Book Reviews – A Playback Theatre Toolkit

Book Reviews – A Playback Theatre Toolkit through the lens of one company’s experience by Anne and Christopher Ellinger and Playback Theatre Practice, Selected Articles  edited by Elizaveta Zagryazhskaya and Zoya Zagryazhskaya

Brian Tasker

It’s noteworthy that while Playback Theatre has celebrated its 40th anniversary, there are only a handful of printed books that have been published to support the development of the form.

There is Jonathan Fox’s Acts of Service, Improvising Real Life by Jo Salas, Playing the Other by Nick Rowe and a collection of essays entitled Gathering Voices edited by Jonathan Fox and Heinrich Dauber among a few others including the recent publication of The Way of Playback Theatre by Kayo Munakata. There’s more online including the CPT archive and this Journal with its extensive archive. There are also very many academic articles that are not so easily accessed. But printed books are few.

So it was a pleasure to review two additions to the printed Playback Theatre library, one a practical guide, A Playback Theatre Toolkit through the lens of one company’s experience and the other Playback Theatre Practice, a collection of reflective essays. Both are excellent resources that go a long way to bring the published literature up to date.  The Toolkit is also available as an electronic version as part of membership of Playback North America.  Both books contain so much information that I felt a descriptive review would work best with occasional pauses to reflect critically or otherwise on some of the points that come up.

It makes sense to review the Toolkit first. I must admit that initially, I was apprehensive about a book that would seemingly give away Playback’s trade secrets to the uninitiated and possibly subvert the perception of a need for training.  There is a caveat: “This toolkit is written with the assumption you have had training in Playback.” and there are reminders throughout the book of the importance of awareness around the work and what needs to be taken into account when practising Playback.  The Toolkit is affirmative and I particularly like the shared values that the Toolkit supports and I think it’s important to relax into the way in which the authors present those values. 

The Toolkit takes a supportive role and offers ideas from one group’s experience so you can see what they did about a particular issue or dilemma. The book operates as an aide memoire, a reflective tool, a catalogue of techniques and approaches, a resource of discussion points and a guide to good practice.  It suggests identifying training needs in a systematic way. If you don’t agree with the authors’ viewpoints, you get a point of departure for a debate.

There is a clear statement saying that the Toolkit is drawn from the authors’ experience of being in one company and isn’t intended as the ‘way’ to do Playback Theatre.  Actually there is much in the Toolkit that is broadly representative of what would occur in Playback Theatre generally and one of the joys of PT is that it can be recognised wherever you go by its rituals and structure.  Of course, there are internal variations between groups that develop over time. I do think that the Toolkit would be really helpful to anyone starting out in Playback Theatre in the early days after basic training when trying to meet the challenges of getting a new group established; later on when looking to perform and when developing as a business or just organising in some way. The toolkit is comprehensive in its coverage, detailed in every area and provides helpful handouts that can be printed off and used to support Playback practice (subject to restrictions).

Looking at it in more detail,the Toolkit is a comprehensive guide to the function of Playback Theatre in four parts. The first is Artistic Development that covers structures, skills, forms, conducting, performance issues and much, much more.  I particularly liked the self-assessment skills survey to help company members discover their learning edges.  The information provided throughout this section would be an invaluable reflective tool to support company development which is the title of the next section.

Company Development covers leadership, auditioning and integration of new members and valuable advice when a member wants to leave the group and so on. Once again, I was struck by the attention to detail.given to the importance of company development.  I liked the sections on developing skills in rehearsal, working on Identity issues and the social identities chart in particular. This part ends with a very useful section entitled Getting Along, which includes sections on honouring differences (within the group), decision making and conflict resolution and troupe morale. Company Development concludes with a suggested agenda for a group retreat.  This section would have been strengthened by more suggestions regarding supervision; the merits of using an external supervisor or methods of peer/ group supervision that could create enough distance for a neutral reflection on the work.

The section on Business Development considers mission and structure again in substantial detail, with guidance on getting gigs and the type of gig or audience that a group might want to serve, what’s required to run a successful performance including advice on staging and suggestions on building partnerships and seeking funding. Even if a group is small, it will need to organise itself in some way and give some thought to its intention – so lots to think about here. The final part of the book is concerned with contexts for the work and includes a brief discussion on ethics (using the CPT’s code), this section would merit more in-depth discussion on the ethical issues that emerge as Playback Theatre engages with more complex audiences, conflicting cultural differences and political agendas. I’ll return to this point later.  From what I know about Anne and Christopher’s Playback troupe, True Story Theater, is that much of what they do engages with complex and challenging issues so they will always have much to draw on as their work progresses.

