IPTN JOURNAL APRIL 2023
We are really excited to bring this edition of IPTN journal to you!
From the Editors
By Radhika Jain & Steve Nash
We are delighted to present the latest edition of the IPTN Journal, and our second issue as co-editors. We hope you will agree that it is an impressive collection of writings about Playback Theatre, containing no fewer than eight individual articles, along with book and event reviews, practitioner updates, and a new “Signpost” section.
We did not specify a particular theme for this Journal. However, it is not difficult to see connections and associations between the different topics that are addressed by our authors, who between them represent playback communities from ten different countries.
This edition opens with two articles that explore socio-political aspects of playback. Firstly, Farah Wardani chronicles the Laban Playback Theater Company’s struggle to find a way to support the October 17th Revolution in Lebanon in 2019. This is followed by Mireya P. Ruiz Esparza’s proposal for Anti-oppressive playback, drawing on her work with Leticia Nieto and the reVelArte Playback Theatre Collective in Mexico.
Next, there are four pieces of writing about Playback Theatre practice that evaluate its impact as an intervention with specific groups of people. Vera Lardi describes a project that gathered and documented personal stories of expatriation from Greek people in different parts of the world; we then move to Israel for Inbar Serfaty Netz’s study about using a blend of psychotherapy, psychodrama, and playback with traumatised single mothers. The third piece explores the benefits of Zoom playback for frontline healthcare staff in England during the Covid-19 pandemic. The primary authors, Paras Patel and Samantha Swift, kindly acknowledge the input of one of your co-editors – but perhaps the fact that this is one of two articles in this edition that were not written by playbackers is of greater interest. Stephen Meagher & Johanna De Ruyter then shift our focus once again, with their thoughtful discussion about the challenge of applying playback to a corporate setting in Australia.
Following this, Roman Kandibur (Ukraine) and Marat Mairovich (Israel), offer a longer essay, in two parts. The unconventional conversational exchange between the two authors moves the reader swiftly through their thought provoking dialogue about Playback Theatre as an act of myth making, drawing on the ideas of Joseph Campbell.
Our final article, is our second contribution from a non playbacker, in which R.B. Mickie Marie (from Indiana, USA) summarises his work with the Spotlight Players, to incorporate lighting elements into their repertoire – a subject that rarely gets a lot of attention.
In addition to these eight articles, our Practitioners section has an update from Deb Scott on the development of a new and revised Agreement between the Centre for Playback Theatre and the Affiliated Schools. This is followed by two event reports – Karen McClain Kiefer’s account of workshops undertaken in Scotland in February 2023 with refugees who are artists, and then we have perspectives on the 10th International Playback Camp, held in Turkey in August 2022, from Raz Balian, Joke Rood, and Steve Nash.
Reviews of two important books published in 2022 come next: “An Introduction to Psychotherapeutic Playback Theater, Hall of Mirrors on Stage”, by Ronen Kowalsky, Nir Raz, and Shoshi Keisari (by Diane Adderley) and “Playback Theatre around the Globe”, by Anastasia Vorobyeva, (by Conny Hartmann).
In this latest edition of the IPTN Journal, we have created a new section – “Signpost” – in which we share information about other recent publications that are aware of – books, journal articles, news items, and other web based resources.
And that’s it. Welcome to the IPTN Journal April 2023. We hope you will agree that thanks to the help and hard work of all of our contributors, we have assembled a diverse and richly informative collection of writings about the application and practice of Playback Theatre around the world.
As ever, we are keen to hear your feedback about the Journal. We still have plans to improve things in the future, and we want to incorporate your thoughts and ideas in that process. Please use the email address below to share your comments – or to simply to say hello!
Radhika Jain and Steve Nash
IPTN Journal co-editors
Please note that all of the web links in the Journal were active at the time of publication, but we realise that these can sometimes become out of date. Also bear in mind that access to some online content can be restricted by the publisher.
Playback Psi (Ψ) Greece – Documenting Stories of Expatriation through Playback Theatre
By Vera Lardi
The content of this article is based on the material published in the book “Stories of Expatriation: Personal Testimonies and Chronicles from the Heart”, published in Greek by The Association of Dramatic Expression and Therapy Palmos (2021).
The Association of Dramatic Expression and Therapy “Palmos” in collaboration with “Playback Psi” theatre company designed and implemented the project “Stories of Expatriation“. The project ran from January to December 2021. Playback Theatre was used to collect testimonies of émigrés and repatriated Greeks. These stories were then published in a Greek publication entitled “Stories of Expatriation: Personal Testimonies and Chronicles from the Heart“. This book includes the transcript of the stories, a description of each representation by the performers, photos, the feedback from the audience and an overall analysis of the collective storyline for each performance. This project was funded by the Greek Ministry of Culture and the publication is endorsed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, General Secretariat for Greeks Abroad and Public Diplomacy.
The aims were to record the social, political, educational and cultural characteristics of the Greek mobile and immigrant population, to revive and record the historical memory of the Greek Diaspora and the challenges of integration in the host areas. It also aimed to strengthen the feeling of belonging within each community and examine the effect of “acculturation” on the communities’ life and artistic creation. “Acculturation comprehend those phenomena which result when groups of individuals having different cultures come into continuous first-hand contact, with subsequent changes in the original culture patterns of either or both groups” (Redfield et al., 1936).
January – October 2021: Get in touch with the communities, organize the performances and rehearsals.
October – November 2021: Perform Playback Theatre to the communities, record and process the material.
December 2021: Complete editing the material and publish the collective volume “Stories of Expatriation: Personal Testimonies and Chronicles from the Heart“.
Playback Psi group
Playback Psi consists of a group of performers, musicians, visual artists and light designers. Some members of the group have also been trained in conducting and the roles interchange. In this project, each performance involved four Playback Theatre performers, a musician, a visual artist who produced a painting during each gathering and a conductor. A tech person was involved in the online performances and a light designer in the live ones.
The population involved came from Greek Communities of the Diaspora including people who experienced either voluntary migration, or exile and social exclusion from their homeland. Greek people with different characteristics of age, gender, identity and ideology, located in various parts of the world who had consented to the recording of the performances and the publication of their testimonies.
• Self-governance of Greeks of Budaors (Hungary)
• Greek Community of Zurich (Switzerland)
• Association of Greek Writers of Five Continents
• Greek Community of Berlin (Germany)
• Greek Community of Dresden (Germany)
• Greek Community of Venezuela
• Greek Cultural Organization “Nostos” (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
For the description and evaluation of the project, the team sought a methodology of analysis inherent to Playback Theatre. The understanding of the narratives was based on the “Red Thread” by Jonathan Fox (2007). In the context of a playback performance, a mental thread unfolds, each new story complements, answers or opposes the ones already told. This news raw material is recreated by the artists on stage. So, in the end a new, collective and self existent piece of art is created, which includes all the narratives, representations, associations and feelings of the performance.
As a tool for evaluating the performances, the group used “Narrative Reticulation“, (Fox, 2019), a theatre appraisal method that explores the dimensions of a playback performance: collaboration, spontaneity, embodiment, story sense, milieu, atmosphere and guidance.
Common themes in storytelling
The Greeks of the diaspora experience immigration in great diversity depending on their age, circumstances of immigration and the conditions they encountered at the country of arrival. It is a large diverse community that breathes through different generations and carves its own path through History. The commonplace in most stories was the internal conflict of the “here” and “there“, that defines a double life in-between two homelands. Nostalgia and loss prevail, especially among the elders. Tellers shared that their choice to leave Greece was sometimes well planned, sometimes abrupt. However, most people have testified that they are largely satisfied from their present conditions. They referred to the important role of the Greek communities in solving practical problems and in dealing with loneliness. They gave value to their community’s solidarity and recognized a transnational element in humanity.
Specifically, the older members of communities created by Greeks escaping conflict, such as the Hungarian community, felt the need to restore the historical memory. They referred to the differences between the younger and the older generation. They expressed their concern for the traditional Greek customs and manners that are lost in second and third generations. They also talked about the changing political scenery that creates ambivalence between appreciation and disagreement.
Economic migrants, on the other hand, scientists and people with international charity activities, living in Germany and Zurich, expressed their disappointment and anger for the weakness of the Greek state to support them. Most younger people reported that the main reasons for migration were academic advancement and professional stability. They talked about their pursue of working opportunities, better quality of life, creating new relationships and intercultural families. They talked about the host cities’ multiculturalism, diversity and inclusion. There was, however, a senior teller that brought the perspective of a contemporary radicalizing world and the rise of extremism. He offered a descriptive image of the earth moving on its axis at the opposite direction. The members of the Greek Community of Dresden, in particular, emphasized the role of the community and its substantial support. The main theme of this performance seemed to be “Togetherness“.
In other cases, like in the performance for the Association of Greek Writers of Five Continents, the storytelling began with the citation of literature by the audience and led to a theatrical dialogue of deep emotional sharing, where speech flowed poetically through the telling and representations.
In the performance for the Argentinian Community, despite the efforts of equally exploring the here and now of the participants, their attraction from the past was irresistible. Their need was to remember their ancestors and the ancestral land. The atmosphere was flooded with emotions, smells, sounds, images from the homeland. The narratives were a journey of movement on the map, partings and encounters, both real and imagined. They met with deceased loved ones emerging from the past, their hard work, the long journeys with the boat, the women who wandered away from their villages as “émigrés brides“. A long silence at the end held both the intensity of the emotion and the mutual respect for this online soul deposition.
Due to the COVID-19 restrictions, the performance for the returning expatriates of Caracas in Venezuela was the first live performance of Playback Psi since March 2020. People got together after a long time. This performance was emotionally charged influencing the overall atmosphere. The applause was heard for the first time in months creating moments of strong connection between the performers and the audience.
