A Letter from Jonathan – Conflict at Conferences

Conflict at conferences

A letter to the IPTN community

By Jonathan Fox

Dear colleagues and playback theatre conference organizers,

The last European Playback Theatre conference, which took place in Amsterdam, began with a fantastic mix of national melodies enabling participants from over 30 countries to stand and identify themselves. It was a joyous moment, as groups danced exuberantly to their national music, embodying the excitement we always feel when we hold international playback meetings.

The organizers also asked Jo Salas and me to conduct a half-hour segment of playback theatre focusing on the conference theme—active citizenship. This playback segment turned out to be surprisingly contentious. What shot to the surface were a series of emotional-laden moments pointing to inter- and intra-national conflicts. Afterwards, many people, both those who had told, but not had time to tell fully, and those who were not given a chance to tell, felt dissatisfied.

I’ve been thinking about that opening ever since. Playback theatre’s reach is now so broad, extending fingers throughout the globe, that we may hold very different narratives about each other. The differences can lead to hard feelings.

The Amsterdam conference is just an example. Lately many of our gatherings have been shaken by eruptions of conflict. In my view we are often unprepared for them. In fact, I would say that in general playback performers and conductors are not well trained to handle contentious stories.                     

The purpose of this letter is to offer some suggestions for dealing with this issue. It will not be easy, but I see it as an opportunity to become clear on how we can manage conflict in playback theatre and thus deepen its overall usefulness and power.

Suggestion #1. Recognize that performing PT at a conference, especially at the opening, is a special kind of charged moment, with overlapping objectives, such as introducing conference members to one another and to the conference theme, helping participants settle in, and making diplomatic gestures. The time frame is always short and performers may not be practiced with one another, which leaves them vulnerable to mistakes. At the same time, it is an international forum and a tremendous opportunity to have one’s story heard. We should expect that any narrative might include issues of conflict, or trigger counternarratives from others; we can expect that as well as feelings of excitement and conviviality, feelings of anger or upset might arise.

Conductors and actors should be mindful and ready. They should have some knowledge of the cultural backgrounds of conference participants. They should have thought through beforehand the potential for possibly unsettling stories. Performers should examine their own composition in relation to these potential stories. They should be sure to plan for sufficient time afterwards to debrief as a performing group.

Should the conductor be sure to give the “other side” a voice when a contentious narrative emerges? Not necessarily. This is a very complex question. While it is true that we want to promote fairness as well as respect, a number of factors enter the picture. I will mention just two.

First are the time and purpose factors already mentioned. There is not time at an opening adequately to hear from both sides in what may be a highly complex, generations-old conflict. The opening has other purposes.

Furthermore, we must also honor our commitment to hearing from the voice with less access, less traditional power. Justice may demand hearing from those tellers, where acceding to a demand for equal time will only perpetuate the presence of the dominant voice.

There is no magic formula here. The important thing is for conductor and performers to be informed, personally aware, and strategic in their choices on the stage.

Suggestion #2. Create a standing home group expressly to deal with stories of conflict. What stories come up will depend on who signs up. But the existence of this home group will serve a number of purposes. It will make it clear to the playback community that including stories of conflict are an essential part of our practice. It will teach skills in dealing with them. And it will allow a longer time frame for working through issues that may arise at the conference.

Suggestion #3. No matter how well-run a conference is, there will always be rough edges. We should always make space towards the end of the conference expressly for people to express unhappy or uncomfortable feelings and see them enacted. It may be advantageous to use another method in conjunction with playback theatre, such as Theatre of the Oppressed or Worldwork. This session should be facilitated by a leader skilled in managing conflicting viewpoints.

Suggestion #4. This suggestion concerns the tellers—that is, every conference participant. In the sometimes intimidating presence of colleagues, in the crush to be seen, in the face of strange and unfamiliar cultural behavior, even in the proximity of my traditional enemy, can I maintain my authenticity? Can I be spontaneous, fitting my need to the appropriateness of the moment? Can I let others have the stage as well as myself? As colleagues who are also potential playback tellers, we all have responsibility. I imagine that we as a community can come up with guidelines for behavior at conferences that will be helpful to new and old participants observe a policy of good will and consideration for each other.

Suggestion #5. This suggestion is vague and uncertain, but I wonder if we can take advantage of modern technology to set up long-term vehicles for dealing with issues of conflict that arise at conferences. It might be a Facebook group, a Skype group, or some other means of enabling a small group to continue in dialogue with each other. Such an ongoing group would not be the same as doing playback theatre together, but it would allow what could be meaningful sharing that might build bridges for future gatherings.

Our playback gatherings are a time for joyful dancing, and also an opportunity to confront some of the difficulties of working together on the international stage.  Let’s find a constructive way to expect, even welcome the disruptive stories. Let’s make time for them. And in the process let’s expand our skills in playback theatre.

Jonathan Fox, co-founder, playback theatre


  • Michele CHUNG : Dear Jonathan,
    Thanks for the letter and the suggestions. For Suggestion#5, I would like to let you know that IPTN has have two online Exchange Hubs going since our last international conference and we have been discussing about things that we concern and questions we have in practising Playback. I think it would certainly be a good idea to run one Exchange Hub on this topic as well. Let me write you an email and discuss about it. The IPTN website, Facebook pages and Newsletter would certainly be a vehicle to support that need.
  • 2 Apr 2016
  • Brian Tasker : Oops! Looks like my comment was too long. I’ll submit it to the journal. Thanks for looking anyway. Brian
  • 10 Apr 2016
  • Michael Cheng : Brian, do continue as a separate comment. It would be a shame to leave us hanging! =)
  • 12 Apr 2016

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