CS 83: Playback Theater

  • Now: A Creative Expression (CE)  Ways Course.
  • Winter 2023 times and location: Fridays, 1:30 PM – 4:30 PM, 160-B40 
  • The course will be restricted to around 15 students. If you want to join, please email me (reingold@stanford.edu).
  • Number of units: 3
  • Prerequisites: No prior knowledge or experience with theater is required.
  • Some local “press

Class of 2018

About Playback Theater:

Playback is an art form that combines elements of theater, community work and story-telling. In a playback show, a group of actors and musicians meets with an audience to create an improvised show based on the participants’ personal stories. Attending a playback show, and in particular participation as a storyteller, brings about a powerful listening experience and a meaningful sharing in the tapestry of human interaction.

A group of people training in playback quickly becomes bonded and supportive. The weekly meeting in an environment that allows playing together, telling one’s story to others, and receiving its reflection from them, can develop into a deep and meaningful experience.

Playback training gives scientists who engage in it tools for listening, creative thinking, empathy, and a new perspective on the people and environment in which they live.

About the Course and Instructor

The course is modeled on a course taught in the Weizmann institute by Uri Alon, Lior Noy and Nir Shavit (thanks!) and other playback courses around the world. Our goal is to enrich the participants’ set of interpersonal tools in a way that will contribute to their interaction in a scientific environment. In particular, we believe that playback training can strengthen their listening abilities, their creativity and their collaborative spirit, all an integral part of their ability to do great science. In playback, as in science, we are always moving together, from the known, to the unknown, and back.

During the course, we will tell, listen, and play together, and on the way we will learn and train in the playback technique. Additionally, participants will process their experiences using extensive diary writing.

The instructor, Professor Omer Reingold, is the artistic director of the Yanshufim playback theater troupe and was a member of BamaIvrit theater group and of the Weizmann Playback ensemble.

Testimonials from a previous similar playback course:

  • “Your class was one of the highlights of my time at Stanford, certainly the most profound”
  • “The playback course taught by Omer was just right for me: mentally a challenge, physically a joy, and personally full of meaning.”
  • “… I was also surprised with the intimacy and depth of the stories shared.  By focusing on being faithful to the shared stories, I was given a much more enriching experience than just the fun I was expecting: I was able to see people stretch themselves to become a part of each other’s stories.”
  • “This class emphasizes being a good listener and connecting to the heart of a story. It goes beyond the mechanics of playback theatre to explore skills that can be useful in everyday life”
  • “Out of the blue, I decided to join Omer’s playback class. It was a challenge for me. To my surprise, I realized that the course significantly improved my presentation skills, I started being less anxious in front of a big audience! Not to mention that each class was full of joy and intellectual entertainment.”
  • https://stanforddaily.com/2023/04/03/cs-83n-playback-theater/

Course Goal: An introduction to Playback Theater with application to studies, research and campus life.

Additional Goals:

  1. Experiencing the process of forming a playback group.
  2. Practicing listening and spontaneous creativity as a group.
  3. Experience-based learning of the various playback roles: storyteller, actor, musician and conductor.
  4. Learning the various theatrical forms used in playback.
  5. Getting to know the rituals and ethics of playback.
  6. Processing the experience in the context of studies and research at Stanford, through diary writing.
  7. The course is highly correlated to the Creative Expression Goals:
    • Appreciate how experimentation, failure, and revision can play a valuable role in the creation of successful and innovative works.
    • Consider multiple and possibly divergent solutions to a problem.
    • Engage in artistic collaboration and the creative reinterpretation of art made by others.
    • Experience what it is to make the unimagined possible and real.
    • Explore their own potential to produce original creative projects.
    • Take creative risks beyond their comfort zones.

Tentative Syllabus:

Classes will typically be divided into two parts – in the first, we will concentrate on one or more principals of playback theater through theater exercises. We will connect these to the experience of research. The second part will take the form of a playback theater performance (with increasing levels of sophistication, based on materials covered in the class so far). In this part, the students will experience all roles of playback theater (acting, storytelling, music, and even interviewing).

