“Does anyone have a story they would like to share?” Don Crites asked the residents gathered in the Orchard Heights Assisted Living Community dining room.
From his chair, Dale Harlow raised his hand. Crites invited Harlow to join him at the front of the room, and the 72-year-old made his way up to a spot facing the audience.
Nearby, six people, dressed all in black, sat on wooden blocks and listened. They, along with Crites, were members of Salem Playback Theatre, an improvisational troupe that asks audience members to tell stories about their lives and reenacts them on the spot.
Harlow launched into a tale about taking his rifle out to hunt for deer when he was 6. But instead of Harlow spotting a deer, one found him — when it snuck up behind him. “I didn’t get the deer,” he said.
“So when did you get your first deer?” Crites asked.
“When I was 9.”
Crites recounted the story briefly, then turned to the audience and said, “Let’s watch.”
The actors in black converged in a huddle while piano player Allan Stuart tapped out a tune nearby. About half a minute later, they emerged and took their spots to start the scene. Dena Brehm, playing the part of Harlow, wrapped an olive green scarf around her waist. “I’ve got my camo on!” she announced.
As she pretended to hunt, Gwen Thompson — a.k.a. the deer — followed her for a minute before tapping her from behind.
“Ah!” Brehm yelled. “He snuck up on me! You wait ’til I’m 9, buddy. You’re mine!”
Harlow and the other residents snickered. After the performance, a woman from the audience came up to Crites and thanked him. She’d been feeling depressed, she said, and was grateful for the chance to smile and laugh.
Impacting the storytellers and the audience in positive ways — and helping them form a tighter community by getting to know each other through their stories — are some of the main goals of Playback.
“We provide a place where people can come and share themselves,” actor Sarah Hoggatt says. “If you get different people together, and they start telling these stories, you may find you can relate to someone you didn’t think you could relate to. It brings the community together.”
While Playback is designed to focus more on the audience than the actors, Salem’s members have found some of the greatest impacts to be on themselves. The troupe has given them a way to indulge in their love for performing while impacting the community, but more importantly, it’s given them a “tribe” — a group of people who they can share anything with, without fear of being judged.
It is everything that Crites hoped for when he started the Salem group a little more than a year ago.
“Turning 50 was a big deal for me. It was a time to really take inventory of, ‘Okay, what is it that I really enjoy doing, if I could just do anything?’ Playback Theatre had been something I’d been interested in. It really fits everything that I love doing. It helps people, it’s fun, it’s community building.”
Sitting in his Salem office at Oregon Driver Education Center, Don Crites doesn’t seem like a stage actor. The even-tempered 51-year-old is president of a business that trains everyone from teenagers to utility company employees how to drive safely, a job that has him working more than 50 hours a week.
But while building his business during the past decade, he never forgot the time at Canby High School when he played the male lead in the musical “Plain and Fancy.” It was one of the highlights of his high school years, he says, but despite later landing a few roles as an extra on television shows, he never saw theater as a career.
Still, almost three years ago, Crites started taking improv classes at Salem’s Capitol City Theater. One of his classmates asked if he’d ever heard of Playback Theatre, which started in 1975 in New York and now exists in more than 50 countries.
Crites attended a performance in Portland and was hooked. When his 50th birthday came along, he knew what he had to do.
“I went back to New York for some training, and the way we connected just in those few days, I thought, ‘There have to be people like this in Salem. There have to be people who are willing to be fun, creative, vulnerable, make a difference, be open-minded, get along well, play together well.’ My goal was to draw those people out.”
He posted a Craigslist ad looking for participants; hosted a public performance in Salem featuring Playback performers from Portland, Eugene and Seattle; put on an initial training session; and started having rehearsals every Tuesday night at the Oregon Driver Education Center. By late spring 2012, Salem Playback Theatre took shape.
A few people came and went at first, but several stayed from the start. The group eventually grew to today’s size of 13, ranging in age from 21 to 51.
As Crites describes it, Playback is based on traditional storytelling, with elements of drama therapy thrown in.
“We create a safe space for those stories to be told. And the story itself becomes sort of the sacred thing. … It’s very empowering for people to feel heard, to feel like somebody has listened at a deep level. It is a real boost to your sense of worth, because it validates who you are as a person.”
Salem Playback has performed publically several times, but the bulk of their repertoire so far has been private gigs — a local church, several retirement centers, private parties, the Oregon State Hospital.
Becoming a nonprofit and performing for more disenfranchised groups are a couple of Crites’ goals for the troupe. He recently met with officials at the Salem-Keizer School District about performing in middle and high schools as part of an anti-bullying campaign.
And the community Crites was seeking from the beginning — creative, open-minded people who want to make a difference — well, he got that, too.
“Playback is the thing I look forward to every week, probably more than anything,” he says. “It’s given me what I was looking for: the tribe.”
“I like stories, things with plot. It separates theater from a lot of the other arts. … You can’t replace live performance. If all the technology in the world were wiped out by the zombie apocalypse, you would still have live theater. You need two planks and a passion, is how the saying goes.”
With a Ph.D. in theater studies, Jay Gipson-King has spent more time than most examining the world of the stage. But he never saw himself as an actor.
Instead, the 35-year-old aspired to playwriting and directing. And with two of his plays hitting the stage, it seemed he was heading in that direction. After grad school, he shifted his emphasis to teaching — he teaches acting at Chemeketa Community College — but he still didn’t expect to end up as a performer.
