Chorus in Playback Theater - the beating heart of the group mind
If everyone had great ideas and executed them there could be a splendiferous show of chaos but there’d be no patterns. And, if everyone hid in the crows, one pattern would repeat itself ad infinitum.
(Zaporah, 1995, p. 63)
Traditionally the Greek Chorus was a homogeneous, non-individualized group of performers, who gave a collective voice on the dramatic action sometimes adding an interpretation or a wider understanding of the dialogue of the main characters (Pavis & Shantz, 1998). We can see that the strength of the chorus was the ‘anonymity’ and ability to contribute a unique, bold voice.
In Playback Theater (PT), both Salas (1999) and Lubrani Rolnik (2009) describe the traditional PT Chorus, which is based on a group of actors, standing together, repeating and echoing individual offers as they arise.
Watching many Choruses in recent years has left me with a feeling there is untapped potential of this form. The idea the individual actors “melt” into one organism fascinated me. I therefore started to experiment with this form and this article is a result of this research. This article begins with the basic elements and processes in the Chorus and later expands to describe different uses of the Chorus as a short form and in service of Scenes. In the end I will describe a unique adaptation of the Chorus as a narrative long form. Examples will be given throughout the article.
Elsewhere (Romanelli, 2016) I described a typology of archetypal stories we encounter in PT gatherings. In my opinion, the archetypes that Chorus is best suited to enact are the Antiplot and Nonplot stories. Antiplot (McKee, 1997) is a nonlinear story, skipping through time or blurring temporal continuity. It is usually led by coincidence, and less by causality. It could include multiple realities, contradictions and divergent directions, often led by associations of the teller. For example, a teller talks about his mother, jumping between their fight last week, an early memory of her taking away his puppy and what his wife told him about his mother.
The other type of archetype is a Nonplot (McKee, 1997) story, which is a story describing a feeling, situation or place, without advancement of action. For example, a teller tells about his feeling not that he moved back to live with his mother and how tough and annoying it is.
These two story archetypes usually do not follow a clear narrative, do not unfold in linear time and usually are richer in the details, associations and multiple directions of thought. Therefore, the a-temporal, associative nature of the Chorus can best bring out these themes, in an evolving, associative flow.
Core elements and processes of chorus
The best metaphor for the content development of the PT Chorus is that of a beating heart. Just as the heart needs to physically contract and expand in order to survive, the Chorus moves from moments of contraction/unison to moments of expansion/variety. A good Chorus must move between these two modes in order to “stay alive”.
The best metaphor I find for the visual development (gestalt) of the Chorus is that of an ameba. Visually, the actors are glued together in an unorganized fashion, much like a multi headed creature, all facing the audience. As the chorus develops, they shift positions, heights and locations, through uncoordinated organic shifts.
The default mode, and the trademark of the Chorus should be of contraction/unison. This mode is created by bulking or herding (Zaporah, 1995), the action by which actors repeat again and again the current phrase or offer: “Bulking strengthens and draws focus to an action. Bulking makes replicas of actions and uses them to enhance the improvisation, bringing weight and importance” (Zaporah, 1995, p. 50).
Ideally, all actors are mostly reacting to external stimuli coming from the ameba and none of them are initiating too consciously. The actors are glued together while changing their positions within the ameba continuously throughout the enactment.
For example, an offer is made of ‘mother’. That offer is repeated and bulked, slowly building energy toward a crescendo of anger. Actors are repeating the word more or less in unison, with natural, organic variations of their tone.
Once a strong theme or expression is bulked and intensified to a crescendo, the bulk is broken into moments of expansion/variety, where each actor breaks off to a series of micro-associations. This mini brainstorm, injects the Chorus with new material, which lasts for a few moments. Once the ‘cloud’ of new offers is hovering over the Chorus, the ensemble chooses one offer that is most poignant and then returns to bulk that offer in the next unison beat of the action.
In our example, at the height of the offer of ‘mother’, all the actors break off to a variety of associations and simultaneously generate new offers, which are basically transformations of ‘mother’: other, brother, lover, cover, hover, shove her and more. Within this cloud of ideas, the offer of ‘cover’ feels right to other actors, who begin to bulk this offer. The offer of ‘cover’ marks the transition into the unison phase of the chorus. The offer of ‘cover’ is now developed and expanded, perhaps to a softer emotional beat. “Cover… cover… cover me… cover me now… cover me now”.
And so the process of bulking and breaking off is repeated, visually expanding and contracting, moving between unison and multiplicity in the content of the offers. The beauty and the challenge of the Chorus is to find the balance between these two vectors.
