“Best Friends? Not Quite” – Børge Kristoffersen and Audun Mollan Kristoffersen

Playback Theatre in elementary school [1]

Børge Kristoffersen and Audun Mollan Kristoffersen


Mariam was in the fourth grade and was the only one of the twenty students who wore a hijab. Now she talked about her dream day. A Playback Theatre (PT) company with actors and musician stood on the playing space in the classroom, a rack of silk cloth in all colours to use in the play were also there and Mariam sat on her chair and had a dialogue with the conductor. The theme of the performance was No one left on the outside, a programme initiated by Save the Children that builds on children’s rights around participation and solidarity, a topic that is in the fourth grade curriculum. The programme seeks to encourage   an inclusive school environment and seeks to increase solidarity with children from other countries. In one of the No one left on the outside booklets this is about being involved, to be seen, heard and respected, and not to be left out in friendship and play (Redd Barna, 2006). In advance for the performance, the class had worked with the student manual: No one left on the outside games. The booklet shows games that are being played by children from different parts of the world. One of the games described is called Dream Play-Day. It begins with the following: “Imagine if you could get a dream play-day! A day where you can do whatever you want, with whomever you want! What would you do then?” Now it was Mariam who found herself in the teller’s chair telling about her dream day.

In this article we describe how PT is an aesthetic and symbolic medium – and how it can contribute to creating knowledge in a didactic room. The theatre company employed here was Teater Momentum who  had seven members with broad pedagogical and art backgrounds. The company have specialised in performances in connection with building networks, school development and within organisations (Østern, 2008). Different connections were necessary before the PTperformance could engage with the school’s and the students’ reality: There was a meeting with the head teacher, the coordinator for the fourth graders and the teachers. Contact was established with the students and observation in the classroom, research into their time schedule and their curriculum, and at last research of the programme No one left on the outside. There were forty three students and among them sixteen had a background identifying them as immigrants. Before the performance a conducter-plan was made and an interview guide for after the performance, and Teater Momentum had a series of rehearsals that were dedicated to this theme.

In this context PT is a theatre form that, in an embodied way, strives to build the students’ cultural reading competencies by relating to the general part of the Norwegian curriculum Kunnskapsløftet, a part that contained the formation of  social and cultural based knowledge (Kunnskapsdepartementet, 2006, P. 3-35).

Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas (1999) formed PT in the 1970s as an inclusive and improvisation based community theatre form. The audience is invited to tell about memories of their experiences spun around a theme, and the stories are played back by a musician and actors in a condensed and aesthetic form. Woven into this theatre’s values and cultural expression is that people need to tell stories to know who they are as individuals and as part of a community. Through the stories we tell, about ourselves and our world, we crystallize and we communicate our social and personal self-understanding. Beside the stories, the rituals are important fundaments in this theatre form. (Salas, 1996, p. 97).
Research question and analysis

This article seeks to informpeople within schools, about what playback is and what it could do within the school curriculum. This is therefore the research question we seek to answer: How is Playback Theatre created, received and understood within the framework of “No one left on the outside” with fourth graders in a school located within an area with a large immigrant population?
Our pre-understanding in the analysis in this article is that to tell, to be listened to and to see the stories being enacted creates openness, trust, and promotes cooperation. In this article we have chosen one of a total of fifteen stories that was told in one of the two performances. By following one story we have found it easier to create a limited entry to the analysis. As a basis for analysis, we use new theories of the effect narrative has in learning processes. Data was collected by video observations and after conversations with ten of the children and from drawings from twenty students that were audience in this performance.