Challenges and allies
Travel Restrictions during Pandemic
Due to the travel restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, Playback Theatre performances were organized mainly online. Playback Psi had already adapted Playback Theatre online in a series of performances performed in the beginning of the pandemic with the title “Tiles”. Preparing for these online shows was a challenge in itself. Doing improvisational theatre at a distance required a lot of faith that the interweaving and catharsis that takes place in live performances is possible to happen online. It also required long hours of rehearsals and experimentation, in order to adapt all expressive means to the unprecedented conditions.
The Ritual plays an important role in Playback Theatre. It supports the creation of a safe space for the stories to emerge. Maintaining the ritual, during the online performances, was challenging. Technically, the audience is presented with a name tag in their personal space and performers are exposed to potential failing of the network, people leaving the room, misuse of cameras and microphones. Being aware of these challenges, the group invested time on connecting with the communities prior to the actual performances. Personal communication with the contact people of each community helped the audience to warm up prior to the performance. The audience was well informed of the process and purpose of the gathering and in most cases, they came to the performance excited to share their stories. In any case, there was always a tech person involved, taking care of live connection problems.
Musicians-members of the communities were invited to participate and to perform their songs live at the performance. Despite the differences and diversity encountered, music proved the strongest connecting cord among community members. Traditional music, folk songs, contemporary compositions were performed and sung live by the audience on many occasions. A performance would often start or finish with a member of the community singing and playing an instrument. Music underlined the atmosphere, condensed emotions, connected the present with the past, bonded community members from different generations and linked the mother land with the present place of residence.
The Aesthetic Imagery
Symbolism in Playback Theatre is the powerful means to reach the essence of the story. Playback Psi group looks for the symbolic elements and archetypes offered by the tellers and aspires to represent them as unique manifestations of a universal human experience. The stories of expatriation were rich in symbolic figures, bodily, olfactory and auditory memories.
Nature came alive in various forms: a little fish in the ocean, mountains surrounding both the present and the past imagery, roots, leaves and seeds of a tree. The color blue, which is the main color of the Greek national flag, appeared through the infinite Aegean Sea, the endless sky and the rivers crossing Europe. People’s transitions were represented by transportation means such as the train, the boat, the airplane and a little girl’s pair of worn-out shoes that do not fit. Archetypes of the Mother, the Father, the Friend and the Home – either left behind or rebuilt – depicted separation, shelter and comfort. Also, figures representing Greece, the community, the nations, freedom, the deceased and the dreaming appeared in the stories.
Common bodily memories of hiding, hugging and letting go, eyes in tears and the helping hand emerged, as well as, olfactory and taste memories, such as, the smell of oregano, baking sweets roasting pistachios and the bittersweet taste of expatriation. Auditory memories, like the ethnic music and the folk songs were present all along underlining the atmosphere. The lyrics of Greek poets, the sound of one’s language, the sound of the cities and of people meeting on the streets and also, the incomprehensible sound of a foreign radio station, all came alive. The Greek circular folk dancing symbolized occasionally the life of the community. The past lived within the present and the human experiences were underlined with a diverse mosaic of contradicting emotions such as relief, confusion, fear, grief, isolation, caring, strength, resilience, nostalgia, solidarity, joy, sorrow, hope and gratitude.
The Power of the Untold
The silences, the breathing, the inarticulate sounds, the changes in rhythm, the short pauses, the intensity and timbre of the voices, the changes in the storyteller’s look, the mouth that speaks, smiles or hesitates, the body that stands awkwardly and sometimes expresses itself with a spontaneous reaction, were all little undiscovered treasures. They hide invisible places and people in the story. Each story involves many others untold. Each performance includes, also, the stories of the spectators who remained silent because they hesitated or did not get the chance to talk. It also includes absent members of the community. All of the above, cannot be recorded verbatim but are elements that determine the atmosphere. They influence the thread of the stories shared. They constitute the first raw material, which, often subconsciously, defines the aesthetic choices of the performers. They complete the speech and guide tellers, listeners and performers towards an interpretation of each single testimony, as well as, of the totality of the narratives.
The experience of the performers
As far as our experience of this process is concerned, we engaged in a project that involved a lot of preparation and commitment. Our primary plan was to visit most of the communities and perform live, but traveling restrictions was changing unexpectedly making it impossible to plan ahead and organize. In these adverse conditions, we did not know where this journey would take us, but we never thought of aborting. Our stable points of reference were Playback Theatre, the Greek language and the desire to be together. Retrospectively, we realize that these conditions are intertwined with the life of every traveler we met on this journey. The reason behind our persistence came from our need to co-create and to confirm that we are not isolated in the lockdown. It may sound familiar, Playback Theatre for us is a way of living. It is a way of comprehending the world, the human experience and ourselves within it. Connecting with our contemporary expatriated Greeks was a way to comprehend and deal with our own circumstances. We sought to connect with people sharing the same cultural background who have survived a similar kind of alienation.
The thread of all stories of expatriation implied an existential loneliness. This is what brought us all together. In these performances we quelled this loneliness and connected. These were the moments when the essence of our meeting crossed the boundaries of national identities and got a universal meaning. Meeting with the expatriated Greeks helped us, also, appreciate the colors, smells and landscape of our homeland, that we take for granted, and remember that the feeling of being at home is a matrix of relationships that do not premise geographical proximity.
We consider “Stories of Expatriation: Personal Testimonies and Chronicles from the Heart” a collective creation. The editorial team, the members of Playback Psi group, the presidents of the Greek communities, the people who brought us in contact with them, the tellers, the audience who watched the performances, are all co creators of this project.
Plans for the future
We are artists who live and work in Greece. Our plans for the future are to get in touch with more Greeks living abroad and play their stories. We wish to reach out for funding in order to translate the book in other languages and explore Playback Theatre further, as a data collection method in field research. We will continue our open performances to the public and in special setting such as, schools and mental health institutions and we will continue to offer Playback Theatre training at the Greek Playback Theatre School.
Contributors to the book
Editor: V. Lardi. Text entries by: D. Begioglou, M. Kastrinou, V. Lardi, G. Papadopoulos, L. Yotis. Text reviewers: A. Polymenopoulou, L. Yotis. Transcriber: A. Hatzyargiriou. Visual Artist: M. Horhocea. Photographer: I. Navridis. Layout designer: C. Fragiadaki. Graphic Designer: K. Primikiriou.
Contributors to the performances
Director of online performances and technical support: C. Theocharopoulos. Director of live performance: L. Yotis. Conductors: L. Yotis, C. Theocharopoulos, D. Begioglou. Musician: A. Misirliadis. Visual Artist: M. Horhocea. Light designer: N. Theocharopoulos. Projection mapping: A.Doukas. Performers: D. Begioglou, C. Fragiadaki, A. Hatzyargiriou, M. Horhocea, M. Kastrinou, V. Lardi, M. Maragopoulou, C. Theocharopoulos, C. Webster, L. Yotis. Communication Team: D. Begioglou, A. Hatzyargiriou, M. Maragopoulou.
Palmos and Playback Psi company
Palmos is a non-profit Association of Dramatic Expression and Therapy, based in Athens, Greece. It was founded in 2005, by Lambros Yotis, psychiatrist (University of Athens, Greece) and dramatherapist (PG Dip and PhD, University of Hertfordshire, UK), theatre actor (Drama School of Athens), stage director and Accredited Playback Theatre Trainer (Centre for Playback Theatre, NY). Its members are accredited psychotherapists and professionals in social work, education and the arts. The aim of this association is research and action in the field that joins theatre, psychotherapy and social sensitization.
Playback Psi theatre group is based in Athens, Greece and was first established in 2004, by a number of performers (actors, dancers, musicians, singers, stage and light designers) under the facilitation of Lambros Yotis. Its aim is to promote theatre as a means for social, educational and therapeutic change. Playback Psi is a member of IPTN and has been performing in their home theatre, in a number of central Athenian theatre stages as well as for audiences in a variety of settings, such as conferences, schools, educational, psychiatric and rehabilitation settings.
The Greek School of Playback Theatre was established in 2019 by the members of Playback Psi group. It is accredited by the Centre for Playback Theatre (CPT) and offers all levels of Playback Theatre training.
- The book “Belonging in Playback Theatre: The Greek Playback Psi Theatre Company” (Yotis, 2020) offers the learning and experience of Playback Psi members, after 18 years of reflecting upon people’s stories in a variety of settings. It is available in English in international book platforms.
Fox, H. (2007). Playback theatre: Inciting dialogue and building community through personal story. The Drama Review, 51(4), 89-105
Fox J. (2019). Guidelines for Mastering Narrative Reticulation, The PlaybackNR Workbook, Tusitala Publishing
Redfield, R., Linton, R., & Herskovits, M. J. (1936). Memorandum for the study of acculturation. American anthropologist, 38(1), 149-152
About the author
Vera Lardi studied History of Art and Design and Theatre Studies (University of Wolverhampton, UK). She is a psychodrama psychotherapist (Center of Athenian Psychodramatic Encounters, Greece), a professional theatre performer (Drama School of the National Theatre of Greece) and an applied theatre trainer. She is the founder of the interdisciplinary hub “Art In Perspective“. She has been a member of Playback Psi since 2005.
“Breaking Silence Together”: Outcomes of Playback Theatre Therapy and Participation in the Play “He who made me a woman”
on the Lives of Single Mothers who Participated in the Process
By Inbar Serfaty Netz
This article is looking at a therapeutic group process and its influences on the participants. This therapeutic group process has started with Playback Theatre, at the Yachdav Centre for single parent families and was meant to give space for the women, with their needs and personal challenges and not only as a parent.
