It’s a far cry from traditional improvisational theater, forgoing slapstick and easy laughs and striving instead for compassion and inclusivity.
Pittsburgh Playback Theatre, now in its 35th season, is keen on continuing the work begun by local Jewish drama therapist and actor, Roni Ostfield, using theater as a means of education and social change.
Ostfield was at the helm of the Pittsburgh group from its founding in 1985 until her death in 2013. Another Jewish actor, Sara Stock Mayo, now serves as the theater company’s managing director.
Playback Theatre, an international phenomenon with companies in more than 40 countries, was developed in upstate New York in 1975 by Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas. Through improvisation, it is theater based on the real life stories and feelings of its audience members “in ways to bring communal understanding,” Mayo said.
At its essence is the goal of connecting the actors and the audience to “what makes us human beings,” through experiencing one another’s stories, she explained.
During a Playback performance, an audience member recounts a story from their own life. The actors then play back the story through improvisation funneled through a theatrical form or structure. Music and metaphor often are employed to help convey meaning.
Ostfield was a “pioneer” in the field of drama therapy, said Mayo, who considers the group’s founder as her mentor.
There are currently about 10 actors who comprise Pittsburgh Playback Theatre, a non-profit. They meet every other week to practice their forms as a company.
In addition to performances, the theater company also offers workshops. Its reach is expansive and diverse. The company has worked with the homeless, at schools, and with Holocaust survivors. Playback is also used in corporate settings to foster communication.
Just this summer, Pittsburgh Playback Theatre did a performance in cooperation with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. The event, called “Inclusivity and Activism,” was focused on the Center’s exhibition of photographs by Emmai Alaquiva, “OpticVoices: Roots,” celebrating the story of the community’s roots. The massacre at the Tree of Life building was the subject of several of the photographs.
The audience was a diverse mix, Mayo said, in terms of age, socioeconomics and race.
People told their stories, including difficult ones from Oct. 27, and the actors played back the feelings and the stories to the audience.
“As a drama therapist, my favorite term is ‘aesthetic distance,’” Mayo explained. “The idea is that when something is really painful, it’s very close and for a lot of us, that is too overwhelming to talk about. There is a lot of shame with having to express it. What if people don’t get it, or what if I start to fall apart? So they don’t talk about it. The idea of taking it outside of yourself and seeing it there is less threatening.”
The storytelling can bring tears to audience members, she said. Even though it is not their own story they are seeing played out, they often can identify with it nonetheless.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s not your story,” Mayo said. “There is something touching about it, and that is what good art is supposed to do.”
Through the years, the Pittsburgh Playback Theatre company has been used as a means to bring people from diverse backgrounds closer to one another.
“It’s a theatrical form that honors people’s stories,” Ostfield told the Post-Gazette in 2008, when a group of Israeli Jews and Arabs came to Pittsburgh to work on coexistence through theater. “It allows them to be heard and to stand for a moment in each other’s shoes, and that builds a sense of community. The idea is that they will take Playback home and use it as a peace-making tool.”
Richard Keitel, a Pittsburgh-based professional actor and director and a professor at Point Park University, has been a member of Pittsburgh Playback Theatre since its founding. He was serving as its artistic director when the Israeli Jews and Palestinians came to Pittsburgh.
“That was a wonderful project,” he recalled. “I remember that week starting off, when people told stories there was a lot of anger and resentment and people bringing up the history. By the end of the time we were making breakthroughs where people could see that each other was human again. I made a joke that we just solved the Mid-East peace process, there is going to be peace from now on. Hopefully it made a dent.”
Throughout the years, the company has had many Jewish members, including Keitel, who used to joke in rehearsal that they had a “minyan.”
He has had countless memorable experiences with the group, including working with parents grieving stillborn children and the Lost Boys of Sudan.
While his career keeps him busy with more conventional theater projects, he has stayed with Playback because it is “so nurturing for my soul,” he said. “It is a different type of theater but it is something I love. That’s why I have been doing it for these 34 years.”
He hopes Playback can continue to be useful to Pittsburgh’s community at large, including the Jewish community in the wake of the Tree of Life massacre.
“My goal is we keep going on and we keep helping people,” he said. “It’s a really beautiful thing.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at