The book concludes with a discussion on how Playback might grow in the future and how to get the most out of belonging to the Playback Theatre community.  The toolkit is quite a remarkable achievement given the amount of information that Anne and Christopher Ellinger have brought together as a reflection on their own work and experiences. The result is a valuable resource that can be used as a manual as needed and is also an important contribution to the literature on Playback Theatre in general.  It would be even better if the Toolkit had an index so a reader could more readily find what they need. But that’s a minor point given the overall value of the book – highly recommended.  I understand that the electronic version will be updated regularly.  See below for how to get a copy.

Playback Theatre Practice is a collection of selected articles, edited by Elizaveta Zagryazhskaya and Zoya Zagryazhskaya and published in Moscow.

This book is another valuable resource and is arranged in three parts, Part 1: Playback Theatre, theoretical, historical and methodological issues. Part 2 covers the application of Playback Theatre and Part 3 covers professional growth of the Playback Theatre practitioner.

Part 1 includes two articles by Jonathan Fox, the first is a general summary of what Playback Theatre is and the second essay is a reflection on the influences on the emergence of Playback Theatre.  Fox makes an important point in the first article about a stand-out difference between literature and Playback Theatre ‘that there is no product, no artefact’. He says:

“In Playback Theatre we invite a story from an audience teller and embody it on stage. Then what? Most of the time, we invite another story. And embody that. The stories live on only in our memories, coloured by those that follow and those that came before.  It is an evanescent process more allied to dance than modern theatre, where there is always that text to go back to.”

I’ve wondered for a long time if the transitory nature of Playback Theatre somehow diminishes the need to record it?  But this book counters that view with its deep reflections on practice.

Part 2 has four sub-sections on the application of Playback Theatre:  

  • Playback Theatre for Business: Making Changes and Contributing to Development
  • Playback Theatre for Psychotherapy and Rehabilitation: Coping with Difficult Situations and Recovery
  • Playback Theatre for Social Life: Building Communities, Social Integration and Dialogue
  • Playback Theatre for Education: Developing Reflections and Social Connections

The contributiors provide a rich selection of essays and illustrate some of the work that has been happening in organisations, developing teamwork, coping with difficult situations (post-Katrina New Orleans) and supporting people in the remission phase of schizophrenia (Japan).  Nike Brandt Poulsen writes about her work with unaccompanied minors in an asylum centre, in this case, eight Afghan boys (the ages aren’t given but they appear to be teenagers in the photos possibly around 16 years).  The project involved getting the boys to perform each other’s stories with minimal training; the aim being to use basic Playback to promote group cohesion and identification with each other in a closed setting. I did wonder at the safety of asking one traumatised person to embody and enact another traumatised person’s story all of which is mediated through an interpreter. There were background Afghan cultural issues too that Nike had to research in order to understand the context of the boy’s lives. Despite the difficulties, Nike’s work did seem to bring the group closer together in a positive way.

Nike’s follows on from the account of her work with a debate on whether Playback is a therapy or a healing (if it is more than art).  Nike is a psychotherapist, so I was puzzled when says she doesn’t understand the difference.  She then goes on to give a reductive view of therapy as happening ‘behind closed doors between a suffering person and an expert, an educated therapist.’  Nike quotes research that claims that group therapy is more effective than individual therapy because they [individuals] are treated in a secret room and the shame may be strengthened.

It just isn’t true that ‘individual treatment has problems in combating the tendency of isolation that one experiences among the traumatised citizens.’  As a psychotherapist myself, I don’t recognise Nike’s description – and in any case, not everyone is suited to group therapy (nor is it always available) despite its merits of supportive mutual identification as some people just don’t feel safe exposing themselves in a group.  1-1 therapy has as much to do, if not more, with the relationship than the expertise and if a client is in relationship with a therapist then they are not in isolation and the room isn’t ‘secret’ it’s just a private space.

Nike argues that Playback is therapy and it is true to say that ‘if the tool is a group, then it’s part of the treatment to create a community’ and it is important to be seen, but that in itself doesn’t constitute therapy.  It’s a commonly held view, that Playback is therapeutic rather than therapy and a therapeutic outcome is fortuitous rather than intended.  Indeed Jonathan Fox takes up the point in this book when he says “…the purpose of therapy, of course, is to cure. While Playback Theatre may have a healing effect, its purpose is not to solve anyone’s problem.”

