Standing shoulder to shoulder, feeling slightly hotter than is comfortable and breathing a little deeper to try and rein in the racing heart, I notice that my capacity to think is diminishing rapidly, which is not necessarily a bad thing given what is about to happen. I realise that, literally, I don’t have any control as to what’s next. In a far remote corner of my thinking processes I wonder, what am I doing here?
I’m standing just on the edge of comfort looking uncertainty in the face. I would not have wanted to be anywhere else. Just scared whispers in the aliveness that tingled in every cell of my body.
Something will and always does happen next. It was time for us ‘joyful players’ to leap into the unknown of improvised theatre, a live performance and no script.
In November, 1989, a friend, Persia and I were driving to Bellingen when she invited me to come, after my music class, to one of the first sessions of the Bellingen Playback Theatre company.
Unbeknownst to me, Playback Theatre was to be my training ground for being a celebrant – crafting my skills in deep listening, public speaking, a wide range of performance techniques, a willingness to be spontaneous and meet the unknown; and a large dose of playfulness, courage and vulnerability.
In the company of my fellow players, I moved, danced, stretched, dropped into stillness, picked up cues and followed, took the lead and made offers, made loud and sometimes very weird noises, sang songs, communicated through physical contact and space. It was about safety, trust, alertness, exploration and connection. We pushed and pulled, moved into empty spaces and looked out for each other. Time and time again, I surrendered to what was present and learnt to say a big fat yes to whatever came.
What came? In the performances, it was the real life stories from the audience that had been carefully evoked by the conductor who stirred the collective pot of memories, asked questions and offered generous, open invitations for guests to speak what was alive in the moment. In our emerging company, there were only a few who were willing to take this role of the conductor on.
I know this about myself, I’ll give most things a go, even if it means jumping in the deep end. I might flail about for a while, hopefully with a modicum of dignity, tread water while smiling and, occasionally, feel like I am drowning and flip over to my back to breathe. However, I also know that I can ask for help if I need it and, at some point, to the great relief of my nervous system, I will figure it out.
I was hooked from the beginning. Weekly rehearsals in the large open space of the Bellingen Memorial Hall were a clarion call to play, to be vulnerable, to step outside the box and be challenged, to learn and grow. Rolling around the floor with other adults, listening, watching, playing theatre sports and games that were just awesome, taking cues and missing them. Replaying. Fine tuning. Laughing and crying, meeting fear and inadequacy head on, being bold and courageous, listening to stories that resonated and some that jangled and disturbed; yet all with threads that affirmed our shared humanity. Leaning into vulnerability every step of the way. Playing life in all its many shades and colours.
I remember crying at the heartbreaks – the stories of loss and suffering. I remember laughing so hard at rehearsals, on the floor breathless, snorting, yawning, stopping… and then, someone would chuckle and we would be off again. Infectious laughter, so intense I thought my sides would burst, my face ached and I was weeping. And then, the calm, the relief and the clarity would return.
We shared our own stories in the rehearsals. Stories of life – birth, relationship, separation, death, conflict and love. We shared the stories of our audience – terminal illness, a new relationship, head injuries, drug use, a chance meeting, a carers burnout; family connections and chocolate mud cake delight! Who remembers my awesome impersonation of the gooey chocolate mud cake?
A myriad of stories that connected us as a community; one human family.
Celebrating This Precious Life. The power of storytelling. The power of play.
32 years later, the Bellingen Playback Theatre company is still going strong. I am celebrating my part in the play of those early years.