Building a Playback Theatre Group at the Open University of Israel (OUI) Rinat Shahaf Barzilay, PhD & Nurit Shoshan

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed

his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”

Robert Browning, Men and Women and other poems

  Rinat Shahaf Barzilay, PhD Nurit Shoshan            

Tutors at The OUI participating in Playback Theatre (PT) as part of their Professional Development (PD)

Rinat Shahaf Barzilay, PhD & Nurit Shoshan

Tutors at the Open University of Israel have been through a professional and personal voyage using Playback Theatre as a tool to reflect on their work and as a source of improvisational techniques that they can use in their classes.

The purpose of this paper is to reveal the story of the establishment of a new PT group for university tutors. It will recount the process of building a new group and the personal and professional contribution of PT to the participants.  Moreover, we would like to shed light on the process of using PT as a mediation tool for PD for the University teaching staff.

We will also discuss the gains earned after the first year (7 months) that the practitioners shared.

A Dream Comes True

Finally, after completing my PHD, I was ready to implement a new dream: Playback Theatre at my work.

I teach at the Open University of Israel. Tutors, like me, are invited to voluntarily participate in professional development workshops using various arts such as writing, public speaking, storytelling, vocal pedagogy, etc.

During my first year at the University, as I participated in such workshops, a dream was born!  I offered the Tutors’ Professional Development Department a proposal to open a PT group for University lecturers (tutors). The manager was sceptical about forming an ongoing group. “Rinat”, she said, “all previous workshops lasted for a maximum of four meetings with relatively small attendance. It’s true that hosting PT performances previously at the organization was very successful, but I doubt if our tutors will participate.” “Yes”, I smiled, “but I believe that this must be a long term group, a community of practice, a place to share professional and personal stories, to share knowledge and feelings concerning work. Only in a long term process could we gain from the art of PT a sense of empowerment and joy.” She could not say no to my enthusiasm and was willing to give it a try.

I assume that the legitimacy I received was based on my specialization in teacher’s professional development and pedagogical interactions at their school’s learning communities (my PhD thesis). Based on my participation in a PT group since 2007 (6 years with the Pir-Kampir company, founded by Nirit Tabibian-Nachum), I have committed myself to a professional development process as a PT conductor. I attended a short workshop for PT leaders held with Aviva Apel and Nurit Shoshan, the Israeli representatives affiliated to the Centre for Playback Theatre. In addition, I decided to take weekly supervision with Nurit Shoshan. This was a strategic decision, intended to cater to the establishment and conducting of a group with maximum care and prudence, getting help from professional and experienced PT actors, conductors, mentors and teachers in Israel and internationally.

My vision was to establish a group that would work for as long as possible, that would perform to various university departments and maybe also to students in the future[1]. My mission was to develop and expand PT in the future by encouraging the participants themselves to conduct PT workshops or to use PT tools in their classes. I was curious about checking the possibilities of using various PT games and improvisation exercises in classrooms in schools and in academia.

I understood that I had to create a safe environment, enabling the participants to tell stories dealing with professional interactions, conflicts, negotiations, or problems with students, colleagues, managers, etc.

I was motivated by the notion that using PT improvising tools could develop the ‘Yes and…’ state of mind, creativity, a sense of belonging and connectedness within the organization (they come from various faculties, cities and differ in gender, age, academic degree and even religious tendency). Moreover, I felt that PT had the potential to influence university tutors’ professional practice: developing confidence in their teaching, reacting more flexibly in conflicts and even becoming more dynamic and reactive instructors rather than conservative transferors of knowledge. 

             Travelling a New Road 

The group started working on the 24th of December 2013 with initially 17 registered participants and eventually 12 participants, assembled to form the group. It was composed of 2 men and 10 women. Their age ranged from 38 to 60. They taught at different faculties: Psychology and Education, Communication, Cinema, English, Astronomy, Management and Marketing, Sociology, Political Science and Information Systems. Their tenure in the OUI ranged from 4-25 years. All participants were Jewish (One Muslim participant started but chose not to continue); two of the women were religious orthodox.

We met in a classroom for 2.5 hours (3 hours during the second year) of pure Playback – transforming an academic room into a little theatre with colourful handkerchiefs and several musical instruments.[2]

Every participant was acquainted with “The OUI Playback Theatre Ethical Code” that we have formulated. It includes attention to the framing of the meetings and the obligation to keep the stories confidential. We are obliged, for our well-being and for keeping the privacy of every participant, to build relationships based on respect and trust. The group values are playfulness, flexibility, creativity, joy and intimacy. We practiced the ‘PT language’ with short and medium forms such as Sculptures, Fluid Sculptures, Chorus, Conflicts (in a later stage of the year), Solos, Talking Heads, Snapshots, Corridor, and eventually Vignettes / Episodes.