Contraction in Chorus Expansion in Chorus
Techniques for focus and enhancement of the group mind in Chorus
The power of the Chorus stems from the synergy created by the group mind. Group mind is the subordination of the ego to the unconscious tendencies of self and others in the moment (Fortier, 2008; Halpern, Close, & Johnson, 1994). Since the actors are glued together as one ameba (or multi-headed creature) facing forward, they can’t see the other actors and therefore must rely on different ways to connect synergistically. In order to achieve this they can rely on physical contact, breathing and peripheral vision.
Physical contact allows immediate, visceral emotional and physical information to be passed immediately both consciously and unconsciously. By being in maximum body contact, the actors don’t need to look to the sides to see what the rest of the chorus does, but rather they will feel it when someone kneels, lies down, jumps and such.
Unison breathing allows another immediate, visceral way to connect and enhance the group mind of the chorus. By breathing together, our mirror neurons start firing in synch and physical and emotional states are better communicated within the Chorus.
The final technique, Peripheral vision, is also called soft focus in the viewpoints tradition (Bogart & Landau, 2004). This is a way of looking that invites a more holistic perception of movement and energy. In coaching it is used as a way to ignite a more holistic, 6th sense of the other person. This peripheral vision can be achieved by putting one’s hand in front of his eyes, about 10 centimeters away from the face. One looks softly into the hand, but tries to see around the room around the hand without moving the eyes. Once that vision is practiced, one can remove his hand and try to look around the room without moving his eyes, just letting information enter one’s mind effortless. In fact, we use peripheral vision when driving, with a soft focus on the road, yet seeing from the sides of our eyes the sidewalk, street signs and such.
Peripheral vision, together with unison breathing and maximum body contact, allow for a fast interpersonal body-mind connection, which enhances the group mind within the Chorus throughout the enactment.
The beating of the chorus heart
Transformation calls for letting go. It insists that one remain within the experience of the body. One is safe within awareness… only being in action.
(Zaporah, 1995, pg. 114)
When further analyzing the expansion and contraction of the Chorus, three basic processes are happening: developing, transforming and shifting (Zaporah, 1995):
1. Developing is the process of repeating the original verbal or physical phrase 0ver and over thereby deepening the understanding of that word, phrase or movement. In our example: “mother… mother… mmootthheerr...”
2.Transforming is the process of slowly transforming that phrase to a new phrase, by a repetition that each time introduces and incremental change, which over time might evolve to a whole new phrase. In our example: “cover… cover… cover me… cover me now… cover me now…”
3. Shifting is the action of stopping the current phrase and introducing something different altogether, using a different movement, sound or text. In our example: “cover me now… JUST DAD”
Usually in improv and PT specifically, we mostly shift and transform. In Chorus, it is best practice to develop and transform with less emphasis on shifting. This change toward developing allows for a different type of onstage process. That is why the Chorus refreshes not only the visual gestalt within a performance but also the creative modes within the show.
As described before, the default mode of the Chorus is the contraction/unison mode. When in unison, the Chorus develops and deepens the current offer by repeating and deepening the mood and expression of that phrase. Even though all the actors are focusing on that same element, there is a natural, inevitable sloppiness that will occur (Stern, 2004). This sloppiness will naturally invite minute, organic transformations, which will carry the Chorus forward. This process of transformation starts automatically, and is then further consciously developed by the ensemble.
When the Chorus repeats a strong phrase or feeling and reach a crescendo, they should enter the expansion/transformation mode, allowing more space between them, physically and mentally, and then consciously transforming the last phrase through associations or play on words or a variation of the last movement. This expansion should last just a few moments, with several offers/transformations occurring at the same time, until one of the offers “takes over” the Chorus and they return to the unison mode, to develop that element further.
So the Chorus moves between unison/development and expansion/transformation, over and over.
Sometimes, the Chorus can get stuck too long or too deep in one phrase. It is possible then for one actor to shift within the chorus, by initiating an offer that is completely different than the current one. These shifts should be sparse and only if satisfying transformations are not occurring within the ameba. For example, the Chorus is repeating the phrase “move away” again and again, reaching a crescendo of anger, with no transformation. One of the actors can then make a strong offer of saying “or else I’m leaving”. This offer, if accepted and bulked by the rest of the Chorus, will change the energy and mood of the Chorus to a different emotional beat.
Antagonist in chorus
Traditionally, short forms focus on the different voices within the teller. One way to introduce other characters or elements, as well shifting the Chorus, is introducing an antagonist. An antagonist is a person who is opposed to, struggles against, or competes with another.
