Bellingen Playback Theatre Company turns 30

From the archives: Susan McGowan, Deborah Ryan (top) Persia Wildwood and Caroline Mueller.
From the archives: Susan McGowan, Deborah Ryan (top) Persia Wildwood and Caroline Mueller.

The faces have changed and the themes have shifted, but the function has stayed the same.

For 30 years, Bellingen Playback Theatre Company has been taking stories from its audience and presenting them as improvised drama conveyed in words, music and movement.

One of the longest-running playback theatre companies in Australia, they've notched up 229 performances and honed their skills at approximately 1150 practice sessions.

They've done commissioned gigs, grant-funded tours, intimate soirées and many public performances, but a constant heartbeat over the decades has been a show marking International Women's Day.

Persia Wildwood, who along with Deborah Ryan is one of only two original cast members remaining, said that has become "like a gathering of the tribe".

"The first one in 1993 was held in a paddock at the back of the Butter Factory. It was a balmy night and we had a big white sheet as the backdrop, candles all around, and women sat on the grass.

"A lot of people who were coming to playback in those days were the new settlers, so there were stories about settling in, about the challenges of the land, about growing things. Of changing from the city to living here."

A poignant one she remembers was about the death of a child on a community and subsequent negotiations to have their own cemetery.

"That was quite new, finding the way to do those sorts of things."

Michele Balharry, who has been a member of the company for 10 years, said the stories put forward by the 'tellers' in the audience have changed because the world has changed, but they have also stayed the same because we are human.

"They're emotional stories about connection to another person," Michele said. "Sorrow or joy, desire or family - there are archetypal stories that are present in every telling. But within that, the context has changed over time."

Two current members: Michele Balharry and Persia Wildwood

Two current members: Michele Balharry and Persia Wildwood

Both agreed that the environment and domestic violence are stronger themes these days and that the influence of feminism has made women bolder.

"Women are not as 'nice'," Persia said.

"They'll actually say exactly what they think, rather than using euphemisms and making sure everyone still likes them at the end of their story," Michele said.

Persia noted that while playback is not therapy, it has a strong ethic of social responsibility and can be therapeutic.

"That's where it started out. In the telling of stories, we're growing a community."

In the telling of stories, we're growing a community

Persia Wildwood

To celebrate 30 years of telling our community's stories, Bellingen Playback Theatre is holding a special event on Saturday November 23 at the Memorial Hall.

"We want to hear people's stories from 1989 to now," Persia said. "Personal stories that will reflect all the changes."

Michele said the process of eliciting the stories unfolds organically, along a continuum of emotional memory known as 'the red thread'.

"The subject will be introduced and somebody will connect with it immediately and have a story about something that's very important to them," Michele said.

"That will spark a similar or completely different story from another person. And Persia just directs it slightly one way or another with a question. It's whatever is in the room. All the stories are there."

Doors open at 6.30pm and the show starts at 7pm. Tickets are $20. Parental guidance is recommended for children, as the stories and performance can contain adult themes.