After 10 years as a special education teacher, Virginia Murphy was inspired by her school’s use of arts as a therapeutic tool. She pursued a graduate degree in counseling psychology and drama therapy. It was in this academic environment that she was first introduced to the theatrical concept that would change her life and the lives of thousands around her. Virginia has spent the last decade leading Playback Memphis, a theater company she created to build individual and community healing through deeper listening. Welcome today’s FACE of Memphis, Virginia Murphy!
Where were you born, and what was your upbringing like?
I was born right here in Memphis. I went to St. Mary’s School. At the time, I did not have the awareness of the privilege that I had. When I was in the 10th grade, I had the opportunity to begin to tutor at the Neighborhood Christian Center. That was my first shift in consciousness. The inequities were glaring to me, and all of a sudden I started to become more aware of the history of what it meant to live in a city whose culture was built on a racist ideology borne out of slavery.
Were you involved in theater in your youth?
I was in the Youth Concert Ballet, but beyond that, I didn’t do theater in high school or college. I was fortunate enough when I landed my first teaching job I worked in a school that used the arts as a medium for working therapeutically with the students. I saw what an amazing impact that it had and became really much more interested in that than in traditional teaching.
How were you introduced to the concept of playback theater?
As part of your training as a drama therapist, you’re introduced to other forms of experimental theater that are connected, so you take a course in playback theatre. I kind of fell in love with it from the very beginning. I joined Big Apple Playback Theatre and performed with them for about five years in New York before moving back to Memphis.
When my husband Joe and I came to Memphis, we knew we wanted to build a playback company. I knew that I wanted to be part of building a healing legacy. I saw that this could potentially be an avenue for doing that, a useful tool.
For those unfamiliar, how do you explain what playback theatre is?
At our core, we’re a performance group. At our performances, audience members share true stories from their lives, and we have a team of actors and musicians who bring it to life, on the spot, using music and movement and metaphor. So it’s an art form, but more than that, it’s a healing, restorative practice. It’s particularly effective at helping people to understand what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes and live in someone else’s skin. As much as we strive to tell deep stories, which are sometimes complex and challenging and painful, it’s really a spirit-filled, hope-filled experience.
How does the company perform in Memphis?
When we first launched into the world, we had Memphis Matters, which is our public performance series. It’s interactive theater, and all the stories come from the audience. In addition, nonprofits have the opportunity to apply for us to engage their group as a community partner. We’re really interested in working with people whose stories often go unheard.
Then we have a program called Performing the Peace (PTP). It’s a pioneering collaboration with the Memphis Police Department and a reentry program in Frayser called Lifeline to Success. That program is a 12-session experience that brings together seven police officers and seven Lifeliners, who are all individuals who have been incarcerated. We break down barriers of distrust and build authentic relationships and teach empathy and deep listening.
The Lifeliners really felt that if they’d had this kind of experience earlier in their lives it could have made the difference for them. Because of them, we now have a program called Be the Peace, where we’re working with two schools in Frayser to build positive school culture and strengthen social and emotional competencies. This year we also engaged over 1,500 students in the Shelby County Schools delivering an anti-bullying program.
We have fee-for-service work, too, so sometimes we’ll just be contracted. We do diversity training and team-building experiences.
After such powerful experiences, do participants stay connected with the company?
We’ve expanded and have something called Whole-Hearted Leadership Circle, which is for anyone who has gone through PTP who wants to come back together to support one another, connect and reflect on how they’re applying what they learned.
Our apprentice ensemble is a very important part of our story, too. These are individuals who have gone through PTP, have a passion for playback and want to continue on as apprentice ensemble members, so they perform with us regularly. Being able to earn a living wage using their playback skills to lead transformative change in their neighborhood is something they never imagined possible before, and it’s something we are so excited we can support!
How do you see the connections created through Playback reflected in the community?
The first thing that comes to mind is a story about one of the PTP participants. He was out working and saw Cody, an officer who had participated in PTP, at a gas station or something deep in Frayser, and got out of the car and just ran over to give him a huge hug, and everybody was like, “What’s that guy doing hugging that guy?”
I want to be very clear that I don’t minimize at all that police-community relations, particularly in the African-American community – they’re not all hugs. But I think that what we do is create a space where people can see what’s possible. The profound nature of our work is that it gives people hope.
What makes Memphis well suited for this type of expression?
Memphis is a city that has a very strong narrative connected to this ancient pain. I think that we’re passionate storytellers and we’re deep feelers, and there is a quality of aliveness in Memphis that is very well suited to Playback. And it’s a theater of love, and I think that Memphis is really a city of love.
What are your favorite non-theatrical arts experiences in Memphis?
I love the Levitt Shell and how that brings such a broad cross-section of Memphis together with so many different kinds of music. I’m really appreciating and enjoying Crosstown these days. I just saw an exhibit there of Ernest Withers photographs that had never been seen before.
What would be your ideal way to spend a free day?
I live that once a year — the Soulsville USA festival. That’s my dream day. I love that it’s small, but there’s just a good vibe. There are so many great musical offerings, and I love that I can ride my bike there, and it’s usually got good fall light.
What is your best advice?
Ask yourself what you’re doing to be worthy of others’ trust. We say this a lot in Playback: with trust, almost anything is possible, and without it, almost nothing at all.
What three things can you not live without?
Yoga, camping and my extended Playback family
Thank you so much, Virginia, for your service and dedication to Memphis. And thank you to Mary Kate Steele for the beautiful photos.
Looking for more incredible women of the South? Check out other Memphis FACES, and prepare to be amazed!