The participants came in with certain strengths as teachers – their experience “standing on a stage” while teaching, speaking and expressing themselves verbally. The PT, though, has such potential to develop their ability to listen carefully to a storyteller, identifying the main theme and emotion of the protagonist.

During the workshops, the participants developed the ability to act as an ensemble, to listen to other actors on stage, to transfer and express a story into actions on stage. The ability to be initiators of theatrical ideas along with supporters of ideas initiated by other actors evolved on stage.

They also developed their ability as storytellers, focusing on workplace stories but also personal stories, transforming personal and common stories into professional narratives.  We focused on these themes as we wanted to hear the participant’s voice and perceptions of the process. 

As actors we have started focusing on keeping the ritual of the forms, and continued in developing the ability to express the stories with body movement, figurative language and even using myths and legends.

My weekly supervision with Nurit was focused on dilemmas, conflicts and resistance that arose at the meetings. The main energy was directed toward holding back a judgemental approach, advice giving and interrupting the storytellers.

The Practitioners’ Voice – Experiences from the First Year

At the end the academic year (in August 2014) we reflected on the passing year (7 months actually) face to face and in writing. Their thoughts and insight are presented here.

Personal and Professional Gains with PT at Work

Personal and Professional objectives have emerged during this first year. The mission was practicing PT at work in order to increase a participant’s self-esteem as a person and as a tutor at the University. We had in mind the enhancement of a tutor’s self-efficacy in confronting conflicts with students or colleagues, and shifting towards more dynamic and reactive instruction.

Working in an Open University means campuses are spread all over the country, leaving several tutors with no office to go back to. PT once a week at a campus in the centre of Israel contributed to a sense of belonging, as expressed by one of the participants, “I feel I belong to the organization also in the personal-friendly level. Participating PT at the university is important in bonding me to the university, balances my loneliness at work, uncertainty, lack of support and my ability to cope with students.” In the words of another participant, “The acquaintance with peers in the PT motivated me to keep my job at the Open University; I feel empowered, joy and satisfaction meeting wonderful colleagues from the University.” Can we ask for more? What could have made this happen?

We succeeded in bringing the magic and joy of PT to everyday life. The participants viewed their participation in weekly gatherings as an opportunity for a personal and professional connection, sharing their difficulties (and joy) at work, “coming out of their shell” and even a sense of success. They enjoyed the artistic experience, “I remember positively experiencing flow on stage – things happened on their own with no planning or thinking, automatically, liberated and fun.”

They pointed to various professional gains achieved through PT. Public speech skills, improved body language, and even using the PT forms with students, “I feel better with my body language, using more variety of voice pitch, with my standing in front of students…” Other participants took several playback forms to practice with their students, “I took the ‘conflict’ form to my work with groups.” They acknowledged greater freedom in their practice, “I’m more relaxed in front of my audience of students; I feel more confident improvising, more associative, more open to act foolishly.”

It is important to notice that the participants stated their fears and concerns about the self-exposure, failure and lack of talent, “I didn’t understand how a story just told would be translated to a theatrical scene.” Dealing with judgement was central to the group’s evolution. The will to excel as a PT actor was strong among several participants, “I have the tendency to be motivated by accomplishment. This led to self whipping when my acting wasn’t good enough in my opinion.”

The diversity in the group was sometimes challenging: women and men, various sexual tendencies, religious and secular and during the second year, Jews and Muslims. This issue was constantly on the agenda, overtly or implied. Every meeting where physical contact was demanded, I reminded us of male-female awareness. I saw my duty as keeping guard of the presence of orthodox women[3] along with enabling gradual body contact amongst all participants. As one of them mentioned, “I was concerned that my value system (as a Jewish orthodox woman) would be endangered by body work and singing. I was withdrawn by the fear of meeting people so different than me (in gender, sexual tendencies, religion, and level of religious Jewish life) in a theatre group”. The moving breakthrough was, in the words of the second orthodox woman participant, “I find myself looking forward Tuesdays, when the magic happens…I feel more relaxed and open, I even sang in the presence of two males in the group…in the last meeting I “spread my wings” and walked on stage as a dancer.”

They also acknowledged the transformation the participants were going through. They felt more released on stage, less critical of others and of themselves and more competent, “I appreciate myself better as a person and as a PT actor. I fulfilled my dream of being a good storyteller! I am a better listener.”

We feel that these processes led to developing self-awareness and self knowledge through practicing the ‘here and now’ habit of mind. Above all we were pleased to learn that practicing Playback had an impact on their tolerance of ambiguity, “I’m more forgiving facing the unknown, less afraid “messing up”, and more tolerant with uncertainty,” wrote one participant. Some of these benefits have been empirically found in short-term PT courses (10 weeks) and in University-based programs for recovery (Moran and Alon, 2011).

It is important to note that there were participants who left the group, overwhelmed with the need to be exposed and share their daily lives. Others confronted personal tendencies to criticize or give advice. Others had a very hard time adapting their strong verbal abilities to metaphorical, body and “group talk” forms of expression. Moreover, the need to let go of the “one star” stance in favour of a group voice was frustrating and ultimately impossible for some of them. Five participants left during that first year.


