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Playback Theatre and the Startup Mindset by@aravindbaskaran

Playback Theatre and the Startup Mindset

Aravind Hacker Noon profile picture


Engineering @ Swym and other stuff. Opinions are only mine, when not useful.

I have always been fascinated with the theatre and aspired to "learn" theatre (still do). Between 2017 - 2019, I was part of a Playback Theatre group in Bangalore called The Actors Collective. I was involved passively for a few months and some months very very passionately. As I revisited some of those experiences, it shed light on a few core principles that intersect nicely with the Startup mindset. The "Startup mindset" is something I think helps startup employees and founders, as well as folks who are starting a new role or dimension in their career. I'll go even as far as to say it is one of the most potent traits shared by a band of people that operate well together.

But what is Playback Theatre?

Playback Theatre is an original form of improvisational theatre in which audience or group members tell stories from their lives and watch them enacted on the spot. 

You might notice one difference from conventional theatre stand out - Both the audience and performers go through a reactive and intimate journey.

Alright. Onwards

Principle 1 - Listen

Listen. Listen to everything said from the start to the end. Listen to everything unsaid. Listen to the colors. Listen to the intent. Listen to the feeling.

That might be the first, and the last time the story is shared. It's not going to be repeated the same way or with the same emotion—a literal FOMO moment.

Listen independent of where you are - You can be one of the performers or the musicians or the conductor or not yet part of that scene. Who knows, you can get called into action, or in a moment of intuitive serendipity, you jump right into it.

Each Playback evening contains numerous events patched together. In the end, when you look at that patchwork, the narrative ends up looking cohesive more often than not. "Makes sense" feeling. This conclusion is owed to the uninterrupted listening happening across the floor.

Principle 2 - Do justice.

Applause is addictive, and unfortunately, funny things draw more applause. More unfortunately, more applause incorrectly equates to more value. The reality is that it is just one dimension, and not every story is entirely "funny" - some parts indeed, but not everything.

Instead, focus on the story at hand. Bring in the dimensions, the silver threads invisible at the outset, that shine with exciting perspectives. You will not get the applause every time, but - you will know that exact moment when your performance hits home.

Principle 3 - Borrow

My playback group had many incredibly talented people. They came from diverse different walks of life. We can always learn about how they do things — all good. The problem though arises when we try to replicate it as-is. The best way is to apply the techniques from the inside-out. Typically, our perception is limited to the outside-in perspective, and we do not necessarily understand everything that takes place that got them to that point in their performance.

In my opinion, everybody copies. If that doesn't sound agreeable, let me rephrase - everybody can get inspired. Get inspired and borrow as we land on our "own" version that works best for our goals.

Principle 5 - You

Be aware of yourself - your mind, soul, and body.

Your body and mind have to be in sync. One cannot go too far away from the other. There is a healthy gap you can allow for yourself. A gap that requires some work to catch up, i.e., work on yourself during your downtime.

Your body and mind give you signals when you overexert yourselves. And like any vital machinery, it raises alerts when stressed. There is the polite plea - "Please don't do that". Then there is the edge-of-breakdown "QUIT DOING THAT, YOU IDIOT!".

Get in touch with yourself so you can hear and respond to these "codes". For whatever reason, if these are not handled, it might get suppressed for a while. However, this tends to build up over time. And without exception, it will blow up (don't ask me when), that's going to be more than just a momentary inconvenience.

Principle 6 - You can't "act" it

After the honeymoon phase, I spent a fair amount of time thinking that I am not doing a good job and do not belong in the theatre group. So I tried sweeping it under the rug and tried "acting" my way out of it. Of course, it didn't work. One could quickly tell the cracks in my performances. Not fun.

It took a while to get my bearings right. What helped me was to realize whether this is something I want. If yes, then I have to believe that I must have some potential (not too much, don't want to disturb the impostor). Potential enough, at least to reach a state where I have sufficient data to evaluate how good or bad I was in reality. 

(In case you are wondering - I wasn't too bad, I think; I can recount a sufficient number of those "ah!" moments where I did get it right. I'll take it)

Principle 7 - Mistakes

During a performance, everybody can make a mistake sometimes, and most are just one performance away from making a mistake. These mistakes are often more magnified to you than the rest, and like a gift that keeps giving, thinking more about the error only leads to more mistakes. Though I haven't mastered the solution personally, I have seen it in action so many times. It is a two-step process.

Step 1 - Forget about the mistake immediately for a few minutes - Temporary Amnesia - Skip ahead to the future where that moment never happened as far as you are concerned. After all, it is improv; you have to keep improvising - that is the expectation.

Step 2 - Persistence - Hold this mindset till the performance is over, do not let go. I repeat, do not let go. Persist till the finish.

The keyword in Temporary Amnesia is "Temporary". So naturally, you allow yourself to remember and review the incident. If it is deemed severe enough, work out a long term resolution.

(Temporary Amnesia is a superpower if you ask me)

Yes, and...

Most engineering conversations, especially during reviews, regularly involve "No, but...", "No, and..." and "Yes, but...". They help build concrete concepts by testing them against the pitfalls and fallacies. These processes converge and drill deep into it rather than expand. Expanding on an idea as it is in progress usually leads to a loss of focus. It is not a good thing in a startup in general. 

One of the core tenets of improv - "Yes, and..." (and something inherent in Playback Theatre) goes against what I just said above. The principle allows expanding on ideas as we go along. Nevertheless, it's a fun exercise to put yourself through. It is my belief that it helps increasing one's mental agility.

But not something you want to start using in your code/spec reviews, I'm sure :)

Question for you - What do you consider is core for the "Startup Mindset"?

P.S - If you are curious about Playback Theater like me, the best way to learn more is by participating. The present is as good a time as any.

Also published on LinkedIn.