The dream day is to “Go to the grocery shop”

Mariam’s story was developed together with the conductor. The conductor is the one who directs the performance in PT, and before Mariam came up to the teller’s chair, twelve different shorter and longer stories were told. The performance had lasted for half an hour when the conducter asked about what their dream day looked like? A day they could do whatever they desired, what did they want to do then? Many hands came up and two of the boys responded: “Playing football all day.” One of the girls said: “Playing handball”. Since both football and handball had been a topic for discussion earlier it was natural to follow up when Mariam said: “Go to the grocery shop.”
Asked whether she wanted to talk about her dream day Mariam answered “yes”, and consequently she developed her story along with the conductor.First she would be at school, and afterwards go to a grocery shop with Elise. There they would buy different candies, especially chocolate, which Mariam liked best. In each other’s company they would share these candies. After that they would play, become best friends and be together all day. When she got home that night she would tell her mother what she had experienced during her dream day. Whilst telling her story she chose two actors to play her and her friend Elise.

About children’s stories

Recent research on children shows that children learn from telling stories (narratives) about themselves and their world. To be able to translate stories into a coherent structure, as one does by telling, is learning (Gjems, 2007).
With Mariam the story in the teller’s chair was developed in collaboration, and in dialogue, with an adult. It was through collaborating on developing a story, another way of saying it, that it became constructed knowledge. Within sociocultural theory this kind of learning is called appropriation (Gjems, 2007, p.9) – which means learning through experience and participation. Children are newcomers in many arenas in life and through active participation and dialogue they appropriate concepts, perspectives-taking and skills. When Mariam told of her dream day, she took part in the community with their linguistic experience and competences. The knowledge that the community possesses being applied to her own through the linguistic act. A guiding participant must therefore know about the importance of inviting children to share, and to be listened to. PT here can be seen as a form of interaction that supports children in appropriating the environment’s knowledge, and this time it was No one left on the outside which was the theme of the knowledge formation.

That this is a long and slow process is underlined by Bruner’s (1984) and Goodson´s (1992, 1996) theory about their understanding about how stories (narratives) develop – and how it turns into learning (Moen, 2004, p. 34).  They break this process into four parts: life as lived, life as experienced, life as told and life as retold.

Life as lived refers to what really happened. The incident as it actually is. Every moment we go through while we are in our lives. Life as experienced is always after the event life as lived. Life as experienced consists of a mixture of beliefs, emotions, perceptions, desires, dreams, thoughts and opinions; in short, a way to store, to categorize, some of the events for life as lived that have had some effects on us in some way. Often experiences could poetically be understood as an jagget mosaic of our internal world, they are often not clear before they are expressed in an external form . Life as told is the story as it comes into the world, to a listener (listeners) in a social context. Here comes the linguistic action, a narrative structure – a narrative to someone in the world. We must be able to imagine that there is a close relationship between these three; life as lived, life as experienced and life as told in a learning process. Often the narratives in life as told could change in time and change according to  whom one is telling the story. It could change because through telling one can see new things in life as experienced, and maybe through that recognize forgotten aspects in life as lived.  It is when this narrative process changes that the fourth dimension occurs, life as retold. Life as retold refers to when you draw some knowledge out of the stories in life as told, when one is creating an interpersonal understanding and meaning from the story that is told. In our case it was the conductor, as guided participant, who helped so that Mariam could create a story about her dream day, thus making her desire to narrate a story, to life as told. It is often the fourth dimension, life as retold, that PT adds when a story is converted and played back in an aesthetic and symbolic form. Through that, PT becomes a possible art encounter for the teller.

“Best Friends? Not quite “- the aesthetic transformation

The conductor turns to the actors and musicians after Mariam told her story:

“Let us see Mariam’s dream day: It starts with her at school –she goes to the store together with Elise, buys sweets which she shares with her friend, when she gets home she tells us about her dream day to her mother.
Let’s watch! “

A fundamental shift occurs when a story is transferred from the telling to the actors and musician. The actors have heard the story as it was told by Mariam. They have also received a re-telling through the conductor with some guided frames. The ritual statement: “Let’s watch!” marks a move away from the telling and over to the actors and musicians. Now the story is made into theatre and played for an audience where it also must have a general interest. The task in PT is to transform the story scenically as an aesthetic and symbolic medium. Theatrical transformation in PT heightens the narrative. In this way the story becomes everyone’s story, not just Mariam’s. A central idea here is that human experience and dreams can find new meaning when they are communicated in aesthetic form, as is experienced here.

