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Virginia Murphy

Virginia Murphy is founder and executive director of Playback Memphis. She has a bachelor's degree in special education from Boston College and a master's in counseling psychology with a concentration in drama therapy from the California Institute of Integral Studies.

An actor in a kinder, gentler theater

By Published: April 01, 2019 4:00 AM CT

On Nov. 9, 2016, the day after the most divisive election night in my lifetime, I was scheduled to facilitate a session with seven police officers and seven formerly incarcerated community members, as part of a project launched by Playback Memphis to build community-police relations.

That morning, my heart enveloped in anxiety and dread, I began to imagine every worst-case scenario possible for how the afternoon might play out. No one shows. Game over. Everyone shows, someone says something that triggers someone else and well – you can take it from there.

How could the group survive this seismic fissure in our political body? The trust, goodwill and hope that we had carefully, courageously and steadfastly built in our previous 10 sessions would soon fly out the window. I was convinced. We just needed to crawl back into our shells and hole up, at least until the next election cycle.

I told myself canceling the session would be like a mercy killing, and anyway, I wasn’t even sure if I believed in the power of Playback theater anymore. Aspiring towards healing, transformation and joy suddenly seemed like a laughable mission. Then I shared my thoughts with my husband and he rolled his eyes at me and reminded me that the practice of Playback theater was exactly what was needed.

The alchemy of empathy and vulnerability have shaped my life in powerful ways. I was first introduced to Playback theater in graduate school. It's a global model, in which audience members share true stories from their lives and then watch as those stories are played back on stage by a team of actors and musicians.

I remember the first time I shared a story and saw it brought to life. I was in my 20s struggling with depression. I took a risk to share part of my story and then wished I could disappear. I couldn't believe, though, the actors’ capacity to embody my feelings, to feel my story as if it were their own. I was so moved by the experience I would go on to one day found a Playback theater company in the city I grew up in and love, Memphis, Tennessee.

Over the years, Playback Memphis has brought hundreds of stories to life - stories of longing and loss, heartbreak and forgiveness, love and resilience. I have been awed by how much joy and relief Playback brings to people. This simple act of listening with empathy and bravely attempting to give artistic shape and meaning to someone’s story – it is life-giving.

Playback had definitely been life-giving to this band of 14 who were “voluntold” to participate in what most would deem to be a crazy idea, to bring police officers together with those who had spent their lives running from them, to share stories and learn improvisational theater.

Thanks to my dear husband, who helps me find the light again and again, I did not cancel our session that afternoon. I showed up, as did almost every participant, and we crossed yet another difficult divide using Playback theater as our bridge.

We were tender and careful with one another, born out of an intimacy that can only come from sharing vulnerability. It was as if we had been preparing for this moment since the inception of our work together. We shared and played back responses to one simple question: How did you feel when you woke up this morning?

As I stood in front of the group with my fellow Playback actors, the responsibility I held to the principles of this practice never felt greater. Listen to each story as if it were your own. That day, as an actor, I embodied broken-heartedness as well as jubilee, playing each moment back with reverence and respect for that person’s truth, always keeping close to heart the outpouring of stories we had held in our time together: the loss of loved ones to cancer, surviving the hell of war, the worry that a child might not come home safe.

Were there difficult feelings and complicated reality to navigate? Absolutely. Were we better for showing up and attempting to hold our experience with a kind, gentle attention, to see the inner nobility and beauty in each other still? Absolutely.

Playback Memphis will perform a “Memphis Matters” show at 7:30 p.m. April 6 at TheatreSouth inside First Congregational Church, 1000 S. Cooper.

<strong>Virginia Murphy</strong>

Virginia Murphy

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Playback Memphis

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