The therapeutic Playback Theatre, lasted about a year and allowed the women to open up and get support, after which the women felt the need for broader recognition of what they had gone through and expressed their desire to convey a message to the public. This gave birth to the play which followed and reflected the therapeutic playback process. Writing the play and the rehearsals toward its staging were a direct continuation of the therapeutic process, and the actual presentation of the play, six times, over a period of nine months, marked the completion and internalization of the process.
This article will show how the entire process helped the participants to better acquainted themselves with their own struggles and improve their lives, which was the main goal of the process.
The First Stage : The ‘What’ and the ‘How’
I am writing this study dealing with the outcomes of therapy through Playback Theatre and participation in the play “He who made me a Woman” on the lives of the group of single mothers who participated in the process in order to examine playback’s therapeutic power, as well as the use of a theatrical production, with screenplay and direction, based on the stories that emerged in the playback therapy group, in order to learn from it about the effectiveness and feasibility of this sort of therapy as it transpired in this group I directed.
For me the question of whether the ongoing process impacted participants, and whether they underwent changes resulting from the therapy through playback consists of a few smaller questions: Have changes occurred in their attitude toward themselves, in their mental state, and/or in their general mood as a result of the process? And if changes did indeed occur, have they resulted in changes in the women’s actual lives and in their decisions on work, family, daily conduct and relationship issues?
Thus, the findings of this research may constitute a basis for continued exploration and development of additional playback groups. The reformulated research question is, then:
“What are the outcomes of the treatment through Playback Theatre and participation in the play ‘He who has made me a woman’ on the lives of the single-mother group who participated in the process?“
- Research Participants
My research participants are three women from the group of seven single mothers who participated in both the therapeutic playback process and in the play. According to Yalom (2005), the ideal size of a therapeutic group is within the range of 5-10 participants, so accordingly, my group was an average-sized one.
The choice of these three specific women for the research was based on their ability to represent the group in terms of the various types of women of which it consisted, both in terms of age, starting point, personal style and positioning in the group, as well as taking into account their verbal and expressive abilities so that they could provide full responses to my questions. The three women participating in the study have allowed me to expose and use their stories for the sake of research (I do so using pseudonyms).
At the time of the premiere, the women were between the ages of 28 and 42. To date they are 34-48 years old. The three women are mothers (of 3-5 children) who have experienced violence at some point in their lives.
Identifying the need, and my personal context:
When I was already the mother of three children, I became acquainted with Playback Theatre. The feelings that this form of art evoked in me, both as a storyteller and as an actress, moved me emotionally. Playback is not a therapeutic tool by definition, but I felt its power over me and over my fellow students. At this point I re- experienced the desire to study some form of therapy. In my search for such a form, I came upon psychodrama.
During my psychodrama studies, I did my internships in shelters for battered women, in a domestic violence treatment centre, and in a boarding school for girls who were removed from their homes by court order for various reasons pertaining to their welfare. In these places I experienced therapy in general, and psychodrama in combination with the arts in particular. When I started working in psychodrama and art therapy, my first workplace was the Yachdav Centre.
I felt that in order for women to truly be able to move on from their complex and traumatic pasts to a better future, it is necessary to work on their inner patterns of abuse (i.e., on the different personal characteristics of each of them pertaining to it). I discerned the need for therapeutic work on the difficulties that arise (and break out in front of the children), and felt this must be done in a safe space that I hoped we could create for them in the Yachdav Centre, which was already a meaningful place for them.
The Yachdav Centre where the group met – the institutional context:
The Yachdav Centre, in Eilat, is a service that has been operating since 2002 and was established in recognition of a municipal need, where 23% of the families in the city (located at the southern end of Israel and defined by some as a “city of refuge“) are single-parent families. On the national scale, Eilat is between first and second place on this parameter.
The Centre runs a variety of programs for mothers and children and provides a response to needs at the individual and family level: parental guidance, empowerment and development, work on self- image, help in receiving what they deserve from the national insurance and other such agencies, enrichment activities, afternoon club, help with homework and more.
Mothers can choose in which groups and activities they wish to participate, and thus create small and intimate groups to which they are committed. At present, about 120 families are registered in the Centre.
Development of the idea of treatment via Playback Theatre:
I recognized these mothers’ need for therapy, and since the centre does not have a mandate to provide individual treatment, I proposed group therapy through psychodrama. When I brought my proposal to Aviva, the Centre’s director, she shared her dream with me: she asked me to lead a therapeutic theatre group that will bring the women’s stories onto the stage. At that point I had no knowledge of theatrical instruction and certainly not any experience in directing plays. I suggested an alternative: I suggested that I give group therapy through Playback Theatre, in which I did have experience. The mothers will learn this theatrical instrument and at the same time they will undergo a therapeutic process. I added the option that if the women in the group will want to perform, we can do a playback performance at a later point in time, we may do so for other mother’s within the Yahcdav’s safe space.
Group psychotherapy and the use of Psychodrama and Playback Theatre for group therapy:
“Through group processes experienced by participants in support and change groups guided by professionals, it is possible to assist people in mental, interpersonal and social distress” (Yalom, 2005). Yalom claimed that there are 11 factors through which change occurs: instilling hope – receiving encouragement from other group members that have improved. Universalism/generality – realizing one’s similarity to other group members, participation and sharing problems encourage patience and give a good personal feeling. Information sharing, altruism – satisfaction from helping other group members. Corrective reconstruction of the primal family group, developing techniques of socialization, imitation, mutual learning, group cohesion, catharsis and understanding existential factors (Yalom in Neumann, 2010. This is a chapter in a Hebrew book of psychiatry).
Concerning the group, the facilitator and psychodrama, Neumann explains: “The group serves as a mirror for its members and enables reflection through them, enabling individuals to express themselves in a supportive and sympathetic atmosphere. This can lead to catharsis and serve as a corrective experience. The group offers additional perspectives that can strengthen him/her on the one hand and, on the other hand, serve to provide him/her with alternative responses in the future.”
Unlike psychodrama, Playback Theatre events are usually held as one-time artistic performances of improvisational nature, with the main goal being the creation of a space for containment and inclusion in order to engage the audience by hearing stories and recreating them as scenes, forming intimate closeness, mutual support and possibly imparting therapeutic value (Fox in Offner, 2011. This article is originally in Hebrew). Salas (2007) speaks of playback’s healing potential stemming from individuals’ ability to tell their stories within an attentive, nonjudgmental space. The enactment of the story on the stage is the artistic process that renders meaning to a life story in an aesthetic theatrical manner. She speaks of our fear of chaos and meaninglessness, and of how the aesthetic reflection of our experiences grants them meaning, providing the narrator of the story with confidence and inspiration.
Salas notes that playback can be used as a therapeutic tool thanks to three factors:
- The group is run by a facilitator who is a trained therapist and knows how to guide the story with clinical sensitivity.
- Playback is a tool that distances: on the one hand the narrator watches and does not participate; on the other hand, the enactment is controlled within a structure of mirroring forms and rituals.
- The very fact that a narrator (who could even be a psychiatric patient) knows how to match his story to the level of confidence that the group gives him.
The three above factors produce therapeutic conditions that prevent loss of boundaries, especially when all this happens in a loving environment, which endows suffering with some logic and order. When we speak of playback’s therapeutic capacities, I as a psychodrama therapist see the empowering context of individual visibility, with the individual’s personal story within the group. The empowering context of personal growth through the discovery of the inner creativity of other group members fits in with basic theories of psychodrama.
The role of Playback Theatre facilitator in a therapeutic group:
Lubrani Rolnik (2009) mentions that leading a performance is essentially similar to leading a group and that the role of the facilitator is to unite the group, establish attention, serve as a receptor for anxieties and unify the group, establishing attentiveness and processing contents so as to make them meaningful. All these are true also for leading a working Playback Theatre group.
Salas (2007) also speaks of the facilitator’s role in the context of working toward a performance. This still relates, to my mind, also to the leader’s work with his group – being the conductor of the artistic piece created through playback, and also the one who promotes the process through creating a connecting channel between the audience (in this case – the group), the actors (group members on stage) and the narrator (also a group member).
In the therapeutic group, I borrow the four roles of the Psychodramatist, as defined by Moreno (Kellermann & Moreno, 1992), while adapting them to Playback Theatre. These roles correspond and add on to the roles that have been mentioned here:
- The Analyst- watches and listens, in order to absorb the patient’s messages in their totality, empathetic, attentive to the subtext/heart of the story, giving a meaningful mirroring and checking with the patient whether what is happening on the stage seems right to them, and if not, how to make it more accurate. In a therapy group using playback, the above occurs within group conduct and in a theatrical way in light of the enactment of stories, where the reflection is given by the members of the group. I do not usually repeat enactments for the sake of accuracy, as I believe that the next stories will provide what is needed, according to the principle of the “Red Thread” (Fox & Dauber in Lubrani Rolnik 2009) but there still is room for the narrator to say what suited them and what was lacking. In situations where there is emotional excitement on the part of the narrator, a new significant layer emerges in the story following the enactment, I allow for another short enactment in order to fulfill the narrator’s immediate need.
- The Producer/Director – Moreno speaks of turning details into action, of responsibility for warm-ups, for the atmosphere, structure, aesthetics, rhythm and timing of actions. The producer/director is also responsible for mobilizing the creative forces and facilitating spontaneity, as well as making connections between fantasy and reality. In playback therapy I would speak of the same responsibilities. This role is reminiscent of the way Salas describes the facilitator’s roles, but also, when connecting all the above, we will refer to the therapist as the person in charge of the group Narrative Reticulation (Fox, 2019), which occurs at each session as well as in the group process.
