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A caring act

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 October, 2016, 5:17pm
UPDATED : Monday, 31 October, 2016, 5:17pm

It takes a lot of courage to open up and tell a personal story to an audience of 300 people. It takes even more courage to watch that story be performed by a group of university students, even if they are specially trained for the task.

The “Narrating Faith, Love, Hope: Playback Performance Part II” event was hosted by the City University of Hong Kong (CityU), College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. Leung Kam-pui, a retiree who donates his time to the elderly as a caregiver in Sik Sik Yuen, was one of the brave audience members who volunteered for such an experience. The performance took place on August 25.

Leung reminisced about a time when, every morning for six months, he accompanied his visually impaired younger brother to the ophthalmologist for treatment. Leung made the trip, rain or shine, until his brother regained his sight. He was happy to recount this uplifting story, and enjoyed reminiscing on a time that he got to show some brotherly love.

To get the performance started, experienced playback trainer and facilitator Mercy Liu asked Leung some questions to discover the underlying values of his story. Leung and Liu spoke of commitment, life’s purpose, love, and resilience. Liu worked to understand Leung’s overall philosophy, and his personal values like faith, to find the focal part of the narrative.

Five of the event’s 11-strong team of students performed the story for Leung, an audience of 150 chronic illness survivors, and caregivers from 32 NGOs. “Seeing the way the storytellers overcame their hardships inspires people who face similar challenges,” says Dr Esther Chow, CityU associate professor of applied social sciences, who is the students’ lecturer and the host of the event. “Their lives touch and resonate with the audience,” she adds.

The performance was developed within the framework of CityU’s service-learning project, which has been running since 2005. The concept, borrowed from the US, was developed Dr Esther Chow along with the rest of the playback team. in order to integrate academic pursuits with the needs of the community in a way that benefits both sides. At CityU, the non-credit bearing, student-initiated, and often cross-disciplinary community service activities are regarded as teaching and learning opportunities, and are integrated into the curriculum.

The Playback Theatre actors are all budding psychologists and social workers who have received up to 30 hours of training. The performance was led by Liu, who asked the storytellers questions to identify the story’s focus and deeper meaning. The performance itself combined the sharing of experiences, taking place with a psychological drama about the different people’s traumatic experiences.

The facilitator conducts the performances by choosing from several possible acting formats, such as individual, pairs or “freeform”. Format selection is dependent on the nature of the story being told.

The actors begin by following their feelings without discussing the role that they will take on, and much of the performances, are, in fact improvised. At times the actors would express themselves through the form of animals, or objects like rocks and cherry blossoms.

“We build a consensus without discussing it. It’s incredible; everyone adds to it a little bit to make it a whole,” says performer Yu Wing-ki, a recent graduate. “You have to listen carefully to every single line [of the other actors], use your body language, and find the right tone of voice. Everything has an immediate effect, and what the others do can change the story’s plot. You can feel the energy flowing on the stage. It is a work of passion,” explains Yu.

Two teachers who suffered from long-term illnesses shared their recovery stories. One had cancer, and told the story of how her love of teaching became a supporting force in her recovery. She talked about how she faced the illness head on, becoming very active and aggressive in her recovery process. The other teacher could not decide whether to continue teaching or have an operation on his vocal cords. He eventually had a successful operation, and learned to rest his voice when he had to.

The original storytellers consider it a blessing to be able to watch their story in a play-back format. The actors are able to view their story from an objective, third-person perspective, which helps the storytellers gain new insights, and find potential solutions to their problems. For example, Leung was unable to forgive himself for not being there when his brother was in hospital for an eye operation. The performance, which showed how much he cared for him, helped alleviate his guilt.

Leung says that family members today live at great distances from one another and are constantly busy. He wished to remind the audience the importance of family, and the value of sibling relationships.

Playback Theatre gives caregivers the opportunity to express their feelings about the caregiving process, and enables those recovering to tell their stories and inspire people in similar situations. “It is empowering to hear that we all face the same challenges. The storytellers can present wisdom that they have acquired. They are a kind of ‘social capital’. We all need to listen to the voice of the community,” says Chow.

The performance had a big influence on the students, who by becoming the storytellers were able to understand themselves better. They also developed better listening skills. “They will experience sad and difficult situations as part of their work in the future, and playing a role teaches them how to have empathy and compassion,” says Chow.

“There is tremendous potential in the Playback Theatre. The students, the storyteller, the audience, and the university all benefit,” Chow adds. “I received a lot of positive feedback. After the three-hour event, several audience members came to me and asked if they could tell their story next time.”