[EDITOR’S NOTE: Ewan Bowlby, Zebediah Rose and Elizabeth Dunbar provide responses – two written, one sketched – to the Mosaic Playback Theatre performance for the Transept In/break exhibition: ‘In/breaking: an evening of Playback Theatre with Mosaic Playback’ on Tuesday 30th March 2021.]
How will Playback engage with In/break? Can a form of improvised theatre based on reflecting and ‘playing back’ stories relate to the sudden, powerful incursion of something new? This was the challenge facing the Mosaic Playback group in their performance for the In/break exhibition. Playback involves gathering stories from audience members and then improvising responses which capture and convey aspects of these stories. To the uninitiated, this might seem to have more to do with reframing something known and familiar, rather than the breaking-in of the unexpected and novel. Yet during the course of the performance, there was no doubt that a change occurred. Audience members arrived to be greeted by the dispiriting sight of yet another Zoom call, but left speaking about hope, comfort, joy, wholeness, and community.
By returning the depth and richness of human stories, the Playback group gathered these disparate pieces into a ‘mosaic’: composite parts in the picture of life.
So, what happened? What had emerged amidst the drudgery of virtual communication? Through their creative ingenuity, the Mosaic troupe had given the audience member’s stories new life. So often, stories recounted on Zoom are flattened – dulled and distorted by a medium which cannot convey presence, body language, eye contact. Yet the Playback performers used artistic innovation to give these stories dramatic, vocal, musical, poetic vibrancy. Stories became collages, cascades or metaphors – reimagined in the hands of the performers. Their shape and colour were returned, as the performers transformed a virtual meeting into a stage, transcending the barriers of digital interaction. Usually, participants in a virtual space are reduced to pixelated echoes of their full selves, reminders of a lost intimacy. During the course of the performance, the audience was restored to a community of people, in all their fragility and complexity. The tiles of a Zoom gallery have come to symbolise distance and the scattered fragments of a broken whole. By returning the depth and richness of human stories, the Playback group gathered these disparate pieces into a ‘mosaic’: composite parts in the picture of life.
During the course of the performance, the audience was restored to a community of people, in all their fragility and complexity.
As we approach Easter, the theological resonances were irresistible. A trinity of performers, unique yet harmonious, recreated and reinvigorated human stories, evoking a renewed sense of communion. Gratitude also became a powerful part of the performance: gratitude for the wonderful work of Karen Kiefer and the Mosaic troupe; gratitude for the In/break exhibition and its defiant celebration of the creative opportunities discernible amidst disruption and limitation; and gratitude for the dawning of something new, the springtime in-breaking of hope and life.
~ Ewan Bowlby
In lieu of providing a written response to the Playback performance, I drew one, working in some of the ideas from the stories told and played back during the evening, as well as some of my own. I had wanted to light the edge on fire, but after realising I didn’t have an effective way of doing that, I kept with the charcoal pencil instead.
I was aiming to collect some of the symbols and ideas from the stories being shared, putting them alongside a cross interlaced with rings arranged into a circle. In the bottom left, the charcoal represents where flames broke through the knotwork and burned the foot of the cross. In the upper right, a light breaks through even the greyness that fills most of the circle, illuminating the knotwork and touching the cross’s head and heart. Around the arms of the cross are symbols taken from the stories of parts of life that fill our lives in the grey area, from a clock to represent the waiting times, through both the crown of thorns and the music that we live with along the way, to a rose from a garden that is fighting its way up from the ashes. It was commented during one story that, in Holy Week, Jesus felt separated from communion with God for the first time in eternity. Here, both the light and the darkness of presence and separation touch upon the cross as Christ entered the deeply human experience of living with this contrast, surrounded by some of the shared experiences that tie us together in joy and in pain, in communion.
For me it’s a little like thinking about the real feeling behind liturgy – sometimes words that are fixed and shared are exactly what’s needed to convey a strongly individual experience
Regarding my own connection with this piece, I see myself collecting the stories into a geometry of sorts. For me it’s a little like thinking about the real feeling behind liturgy – sometimes words that are fixed and are shared are exactly what’s needed to convey a strongly individual experience. In the drawing, I haven’t really ‘created’ much per se: my role in the drawing is of a curator as much as anything, and my drive was more to respond in kind than to ‘make’ for this piece.
~ Zebediah Rose
Yes, screen fatigue is real. At this point, we are all experts in that. After a year of spending countless hours on Zoom, Google Meet, FaceTime, and Microsoft Teams, I am sick of talking through a screen. Navigating proper screen etiquette and trying to make authentic connections in a medium that seems to ‘flatten’ reality is often an anxiety-inducing experience for me and I cannot wait to return to in-person events. I will admit that, for these reasons, I was reluctant to attend Mosaic Playback’s event for In/Break. Yet another screen-mediated event reminding me of all the things I have been missing.
But walking away from Tuesday night’s interactive performance, I felt surprised by hope—a feeling that seems to lie at the heart of this whole exhibition at a time when hope has felt hard to come by.
During this exercise, participants were invited to share their personal stories of ‘in/break’, a pivotal moment that changed something for them, or of waiting for that sacred turn. The Mosaic players then interpreted these stories in various ways using sound, movement, and speech. The most touching moments of the evening were watching the reactions of the story-sharers to these artistic interpretations—to seeing their stories reflected back to them in a new, refreshing way. Watching the delight in their faces and hearing the joy in their voices break through after sharing so vulnerably was beautiful. In a year marked heavily by isolation, loss, and grief, I was pleasantly surprised by the connections made and felt in this event. This was an intimate sharing which broke past the barrier of screen or mask to remind us that we are not alone. Our stories are worth sharing, deserve to be listened to and reflected back to us. It is this type of community that I have so sorely missed—going deeply and getting to the heart of the matter, tackling life’s biggest struggles and questions together. For the first time in a long time, I felt deeply connected to a whole group of people sharing an experience together. Rather than being separate, isolated squares on a screen, it did feel as though we were joined together—as a mosaic—to create something bigger than ourselves.
This was an intimate sharing which broke past the barrier of screen or mask to remind us that we are not alone. Our stories are worth sharing, deserve to be listened to and reflected back to us.
I must also admit that I went into this evening expecting comedy and while we did laugh, that was not the goal of the event. Mosaic Playback gave me a greater understanding of the art of improv. I was mistaken to assume that improv is always comedic in nature, but that is the only form in which I had previously experienced it. Audience members shared deeply and vulnerably and that was respected and kept sacred. Rather than making light of personal stories, this felt like an exercise in breaking further into the depths of someone’s personal experience to find a universal truth in it. It reminds me of that Ram Dass quote: ‘We are all just walking each other home’. None of us is alone in this journey of being human. Davina, our conductor for the evening, did a wonderful job of conversing with participants and pulling them deeper into the heart of their experiences. The Mosaic players then responded so beautifully, working both individually and with each other, to excavate and reveal that deeper treasure to which we could all relate. It truly felt like a communal experience of the in/breaking of God, or the good, into the story of our lives. I was delighted to see the true art of improv in its capacity to bring us together around the act of storytelling.
This was a refreshing experience and is sure to remain one of my fondest memories of being on a screen this year. Thank you, Mosaic Playback, for restoring in me a sense of hope for the possibilities of community-building outside the bounds of in-person interactions.
~ Elizabeth Dunbar
View the exhibition page for Mosaic Playback here.