David LaGraffe, left, and his acting partners in Portland Playback Theatre – including Bob Bittenbender, Sandra Sneiderman and Margaret Huber – turn stories from audience members into quick improvisational sketches.
LaGraffe with Meg Christie.
David LaGraffe has been opening doors for 10 years.
As artistic director of the improv theater troupe Portland Playback Theatre, LaGraffe invites members of the audience to the stage to tell a story from their lives. LaGraffe and his acting partners turn the story into quick improvisational sketches that transform someone’s personal story into art. That process emboldens the person whose story is being portrayed, often lifting their spirits and helping them feel less alone.
“There’s no such thing as the Cleaver household,” LaGraffe said. “Everybody’s house is just riddled with all sorts of scandal, ennui, drama and victory. Nobody has a calm life.”
Portland Playback Theatre marks its 10th anniversary with a performance at 7 p.m. Saturday at Rines Auditorium at Portland Public Library.
South Portland resident Michael Naylor is a fan. He’s seen several of his stories portrayed by the Playback troupe and said watching a personal story played out on stage is fun and rewarding.
“They are such a great team,” he said. “The way they capture the essence of people’s stories is so artfully and compassionately done.”
Portland Playback tells stories of love and loss that range from comedy to tragedy. It performs every First Friday Art Walk at the CTN5 studio stage on Congress Street. Fittingly, for its 10th anniversary, Playback has chosen “milestones” as its theme for Saturday.
Over the decade, Playback actors have told hundreds of stories, all on the spot. LaGraffe serves as host. He introduces the evening, explains the theme and then asks people to come up to tell a story. The actors then bring the story to life, usually with words and movement and sometimes with songs made up on the spot.
“It feels really good to know we have honored so many stories from people’s lives,” LaGraffe said. “The more stories you hear, the more they resonate as universal stories. When you listen to the teller up there telling his or her story, you recognize it.”
Themes change week to week. One week might be stories about embarrassing dates. Another may hinge on letting go – of a relationship or a job or a material item. There are stories about transformation, parenthood, love, secrets, all pivotal events in people’s lives.
One week, a little boy told the story about a balloon that popped. Playback turned it into a story about loss.
After telling a story, the teller is given a seat front and center to watch the story as it unfolds on stage.
In addition to serving as artistic director of Portland Playback, LaGraffe teaches improvisational acting through Lights Up Improv.
Improvisation is fun and scary, he said. “I love stepping into the unknown. The courage it takes to walk into the unknown, to start singing a song in response to a story, not knowing what you will be singing when you reach that point on the stage where you sing, is an exhilarating experience.”
It’s fun for the audience, too, Naylor said.
“You couldn’t have much more fun,” he said. “It’s family oriented and playful, and everyone gets lifted up by it. They’re just a great team. They’re funny and big-hearted, and there are no boundaries in terms of their creative capacity. And it’s all in the moment.”
WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Portland Public Library, Rines Auditorium, 5 Monument Square, Portland
HOW MUCH: $10; portlandplayback.brownpapertickets.com