Playback training in itself isn’t sufficient to support it as a therapy; the current CPT code of ethics is insufficient and anyway is intended for accredited trainers. The only authority (if there is one) in Playback Theatre is the CPT and they don’t have a complaints procedure so there is little in the way of accountability should something go wrong other than a possible denial of an accreditation renewal; everyone else is a free agent.  The CPT website indicates that supervision requirements for accredited trainers aren’t yet fully formulated and although some suggestions are made, the main recommendation is group supervision once every two years. So if we are talking about Playback Theatre as therapy, there is a rather large ethical hole.  That said, it can work as an adjunct to Dramatherapy for example.

Further, in Playback Theatre, there is no assessment to ascertain what the issues are and before therapy can take place a contract would need to be agreed.  In the case of Nike’s project, it’s not quite clear to me what contract was agreed as initially the boys thought they were going to a theatre only to learn they would be making the theatre themselves. There is another issue with consent due to the boys being minors.  All the points that I’m raising are more to do with the application of Playback Theatre in general rather that Nike’s project which simply inspired the discussion.  Nike’s work with these boys sounds deep and effective and if she hadn’t been a psychotherapist, it would have carried a lot more risk and wouldn’t really have been appropriate. 

Part 2 continues with chapters on working with blind and visually-impaired people (Ukraine) and introducing Playback Theatre to psychotherapists (Italy).

Part 3 focuses on Playback Theatre for Social Life: Building Communities, Social integration and Dialogue. It opens with Aniko Kaposvari on Playback Theatre in a multicultural environment, continues with Michael Cheng on stories of migration in Singapore and Kayo Munakata on Playback as a supporting tool for raising children. Ben Rivers describes his use of Playback as a trauma response in Palestine which merits another reflective pause. The important point I’d like to pick up is when Ben describes how sharing stories can also have a mobilising effect and increase Palestinian steadfastness in the face of the Israeli occupation.  What Ben doesn’t address is how the various factional differences in Palestinian resistance are negotiated within this approach and what happens (or might happen) if an individual were to dissent from the established view of resistance when such strong feelings abound. In the context of Ben’s work I was left wondering how risk was assessed and managed given the highly emotive nature of the Palestinians’ reaction to the occupation. It doesn’t seem that it was; this highlights the need for a considered ethical development in Playback Theatre in the political realm and particularly in conflict zones.  The ethical questions that come up are what is this particular use of Playback theatre in the service is of? Does the practitioner have a personal agenda / investment in the outcome? Is the intervention emotionally-driven on the part of the practitioner? There are many other questions that could be reflected on. 

Moving on through Part 2, Assael Romanelli describes his work with the ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Israel, Antonio Vitorino Cardoso Neto tells about the challenge of engaging a community of [indigenous] Indians in a village in Brazil. This community are Guarani people and were moved by the government from their original land when it was invaded by ranchers. Despite the initial difficulties of getting the audience to participate, Antonio eventually found a way of collectively engaging them through a group story.  He goes on to relate how difficult it was to get the audience to relate to the performance as individuals. In the end they constructed another group story based on football which was received well.  This chapter illustrates the need for an adaptive approach to move from individual stories to collective stories; from an individual protagonist to a collective one.  This resonates with a similar experience that I had when conducting a performance in Sri Lanka; I learned to draw from the whole group in the warm up phase. 

Antonio’s experience is not so far removed from the work that Ben Rivers describes as both groups are disenfranchised, although that point was only touched on in the case of the Guarani, who had lost their original way of life when they were displaced, formerly relying on hunting, fishing and small agriculture and were now dependent on government aid. The loss of their lands could be a potent theme but would likely be a taboo topic to discuss with outsiders.  It’s also likely that shame about the loss of their lands would also be a factor – something that they would likely want to keep private among themselves. An element of suspicion about the motives of outsiders is understandable.  It’s a complex situation when a group of outsiders is trying to build bridges with another group through Playback but is not quite trusted. However although it took a lot of work to warm up the villagers to the performance, they did eventually succeed if a little unconventionally and they were invited back – a good outcome for a first visit.  There were also plans to involve the villagers in some training.

The section concludes with Virginia Soares writing about performing for prison inmates in Portugal and describes the challenge of working with a group of young people who were agitated and overexcited and the situation was further complicated by the hostility of the guards.  It was lovely to read how the young people did open up and that the teachers (who accompanied the students) remarked how it was the first time they had heard the young people laugh a real laugh: “Normally the only time they laugh was when they were making fun of somebody”.

Part 2 continues into the realm of Playback Theatre for education and social connections with a chapter From the Action Frame to the Social Frame by Isabella Peghin; a rather dense and complex exploration of the use of sociometry and something called Informational-Systemic Theory which over-complicates interpersonal communication. Here’s a quote describing the model: 

“In 1978, Eco and Fabri proposed a semiotic-informational model, in which between the sender and receiver a multifaceted and articulated space is open in which some psychological variables intervene to determine the receipt of the final message.”