An example is when Mariam in her story, a little hesitant, says that she wished she and Elise could be best friends, but they were not that, yet, “not quite”. The phrase “not quite” has ambiguous meaning that is not being amplified in the story, but which however can be used in a dramatic production. On stage, the issue with two friends ensues as follows:

Music plays and the actors turn the chairs into swings. They move them back and forth with the music. Miriam and her friend are moving at the same pace, swinging ahead and back intact, a kind of dance. The friends are sharing sweets and chocolate, while the chairs rock.

Mariam (from the swing):              “Should we be best friends?”
Elise:                                             “Do I want to be your friend?”
Mariam:                                         “Yes?”
Elise:                                             “Yes, I will be very happy.”
(They get off the swing, the music stops, they approach each other, watching each other and shake hands).
Elise:                                             “Then we’re best friends then.”
Mariam:                                         “Yes!”

In fiction Mariam’s desire to become best friends with Elise is shown. Throughout the play, the movements, the music, the words and action are different aspects interwoven in a new way. Mariam’s story was retold in a form that created new meaning, valid also for others. On stage it was shown how friendship can be formed. The aesthetic and symbolic shape widens the room when stories are retold as theatre, the theatrical actions transforming the story.

In the final scene, when Mariam came home to her mother, another layer of this transformation is experienced:

Mom:          “Hey! How have you been today? ”
Mariam:        I’ve had my day dreaming. I have eaten chocolate, me and my friend, Elise, bought chocolates at

                    the grocery shop. And she will be my best friend! ”
Mom:          “You know what! I can see that on you, I can see that you look so happy. I see that you’ve had a fine


Mariam:      “Yes, that is not strange, because I have had my dream day!”

(Music plays. The mother hugs her daughter. Both stand facing the audience, smiling. The music stops, the actors freeze.  The actors turn their eyes towards Mariam in the teller’s chair, they are now standing in neutral. Applause).

In the encounter with her mother, Mariam could say what she had experienced on her dream day. She was met with acknowledgment and recognition, which reinforced the importance of establishing Elise as her best friend. In this scene Mariam was seen by her mother, and she got the last word. She could say that it was certainly not so strange that she was happy, she had, after all, got a best friend, and had a dream day! Through being affirmed she had the opportunity to answer her mother, and through that making clear for themselves that they carry a newly established friendship.

Afterwards, the story is sent back from actors and musicians to the teller through a ritual form.

Ritualistic moves in playback

Rituals in PT are formal-modified phrases (e.g. “Let’s watch”).  During the play the actors have their glance directed towards the audience, the teller could, in that way, experience a distance from the story. But when the story comes to an end the actors freeze their movements and look toward the teller. This ritual gesture is a language in playback, it says: “We have heard your story and we’ve played it as best we could. Now we give it back to you”. The conductor can then investigate if Mariam could relate to some of what had been shown? What she recognized? In the conversation between the conductor and Mariam the story is anchored in a new way through the question: What did you notice in particular? To which Mariam answered: “When we went to the grocery store.” After a brief conversation the teller went back to the audience. Mariam could put herself back among her classmates, where she came from. And after her another teller was invited up.

