I’ve been teaching drama at Sidwell Friends Middle School in Washington, D.C. since 1995. Like my brother and sister educators at other Friends schools, I am guided by the Quaker belief in that of God in each person. Sidwell prides itself on encouraging the community to show kindness and respect toward one another (letting their lives speak) as a way to recognize and nurture each person’s unique gifts.
This was a great sales pitch from the school when I interviewed for a position there. Reality, however, set in soon after I accepted the job as the middle school’s drama teacher:There was no written drama curriculum, and I had the pleasure and pain of building a program from scratch. Fortunately, I also had my inner teacher to guide me. Parker Palmer said that “Each of us has an inner teacher that is an arbiter of truth, and each of us needs the give-and-take of community in order to hear that inner teacher speak.” Six years after my foray into the world of Quaker education, several colleagues and I accessed our inner teachers to collaborate in creating a new required course for seventh graders called Quakerism and the Arts. This is our story.
As most of us know, George Fox (G. Fox) founded Quakerism in the mid-1650s. Many may not know, however, that another Mr. Fox, Jonathan Fox (J. Fox), founded Playback Theatre in the mid-1970s. Both Foxes were trendsetters who bravely asserted their convictions, giving communities permission to access and learn from that still, small voice within. In the case of G. Fox, the inner teacher, or Inner Spirit, was found during the traditional silent gathering of Quaker meeting for worship, perhaps when someone offered an inspired message or prayer. For J. Fox, the moment came during a Playback performance when an audience member revealed his inner voice while sharing a personal story to be replayed by a company of actors. In both situations, personal stories are told and heard in community. Despite being separated by more than 300 years, G. Fox and J. Fox are connected by their having effected meaningful and compassionate human contact through storytelling and story listening. They are the incredible Misters Fox, and they both had a great impact on my work as a drama educator at Sidwell Friends School.
Those of us familiar with Quaker history know that G. Fox began the religious movement of Quakerism as a response to the inefficacy of the outward forms of rituals, creeds, hymns, sacred books, and sermons of the Church of England. Some theater history buffs may also know that J. Fox started Playback in response to his distaste for “the competitive, sometimes narcissistic aspects of the world of the mainstream theatre with the experimental and avant-garde theatre movements of the early 1970s.” The rebellions of both men were reactions to the oppressive restraints imposed upon their freedom to worship or to perform. G. Fox thought the dogma of religion in the 1660s had become oppressive and should not be forced upon people; J. Fox had an aversion to the controlled and constructed environment of literary theater. Both were determined to bring the world away from rudimentary rules and dogma, which they felt were in vain.
As my colleagues and I put the pieces of the course together during the summer of 2004, I contacted J. Fox, whom I had the privilege of knowing (I trained with him at the Center for Playback Theatre in New York). I learned of his connections to Quaker education and asked him to write a letter of support for our curriculum project. J. Fox candidly wrote:
The lessons I learned in monthly meeting as an elementary school student at Brooklyn Friends School never left me and contributed in no small way to the development of Playback Theatre. In Playback Theatre, the stories emerge from silence; instead of a text delivered by an expert, the text comes from the community; no one is privileged above anyone else; we value listening; and we cherish the deep dialogue that comes from such an empathic exchange. Thus Playback Theatre becomes another approach to the teaching of core Quaker values.
Playback was the perfect union for J. Fox as it combined the influence of his early exposure to Quakerism with his desire to create a non-scripted, interactive, and healing form of theatrical improvisation. In this theatre, people could relate personal events and then watch them enacted live in front of an audience. I knew also that Playback would be an excellent fit for my middle school students. It would encourage them to reflect on their own ethical and spiritual beliefs or un-beliefs while learning about some of the guiding testimonies and practices of the Religious Society of Friends. In our course Quakerism and the Arts, Playback became the central method taught and used for reflecting on individual stories.
The telling of stories has been a favorite pastime throughout the world. Through anecdotes, tales, and legends, storytellers assumed responsibility for teaching communities. Playback has taken on the role of the storyteller and story listener. Playback performances are intimate and inclusive: a forum where human experience is presented and heard in its natural state. Australian Playback practitioner Rea Dennis said, “Playback is a theater of listening more than a theater of telling.” According to Baltimore Yearly Meeting, “Listening to the Spirit, as advised by the Quakers, enables one to hear where the words come from when others speak.” Not unlike ministry in Quaker meeting for worship, a story shared in a Playback performance generates synergy at a deep level within the community. Playback and Quaker meeting for worship make space available for people to express and deeply listen to real life stories—from the mundane to the magnificent. When a person is moved by the spirit to speak during meeting for worship, all listen in the spirit of seeking to hear the Word of God from the mouth of the speaker. Similarly, in Playback, when one shares a story, all listen in a communal act of affirmation. Spiritual empowerment is visible in both paradigms.
Arts researcher Peter London posited that the spirit is the core of one’s beliefs, anything a person holds to be of ultimate value, and that the arts are “spiritually informed language.” J. Fox publicly reveals and validates this spiritually informed language in community, as audience members share personal stories within the safety of the container of a Playback performance.
Quakerism and the Arts has grown into an eclectic curriculum that acknowledges different learning styles, modes of communication, and forms of expression, and Playback has firmly planted its roots in the school. In 2006, an eighth grade performing group called Vertical Voices Playback Theatre emerged. The company performs at school and in public. They have traveled to different states, as well as other countries, to perform at thespian festivals and conferences. The founding members of the Vertical Voices troupe graduated from Sidwell Friends School last June. Their successors confidently hold the torch, and I am proud to say that my own eighth grade daughter is among this sixth generation of Playback enthusiasts.
Many Playback alumni are actively involved with the seventh grade orientation program at Sidwell. Each fall, before the start of the school year, rising tenth graders return to the middle school to listen to and reenact personal stories told by the school’s newest cohort. The performance also provides some preparation for these seventh graders, as they will all learn the technique of Playback in Quakerism and the Arts for 10-12 weeks during the school year.
I’m now working with Vertical Voices alumni in the upper school to begin to create a Playback troupe of their own. They have their eyes set on reaching beyond the walls of our school community so that they can perform in more challenging venues. That group will also join forces with Vertical Voices Playback when Sidwell Friends School hosts the North American Playback Theatre Network Festival October 5-8, 2012. One major component of the festival will include a summit for educators and teens interested in establishing their own Playback Theatre companies. (More information is available at www.playbackfestival.org.)
George Fox instructed Quakers to “be patterns, be examples in all countries, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people.” J. Fox founded Playback to validate personal experience and advocate for social justice. In my experience, the incredible Misters Fox seemed to have achieved their goals. My students and I are doing our part as we cross social barriers, develop empathic listening skills, and allow people to turn inwards to access, share, and listen to personal stories using the magic of the Playback Theatre experience.