- The Therapist – the change agent who helps the patient move a step forward in the therapeutic journey. They are required to have extensive theoretical and therapeutic knowledge so that they can choose the right intervention and make an informed choice as to emphasizing a certain aspect of the narrator’s story. This is also consistent with my approach to working in a playback therapy group, where, like in regular playback, I will sometimes check with the narrator what they would like to see next time. Through the launch I will point to what I see as the heart of the story we are dealing with at present, emphasizing its core so as to outline how it should be enacted to my mind, and in particularly emotionally complex stories, I will give even more precise highlights.
- The Group Leader – who enables an empowering climate and supports through setting – as a clear structure for continuity during the meeting and formulation of clear group norms, while cultivating group cohesion, balancing tensions and formulating common goals. This leader is responsible for encouraging all members to participate, while enabling the creation of relationships and communication between them, whether by verbal means or through action, and is also responsible for removing obstacles that may harm cooperation. I do not see a difference between the responsibility of the psychodramatist as a group leader and that of the therapist, through Playback Theatre.
The therapeutic process:
The process of establishing the group began with personal interviews. Eighteen women were referred by the staff. Of these, 13 women began the therapeutic process and 12 completed it. At the end of the process, the women participated in authoring the play. Nine of them went on to rehearsal stage, but two of them left the city at a relatively early stage of the rehearsals, so that 7 women actually participated in the play.
Through the personal interviews, I discovered that most of the women who were referred to me have experienced, in addition to the failure of their marital system, at least one or more relationship with either physical, verbal, economic and/or sexual violence. A significant number of them were in a state that may be termed CPTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – a term originated by Lewis Herman).
Trauma, therapeutic approaches to work with trauma, and their integration into playback group work:
Levine (1997) recognized the essence of trauma as a situation where during the traumatic event the body used the freezing strategy, or was denied the physical ability to escape or struggle, so that the energy that was stopped by the mere immobility, and the actions that were not performed at the time of the event continue to be imprisoned in the body, so that the person remains stuck with their “frozen fears” and unable to return to normal life.
I refer extensively to the issue of trauma because to my mind the condition of the women I worked with fits in with Levine’s definition of trauma relating to the freezing state of remaining in a relationship in which terror is a daily experience. The situation of these women, whose fantasy of a ”good” family dissolved at every level, and whose trust in the person who was supposed to be closest to them was shattered, fitting Lewis Herman’s definition of CPTSD, a term coined to express a state in which a person is under tyrannical control for a significant duration, including domestic violence.
The therapeutic stages in the playback group according to therapeutic approaches to treating trauma:
According to Lewis Herman (1992), there are three stages in dealing with trauma: 1. Creating security 2. Remembering and mourning 3. Renewed connection. The process of recovery is actually a gradual shift from danger to security and trust, from dissociative trauma to memory, and from isolation involving moral turpitude to renewed social contact. Although the stages are not necessarily linear, the first essential step is that of creating a sense of security and restoring control to the patient.
In my view, the very coming of those women to the Yachdav Centre provided them with a network of social support and a professional response to their various needs. They were in the company of other single mothers so that they did not feel alone in their difficult situation.
In addition, Aviva and the staff at the Centre assisted the women in coping with various authorities, including emotional support and listening to them at times of acute crisis situations. I must point out that over time it turned out that in most cases the traumatic experiences were not discussed among the women. The therapeutic group became a source of social and emotional support and established social connections in a complex and significant manner which differed from the way in which the Centre itself served the women, by virtue of the fact that it was defined as a space for them as women rather than as mothers. At the beginning of the process, I worked with the women on warm-ups, teaching them to employ a new short form of playback every time. The short forms stimulate the expression of contemporary, simple and short stories from the women’s daily lives without arousing pain or trauma. This created the right pace for establishing contacts and trust in the group.
Women who were more closed by nature and had trouble sharing or going up on stage participated in the opening, warming-up and concluding parts of the sessions, and other than that just watched. I invited them to participate actively on the stage and tell their stories so that they would know that they were visible, and to allow them to depart from the onlooker’s position, but I made sure to leave them in control of the timing for this to happen. At first, only funny stories came up, and so were the enactments. Later came more serious stories, and the enactments were still funny. Then a more complex story came up and the enactment was still funny. At this stage, about two months after the group began meeting, I raised the question to the narrator who sat next to me as to how she felt about the enactment of her story. She responded lightly, saying that its being funny suited her. I shared my thoughts with the group about this, saying that I was wondering myself about how much pain it would actually be possible to bring up in the group when all the enactments were funny. All the responses, except for one, essentially said, “Our lives are hard enough, it’s better to laugh about them. The playback allows us to do that, it’s an outlet“. The other reaction, from one woman, was: “I cannot believe I will tell anything painful here, in this situation.” At the next session, the pain and complexities began to rise and the enactments began to be more suited to the contents of the stories. This too was consistent with the theory that enables the group to control the pace and contents, with my identification and assistance as facilitator, holding the process, to examine the place where the group stands and its needs at that point in time.
At this point we began to work with the Playback Theatre long form of open stories, and gradually there came stories that presented current difficulties, as would fit the stage we were at according to Lewis Herman. In terms of the contents of the stories (after passing through the light stories), the issues of coping with managing a household that felt like it was disintegrating, stories of coping with children when there is no ability to contain their challenges while there is a lot of anger accumulated from other sources too, or when children become bossy since the mother has no strength left to resist and set limits, or when children are in a crisis and all the energy is directed to maintain the status quo. At the same time, the difficulties of running a household alone came up: loneliness as an adult who holds everything on her shoulders and finds no support systems (apart from Yachdav, which was a lifeline for most women). The experience of contempt and accusation by service providers at welfare centres, the National Insurance Institute and the like, and the places where they were discriminated against as single mothers, job interviews, or the search for apartments for rent, came up as well.
The warm-up work in playback, in most sessions, gave room (at least at the first stage) for the body and its movement. The movement work was not easy for most women – they had to overcome the elements of external shame and internal discomfort, so at first, we worked through children’s physical movement games, only later reaching movement for the sake of movement. When we got to this, it was personal work that later connected to work in pairs and in the group – we held emotional discourse and expression through motion, paying close attention to rhythm and energy, and emphasizing expression through movement during the playback enactments. At this stage we began to touch on intuitive movement work, and later there was work in pairs which included testimony and listening to internal feelings that arise as a result – procedures connecting participants to the felt sense as Levine describes it. It should be noted that it took about five months for all these abilities to develop, but also the traumatic stories took a similar amount of time to come up.
The second stage according to Lewis Herman consists of two parts: memory and mourning. This stage deals with past experiences. Lewis Herman notes that at this stage of memory and mourning, group work focusing on a traumatic experience shared by all group members is particularly helpful. The group setting constitutes strong stimulus encouraging the recounting of the traumatic memory, and one participant’s memory may evoke that of another.
In my group, the memory phase came up, piece by piece. The domestic violence in its various manifestations emerged (it should be noted that some stories of abusive relationships in the women’s families of origin came up as well. On the therapeutic level, these relate to circumstances and to the women’s abilities to build relationships in adulthood, but this was not a significant part of the women’s stories, and later in the play they staged, it wasn’t part of the message).
As in the principle of the Red Thread, one story did indeed lead to the following one. Parts of personal stories joined together to form a collective horror story. The enactments were powerful due to the mere fact that previously untold parts were presented on the stage, as a participant enacting the story, identified with a situation within the story which she heard, expanding it with her own experiences, and this was almost always in a way that was valid and true for the narrator as well. At the level of mourning, I could recognize that there was work done on the aspect of guilt and shame concerning the inability to pull out of the cycle of violence. There was work on depression following separation from a spouse that affected the women’s parenting, which was sometimes experienced, by their children, as abusive or neglectful. The women’s mourning stories differed from each other, but in whatever form the mourning manifested, it was recognized and supported by the group.
In my view, the group, who learned how to use playback, developed the ability to improvise, listen, share and reflect, and thus developed a significant resource that strengthened them and their self-worth. This group, which in time became a cohesive group that initiated activities outside of the therapeutic setting (for example, a communal holiday meal, in order to overcome the feeling of loneliness on holidays, expressed in one of the stories that came up in the group) is a kind of pendulum, in which the stories express the pain and the group expresses the resource. There is also the pendulum-like fluctuation between the narrator’s pain and the creativity reflected on the stage. One’s ability to mirror a story about another’s trauma vortex through the body, which releases energy trapped in it from the personal story of that same “actress“, activates the recovery vortex for both women.
The third stage according to Lewis Herman is the re-connecting stage, where the future comes in, and where there is usually a reappearance of the patient’s preoccupation with their body, their needs, and relationship issues; but this time it is with the recognition of the trauma’s having impacted their life, and integrating its lessons into their life, among other things by seeking new experiences or through readiness to cope and struggle with the fear.
Towards the end, stories of a different kind started to come up – of new challenges related to coping with the children’s difficulties, subjects of pent-up or externalized sexuality with a desire for change, developmental issues – such as beginning studies and changing work places. Indeed, it was that some of the women were experiencing some movement and change in these realms. However, in my view, the third stage that Lewis Herman mentions had only begun. It continued with the will to convey a message and to get on the stage in front of an audience. The struggle against fear, the integration of the trauma into one’s life, and helping others as part of self-healing, were carried out through and on the occasion of playing on the stage.
In the rehearsal process I saw how repetition of particularly difficult scenes stabilized the second stage for those who went through it and actually completed it, for those who did not complete the process of memory and mourning within the group process through playback. Levine speaks of the need to anchor the coping abilities in the body, which will develop a capacity for recovery and awareness.
When I watched the women during rehearsals and in front of the audience, acting and moving on the stage despite their fear, repeating the scenes of horror time after time and going on to the scenes of recovery, I saw all of this as the anchoring of what had changed within them in their bodies, as Levine explained.
