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A CU Boulder theatre and dance group is heading to Paonia in January to facilitate conversations related to recent economic and social changes in the community. 

“Let’s Talk, Paonia!” workshops for students and community members will be held Jan. 8 to 11 and are hosted by the North Fork Valley Creative Coalition and the Paonia Creative District.  

Susie Lowe, executive director of the coalition and the district, invited the CU Boulder Playback Ensemble to create these community workshops. The ensemble uses real-life experiences to help communities facing social, economic or environmental change to navigate these issues, and is piloting this community outreach program in Paonia. 

“Paonia is a town in transition, and as we address issues around economic development, resilience, diversity and change, we have noticed a splintering within the community,” Lowe said. “Our desire is to bridge the gap between the differing perspectives within our town.”

The workshops are designed for different audiences and people are invited to drop in and participate:


  • Small Business Owners: Wednesday, Jan. 8 • 6:30 to 8 p.m. • KVNF Community Room, 233 Grand Ave.
  • Long-time residents and Senior Citizens: Thursday, Jan. 9 • 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. • Paonia Bowie Museum, 700 Shady Lane (by River Park)
  • Artists, Improvisors, Community Members: Learn to do Playback!: Friday, Jan. 10 • 6 to 8 p.m. • Blue Sage Center for the Arts, 228 Grand Ave. 


Known as “playback theatre,” it is improv with a purpose. Audience members contribute true stories and see them “played back” by an ensemble of actors who retell the story in ways that encourage understanding across difference. 

“Our goal is to hold the space, honoring the teller of the story and honoring our shared experiences,” said Jim Walker, a CU Boulder faculty member, who helped start the campus group. “We hope this can help build community in public spaces, to identify the things that we all care about.”

Ondine Geary, theatre and dance outreach coordinator at CU Boulder and principal founder of the group, described it as a cross between a town hall meeting and an improvisational performance, where one actor from the ensemble (“the conductor”) asks questions that address the specific concerns of the audience. Then the rest of the actors reenact the story, focusing on the emotions or tensions expressed. 

“We try to playback a person’s experience without judgment or without offering solutions,” Geary said. “Our job is to listen actively and with empathy and to give back what was given.”

Playback theatre started in 1975 and has been practiced in more than 30 countries. In Afghanistan, victims of violence have been trained to share their stories as a way to redress the legacies of human rights abuses. In Memphis, a local playback theatre company helped to repair trust between the community and police. 

Businesses also have used the techniques to develop management and communications skills and for diversity awareness. Studies have shown that playback theatre can improve relationships, relieve stress, facilitate reconciliation and more, Geary said.

“Through the playback theatre workshops, which are designed to give everyone a voice to share their stories and opinions, we hope to build understanding, empathy, trust and respect,” said Lowe. “True community building can only be achieved by dismantling the differences that divide our society.”  

The ensemble plans to return to Paonia in 2021 to lead additional community workshops. The workshops are supported through CU Boulder outreach as well as theatre and dance funding. 

The coalition is fostering economic growth through the arts as part of the Colorado Creative Industries statewide program, and is partnering with theatre and dance faculty on different projects, including an annual graduate dance residency that performs and leads dance programs each May.