I think my ‘psychological variables’ just intervened to cloud my understanding of that sentence.  That said, Isabella goes on to describe the excellent work she does with children which is really what she is writing about.

Moving on to Ho Cheng Ng who writes about using Playback Theatre to soften young people’s prejudice against street sleepers in Hong Kong. A real effort was made here to support an understanding and a compassionate view of a stigmatised minority.

Part 3 is entitled Professional Growth of the Playback Theatre Practitioner: Sharing Ideas, with four sub-sections covering Conducting, Acting, Making Music and Performing. 

It’s at this point that this book begins to offer practical advice based on sharing experiences. Jo Salas begins with a description of the role of conductor and her experience. Jo writes about an ethical dilemma arising from two separate performances for two separate groups of health care workers at the launch of the organisation’s new vision statement   The first performance had revealed some negativity and frustration about paperwork etc getting in the way of contact with clients. Jo was pulled aside and requested to only ask the audience ‘positive’ questions in a second performance for a different set of employees.  As Jo says, the organisation wanted to suppress criticism and dictate the outcome.  After some debate, the Playback Company agreed to meet this requirement, only for the tellers to respond positively while continuing to reveal their underlying dissatisfaction with elements of their work.  Jo goes on to conclude that Playback Theatre creates a place where truth can be told. 

Volodymar Savinov expands on the role of the Conductor and Hannah Fox has a chapter on warm ups and includes a number of exercises. Larry Ng offers a chapter on aesthetics, pedagogy and training exercises for Playback Theatre as art and Karin Gisler on saying Yes as a basic principle of Playback Theatre and as a metaphor for life.  

Simon Floodgate writes about Playback Theatre as Shamanism.  Simon’s description of Shamanism and power animals caused me to think of this as a questionable comparison with Playback Theatre.   He writes how a Shaman will journey to their Power Animal or Spiritual Teacher to discover whether a client is suffering power loss, soul loss or spiritual intrusion.  Power loss is when a client’s power animal leaves without another taking its place. Illness is a symptom of power loss and the Shaman will return from non-ordinary reality with a power animal which they will ‘blow’ into the client. In the context of Playback Theatre, the idea that the power animal being ‘blown’ into the client / teller through the enactment could be a metaphor but otherwise I just found the concept difficult to relate to.  But while the use of the intuitive in Playback Theatre can produce surprising results for both tellers and performers, it does feel a bit of a stretch to liken it to the shamanic practice of journeying between worlds. This seems to elevate Playback to an unnecessary level and could set up an expectation that won’t be met. My problem with this concept of Shamanic practice is that it somehow goes against the grain of Playback being about a fundamental human connection residing in the everyday realm. So why not just call it intuition and leave it at that whatever else might be going on then we are all on the same level; performers and audience alike. Speaking of intuition, I’m reminded of an exercise I learned from Fra Zeller, in which the actors leave the space and go out of earshot while the teller tells the story.  The actors return and the musician plays the story. The resulting enactment has always been eerily accurate in my experience. 

A comprehensive separate chapter on music by Vadim Kanevsky comes next. This provides useful detail about the role of the musician and the function of music in a performance.  The book concludes with a section on performing with six chapters by various authors including Elizaveta Zagryazhskaya and Olga Sanachina that look deeply into the topics that they write about.  There is so much more in both books that I haven’t had the room to mention – I did need to be selective so that means that there’s so much more for the reader to discover for themselves.

As with the Toolkit, Playback Theatre Practice offers a comprehensive overview of practice and moves from one company’s experience as in the Toolkit to a broad range of viewpoints from around the world showing the diversity of practitioners and practice.  Both books are an education in reflective practice evidencing the thought that goes into doing Playback well without shying away from the challenges and dilemmas that can occur – a resource for everybody involved with Playback Theatre. To paraphrase Jonathan Fox, yes, the stories may come and go but the accounts of practice preserved in these two books live on as an artefact, Playback Theatre is deeply enriched as a result and we do have ‘a text to go back to.’ 

A deep bow of gratitude is offered to the editors and authors of these two fine books for their huge dedication in bringing these resources to print – thank you.

To find out more about getting the Playback Theatre Toolkit, visit: // or visit //  There are both printed and electronic versions available. Follow the links for options.

To purchase a copy of Playback Theatre Practice which will be sent from Russia, please email Elizaveta Zagryazhskaya at for payment details. The book costs 28 USD or 26 Euros (shipping included) paid by bank transfer.