Analysis of the contents of the play “He who made me a woman” and their connection to the processes in the playback group:
From the outset, the idea of staging a play comprised of the Yachdav Centre women’s stories was Aviva’s. After about a year of playback work, the women expressed their desire to realize Aviva’s dream to convey a message to an audience following their work, while contemplating the difficulties they experienced and the results of the process they underwent. The decision was reached by the group as a whole. Although, there were women in the group who declared that they would not go on stage, they supported the idea and volunteered to work behind the scenes. The play was originally written and dramatized by the women in the group, with direct reference to their personal stories in the therapeutic Playback Theatre group and to the message they wanted to convey, using ideas and forms that came up during their enactment, choosing roles, playing each other’s roles and sometimes also their own. The direction of the play and its “Mise en scene“, was held by two professional women, an amateur theatre director and a community-theatre teacher, who joined us from that stage on, in order to author the scenes with the ideas that the woman imagined, to be impressive stage scenes. The music, that accompanied the scenes, was chosen by the women from their world of content and style and in accordance with the scene. Prop use was minimal, black clothes were the basic outfits, as is customary in playback shows. Contrary to most Playback Theatre, the play did have a backdrop. The music, the props and the backdrop added a dimension that stabilized and enriched the texts.
The Second Stage of the Study: Collection and Discussion of Findings – a look at the process, from interviews conducted in December 2013
The play was a staged structured product of this therapeutic process. It was performed six times on stage – five times in Eilat and once again in Be’er Sheva as part of a community theatre festival. It was very successful, and clearly conveyed the message that the women wished it to convey.
Analysis of the findings from the interviews and the women’s responses, along with my own impressions of the process, compares the women’s situations at four points of time: upon entering the process, during the process (therapy through playback, rehearsals, and the actual play), right after its completion, and five years later. The purpose of this comparison is to find common denominators, to examine what the women actually experienced, the essence of the process as a whole, whether and how the process affected the well being of group members, as far as the tools which they received from it, may assist them in coping with their emotional and cognitive as well as objective situations.
- Entering the process
Interview findings showed that the three women entered the process in a poor state of mind and emotional health:
Olga was in a passive stage, in which, as she said, she was “looking for anything to hold on to.” She was 26 and the mother of five, the youngest of whom were 3-year-old twins. I met her in the dyadic group in which she participated with her eldest daughter. I knew that she had separated, about two months beforehand, from her violent partner, the father of her children. She was full of fears and doubts about this step she had taken, and the children’s father did not yet give up the relationship and would come to her house as if they hadn’t parted. At the interview for the playback group we talked about the masks that she “wore” in order to protect herself, and through which she outwardly exhibited herself as a strong character and especially through the “everything is fine with me” mask, when in reality she was seeking a path to salvation.
Ruthie was the mother of three children from her first marriage. Later on I discovered that she was in a serious crisis regarding her second relationship, as she said in her interview following the conclusion of the playback therapy process: “Our relationship was comprised of ups and downs, violence, lack of mutual respect. At a certain point I stopped respecting too.” In the interview with Ruthie before the group process began, I tried to figure out who the woman in front of me actually was. I must point out that I had difficulty in figuring her out. Her speech was associative and I found it difficult to follow her train of thought. She did not talk about domestic violence and what she said sounded rather confused. Yet, I felt her place was in the group.
Sarit, then 42, was a mother of four, three from her marriage to a violent man, and one out of wedlock from a try at a second relationship that failed, was a wreck. She was previously a battered woman who was trying to rebuild her life. She described her state upon entering the process as “total insecurity. I would even say – a poor emotional state.” I also met Sarit in a dyadic group, where she came in with her third son. She was a woman who barely speaks, and on the other hand I realized that the women of the Yachdav Centre love her company. In our interview prior to the group process she said she did not believe she would succeed in opening up, but because she trusts Aviva and me, she is willing to try.
A personal goal in group entry:
The three women noted that at the beginning of the process they had no idea what playback was about and they entered it for different reasons – Olga wanted to please her surroundings and show willingness to change, Ruthie wanted to try out being an actress on a small scale, and Sarit entered in the hope of gaining more confidence.
Feelings about group integration:
Two of the women, Ruthie and Sarit, noted that their entry into the group was accompanied by apprehension and even actual fear, which stemmed from a lack of trust. For Ruthie, the process began from a point where she felt like an “outsider“, as she explained: “Before I got to the group, I was always afraid to come to a place where I will be judged. The group knew that I was in a violent relationship. Very slowly I began understanding that “here you won’t be judged, here you will be supported“.
A similar but different feeling was expressed by Sarit who said: “There is always this fear that maybe people are unreliable, that if you tell something maybe it’ll come out, that you might be judged, but after you know the group and the girls and you see that everyone needs therapy, you learn to open up and share.“
As an onlooker I saw how hard it was for Ruthie to join the group, and her few attempts to bring herself to open up, which were, initially, not very well-accepted by other women. I saw Sarit observing, in a way I could not always understand at first. She was withdrawn but still had a significant presence, and I felt that she was, still, gaining something from being in the group despite her silence.
For Olga this was a journey of self-discovery through acquaintance with and contemplation of the girls in the group. She identified similar traits in them that she had in herself and started to come to terms with: “In every encounter I saw myself reflected in someone else. There was a period of time when I connected with Rachel very well. I suddenly realized how much there is inside of this woman that I didn’t expect at all. I did not know how much she is holding inside and it made me realize that I also have these times when no matter how much I talk, people don’t know me… For me personally it was very interesting because I am a person who looks on and learns. It’s important to know how to use this tool, without altering my identity due to over-identification … It’s a lot about onlooking, not always immediate action. At every stage I was particularly connected to a different woman. I saw myself every time at a different point and I felt OK with all these points because they appeared in other women too. It’s OK… and even if I’m withdrawn and everyone points at me as someone who doesn’t share or tell anything… it’s OK. I’m not the only one.“
Experiences and insights from the playback process:
Olga recounts that on the one hand, in the playback process she began to acquire confidence “to make everyone laugh and to be silly in front of everyone and to appear stupid … maybe because the Playback Theatre helped me a lot in as it set me free… It’s a great tool mainly for groups … We felt good among ourselves, we felt open and safe…“. On the other hand, she notes that one of the main processes she underwent was the realization that in her daily life she was acting “like a machine“, devoid of emotion, and her decision to see everything in a lighter way and to connect to her emotions was made thanks to the playback group. She describes a case in which she humorously described an incident that happened to her with her children. It was a case that actually hurt her, and her reaction in front of her children was a mixture of weeping and at the same time an attempt to disguise her anger. When she told it in the group, she tried to relate it as a funny story. The enactment she received led her to an insight that she says has accompanied her since: “I understood, within myself, that even though I tried to make the girls laugh, I actually fooled them and myself. Because within me I was hurt, and mainly angry. One of the girls enacted it in a light spirit and laughed about it, just like she really copes with her own reality and, somehow, I was jealous of her attitude … This was repeated in another story, where I saw her lightness and asked myself how she does it, how she’s able to see it differently (i.e., the good side of it) and I’m not. I realized my story was not authentic, and the group enacted it the way I presented it.“
Ruthie’s process was no less complex. She was in a second relationship with a violent partner and recounted how she did not understand this until she heard the other women’s stories, which posed a mirror in front of her, so to speak. There and then she realized that it was actually the story she was living herself, and that she had to get out of it. “When I was in the situation of domestic violence I was not aware that it was pure violence, I thought I was the one who’s wrong and that this is the way it should be, all kinds of things were said in the group and then I asked myself ‘Is it happening to you too? Is it okay? Is it he who is causing this situation?’, and then I realized that he had to be in my life so that I could reach new insights, maybe not at such levels of violence. I was looking for a way to get out of it. It’s not easy to reach such a decision… “. In addition, the process Ruthie underwent includes her integration into the group and her understanding that it can help her as it is a supportive resource for her. “When I came out empowered from playback sessions, I realized that my work on myself can receive as many tools as it can give. Maybe they’ll accept my weirdness. Today I understand that women’s power is not only negative but can also be very positive“. By this Ruthie was referring to her feelings of being misunderstood and rejected by girls and women along her life.
In her interview Sarit said that the playback process and conversations with the women in the group helped her to feel free and as a result she began to open up and tell her story: “when you begin to participate you feel liberated … In the beginning I couldn’t speak at all but the stories that the other girls told made me identify with them, and I started to identify and offer them tips. Later on, I started to talk about things that were going on at home, like the violence that was going on, the drugs, the need to get out of it and my inability to even think that it was possible to get out of all this, and slowly I realized that it’s something that once I dealt with openly, I could handle.” Sarit realized that she was not alone, that there are women with similar stories. The fact that participants in the group identify with each other encouraged her to share and feel more liberated. Sarit’s description is consistent with Lewis Herman ‘s (1992) assertion that a group focusing on trauma stimulates the recounting of more traumatic memories, provides a new emotional perspective, and creates a bridge to other’s similar memories.
The three interviewees point out that the playback process has led them to emotional freedom and to significant insights into their situations and their functioning in the world. They used the group as an attribution group, i.e., as a referral point for reflection and feedback, and learned from other participants both about themselves and about alternative ways to react to diverse situations. They learned to appreciate the group’s strength and the benefits of this social circle. The similarity between their stories helped them to feel freer. These findings are consistent with Yalom’s (2005) claim regarding the effects of group and therapeutic processes on people in personal distress. According to him, the therapeutic group provides, inter alia, a means for developing techniques promoting socialization, imitation, mutual learning, group cohesion, universality, catharsis and understanding of existential factors.
