks about the challenges, techniques, and impact of the training of children in Playback Theatre.

Ghumakkad Playback theatre is the performance wing of Rangbhumi (an Applied Theatre organization based in Mumbai , India). It has been working with children and adults in the area of Playback Theatre for past 3 years. Chetna Mehrotra is the founder of Rangbhumi. She has been trained by her mentors – Ben Rivers, Jonathan Fox, Jiwon Chung, Jennie Kristel, Radha Ramaswamy, and Pankaj Tiwari in aspects of applied theatre and performance art.

What goes well, what difficulties / obstacles have emerged?

Like most of the people, children in India are exposed to the traditional form of scripted theatre where you have actors who deliver with the help of a well-rehearsed script. So when the children come in contact with Playback Theatre, they come with a lot of questions filled with excitement. The most common question is whether they would get to act like traditional theatre. It amazes them that there is no script involved in this. Children are generally sensitive but Playback theatre helps them in being sensitive towards others as well. This comes as a by-product of the entire process we follow. The emphasis is on honoring the stories, no matter what comes from or where does it come from. This helps in building a community among the children as they find a platform to express and development a sense of alikeness with each other. When the children share their stories, they open up to each other, be more receptive and form a great bond within themselves. We have come to know that they also share such stories with their parents after they go home from the sessions. Traditional theatre is a director’s fiefdom where everyone else takes directions. Contrary to this, playback theatre is a non-authoritative art form which gives children a sense of fairness or equivalence where they know the fluidity of their roles and the fact that each will get an opportunity. Playback helps them build public speaking skills, instills confidence. Since there is a direct interaction with the audience, the children learn to ask the right questions and know how to react to a remark. All this combines to enhance their decision making abilities. It was very assuring to know that children are quite keen on learning the history of Playback theatre, how it began, then later developed or whether it was formed specifically for children or for everyone. They even research on it on their own and if they find something unique from the deep corners of internet, they are quick to add it during the sessions or even call us to tell more about it.

Patience is one of the learnings from Playback theatre as children have to wait for their stories. It is a forum to share intimate, personal thoughts where one of the most amazing parts is the non-judgmental attitude of the children towards it. As a process we ensure that we honour all kinds of stories or emotions so the children do not face biases over the type of stories, it could be of depression, anger, or having small breaks or even being hungry, etc. They get to learn body discipline, to listen to other people, to learn to keep the right body language at the appropriate time among other things. One revelation is their ability to decipher and relate to the metaphors. There was a session where a girl spoke about her grandmother who had paralysis. She was pained at the recollection of that story and wondered if others too have had similar stories, may be to find solace that she isn’t the only one. During the playback acting part, one of the actors started feeling sad about scoring less marks in mathematics. He asked other actors during the act if they too have got less marks. He later explained that he could empathise with the girl’s attachment with her ailing grandmother and he feels similar if not the same attachment towards mathematics and was expressing solidarity with her through this metaphor. How playback has developed group coordination among children is a remarkable achievement on its own.

There are several hindrances too which are mostly either psychological or cultural. It is deeply embedded in the minds of people and children alike that theatre will have a script where they will need to act. During the entire process, what ails children is when are they going to get a chance to act or perform?   Sometimes due to the young age factor, there is a lack of seriousness largely due to playfulness. We have to stay a little more assertive in order to have children stay focused. The age group of 11-18 years have their fair share of issues to handle. They are going through body consciousness and are reluctant about outer body self and this often comes as a challenge to us. It can be attributed to the Indian culture too that people, especially the opposite genders aren’t comfortable with touch at this age. There is another hindrance of the acceptance of all kinds of emotions. Sometimes, in some batches, we have come across a resistance or rather inability to accept a particular emotion. It could be due to the age that some children are still developing the cognitive ability to decipher all kinds of emotions. There is also an issue of attendance as sometimes children tend to miss the sessions due to their academic commitments.

Do the children only tell ‘happy’ stories? 

We encourage children to share not just happy stories but the stories of disappointments, despair and tragedies as well. We have done workshops and performances on the topic of bullying in school as well as various day to day affairs which resulted in many disturbing and sensitive stories coming up. There are stories related to bullying by other children, examination stress, parental expectations. One such story was how a child who wants to play cricket as a career while his parents stressed on him taking up a regular career in technology and science. However, there are many happy stories of family bonhomie, vacations, birthday celebrations, et al. Our focus is on exposing them to variety of emotions and do not limit them on the kind of stories which are to be shared.