From the beginning Nurit and I were jointly reflecting on the conducting practice in operation.

The conducting was based on the knowledge brought from the School for Playback Theatre as founded and established in NY and reproduced in Israel (Fox, 1986; Lubrani-Rolnick, 2009; Salas, 2003). Our focus has been on developing PT skills and group norms and structure. The focus of the first year was on establishing group norms of unconditional acceptance, confidentiality, containment and maintaining the settings of time and place.

The group was working under a written ethical code and every new participant was aware of it – and was reminded from time to time. We focused on maintaining the PT ritual, including the various forms, basic acting skills, developing the ‘Yes And…’ state of mind, and the ability of storytelling. The greatest energy was invested in enabling positive feedback from participants, stopping a judgemental mindset and eliminating advice-giving from participants to the storytellers and to the actors.

The participants reflected upon the conducting of the group as caring, devoted and loving. They mentioned the conducting as, “friendly un judgemental, delicate and un invasive.” They perceived it as humble, “You supposedly came to teach us, and to learn what is best for us while listening and practicing inclusion. The process of becoming close was a product of the safe space you’ve created, the openness of your heart and the authentic feelings.” They felt that the group’s positive culture was created by the conducting style, “The conducting has created a very meaningful group, in a progressive manner that respects every individual’s pace to join according to his needs and ability.” This was created in great part as a result of the weekly reflective supervision given by Nurit.  

The Weekly Reflective Supervision

Working with a supervisor was a strategic decision I made as we concluded the Playback Leaders’ workshop. I knew I would be taking a great responsibility and I wanted to succeed. So after checking with several senior Playback conductors, and getting to know Nurit, it felt like the right choice. We scheduled weekly meetings prior to the opening of the group up until the summer vacation.

The weekly meetings helped me to analyze the group dynamics and their attitude towards the stories, the Playback forms and their sense of joy and fulfillment. I have learned to keep in mind the “red thread” that was woven from story to story and from one meeting to the next.

I was able to clearly recognize each participant and his or her energy, goals, boundaries and in a sense, ‘life story’.

The supervision enabled me to frame every meeting in terms of drills and improvisation games. It enabled me to see the development of my conducting skills, and the formation of a Playback group. It helped me cope with frustration when a meeting did not flow or when the group entered crisis, such as the departing of one participant who felt she was too vulnerable and could not trust the group to manage her overwhelming personal problems.

I learned about group boundaries and my boundaries concerning my knowledge of therapy and acting. I am aware that I will have to expand my toolbox.

The group has re-opened this academic year (2014/2015). About half of the former participants have left the group and several new participants have joined. The group has built a culture of trust, joy and connectedness. The integration of beginners into the ongoing work is part of the focus of this coming year. We had wished to deepen their PT abilities in accordance with the ritual.

I aspire to foster a Growth Mindset (Dweck, 2010), creating a culture of risk taking, emphasizing challenge, growth and long-term success in Playback and in our classes. Moreover, the promotion of a love of practicing and learning Playback and resilience in the face of obstacles inside the group and outside in our academic classes.

A Glance to the Near Future

The participants requested to focus in the future on several things – the art of developing a scene, to better work and express with body language and movement and personal acting ability.  Some need to feel free from mental criticism in order to act more spontaneously.  The needs to continue the work of the group over the years, to be more accurate playing back and expressing themselves on stage were also aired. They are thankful for, “A year filled with excitement and new experiences.”

In order to become a professional PT conductor I see my professional development as an ongoing process.  I now attend a psychodrama group, take acting workshops, continue the personal supervision with Nurit Shoshan and am motivated to apply in the future to a PT Leadership Course.

PT has been a blessing for the group as colleagues at the University and as human beings connecting and creating intimacy, being “enamored with Playback Theatre.” I feel we are walking together on a long road simultaneously seeking for surprise and comfort.


Dweck, C.S. (2010). ‘Even Geniuses Work Hard’, Giving Students Meaningful Work, 68 (1), 16-20.

Fox, H. (1986). Acts of Service: spontaneity, commitment, tradition in the non-scripted theatre. New Paltz: Tusitala Publishing.

Lubrani-Rolnick, N. (2009). Life in a Story – Playback Theatre and the Art of Improvisation, Tel-Aviv: Mofet Macam (in Hebrew).

Moran G.S., & Alon, U. (2011). Playback Theatre and Recovery in Mental Health: Preliminary Evidence, The Arts in Psychotherapy, 38, 318-324.  

Salas, J. (2003). Improvising Real Life: Personal story in Playback Theatre (3rd

ed.). New Paltz: Tusitala Publishing.

            [1]  As of Spring 2015, this is being developed.

            [2] We remain in search of a musician.

            [3]  Orthodox women are not allowed to be in any physical contact with men.