“Theatre is not quite exact – but one could recognize ones story”

The day after the performance the students were given a task to draw a memory from the performance. Miriam drew the picture below:

  Figure 1

There were four actors, two women and two men who played back her story. She probably drew aspects of her own story as she saw it retold by the four on stage. In the drawing we see four actors. We see the grocery store to the left, with sweets in different colours. The actors are surrounded by different colours; red, yellow, pink and blue. Another who was in the audience during performances drew this:

Figure 2

It is Mariam and Elise drawn here. It is likely that it is after they had become best friends. The one who played Mariam wore a turquoise jacket, while the one who played Elise in the story had red hair. Miriam is holding candy in her hand, and next to her there are more sweets in different colours. The drawing says something about the two on stage that have become best friends, and not Mariam who, in reality, was wearing a hijab. This is interesting from the perspective of aesthetic transformation and learning processes. Miriam was the only one wearing a hijab. She wanted to be best friends with Elise. On stage we get a generalization of the theme in the story and the one who drew saw the two actors become best friends.

Listening to a story

To listen to a story is also to hear what is not being said. There are both direct and indirect aspects within one story, something being said and simultaneously,something that cannot be said, but which nonetheless is present in the story. Mariam’s story was created in a context where the theme was that no one should be on the outside, and students were invited to talk about their dream day. In that way the story was also about existence and about what one wishes for, about otherness and the desire to be part of a community. In Mariam’s story a number of perspectives could be sensed, for example, about ethnicity, about being a cultural minority, to be differently dressed, about the possibility of being isolated because of religious affiliation, and last, but not least, how to become friends with someone. All this is part of Mariam’s story, they are indirect aspects of it and they were not articulated directly. PT as a symbolic medium can draw this out without identifying and exposing the teller. The aesthetic and symbolic form of expression can provide the theme of the narratives, and thus highlight themes beyond the obvious. That way, the story is given dignity and can be made universal. Mariam’s subjective desire to be friends with Elise was made public, and that, as the public, we all could take part in the beauty of the two becoming friends. The second drawing says something in general about the theme in Mariam’s story (Figure 2). The girl that drew this drawing had identified herself with what she saw on the stage, and not Mariam wearing a hijab.

Bruner figuratively refers to this phenomenon as ‘islands of consciousness’.  An island of consciousness relates to other islands so that experiences and events relate to each other in new ways. This is the basis for social learning, says Bruner. In our context, it is also about the formation of social and cultural basic knowledge in a didactic room at a school in an area with a large immigrant population.  In this article it is described as an additional language called aesthetic transformation. He called this language “metaphoric transformation of the ordinary”. It is through this language that stories can be raised and made generally applicable – which is central in PT, but also in the theory of narrative significance for learning. According to Bruner (1986: p.4) in Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, narratives creates a of world of opportunity.  Throughout the narrative, other realities open up, constructing possible new ways of seeing the world, and with Playback aesthetic and symbolic expression can be involved in creating these possible worlds. Personal stories in PT can have beauty for others, even strangers, and theatrical aesthetic and symbolic language can say a lot more than what is said in words. Listening in PT is also about expressing the indirect sides of a story.

Mariam’s experience?

How Mariam experienced seeing her story played back in the PT form we do not know so much about. She confirmed to the conductor after the play, that she recognised her story in the play.  She also said that it was fun to see that she and Elise went to the grocery shop together. Her body language, the smile and the glitter in her eyes also expressed something which might be assumed to be,joy and pride. More than that we do not know from her, but in general, we know that an aesthetic experience touches the senses. Experience relates to the senses – hearing, touch, smell and sight – expands perception and is part of what resides in PT as a form. Feelings have their natural place when stories are translated into theatre. A story that is re-told within PT can therefore also build identity. What is played back could show something that has not been clearly thought through nor expressed in words before; it may surprise the teller and give a new experience. The story that is re-told through PT can show something new about oneself and for the teller who experiences this can be of great personal significance. The transformative here can lie in getting out of one’s narrative about oneself and into another one. It is at least possible to think this about Mariam’s story, through her smile and the light in her eyes when she went back to her seat after telling her story. But first and foremost it is possible for the teller to experience their story from a distance, in a kind of protective distance. She can absorb what she wants and let the rest be – until later. In PT the teller can live through her story with a protected distance. The theatre’s symbolic language and the goal of aesthetic transformation permit that.