  • Intro: The goal of this class is to acquaint the potential group members with the playback form. Thus, we will focus on playing many group games with increasing levels of minor acting. We will then engage in storytelling and restricted format acting.
  • The goal of this class is to introduce students to the core of Improvisational Theater: YesAnd. Since this is the group that remained after the intro class will probably form the core of the class (with minor changes), this is also the time for students to learn each other’s names and start understanding how they act and interact.
  • The goal of this class is to strengthen the idea of YesAnd and more of generally “creating something together” on stage that we introduced in last lesson. We also want to work on esthetics: how “keeping form” and the overall combination of what the actors do contributes to the audience’s experience. We believe it is important to pay attention to this artistic/esthetic side of things early on.
  • The goal of this rehearsal is to work on listening skills. We are going to practice listening to stories and finding different voices in the stories.
  • The goal of this rehearsal is to work on identifying the Heart of the Story and establishing Story Platforms
  • The goal of this rehearsal is to work on the two main tools of abstraction in playback theater: the displacement and the metaphor. A displacement is when a story is acted out in a setting different from the one in which it originally occurred, and a metaphor is when it is abstracted into an analogous form, transferring meaning from a particular subject (the analogue or source) to another particular subject (the target), without attempting to preserve any part of the original form.
  • The goal of this rehearsal is to teach how to build characters – humans or objects, concepts or elements.
  • The goal of this rehearsal is to heighten the students ability to use their senses to understand the happenings on stage: to notice when another actor enters, when a new offer is being made, when another actor is in need of support, and to understand in general the layout of the stage and scenes. In addition, the previous week and this week we will have the students interview each other. We will discuss this in the context of active listening and relate this to their roles as scientists.
  • The goal of this rehearsal is to teach how different places can be brought to life on stage, and to increase the awareness of to the space in which we act. We will also do a ‘half the way’ Flashlight to hear how everyone are doing and wishes, and briefly teach the ‘Playback Circles’ (Art, Social, and Ritual. Further Read: ‘what is good playback theater?’ / Jo Salas).
  • The goal of this rehearsal is – to hear from them on the process; do much playback. And practice ‘going to the unknown’. Also teach some principles of playback. Preparing to the final project.
  • The goal of this class is to teach how a story can be reflected from different points of view; and introduce ‘combined monologues’ technique. This combines nicely with teaching the different circles of the story.
  • The goal of this class is to teach how to lead and be led by music in enacting a story, and the roles musicians can have.
  • The goal of this class is to have a final rehearsal where we put all the elements we learned together and students share what they learned with a collection of close friends that form a “beefed up” audience.

Course work and evaluation:

Design goals:

  1. Learning through direct experience – “doing.”
  2. Giving opportunities to process the experience and to connect it to the Stanford life of the students.
  3. The population of the students will be varied, we will not judge students based on acting skills.
  4. Students will receive close mentoring and feedback while preserving the non-judgmental atmosphere needed for creativity.
  5. The course will be demanding and work-intensive but committing to the process will guarantee success (in terms of grades but more importantly in terms of acquiring useful abilities).

The course work is divided to two interwoven tracks: theater and writing. The scores will be constructed of four ingredients:

  1. Performance in class: Both parts of each class (the theater exercises and the playback theater session), will be filled with learning opportunities. Students will be measured by their commitment to the process, participation in exercises, taking chances, and improvement (and of course on-time attendance will be required).
  2. The last class will be structured as a performance and will be partially open to others (close friends). This will be an opportunity for students to exhibit what they learned.
  3. Diary writing – students will be asked to write about their experiences in class, about stories from their campus life that relate to the class topics and stories they would like to share in the next class. For example, when studying the YesAnd principal, we will ask them to note events from that week that presented opportunities to say yes and go outside of their comfort zone. Did they take those opportunities? How did things go?
  4. In the last class they will be asked to submit a short paper based on their diary, a few papers on playback and possibly also recorded playback performance available online.

Tentatively, the grade will be based in 60% on (a) and (b) and 40% on (c) and (d).

Additional resources here