Writing and Playback Theatre

Tag: dancing with diana

The link is story

There is a link, of course, between my fiction-writing life and my Playback Theatre life. The link is story. In Playback performances, workshops, and rehearsals, I listen to stories about real life, all kinds of stories, from all kinds of people. Sometimes the teller tells something that immediately sounds like a story: it begins with a “once upon a time,” a “platform,” in Keith Johnstone’s terms, and goes on to some kind of turning–a surprise, a disaster, a revelation. And eventually there is a resolution, or at least a considered place to stop.

Often the teller’s story does not yet have this arc. It may be implicit, and will take form with a judicious question or two.

Five-year old teller in Scotland.

Five-year old teller in Scotland.

Or it may be more like a cluster of thoughts, feelings, observations. But there is always something emerging, something that propels these words to be spoken, in this place and time, in front of these particular people. The teller talks and the story comes into the light, sometimes changing direction or crystallizing as the conversation unfolds. As the “conductor,” I sit beside the teller and listen, occasionally asking a question to clarify a detail or to reflect what seems to be the path of the story. There comes a moment when what needs to be told has been told, and now it is up to the actors and musician to transform it into embodied theatre, reflecting the story’s meanings to the teller and to the audience. So that everyone understands. So that the story situates itself in our minds, hearts, and bodies.

This kind of storytelling is, integrally, a collaboration between the person who lived this experience, the performing team, and the audience. We are all necessary to the outcome. The story, as it moves from spoken dialogue into theatre with movement and interaction, and then into collective memory, belongs to all of us.

When I write fiction I am alone with my laptop. I have no collaborator. The story may grow from something that a real person said or did, something that I witnessed. But quickly it slips into a different realm. The story is not a factual record. I do not portray real people but people who have acquired faces, voices, histories, and yearnings in the realm of my imagination.

As with the Playback scenes, a story emerges, with shape, themes, a set of meanings that interweave and refract each other.

Many of the stories I hear in performances are rich enough to work on the page. But I don’t parlay Playback stories into fiction. They are not mine to write. My relationship to them is midwife, not author. I do not want to exploit this bond of trust.

But my two story worlds are not entirely separate. Playback teaches me what a story is. It teaches me how to construct something with aesthetic form out of the raw material of a life event, or an arresting perception. Writing stories sharpens my discernment of the layers of these unrehearsed but resonant narratives offered by audience members. It tunes my ears to beauty and meaning.

“A literary vision of Playback beyond theatre”

A man in Germany sent me this email recently after reading Dancing with Diana:

“I sat down, took your book, reading – tears coming – continue reading. I was kind of surprised how tense and how painful you was [were] willing (and able) to depict those scenes at school, and also their reverberations in later life. I also appreciate – and share – your empathy with Diana in her last days.

The reader grasps the possibility of change, at least in our mind and in what we remember, when Alex returns to his former school and speaks frankly. I think this is a literary vision of Playback beyond theatre, of a single – yet connected human being who is acting as a citizen.”

Alex and Michele’s experience with bullying is firmly based on Playback work in schools but I had not thought of this further connection. This reader is a filmmaker who is familiar with Playback Theatre. His comment illuminated something for me—the parallels between this story and Playback’s role in society of bearing witness.


People ask me…

…why on earth did I write a novel about Diana? This is what I wrote at Codhill Press’s blog:

While painting my kitchen a few years ago I listened to CDs of Tina Brown reading her book The Diana Chronicles. Amidst the mostly familiar saga of ill-fated romance, pomp, glory, and rebellion, she recounted the story of Princess Diana’s schoolgirl visits to an institution for people with disabilities. There, while her schoolmates hung back in embarrassment, 15-year-old Diana was perfectly at ease. She would dance with the patients in wheelchairs, grasping the arms of the chair and moving backwards with her dancer’s grace.

I was struck by this story. It seemed to show that Diana’s extraordinary ability to connect with all kinds of people, particularly those dealing with illness or hardship, was present long before she was in the public eye. And I found myself wondering about the people she danced with. What was it like for them? Did any of them remember that moment later when she became the most adored person in the world?

That brief anecdote was the seed of Dancing with Diana. The unnamed adult patients inspired my imaginary Alex, a boy the same age as Diana. Alex has cerebral palsy. He also has guts and a sense of humor, and gains a kind of wisdom as he gets older. With his friend Michele, he endures severe school bullying from children who have no understanding of disability. Michele’s tragic fate leads him indirectly to his encounter with Diana.

Having involved myself with a main character who was disabled, I tried to learn about what his life might have been like. I visited the town in the west of England where I pictured him living and asked people there about how disabled children would have been educated in the 1970’s and 80’s. I listened to long interviews with individuals with cerebral palsy who would have been about Alex’s age. And in London I met a young man in a wheelchair who generously told me about his life.

Dancing with Diana is also her story. Diana’s life, of course, is highly documented, but I imagined thoughts and memories and aspirations that might have been in her mind on that final day before her death. And I gave her a big, wonderful project that (as far as I know, and the British government isn’t telling) is entirely fictional.

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