Playback theatre in the “No one left on the outside”-programme

Human contact that occurs through personal narratives is the opposite of isolation and alienation, it is hypothesized in this theatre form. On the other hand, inadequate involvement has isolation and alienation as one of its consequences. PT is based on the stories as they are expressed in given contexts, here through the anti-bullying programme, No one left on the outside, in a school in an area with a large immigrant population. Solidarity, inclusiveness and participation are central in the programme and the same values for PT as a form. To understand what PT can contribute in such a programme, we must address again the concept of transformation, as used earlier in the article.. In this transformation is linked to exceedance, realization, the formation and development of personality (Galtung 2003; Gadamer 1999; Vygotsky 1978).  It is a key concept in both the social and cultural field, as well as in aesthetic practice. We will still use the example about Mariam to give the concept of transformation further substance.

Mariam’s goal, her desire, was to have a best friend. Having an ability and courage to express a desire is the first step that one must take to realize goals. To be met with an empathic attitude enables a chance to express desire. Secondly, the desire needs a form to be expressed through, in this context the desire or story was enabled through PT as a theatrical form. PT, as an aesthetic transformative form, gave the possibility for the audience to witness how a close   friendship could be formed through stage actions. Everyone could see how Mariam and Elise became best friends, and afterwards how she was met by her mother. Through this, stage action could give the audience a new script. Bruner (1987) and Goodson (1992) use the term ‘script’ about storytelling in the learning processes. ‘Script’ is the interpretation template we use to understand our stories. Depending on our experiences we create our own interpretation templates and ideas about what it is like to be with others, also called relational-script. Such scripts are inherited early on and have individual, social, and cultural structures in them. Through aesthetic transformation, Mariam could see a new script for how she could become best friends with Elise. And this did not only count for her, in conversation after the performance another student said, “I have learned about Mariam’s dream day, and I will never forget it”.

Through this example of an encounter with art, we have pointed out how art as an aesthetic form could create a way for a more inclusive school and with a better understanding of children who come from other countries. In multicultural Norway attitudes, actions and  aesthetic transformations like PT, could be a contribution to create a more inclusive school.

“Are you coming tomorrow?”

The statement: “Not quite,” in response to Mariam being best friends with Elise, was the first impulse in this article to show how PT as a form could be used in a programme like No one left on the outside. That no one should be on the outside is a measure of the formation of knowledge about solidarity, inclusion and participation in the school, and PT has here been a designer of that. To tell, to be listened to and watching stories played back promotes openness, confidence building and cooperation. The ways in which it can be received and subsequently how it can be understood in the formation of social and cultural basic knowledge in schools within a given programme. Other stories could also have served as examples, because in an overarching plan, stories from students are not just about learning. They are learning in itself. They are authentic voices, experiences that come from within. They have the right to be heard as part of the curriculum, if the school actually seeks to take the students voices seriously, as it is claimed in the Norwegian Official Report To belong, a report whose aim is to try to decrease bullying within the Norwegian school (NOU 2015). Lars Løvlie borrows Day Østerberg’s concepts of external and internal texts, when he describes the necessity of internal texts in school if this ideal is to be achieved. The Norwegian curriculum provides answers to what, but not who the individual is. To understand who the individual might be requires a different category type of text than the external text that the curriculum is currently written in. This requires knowledge of how to meet, form and extend internal texts, and here PT was an excellent tool for that.

Children’s stories are internal texts, and as we have seen from Bruner they form the premise for learning- they are learning. That the children themselves wanted a larger space for internal texts in the school was expressed by their immediate and direct manner after the performance. When the after-performance conversation came to an end, they were going back to their class and work, and we were going on our way. Before we separated one of the boys asked: “Are you coming back tomorrow?” We had to answer truthfully, “No”.   As we headed for the door we asked: “Do you wish that we would come back tomorrow?” “Yes,” he replied and went down the corridor.


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