In the Chorus, an actor can choose to bring another voice to the enactment, by abruptly breaking away from the Chorus and offering a clear, emotionally loaded offer by an auxiliary character or object. This is in fact not only a shift, but also a vertical offer, an offer that moves the Chorus to a new emotional beat.
Onstage, the antagonist stands diagonally in front of the chorus, without touching or blocking the view of the Chorus and offers a short monologue or solo while facing the audience yet relating directly to the teller’s Chorus. The antagonist can also be a part or internal voice of the teller that has not been heard. The moment the antagonist stands out, the Chorus stops developing their current phrase and looks at the antagonist. They return to breath together and allow themselves, slowly in unison, to develop a new reaction to the offer of the antagonist. Once that reaction is born and developed, and the vertical offer is successful in the sense that a new emotional beat is experienced, the antagonist’s role is done.
The antagonist can then re-enter the Chorus in two ways. He can be “swallowed” by the ameba chorus, who advances to his location and integrates him back into the ameba. Another way is for the antagonist to circle back quickly behind the Chorus, and to rejoin the middle back of the Chorus, thereby “de-rolling” his antagonist role.
Antagonist in Chorus - Note the Antagonist is facing the Chorus for dramatic effect
A summary of short form Chorus
The actors stand entwined together, like a large, multi-headed ameba, making sure that everyone is in contact and that actors are leaning on each other, not afraid of applying weight on each other.
First the ameba simply breathes together in silence, eyes open, allowing focus on the group mind. Together they search for the first offer, with no one consciously initiating but rather simply reacting and developing what each hears or feels from the Chorus. That first offer is then developed until it reaches a core or rather intense movement, word or phrase.
Once that moment is reached then the Chorus expands, physically and mentally, to transform that offer into different associations given by all the actors at the same time.
Once a new association/transformation is found, the Chorus returns to unison, developing this new offer. The development should be physical as well as vocal, with the Chorus moving around the stage if needed, as well as changing heights.
And so this movement of contracting and expanding repeats itself a few times throughout the enactment, while actors move their location within the Chorus, thereby constantly reviving the visual gestalt.
The ending is usually is a moment of unison with a focus on the deeper level of the story and is marked by a stillness of the Chorus.
Best practice for short form Chorus
Below are some tips we discovered during workshops:
- Sometimes, when wanting to express a minor, soft feeling, it is possible for the actors to make short eye contact with the other actors, and that eye contact gets developed and repeated by the whole Chorus. This development makes sure that the soft feeling won’t get lost due to lack of eye contact.
- When the unison moment is taking too long and too amorphic and energy is dropping, the Chorus can dare to produce a complete sentence or a specific moment.
- Everything that happens in the Chorus, to any actor, intentionally or not, is an offer. And any offer should be bulked (developed). For example, if one of the actors accidently sneezes or coughs, then the other actors should develop that sneeze or cough and use that as an offer.
- When in Unison, the Chorus should develop each emotional offer to the extreme in order to find the next emotional beat; do try to purposely shift with “intellectual” vertical offers that are not arising from the group.
- If in doubt, develop instead of transform or shift.
Choruses in Scenes
In Scenes (also called Stories in PT), Ninja actors, who are the actors not cast for specific roles, can choose to enter the stage as a Chorus. Choruses can offer strong horizontal offers, deepening and enriching the current emotional scene onstage. Their anonymity as well as their rapid entrance and departure from stage make them a good ninja element in the ever-changing Scene. The sudden stop or disappearance of the Chorus can be a strong vertical offer for the teller’s actor, propelling him to the next emotional scene. For example, if the Chorus starts singing a love song offstage, while the teller’s actor is relaying his love for his wife, then the sudden stop of the song, creates a vacuum, which can be utilized for a change in the emotional beat.
There are four possible types of Choruses that the ninja actors can offer:
Auxiliary characters Chorus – a Chorus of extras or other non-specific characters in a Scene. For example, the other customers at the store, the other kids in the classroom or the other people visiting the park where the teller’s actor is now in.
- If the teller’s actor begins to interact in length with one of the auxiliary Chorus actors, then that actor might become an antagonist and leaves the chorus, shedding off his anonymity, and the Chorus immediately leaves the stage.
- An auxiliary Chorus can build a routine onstage by supporting or challenging the teller’s actor goal.
Object/prop chorus – This Chorus is usually does not come onstage as a connected ameba, but rather as a cluster of objects that appear (and then disappear) in unison, spread around the stage, creating the physical reality of the scene. For example if the teller’s actor declares that he is going to the forest, an object Chorus could immediately leap onstage and create different trees and even animals onto which the teller’s actor will enter and use as props or backdrop to the scene. Prop Chorus requires the teller to be relatively still or even leave the stage so the actors can position themselves onstage.
