Since 1989, Yes Oh Yes Drama Outreach, a professional theatre company based in Toronto, has delivered Playback Theatre workshops and performances to schools and social service agencies. the work explores stories about violence, dropping out, racism, subs tance abuse and other issues of interest to young people. The improvisational drama assists the discovery of new behavioural choices by the participants.

Playback Theatre was initiated by a New Yorker, Jonathan Fox, in 1974. This form of creative drama, based on personal storytelling has its roots in psychodrama and J.L. Moreno's Theatre of Spontaneity. In the Toronto-based work, director, Annie Stirling has developed her own process. As "conductor" , Stirling first introduces her playback-trained actors to an audience. This small troupe (usually 4-6 players) then does warm-up improvisations based on suggestions as to how the audience members are "feeling".

The core of the theatrical experience develops as volunteers come up to the performance area to tell their stories. The conductor guides them in choosing actors to play each part in the story. The "teller's actor" takes the lead in the resulting improvi sation. Stirling introduces a series of choices once the scene has been played to the teller's satisfaction...the teller then decides to:

  1. Stay with the story "as is"
  2. See the story "repaired" whereby the teller's actors makes new choices as directed by the teller, or
  3. Choose a "transformation". In this case, the teller decides to let the actors improvise a continuation of the story that is influenced by new actions chosen by the teller. The new choices imply solutions to previous problems as seen by the teller in the playback improvisation.
Having taken part in the playback process over the years, as teller, conductor and actor, I have come to appreciate the cathartic and healing properties of the work. Not only does the teller usually benefit from having a reformed point of view, but the audience enjoys those universal elements of the story with which they identify.

The work of playback, although essentially therapeutic, is not billed as drama therapy. As a drama therapist, Stirling insists that the role play involved in playback is in a safer realm, one where distance is provided by the format. In psychodrama, very strict standards of enactment are followed under the watchful eye of the therapist.

This is briefly the idea of playback. It is a combination of storytelling and creative drama with a special twist in the problem-solving department. Of course, stories are the basis for drama; the dramatic tension develops as the characters try to solve the problems set up by the story.

In the past hundred years, the dramatic arts have been translated through the less immediate media of movies and television. More recently, the interactivity of computer games has lured young audiences into one-to-one combat. Identifying with the "agent " or player on the screen, the participant wields a joystick to represent a weapon to cut down threatening villains.

Virtual Reality allows one to explore a computer-generated world by actually being in it. "Virtual reality is usually based on a graphic world, although film and video can be part of it. It has three components: it is inclusive, it is interactive, and i t all happens in real time. That is to say you become a part of that world, you can change it, and the changes occur as you make them." (Sherman and Jenkins 1992) Needless to say, I am thoroughly intrigued by the possibility that storytelling, improvisa tions and the playback process could be carried out in a virtual world.

Imagine if you will, a computer program that will allow a troupe of young storytellers to come together in a virtual arena. Here they will be guided by a conductor in the playback process. Any fears that players will be risking difficulties from the role -play seem to pale in the light of the kinds of transference that happen any day a young person identifies with a rock star's trance inducing lyrics and gyrations on the music channel or thrills to the snippets of violence in the news or movies they can t ape and replay and replay and replay.

The difficulties are in creating a vehicle on-line that will accommodate playback. At present, virtual reality is being touted as the next great thing for computers but it is far from being commercially accessible. At present, we can take tours of archeo logical digs or art galleries. Scientist from Tokyo and Seattle can meet in a virtual room and play a kind of virtual ping pong while wearing their helmets and special gloves. The world of electronic technology has a way of sneaking up on us. Today is a fantastic vision for the future and tomorrow we have the tools. I want education to stay at the front of the line when it comes to adapting this technology to serve learning.

I have accumulated a collection of books and articles which may help me gain insight into the idea of marrying computers and drama. I plan to journey from the generalities of the digital world to the specifics of Virtual Reality. I begin with "Being Digi tal" by Negroponte and "The Skin of Culture" by de Kerckhove. The will give the current context for the computer. Next, I plan to read Laurel's "Computer's as Theatre", in order to examine the parallels suggested by the books title. Finally I will supp lement these books with journal articles related to Virtual Reality and education. I will report with a view to my quest to gain perspective on the potential for virtual playback theatre.

To prepare for this journey, I have also kept a watchful eye on the numerous computer-related magazines on the stands. I have noted with interest any which refer to the emerging aspects of VR. I have also read the VR-based novel, "Snowcrash" by Neil Stephenson and have viewed "Lawnmower Man", so far the best film available for getting an idea of Virtual Reality might work. Finally, I have been learning how to navigate and construct in the text-based virtual environment of a MOO or multi-user object oriented space. It is a complex world of precise arguments where players meet and communicate.

As in any great adventure, I enter these explorations with high hopes to make precious discoveries. This journey is one that will also hopefully, suggest avenues for further research in the realm of computers and drama. in the kingdom of Playback Theatre and Virtual Reality.
July 2, 1996