When he first met Crites and learned about Playback, he was drawn to the role of the conductor, the person who interacts with the audience and the storytellers. But before he knew it, he was acting out stories. And he loved it.
Plus, he still found a way to be a “director” of sorts. As Salem Playback’s performance director, he helps lead rehearsals, and when he is onstage, he coaches the other actors in the huddle — the brief time they take after hearing the story to decide how they will reenact it.
“It’s a non-scripted performance, but there are several official Playback forms that we follow,” he says. “The purpose of the forms is to lend a structure to the improvisation. Some of the forms are very short; some are long; some are good for stories that have a beginning, middle and end; and some are open-ended.”
Once they pick a form and decide who will play which characters, the actors leave the huddle and, if needed, grab colored scarves — their only prop besides the wooden boxes they sit on while listening to stories.
“The scarves are kind of a universal prop,” Gipson-King says. “They can become anything. You can wear it as a costume piece, you can wad it up as a ball, you can hold it up as a screen, you can toss it on people like the weight of the world.”
Gipson-King admits he was skeptical of Playback at first. “It seemed very confessional, which I was a little dubious about,” he says.
But after participating — and seeing the impact of the performances on the storytellers — he became a quick convert.
“With our first official performance … the second story was a grown man telling about how his grandfather had taught him the ritual with the American flag, and how he lowered the flag to half-mast when JFK was assassinated.
“So we played that, and this grown man had tears in his eyes because it brought back something that is a very personal and emotional story for him.”
“The first time I told my story, and watched it played back to me like this sacred offering, it was the equivalent of two years of therapy in 10 minutes. I was hooked. I thought, ‘My goodness, if I can be part of this — doing what I love to do and reaching hearts at the same time — there’s no way to say no.’”
It was day two after a devastating breakup with her husband, and all Dena Brehm wanted to do was drown her sorrows in popcorn.
But a friend convinced her to get out of the house and try a comedy improv class in Salem, anything to get her mind off the divorce. Brehm had studied theater in college, but she didn’t graduate and she later ditched the idea of performing as she focused on raising her eight children.
She asked her 21-year-old son, Zach, to go to the improv class with her. And that’s where Crites approached her about a new troupe he was starting.
“He said it was about people looking for a tribe, family, community, belonging,” remembers Brehm, 51. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, those words!’ I just gravitated towards the concept.”
Brehm and her son have remained loyal participants since the beginning. As she continued to leave behind her life as a married homemaker and try to figure out her next steps, Brehm found the support of the other Playback actors to be invaluable.
“Being able to get together weekly, plus to do our performances, has been a grounding thing for me,” she says. “It’s a place where I can be me, where I know I’m accepted and loved and heard.”
Brehm has been equally impacted by the audiences’ stories. The one she’ll never forget was at Silverton Friends Church, where a woman related a story of washing children’s feet during a vacation Bible school activity.
“A little girl who was there had only one leg,” Brehm says. “She had been terribly injured as an infant when her parents intentionally doused her with gasoline and set her on fire. … This child had one artificial leg and one horribly scarred leg.
“The woman turned to the child and said, ‘May I wash your feet?’ And the little girl said, ‘You can wash this one,’ meaning the artificial one. The woman washed it, and the little girl was so touched by the tenderness, she finally exposed her deformed leg and said, ‘I want you to wash this one, too. It wants to be pretty, too.’
“The actor portraying the woman washing and me portraying the little girl, we’re both crying genuine tears. Because who among us doesn’t have those parts that are shameful that we hide, whether they’re visible or not? It transformed me.”
“I’ve always been somebody who loved to entertain, loved to act, loved to goof around, and that’s always been a part of who I am, even just as a wee kid. But as a grownup, I didn’t see the functionality of it in the world. … So that part of myself, I kind of forgot about.”
If Playback focuses on helping people connect with their emotional sides, then Gwen Thompson has plenty of experience.
She is studying to become a life coach, her older daughter has autism and she used to work informally with other families to help them relate more to their autistic children.
So when she first saw a Salem Playback performance at a private party, she knew she wanted to be involved.
“They entertain people in a way that actually is very therapeutic,” says Thompson, 32. “They were making us laugh, and they were making us cry, and I was like, ‘How powerful is this?’”
Thompson was a thespian in high school and junior college, and she worked briefly for a comedy improv company in California. When she and her husband had their first child and relocated to Salem seven years ago, she gave up that lifestyle to become a full-time stay-at-home mom.
But the idea of people sharing themselves and their feelings through storytelling was so compelling that it drew her back to the stage.
And, like the others, she stuck with it because of the spot it filled in her own life — not only as a chance to return to performing, but also as an opportunity to be part of a close-knit group of like-minded, supportive friends.
“We all keep coming to rehearsal even though we’re busy and exhausted, because we all feel that there’s something really big and important here. If we can just keep at it and get it out there, we could add so much more to what’s already being done — we could bring something special to the community.”
Want to train with Salem Playback?
Salem Playback Theatre is offering workshops on Wednesdays, Sept. 4–25, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Oregon Driver Education Center, 2600 Pringle Road. Cost is $35. Check their website or email email@example.com for more information.
Salem Is co-editor Sarah Evans prefers writing over performing, but she did enjoy telling her own story at a recent Salem Playback Theatre event.