- Props should enter the stage quickly and be very clear as to which object they are and should leave when not needed.
- Props could have a mantra, or song that is repeated softly during the scene.
Vocal chorus – This Chorus does not enter the stage at all but rather stands perpendicularly to the stage. From that position they generate vertical and horizontal offers.
- The ninjas on the sides of the stage can and should be touching and in eye contact with the other ninja actors on the other side of the stage to ensure a unison beginning and ending of offers.
Ambiance Chorus – a Chorus that is either onstage or offstage creating a certain ambiance or feeling onstage using movement, voice or cloths.
- This can be achieved also as vocal Chorus
Long form chorus
Aside from the different types of Choruses in Scenes, we developed a specific narrative long form Chorus, called a blended chorus. This Chorus is a narrative long form that enables use of Choruses in archplot stories, stories of an Aristotelian nature, with a clear beginning, middle and end while the protagonist undergoes an emotional change.
After hearing an archplot story, where there is a need or a potential for choruses, the teller is instructed to choose a teller’s actor, like in a regular Scene. The rest of the actors onstage will act only as a part of different Choruses throughout the enactment or as specific antagonists as will be described below.
The enactment begins with a classic short form Chorus (as described above), with the teller’s actor, standing behind the chorus. She is part of the Chorus yet only reacts, develops and follows the group mind’s offers. In this first part, specific antagonists might appear by the other actors while the natural develop and transform, unison and expansion processes occur.
Once the teller’s actor feels there has been enough Ideation, creation of enough ideas, themes and antagonists for the Scene to later incorporate and use, she “pierces” through the Chorus to the front of the stage and begins a Scene. Once pierced, The Chorus immediately regroups offstage, ready to enter at any moment as any kind of Chorus needed. Antagonists that were generated in the first part of the Scene (the Ideation stage) can now enter as specific characters in the 2nd part of the Scene, the reincorporation stage, and engage with the teller’s actor. The Scene continues with different Choruses and pre-established antagonists. This Scene can end either with the teller’s actor rejoining somehow the Chorus or not, but best if there is some reincorporation of themes from the original chorus.
In closing, this form has enormous potential both as a short and long form. In order to understand the mechanics of this version of the PT Chorus, practice and patience are needed. Assimilating into this ameba-shaped heart will require a lot of development, transformation and shifting. Yet, when one finds oneself in such a Chorus, one can enjoy the special freedom and excitement of riding a group mind rollercoaster.
Bogart, A., & Landau, T. (2004). The viewpoints book: a practical guide to viewpoints and composition. Theatre Communications Group.
Fortier, B. (2008). Long form improvisation: Creating spontaneous communities through collaborative comedic performance. MA thesis, Interdisciplinary Studies, Portland State University, USA.
Halpern, C., Close, D., and Johnson, K. H. (1994). Truth in Comedy. Colorado Springs, CO: Meriwether.
Lubrani Rolnik, N. (2009). Life in a Story – Playback Theatre and the Art of Improvisation, Tel Aviv: Mofet Macam (in Hebrew).
Pavis, P., & Shantz, C. (1998). Dictionary of the theatre: Terms, concepts, and analysis. University of Toronto Press.
Romanelli, A. (2013). The challenge of the “ninja actor” in PT: Typology and tools in service of the Ninja actor. Interplay, 18(1), 30-34.
Romanelli, A. (2016). Working models for Scenes in Playback Theater: “The Diamond of Playback theater”. IPTN Journal, 2(1), 58-66.
Salas, J. (1999). Improvising Real Life, Iowa, IA: Tusitala.
Zaporah, R. (1995). Action theater: the improvisation of presence. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
 I will use the spelling of Scenes to describe the long form PT open form, which is also called Stories or open enactments in different PT companies.
 Aviva Apel (Personal conversation, 2014) calls this type of story a Brechtian story.
 In workshop I often use the term “piece of dung” to emphasize nature of the gluing together of the actors in a gestalt that is not always balanced, symmetrical or “pretty”.
 For more on vertical and horizontal offers, see Romanelli, 2013.
 For more on Ninja actors, see Romanelli, 2013.
 For more on non-human (ninja) offers, see Romanelli, 2013.
 For more on vocal (ninja) offers, see Romanelli, 2013.
 Standing perpendicularly to the stage is the PT convention for being ‘behind the scenes’
 For more on typology of stories, see Romanelli, 2016.
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