Experiences from the play “He who Made me a Woman”:
The fear of speaking and being exposed in a small group is minor compared with the exposure to a large and judgmental audience which occurs in a play open to the public. Olga described appearing for rehearsals as a war: “It was a struggle for me, even to just appear for rehearsals. There too I found I was working on myself and realizing that I was undergoing a process.” She adds: “Today when I look back it feels very natural, as if that was how it was meant to be, maybe because it was a Playback Theatre that was very helpful in freeing me emotionally“. She explains that she felt safe with the women of the Yachdav Centre, but that acting in front of a largely unfamiliar audience was more difficult: “I didn’t think I could stand on stage… but at a certain point it suddenly came naturally to do something bigger“.
In the preparation period toward one of the plays Olga was ill and her ability to function was very limited. She was late to every rehearsal and the women developed an antagonism toward her. At the same time we received information from her social worker that there were complaints about her functioning as a mother, but Olga was just unable to lift herself in terms of mothering, despite her efforts, and perhaps as a result of too much activity in other realms of her life. During the lunch break on a day of rehearsals, on the day we performed the fourth play, she quietly told me that she was just notified that the welfare personnel had collected her children from school and transferred them to their father as part of a process that might lead to them being removed from her custody. She asked me not to discuss the issue, not even with her, since she must function in the play. I found myself in a difficult dilemma. On the one hand, I saw her putting on old and detaching masks; on the other hand, it was not safe for her to break down exactly when she was required to function. I also knew that if she fell apart, there were six other women for whom I was responsible who would be hurt by the situation. After holding a conversation with Aviva we chose, with a great deal of difficulty, to respect Olga’s request and not to try to talk with her about the matter. The play was as successful as the previous ones. In the end Olga came over to thank me, saying that if she had broken down that day and could not have acted in the play, that would have infinitely expanded her feeling of failure, which she already had as it was. Later on, Olga found the strength to rise up and bring her children back within a few days, and gradually returned to functioning as a mother again.
The contribution of the playback process and play to participants’ lives:
The women’s thoughts and feelings as to the playback therapy and its impact on their lives were overwhelmingly positive. By all of them there seemed to be an improvement in the situation, both on the objective level and in terms of their personal feelings. Olga said she underwent a significant change from always trying to please everyone to being more flexible with herself, and toward her children she found herself replacing the words “first of all no” with “actually, why not?“. She said she learned “to look at everything that happens to me in life and say to myself: Surely what happened to me has happened to at least two other people in the world, so I’ll think about how they deal with it. I’ll view it from the outside.” She learned to connect to her emotions and try to notice when she behaves like a machine: “The whole play and process influenced me. It caused me to go through processes in new ways.” She notes that she is more confident, more joyous, optimistic, knows how to see the good side of things, and “self-conscious not in the critical sense, but in the sense of knowing myself“. She now knows that she is able to contain more than she once thought she could.
Ruthie focuses on the play’s impact and on the process of her separation from her partner as well as on the development of her new career. She describes the process as consisting of three chapters (or stages): “The first chapter (the playback group) was something new, different, something I had not seen or encountered until then, and the work in the group was fruitful.” As to the first chapter she adds that in the past when people didn’t understand her, she would give up and retreat, whereas today “I will be there and explain myself until they understand me.” The middle chapter (rehearsals) was bland as far as she was concerned, and she did not feel she got anything out of it. “I don’t remember that I succeeded or managed to go through a process there.“
For Sarit the process was a release from bonds of guilt for the sake of restoring self-confidence and personal growth: “All along I felt I was a really big part of this performance. It gave me a lot of confidence, even beyond what was necessary. It opened doors before me. It gave me this power to talk to people freely, to explain myself, to say that it’s done, that this was a part of my life that I’m not to blame for. I always thought I was guilty for being beaten. Now I have the power to go up to a woman who is suffering from violence and say to her: ‘You don’t deserve this.’ In the past I couldn’t do that“. Playback let her reveal herself and let go of embarrassment: “Something I would not have dared to say was that I’m suffering from domestic violence. It was always like ‘dirty laundry is to be washed at home, nobody needs to know’ until I got to the playback group and realized that it shouldn’t be like that.” The description of the most significant change she gained through the Yachdav Centre comes from Sarit, who told Aviva: “You know me from the beginning, from when I was a wreck. A walking corpse, not a person. I was depressed. I don’t know how I managed to raise my children. What happens in the house happens in the house. I wouldn’t have had the strength if it was not for you (the Yachdav staff), who encouraged and supported me. Thanks to your encouragement I entered this process.” According to Lewis Herman (in Naor, 2008), the core of the experience of emotional trauma is that it robs its victim of strength and separates him from the surroundings, and therefore it is important that recovery be based on empowerment and on the creation of new relationships based on emotional support and on trust, that will help to create release and assist in exiting the cycle of violence.
- A look at the process and its impact on the interviewees’ lives five years later
Current situation, in general:
Sarit defines herself through comparison to her initial situation and says that she is a strong woman who knows how to understand and receive what he deserves. Ruthie describes herself as more calm and optimistic now, and says that she is still working on self improvement, in addition to the fact that she is now aware and expressive of her feelings, unlike in the past. Olga says her life is excellent, she is achieving goals she set for herself without despairing if the results differ from her expectations. The three answers present a positive picture of the women dealing with situations that come up in their lives and striving for progress.
Connections seen by the women between the playback process and current situations and changes they have undergone:
Sarit and Olga talk about their self-confidence as a fundamental change that occurred in the process and accompanies them in their lives. They attribute to it their ability to make choices in their lives – i.e., to choose at any given moment to act in the way they see fit. Olga also adds self-acceptance of the mistakes she has made and will still make, knowing that she is in a constant process and that her intentions are good. Ruthie too speaks about the understanding that the process is going on to this day and it is her responsibility to continue it (when she chose, following the process and after moving to a new place, to enroll in a playback course in order to continue the inner process with herself). Sarit describes her newly-gained self assurance as something that enables her to stand up for herself and demand what she deserves, and adds the release from guilt feelings as a fundamental change that happened thanks to the playback process.
All three women note, in one part or another of their letters, the ability to connect, cope, express and even regulate emotions, as part of their development in the process. They also note something that grew in the process and accompanies them in life now – the ability to persevere, or stick-to-itiveness, stemming from contemplation and the ability to choose not to give in to themselves nor to give up on themselves. Ruthie notes that she learned how to focus and express herself more clearly. She also notes that she learned about management, separation processes in a healthy manner, unlike the escape or disappearance method she used to employ in such situation in the past.
Ruthie speaks of the practical know-how she acquired from the process in the context of getting organized and coping with bureaucratic difficulties. Sarit says that in times of crisis she reminds herself of the process and draws strength from it in order to cope, and Olga says that in complex situations she tries to extricate herself from the picture and look on as a mere observer so as to gain a change of perspective. She also says that today she shares her difficulties with others in order to receive help, thanks to the process and unlike her habitual behavior in the past. All three women point out that today they are more daring and bold, and describe how in difficult situations they use what they saw and learned in the playback process.
From the interviews as well as from the text of the play and its messages, written by the women themselves, an optimistic picture emerges. It appears that the playback process and the play that followed it had a significant impact on the lives of the participants. The effect manifested in their ability to create trusting relationships, to open up and feel free to be themselves, and also to create a new world for themselves following the process. Changes took place in job placement and in relationships, and these were changes for the better. Parenting went through turning points in terms of the ability to cope and in mothers’ approach to their children, in different ways by different women, but in all cases from a healthier place. Our study participants testify that today, five years after the end of the process, they are in a better place on the personal, work and marital levels, and they attribute this to what they underwent in the playback and the play process. In light of the interviewees’ responses, it seems that the group therapy framework chosen by Aviva, director of Yachdav, was right for them, and though they did not know it beforehand, they found it to be better than individual therapy.
Fox J. (2019) The Playback NR Workbook, Tusitala
Kellerman, P. & Moreno, J. (1992), Focus on Psychodrama. Jessica Kingsley, London & Philadelphia
Levine P.A. (1997) Waking the Tiger- Healing Trauma. North Atlantic Books
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Lubrani Rolnik N. (2009) Life in a Story- Playback Theatre and the Art of Improvisation. Mofet- Kibutz Meuhad
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About the author
Inbar is practicing and living playback since 2006. Playing conducting teaching and using it in therapeutic settings. Accredited Playback Theatre Trainer from the Centre for Playback Theatre (CPT), Inbar is also a Schema Therapist. Being passionate about those two subjects, she is using creative ways in combining them through workshops using ideas from Schema Therapy and tools from Playback Theatre.
Understanding the Impact of an Online Playback Theatre Intervention on Staff Wellbeing
By Samantha Swift, Paras Patel & Steve Nash
In early 2021 the National Health Service in England funded the development of ‘Staff Wellbeing Hubs’ to help health and care staff to access wellbeing resources during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the Hub that was set up in the north of England, the therapeutic value of the arts, and of narrative and reflective approaches in helping people cope with adversity and recover from trauma, was recognised from the outset.
This article looks at the impact on a group of ‘front line’ health practitioners who chose to attend an online Playback Theatre event as a way of dealing with their experiences of providing health care during the pandemic. A significant majority (82%) reported that it was a worthwhile experience that they would recommend to their colleagues. Qualitative feedback from participants suggests that Playback Theatre can provide an innovative and valued intervention for collective reflection and sharing, and that it encourages connection, emotional processing, personal healing, and hope.
Samantha Swift, Assistant Psychologist, North East and North Cumbria ICS Staff Wellbeing Hub
Paras Patel, Senior Researcher, North East and North Cumbria ICS Staff Wellbeing Hub
Steve Nash, Playback Theatre York, Independent Mental Health Consultant
The Staff Wellbeing Hub
The Covid-19 pandemic created a unique set of pressures for health and care staff who were trying to continue to provide high quality care, whilst simultaneously managing major changes in service delivery and responding to the needs of service users and colleagues who were experiencing reduced social contact as a consequence of shielding and isolation.
