Supp cover 7.17.09
Supp cover 7.17.09

A look in the Mirror: Israeli actors will bring audience anecdotes to life in Berkeley

When theatergoers show up for “Memory and Mirrors” at Berkeley’s Netivot Shalom, they will see enactments of some wondrously moving stories: their own.

The March 3 evening of improvised drama, presented by Jewish Circle Productions and the Playback Theatre, is based entirely on audience suggestions.After introducing themselves, Roni Alperin and his fellow cast members will request personal anecdotes — whether harrowing or hilarious — from the audience.

Then the Playback Theatre players, using only colored scarves as props, will bring those tales to life.

“We’re open to any story,” Alperin says. “Sometimes they are funny or sad, but we bring out the humor. The stance of Playback Theatre is empathy, so the rainbow of emotions in the human experience are welcome onstage.”

Roni Alperin (left) and Orit Wisliker work on their improvisation for “Memory and Mirrors.”

Subtitling their performance “Behind, Beneath & Beyond Survival,” Alperin hopes to elicit compelling personal anecdotes from audience members brave enough to share.

The Playback actors are “trained to listen to what is told and what is not told,” he says. “Then they find an aesthetic way to express what needs to be expressed.”

That’s the way Playback Theatre does its thing in dozens of countries around the world, including Israel, which is home to 14 companies.

“It’s not just improvisational theater. It’s therapy,” the Tel Aviv native says.

“The power of Playback is it is a theater of community, bringing together a group of people who feel strange to each other and at the end of the evening they share the experience of witnessing each other’s stories. It’s participating in an old ritual because it comes from the tribe, telling the story of the day.”

Alperin and his colleague Ofra Daniel, who will also perform in “Memory and Mirrors,” both worked with Playback theater companies in their native Israel.

There they would often perform at high-tech companies, hospitals, nonprofit organizations and even bomb shelters (especially during the 2006 Lebanon War).

The point was to bring this special kind of theater to the people, rather than the other way around.

In 2007, Alperin, 34, moved to Berkeley to complete his studies in drama therapy and to pursue a master’s in counseling psychology. His work with Playback takes him to synagogues, Jewish community centers and other settings, playing for both American and Israeli expatriate audiences.

He says one of the most moving experiences of his Playback Theatre career came in Israel while performing for a group of health professionals. An audience member who worked with Holocaust survivors described one of her clients, a mental patient who witnessed the murder of his family at the hands of the Nazis.

“She had been seeing him for 20 years, and once a week he would take her hand and tell her about the terrible story that happened to him and his family,” Alperin says. “He survived, but was so damaged he spent his life in a [mental] hospital.”

Alperin says the woman in the audience recalled the story with her arms crossed, expressing little emotion. When he took the stage to portray her client, the image of Edvard Munch’s famous painting, “The Scream,” came to mind.

He says “I stood like a sculpture, opened my mouth, and all these emotions came out of me. I felt the pain expressed through me was not my pain. I was a medium. All the emotion the storyteller was holding was there, all her compassion and fear. She was very touched, and the whole audience was really moved.”

A grandchild of Holocaust survivors, Alperin moonlights as a tour leader for Shalhevet, which every year takes teens on missions to Poland and Israel.

Working with teens, practicing psychotherapy and performing onstage might seem like widely disparate vocations, but somehow all three blend well for Alperin.

It’s all about helping others.

“People are people,” he says. “What starts to be discovered is inner emotions. We are all the same. No race, no skin, no boundaries. There is no such thing as not a good story.”

The Playback Theatre will perform “Memory and Mirrors” at 7:30 p.m. March 3 at Congregation Netivot Shalom, 1316 University Ave., Berkeley. $10-$18. Information: (510) 549-9447 or www.jewishcircleproductions.com.

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.