One Woman’s Passion To Put Lives On Stage

HELEN GIBSON is a woman on a mission: to launch a unique theatre group in Birmingham where actors take their cues from audiences whose personal experiences form the basis of each performance.

It’s really a kind of theatre rooted in real life – and Helen sees it as an invaluable way of linking the generations, offering the elderly a voice, while giving younger people the chance to act out the experiences of their elders.

This type of performance, known as Playback Theatre, first surfaced in 1970s America, led by Jonathan Fox, who was a student of improvisational theatre.

The groundbreaking project inspired many people across the world and now there are Playback Theatre groups all over the globe including London.

But Helen feels the time is right to launch the first Playback Theatre in the West Midlands where she believes there is a wealth of untold stories waiting to be performed.

The broader concept originated from the Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal who used theatre as a means of promoting social and political change.

Rather than audiences being passive during a theatre performance, they became part of it and helped to steer it.

“Originally, this kind of theatre was never meant to be therapeutic, but as a trained therapist I see a lot of value in this,” Helen told The Voice.

“It could be uplifting and cathartic for many people to watch an interpretation of their own story being acted out in front of them on stage.

“Their experiences may vary from something amusing and relatively trivial, to an event which has possibly haunted someone for years.

“There has to be trust involved, obviously, but playing out a real-life event to the person who has offered that story can be quite life enhancing.

“People whose stories have been brought to life often say: ‘Oh I never saw it from that perspective’ or ‘Goodness I didn’t think of that.’

“Ideally, I would like to see a local Playback Theatre made up of young people in order to experience history directly from the mouths of elders.

“The tradition of oral storytelling is dying out sadly, but it’s always been so popular down the generations, particularly in the Caribbean and Ireland.

“I think those in care homes would feel listened to – it could give them a new lease of life.”

In a typical Playback event, someone in the audience recounts a moment or story from their life; they then choose the actors to play the different roles and everyone watches the story come to life.

“It’s crucial that the integrity of the person who has told the story remains intact.

“The actors have to possess a natural empathy and have a shared understanding of the story, while being able to respond spontaneously to each other’s cues.

“I am not looking necessarily for trained actors, but they have to be people who can listen, interpret and perform.”

Helen, who has an MA in drama therapy, says she has a passion for hearing stories. She added: “I think political correctness is in danger of strangling people’s authenticity.

‘We cannot challenge people’s fears if we are not allowed to explore them. I think Playback Theatre would be invaluable for this.”

Mother-of-four Helen, who is also now a grandmother, was born at a Birmingham Salvation Army hostel for unmarried mothers and had moved at least seven times before she left school at 16.

“My mother decided to keep me, but by the time I was 16 we’d moved at least seven times.

“The entire city became my home. I had a variety of jobs after leaving school – everything from being a singer in a band to washing dishes at the Aston Villa ground before dishwashers were invented! But I’ve always been passionate about lifelong learning.”

Helen completed a secretarial course at Bournville College and went on to work in West Midlands County Council.

She now has a senior role within the SSAFA – one of the UK’s oldest military charities, formerly known as the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, which supports the families of injured servicemen and women.

The charity’s house she manages in Selly Oak is a home-from-home for relatives who have loved ones being cared for at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, one of the UK’s main military treatment centres.

“I suppose a lifetime of working with people has given me a fascination for seeing their experiences brought to life in a theatre – and I believe Birmingham is a city teeming with untold stories.”

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