A thought-provoking improv experience is happening in Central Indiana, and its members are breaking barriers in the process.
The Roundabout Playback Troupe is an inclusive group of 11 actors, some with disabilities and some without, who work together to improvise or “play back” scenes based on suggestions and stories from the audience. This unique format is used often in advocacy, education and by therapists as a way to foster community and offer fresh perspectives. Carmel’s group is the only known inclusive playback performance troupe in the country, with the next closest group based in Hong Kong.
Michelle Yadon, Inclusion Supervisor for Carmel Clay Parks and Recreation, witnessed the power of playback while studying to become a Registered Drama Therapist – the only in the state – and championed the idea of an inclusive troupe. “I was told it was going to be very hard to do playback with people with disabilities because of the abstract thinking, but I really didn’t believe that,” she says. “We have one member who doesn’t typically speak in full sentences, but in playback, he does. Playback breaks stereotypes within the group and in the community.”
Michael Sharkey, 22, who has Down syndrome, says he auditioned for the troupe to meet new people. He performs alongside his fiancée, Jessica Grief, 23, and his best friend Dan Peeler, 22, both of whom also have Down syndrome.
Sharkey admits he used to be nervous on stage when he sang choir at Carmel High School, but says playback’s improvisational format has squashed any stage fright. “It makes people think, and it does the same thing to me,” he says. “It makes you go inside. It makes you go inside out with your feelings.”
Yadon recalls a particularly poignant moment from the troupe’s very first performance this March. The audience was asked what makes a good community member, a trait the actors would then act out, and someone answered “compassion.” Peeler stepped forward, put his hands over his heart and said, “Boom, boom, boom.” “You just heard the audience go silent, and there were even some gasps,” she recalls. “That’s really abstract. It was powerful and beautiful.”
Fellow troupe member Doreen Fatula, 59, an experienced performer and artist, says playback is an ideal format for an inclusive troupe because it allows the performers to think with their hearts and then let their minds follow. “When people work from the heart in the present moment, it seems to reach right into the people who are watching and opens their hearts,” she says. “When a community does that together, the contact that is made and the relationships that develop are priceless.”
The Roundabout Playback Troupe’s first performance in March drew a crowd of nearly 200, and October’s performance had almost as many. The troupe has also performed at area nursing homes and schools. For audience members and actors alike, the playback format has strengthened a sense of community, Yadon says. “When we’re in rehearsals, it’s not like, ‘You have disabilities, and we don’t have disabilities.’ We are all one in the same,” she says. “The feedback when we perform shows us that people are understanding and seeing others differently.”
Peeler, one of the actors with Down syndrome, and his fellow troupe members appreciate the support and positive response. “It makes me feel happy when people come to the playback troupe,” he says. “We’re acting for the people.”
The Roundabout Playback Troupe’s next big performance will be in March 2016 at the Monon Community Center in Carmel. Check the Carmel Clay Parks and Recreation website at www.carmelclayparks.com for upcoming details. For information about the playback troupe, contact Yadon at [email protected].