North East and North Cumbria (NENC) Staff Wellbeing Hub was developed in the north of England in January 2021 with funding from the National Health Service, to ensure that support was available to help front line staff to address their individual and collective needs. The Hub provides confidential access to a range of wellbeing resources and to experienced therapists, based on the following five trauma-informed principles:
- Relationships are the basis of recovery: staff want and deserve real contact with experienced mental health experts from the outset
- Whole-system thinking: working productively across agencies to create easy and timely access for staff and to plug any gaps
- Normalisation and strengths-based approach: non-pathologising language and preventative offers for individuals and teams
- Empowerment: a range of good quality offers to choose from, including specialist therapy and confidential self-referral
- Addressing complexity: dealing with the unique and multi-layered nature of staff mental health
Those responsible for developing the Hub felt it was important for staff to have access to a diverse range of activities so that their individual needs and style of coping/processing, could be supported. From the outset the value of the arts and of reflective and narrative approaches in promoting collective healing following adversity and trauma was recognised. Playback Theatre was selected as one of the offers that would be made available and reviewed via a focused evaluation.
How pandemics impact health and care staff
A metanalysis of 38 studies exploring how pandemics impact on staff mental wellbeing found that staff who are working with affected patients, where there is a risk of transmission of virus, had greater levels of both acute and post traumatic and stress (Kisely et al, 2020).Similarly, frontline workers in the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic had higher prevalence rates of depression, anxiety and PTSD compared to the rest of the population (Murphy et al, 2020). In the US, Panchal et al (2020) compared all essential workers in any role or setting compared to non-essential workers, and found that essential workers were more likely to report depression and anxiety (42% vs. 30%, respectively), the onset or increase of substance use (25% vs. 11%), or to have seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days (22% vs. 8%). In a UK poll of 996 healthcare staff 50% reported that their mental health was impacted by the Covid-19 crisis (Thomas & Quilter-Pinner, 2020), with 95% supporting government actions for more support for health and care workers’ mental health.
Evidence of related interventions
i. Communal approaches
Collective approaches to healing following adversity, where groups come together to process events and facilitate support have been shown to be effective (Pinderhughes, Davis, & Williams, 2015, Igreja & Baines, 2019). Theisen-Womersley and Theisen-Womersley (2021) refer to qualitative research on the experiences of people in non western communities who were isolated from their fellows, often under adverse or traumatic circumstances, noting the value of collective recognition and acknowledgement of experience. Reneau and Eanes (2020) considered literature in relation to students with collective experiences of loss and adjustment as an impact of the pandemic lockdown restrictions on work settings. They highlighted the importance of ‘meaning making’ including the reappraisal of beliefs and reflection on events that have occurred. They also recognised that sharing stories with others can be an important way to target the collective pain of the pandemic.
ii. Narrative methods
Narrative approaches are used therapeutically and, in the media, to acknowledge experience and support sense making. They include talking therapies that focus on hearing and understanding a person’s story (White & Epston 1990); systemic therapies that value narratives from multiple perspectives within a family or group (Dallos & Draper, 2010); the use of relational dialogic approaches such as Cognitive Analytic therapy (Ryle & Kerr, 2020), and other methods that emphasise using narratives to facilitate emotional processing or healing. Eyerman, Alexander and Breese (2015) highlight the value of approaches that transform lived experiences into television and written media, requiring a retelling and reconstruction of stories of war and other large scale traumatic events.
iii. Reflective Practice
Reflective practice is recognised as a valued way of providing team support in health and care settings (British Psychological Society, 2007). To support the psychological needs of healthcare staff during the Covid-19 pandemic, space for taking stock was recommended, using trained psychologists to facilitate reflection and processing of experiences (British Psychological Society, 2020). Established reflective practice formats in healthcare include individual supervision, and group based processes. “Schwartz rounds” focus on key topics for staff delivering a service, and the feelings elicited (Robert et. al, 2017, Flanagan et. al, 2020); “Balint Groups” focus on clinical cases, paying attention to the therapeutic relationship (Balint, 1979,1993); and “Taking Care Giving Care rounds” use a structured format to promote compassion for oneself and for others (Flowers et al, 2018, Jones, Waites, Sciar, 2020). All these formats align with Schon’s model (1983), with reflection on action after it has taken place, and each provides space and time to process and take stock of what has happened.
iv. Therapeutic use of drama
Applied theatre and drama therapies have been used to support those with emotional suffering and trauma, often targeting cultural experiences (Leveton, 2010 & Van Der Kolk, 2015). Drama techniques “allow us to speak the unspeakable, experience comfort, compassion and support from others” and ensure that “hope is restored” … (Leveto, 2010). In Taiwan, drama therapy activities were used in counselling groups for college students identified as needing support related to traumatic experiences, life adjustment, and behavioural concerns (Chang Liu & Yang, 2019). Delivered in ten group sessions over six months, these activities had several measurable beneficial impacts, such as increased self-awareness, and self-expression.
v. Performance and healing
A literature review (Heras and Tàbara, 2014) found that drama/performance is a powerful tool for disseminating information, providing a way to reflect as a group and to think critically on a topic. When applied to therapeutic or healing purposes, this was linked to increased freedom of expression and empathy towards others. The study concluded that performance methods appear to serve several potential functions, including integrating knowledge and different perspectives, and communicating complexity, which in turn provides an opportunity for a self-reflective process.
Playback Theatre is a performance-based methodology that incorporates many of the beneficial aspects of the therapeutic interventions that are summarised above. Whilst it is not a clinical intervention, Playback Theatre is increasingly recognised as an arts based medium that can help groups and communities explore and address a wide variety of personal, social and cultural issues (Fox and Salas, 2021). Potential wellbeing benefits include promoting healing from collective and individual trauma and personal suffering (Salas, 2020, Munjuluri, et al., 2020). It provides a way of encouraging reflection, witnessing individual experiences, and building group connection and communal understanding (Fox, 2007).
The suitability of Playback Theatre as an offer from the Staff Wellbeing Hub was strengthened by the fact that at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, playback practitioners quickly adapted new techniques that allowed the form to be accessed as an online methodology (Rosin, Vogel & Lebron, 2021). This meant that staff could participate in a creative and interactive group activity without breaking the social distancing regulations introduced to reduce the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
The NENC Staff Wellbeing Hub commissioned Playback Theatre York to design and host an intervention for frontline staff working in health and social care settings, with the aim of providing an innovative approach to supporting individual wellbeing as a part of a shared reflective experience. The result was a series of two online performances called “Beyond the mask – your stories seen and heard“.
As this was a new intervention for health and care staff, in addition to being implemented during the Covid-19 pandemic, evaluation was built in to learn more about attendees’ experiences of Playback Theatre and its impact, and to inform its potential future use.
An electronic advert was shared via the Hub distribution list, and Hub clinicians also promoted the opportunity with key contacts who acted as “spokes and outreach” leads. Staff attending existing reflection groups (such as Balint groups) were also informed. A promotional video was created to explain what to expect when attending the event. Attendees completed an online form to book a “seat” and a Zoom link giving access to the event was shared via email. Staff could contact Playback Theatre York or the Hub for further information.
In total, 23 health and care staff attended one of two individual playback performances, the first was held in May 21 and the second in September 2021. Attendees included 11 women and 8 men, with 4 not providing a response for gender, and with a mean age range of 46.5 years. Professional roles were mainly clinical, but included those working in communications, data analysis and public health. 19 attendees were from North East and North Cumbria Health and Care Services, and 4 with employers from other regions.
iii. The online events
The two staff wellbeing interventions each ran for 1.5 hours. After each event (or show), an anonymised online questionnaire containing a mixture of qualitative and quantitative questions was sent to attendees by Playback Theatre York, using email addresses provided when booking a place. All 23 audience members completed this and a further 4 responded to a second evaluation from the NENC Staff Wellbeing Hub. This second survey was only available for the first (May) performance; for the second show the two questionnaires were merged, to simplify the ask made of participants. Questions asked related to the expectations, experiences, and impact of participating in the event.
Quantitative Feedback on the Experience and Impact of Playback Theatre
Twenty-three attendees provided responses on their level of agreement to a set of statements about their experience of participating, selecting one of five response options:
|Statements related to the experience of Playback Theatre||Strongly Agree||Agree||Neither agree nor disagree||Disagree||Strongly disagree|
|I found listening to other people’s stories valuable||80%||16%||4%||0%||0%|
|Listening to other people’s stories made me feel less isolated||75%||12%||13%||0%||0%|
|Playback Theatre helped me connect more with my own feelings||80%||12%||8%||0%||0%|
|Playback Theatre helped me connect with other people’s feelings||67%||24%||4%||0%||4%|
|I thought this was a worthwhile experience||83%||12%||0%||5%||0%|
|I would recommend Playback Theatre to my colleagues||80%||16%||0%||4%||0%|
|I would like to attend another Playback Theatre show in the future||71%||25%||4%||0%||0%|
Qualitative Feedback on the Experience of Playback Theatre
After the first show, 4 attendees responded to a Hub survey regarding expectations and the impact of Playback Theatre, and whether needs were met. All reported their expectations had been met, with three stating their needs were also met (one person described not having any needs to be met). No one reported having outstanding needs or distress that the Hub could help with, although one person suggested the need to further develop preventative interventions. All four reported that attending Playback Theatre had no negative impact on them or their capacity to function.
