How did we get here? VN&Co founder and president Tim Van Ness explains.
Our work has been greatly informed by Playback Theatre. Playback is an original form of improvisational theatre based on the enactment of real-life stories shared by audience members. Founded in 1975 by Jonathan Fox with Jo Salas and other members of the original Playback Theatre company, it is now practiced in over 60 countries in numerous diverse settings including clinical, educational, organizational, and purely theatrical. At its core, Playback honors each story and draws people closer together in community as they see and experience their common humanity.
I discovered Playback Theatre in 1985 while studying at the University of Colorado at Boulder. This, it turns out, was rather peculiar, for I grew up in New Paltz, NY, essentially the birthplace of Playback. It’s where the original company began performing in the mid 1970’s. At the time, I was quite involved in theatre both at high school and throughout the community. Somehow, strangely, I never came across this merry band of players, until years later. I think of it now as my “Dorothy” story – you sometimes have to journey far from home to discover what’s in you’re own back yard.
In Boulder, I was attempting to study both Music Education and Theatre. This proved to be practically impossible. Music Ed. in itself is a double major, with all the Education requirements and all the Music requirements. Trying to juggle the rehearsal and performance schedule of both the music department and the theatre department was physically quite impossible. And I was not studying Opera or Musical Theatre. So discovering Playback was for me a life saver. Because Playback is an improvisational form, and having found the local Boulder Playback Theatre company, I could simply show up on Tuesday evening, rehearse with the group, and perform monthly or more. That both scratched my theatre itch and freed up enough time to fully engage with Music Ed studies.
After graduation, I moved to the Boston area and c0-founded Boston Playback Theatre in 1989 with two Playback colleagues, Jackie Fitzwater and Laine Starr. “Fitz” and Laine had both attended a weekend workshop and were passionate about Playback. Being the one with performance experience, I took on the mantle of training the company. It was during these years that I began training directly with Jonathan Fox, the founder of Playback, back in my hometown of New Paltz. When Jonathan officially formed the School of Playback Theatre in the early ’90’s, I became part of the first graduating class. Joining the first board of directors of the International Playback Theatre Network provided wider access to global Playback practitioners.
In 1994 I moved to Western Massachusetts and founded Valley Playback Theatre. This was another deeply important, and somewhat magical experience. I began by holding open workshops. I found a space at a local community center, negotiating free space in exchange for offering free community performances once we were up and running. I printed posters and hung them all around town, sticking them in the office mailboxes at work. I printed up and mailed out cards to my slowly growing mailing lists. I posted free listings in the local arts newspaper. Yes, this was all before the internet was widely used. On the appointed day, I packed up my truck with all my Playback gear; Suitcases of colorful cloths, a step ladder for a “cloth tree”, bags of musical instruments, milk crates for “rehearsal cubes”, pulled into the community center, loaded it all in, set it all up and sat and waited. No one showed up. After waiting a while, I stood up, did a bit of a ritual, told a story, acted it by myself, packed all my stuff up, loaded it out, packed up my truck and went home. A few weeks later, I did the same thing, put up more posters, sent out more cards, made some phone calls, loaded in, set up and waited. No one showed again. Not giving up, I stood up, created a magic circle, sang, danced, and enacted a story by myself, packed up, loaded out and went home. A few weeks later, the same routine. A dozen people showed up. I had begun.
How to structure the leadership of the company was another question with which I grappled. Boston Playback, having been co founded by the three of us, operated, by default, under a consensus, shared decision making model. While that had some advantages, I wanted something different for my next venture. I crafted an audition process and carefully chose people I thought were the right fit, maintaining my leadership role as the primary decision maker. While I appreciated and invited input, I was the one responsible for the final decisions.
Not long after we formed and began performing in the community, I got a call from Ira Bryck. Ira was, and is still, the Director of the Family Business Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, running programs on various business topics for family owned and operated businesses in the area. He had heard about me through the grapevine. Wanting to do something different from the typical, strategy, finance, estate planning type programs, Ira had been eager to do some theatre. Valley Playback improvised based on characters and situations Ira had in mind. Together, we co-created a play in three acts that dramatized a lot of classic issues in family business, those personal family dynamics that ultimately impact business decisions and hence the bottom line. Performed as dinner theatre, audience members discussed in between the acts the issues they saw being played out. At the end, we performed Playback Theatre, inviting people to share feelings of what it was like to see this all-too-familiar story played out on stage, then inviting them to tell their own stories, important moments from their lives in family business.
I found my Playback Theatre company becoming a family business theatre company. This essentially served as a springboard for Valley Playback to begin working more with organizations. A subset of us formed DramaWorks InterActive, creating a more substantial business, ultimately to use theatre as a way of exploring organizational culture. We utilized Playback and a variety of other action based methods and improvisational approaches for helping organizations with values, leadership and culture.
In 2004, when I experienced my partners and I having differing views on the strategic direction of the company, and for some personal reasons, I left DramaWorks and founded Van Ness & Company. Since then I’ve been gathering around me a magnificent cadre of highly skilled and inspiring colleagues. Continuing the work I forged through all previous company iterations, and doing contract work to deliver leadership development training and coaching globally for other vendors, Van Ness & Co has honed its skill, craft and expertise. In 2016, Kevin Shayne pitched me the idea of becoming my COO with the goal of truly growing VN&Co to a whole new level.