Students personalize the message through interactive theater

January 25, 2010

First the audience pours its heart out, in personal recollections that range from humorous to heavy. Then, the cast of college actors moments later spins those tales into stage productions that are designed to be entertaining, revealing and cathartic.

“It requires training to handle these tastefully and ethically,” says Ron Miller, associate professor of Theatre Arts, who oversees McDaniel’s Playback Theatre. “The idea is to authentically reflect the teller’s story. It’s all about empathy and identification.”

Playback theater – also called interactive theater – is a form of improvisational theater, created through the collaboration of performers and the audience. For a typical playback performance, an audience member tells a personal story, chooses actors to play the roles, and then watches as the story is immediately recreated as theater.

“It’s about what ties us together,” says Miller, who brought interactive theater to McDaniel a few years ago. “It’s about building community.”

In Miller’s Playback Theatre course, which is part of the Interactive Theatre concentration of the Theatre Arts major, students hone acting skills by practicing story enactment.

“They also learn to be less self-critical and more exploratory,” Miller says.

Many of his students aspire to pursue graduate study in drama therapy, counseling or education theater.

For the Playback Theatre course, students are required to participate in two on-campus and two off-campus productions.

On a recent trip to Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., Miller and his students performed for a group of fifth-graders.

“I started by telling a story about when I was bullied in the fifth grade,” Miller said. “Others started sharing their own stories.”

Under the direction of adjunct lecturer Joel Plotkin and Miller, the class most recently performed on campus in WMC Alumni Hall, the third year that Miller’s class has done so.

Student performers from Miller’s class included Brittany Burr, Tim Connors, Casey Crough, Fernando Gomes, Danielle Knell, Erica Loy, Chris Molloy, Jennifer Solomon and Amy Zipkin.