What happens if they tell about a difficult / painful story / story of family breakdown or sexual abuse for example? Has this happened yet?

We have had performances with the audiences comprising both children and adults. Several fears were shared by the adults and the actors were all children. Death stories were enacted by children with such poise, grace and centeredness that they could easily be passed off as well adept actors while the adults were moved to tears. One such story was of a man who was fearful about not being there for his loved ones when they need him and fears that he may not be able to be with his parents when their time comes. Several men and women broke down when the story was enacted. Another batch had a mother and daughter attending together. It was a divorced single mother who raised her teenage daughter alone. While she shared her struggles of managing her child and her career with many obstacles coming in her way, the daughter listened to it with rapt attention. It was a revelation for the daughter and it was probably the first time she was hearing about her mother’s struggles and predicaments. At the end of the session, the duo broke down and hugged each other in a firm embrace. Their bond had strengthened and the love renewed.

How are children prepared / trained to meet such stories?

We follow a disciplined process which is handled sensitively where trust building exercises are done with children along with the exercises on empathy building. We also stress on honouring each other and their stories. The facilitators bring in their personal stories so the children could start to trust them and the space. We have reflection circles where after each session children get a free space of expression where they share what they think of the proceedings, how they perceive it. It also opens the door to their past actions in various situations and how they view it now in the light of new learnings and experiences. We do not categorise emotions and stories and treat all the emotions as equally valuable. This helps the children in shedding inhibitions of the supposed embarrassment which they earlier felt that they might have to go through. They are prepared for all kinds of stories so that it doesn’t come to them as a shock or aren’t taken aback when interacting with the audiences.

How is risk managed? Under 18s are legally children so when and if would an adult step in and how would that work?

There is definitely a risk of letting things go astray. We have protocols for that as well. The facilitator is always present during the performances and it gives comfort to the children. There was an incident where a girl shared a story on bullying and she uttered the name of the student who bullied her. Due to sheer coincidence, the student who was named was also present there. Coordinator asked to stop the show as the boy might go through unimaginable embarrassment due to being named in front of the audience. We requested the girl if she could carry on without taking names and consoled her as she was already overwhelmed. We also sat with the boy and comforted him so he doesn’t feel isolated among his own buddies. The audience was requested to avoid taking names and discuss it with us after the performance on a one to one basis. The boy did come to us after the performance and he felt quite apologetic about his actions. We ensured that it was known to everyone that while bullying isn’t a virtue it is a dreaded evil act either and since we all are learning about our behavior, the right and the better behavior, it is upto us to support our pals and people around when they are wrong and bring them to the right behavior by indulging with them. We have created a support network where the children can come to us as any stage and discuss whatever bothers them.

In one of the performances, an adult audience was sharing a story about the death of his father and how he felt totally helpless at not being able to do anything. One of the actors enacting the story stepped out of the acting zone as he felt heavy. He could relate the story with the passing away of his own grandmother and was emotionally troubled due to it. When we work on our processes, we have made it clear to the children that if at any stage they start feeling uncomfortable they can step out of the zone and rejoin for the other stories if they feel.

At Rangbhumi, we also prepare children for annual concerts where we create playback and train the children for the concert. These are theme based concerts where we first prepare the students for a regular play and then playback performances happen on the same theme. The themes could be related to the ancient epics, partition of India and the tragic stories related to it, or any other topic in the whole wide world. We are doing this at various schools and at one such school, Playback is a module in itself and has been integrated into the school curriculum for the children aged 11-15 years. We believe Playback is one of wonderful things to have happened for children and has the ability to change their lives, not necessarily overnight or in the near future but will prove to be a defining element in their future responsibilities either at home or away from it. We intend to continue doing this with ample focus on the children and continue to expand it so more and more children could be a part of it and benefit from it.

This is intended as a part of an ongoing discussion on the topic of Playback Theatre with Children. Chetna can be contacted on chetna@chetnamehrotra.com Share your views, join the discussion.

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