An inductive thematic analysis of this qualitative data was guided by Braune and Clarke’s (2006) six step method. Two researchers from the Hub reviewed the data to identify themes independently for reliability, and then agreed on ten concluding themes.
|Connection – includes connection to others in the audience, to the wider community and the story of covid, as well as to themselves and their own experience.||A true sense of feeling connected! Validation of Playback as a powerful form to connect. Connectedness to the wider story of Covid Connecting to the emotions of my experience and shared experiences of others. There was nothing in this that did not connect in some way. Thank you.|
|Reflective process – the extent to which the experience gave an opportunity for reflection||That playback theatre, is a very powerful reflective tool. The beautiful art mediums of music, dance and theatre, which playback champions, there is a space for reflection and connection. Hearing and seeing my story skilfully played back|
|Processing emotions – that participation facilitated processing in some way, including thoughts and emotional reactions, and the impact of external events||I think it was a good experience and method to process some difficult experiences. The experiences that people were sharing seemed to come from their experiences and their internalised thoughts about the whole situation. I talked through my wellbeing with a psychologist which was helpful too. This was more dramatic and powerful a form of processing. It helped me access some cathartic method as I don’t have clinical caseness of problems currently which require intervention.|
|Collective Sharing of Experiences – those with some form of common shared experience, were able to come together to share stories, and this process and hearing others’ experiences was appreciated.||I liked how the experiences that people were sharing were not well rehearsed scripted stories. That we have a shared experience amongst one another. Appreciative of the vulnerability that able to be shown, shared and felt among the group. It has encouraged me to share more…|
|Validation – of one’s own and others’ experiences, recognising common humanity, with a need to be heard, understood and validated. The sense that a safe space was created, an environment to contain emotional experiences.||Validation of experiences of NHS staff It helped me to feel acknowledged and created a sense of sharing. It made me feel understood better. You showed how seasoned you are at containing people emotionally.|
|Increasing awareness of others – Attendees’ comments indicated a theme of increasing awareness of others, both in terms of their experiences and how this has impacted them, and sense of empathy for others.||How important it is to support our health and care staff who have experienced trauma due to working in the pandemic. Empathy towards others. That we have a shared experience amongst one another.|
|Acknowledging the Playback Theatre Approach – the unique approach of Playback Theatre as an intervention, recognising relational skills. such as sensitivity, kindness, honesty, genuineness, authenticity and respect. Also recognition of the skilfulness of the performers in delivering an organised and professional show, understanding the stories shared, and performing in a containing and meaningful way. This mostly covered positive appraisals to acknowledge the Playback Theatre approach, though one person provided a contrasting view.||Thank you for the authenticity and respect from the performers. Acknowledgement to the conductor for his honesty and genuine care for people throughout. I was quite blown away by how well organised, orchestrated and delivered by the Playback team – really impressive! At times I found myself thinking it was all a bit weird, the ‘playing out’ of people’s emotions and their experiences that I worried for them in my feeling this discomfort (“are they OK with these people putting their feelings out there?”) but actually you showed how seasoned you are at containing people emotionally … I felt the performance lacked gaiety and energy and felt I had been at a funeral by the end of it. The music was monotonous. I think you can interact with people in an energized way even on painful topics but i didn’t feel you got the rhythm right – at least not for me. It was so professionally hosted. Excellent. I thought the mix of actors/methods improvising stories was really good. Thanks so much to all of the actors who were sensitive and kind.|
|Positive Experience – comments related to attendance being a positive experience, which is reflected in descriptions||Enjoyed the experience. Was a lovely way to reflect. Was a very nice way to spend my time one evening after work. An incredible experience!|
|Personal Healing – the impact of the intervention in terms of facilitating personal healing, and the potential for this to have a powerful impact||Through the zoom online PT performance, and it was both enlightening about a complex topic like the impact of covid on health care, as well as personally healing. Very powerful experience which I gained a lot from. You might think what on earth is this at first, but then you will discover how powerful it is.|
|Hope – themes of hope that was developed and drawn on throughout working in the pandemic, and hope for the future after covid, with awareness that hope may not yet be processed or felt.||I will take away from my experience of the playback performance … so many things haven’t been processed fully, or at all…, as well as positive things like progress and hope. My participation has fostered my hope and resilience and strengthened my sense of humanity that I am not alone when going through this journey. There is hope for the future after COVID.|
These findings suggest that Playback Theatre offered as a single session event for health and care staff provided an opportunity that enabled staff from different organisations to connect to their own and each other’s emotional experiences. Given the impact of the pandemic on staff mental health – including higher rates of mental health problems (Murphy et al, 2020, Thomas & Quilter-Pinner, 2020), increased problematic methods of coping or serious considerations of suicide (Panchal et al., (2020) and the prolonged pressures and lack of social connection that staff have faced, Playback Theatre may provide a timely and effective way of addressing staff wellbeing needs.
This evaluation did not attempt to assess changes in mental health symptoms or presenting problems, but the findings suggest that the beneficial impacts and experiences closely align with the aims of mental health or stress management interventions. For example, the theme of “hope and feeling hopeful” is recognised as a source of strength during times of stress (Folkman, 2013), a theme that is relevant to the needs of staff who have been exposed to multiple and prolonged stressors as the result of a pandemic.
Shattell, Starr & Thomas (2007) found that people with mental health problems need to feel “heard, seen and validated” to support their recovery, which Playback Theatre clearly achieves, as evidenced in attendees’ feedback around the theme of validation. This outcome may be linked to Playback Theatre York’s ability to provide a safe space to hear and contain emotional experiences sensitively, as was noted in the data, and to use personal stories to help people feel heard and able to make sense of their experiences, both being objectives in many narrative approaches (White & Epston 1990). Attendees’ experiences suggest that Playback Theatre produced important effects like those found in other mental health interventions. This includes personal healing, hope, and increased awareness of others.
Furthermore, to target mental health needs effectively, one of the requirements of compassion focused therapies (Gilbert, 2014) includes recognising the common humanity we all share. Evaluation themes of connection and increased awareness of others, and attendees’ reports that the event helped them to connect to others, suggest that Playback Theatre enables people to recognise this common humanity in each other. Moreover, this also aligns with aims of mentalization based therapy, which is to understand the perspective of others, as doing so provides a mechanism for emotion regulation and being able to relate to others (Bateman, Fonagy, & Allen, 2009).
The data suggests that this intervention enabled participants to heal, instill hope, increase their awareness of others and of themselves, and to develop a sense of the wider story of the pandemic, transforming individual stories into a shared narrative, with attendees participating in a structured communal experience. This seems comparable to Reneau and Eanes (2020) who recognised the value of college students sharing stories together to help to address the collective pain of the pandemic.
The data also provides evidence that arts based methods can assist with processing of emotional experiences, with one quote highlighting that the event “was [a] more dramatic and powerful form of processing… it helped me access some cathartic method”, in addition 92% of attendees reported that Playback Theatre helped them connect with their own feelings. This perhaps links to Heras and Tàbara’s (2014) proposed function of performance methods as offering a powerful way to share information and discuss complex ideas, in this case, the stories and emotions of staff during the Covid 19 pandemic. It may also be related to offering a meaningful way to reflect back emotional experiences and speak the unspeakable (Leveton, 2010); and to increase self-expression and self-awareness (Chang, Liu & Yang, 2019). Although the exact mechanisms are unknown, the data demonstrates that the use of improvisational theatre had a beneficial impact for staff who shared stories on their experiences of the covid-19 pandemic. It also highlights Play back Theatre’s ability to sensitively validate emotions and contain challenging experiences. It can provide an attractive offer for staff who wish to try something different, and participate in something which may have a beneficial impact after a single 1.5 hours session.
Implications for further work
This evaluation included both quantitative and qualitative feedback, providing an overall understanding of staff experiences of the impact of Playback Theatre. Limitations included the sample size for the evaluation which related to challenges in recruiting staff to a novel and therefore unfamiliar intervention, and the nature of a survey based evaluation as compared to using more in depth focus groups or interviews.
This evaluation has highlighted that Playback Theatre provides an overall positive experience with beneficial impact, but it was not able explore in any depth the mechanisms that gave rise to this. Further qualitative surveys may provide greater insights as to which aspects of Playback Theatre contribute to its impact. Larger scale evaluations, with comparison reflective group formats and a control group may also broaden this understanding. Further work could explore the use of Playback Theatre with single teams, or with different professional roles.
Overall, the data reflects that Playback Theatre can be a positive intervention for health and care staff in a pandemic. The methodology does not allow for causal conclusions on these outcomes, but this innovative reflective process appears to have been restorative for the health and care staff who participated, and it created an opportunity to pause and take stock on the impact of the pandemic.
To support the psychological needs of healthcare staff the British Psychological Society (2020) recommended using trained practitioner psychologists to facilitate reflection on the pandemic and processing of these experiences. The findings described in this evaluation demonstrate that Playback Theatre offers an innovative format that can support staff to engage in a reflective group and process their emotions, and to empathise with the feelings of others. The sensitivity and skill of the Playback Theatre Company was acknowledged in several feedback quotes from attendees. This is suggestive of the practitioners’ ability to listen to staff stories of the pandemic and attune to the emotional content of the narrative, which is necessary in order to re-enact what can be intense and sometimes traumatic individual and group experiences, whilst at the same time providing a safe emotional container.
These skills align with core interpersonal competencies in a therapeutic relationship (Liddell, Allan and Goss, 2017, and Roth and Pilling, 2007). This suggests that Playback Theatre is a reflective practice format that can be an effective way of supporting health and care staff to process the personal and professional impacts of the pandemic. Whilst this evaluation does not provide research controlled comparisons to other formats that are available, it strongly suggests that Playback Theatre could be an additional offer to supplement clinician led reflective processes, or formats such as Schwartz rounds, Balint Groups, and Taking Care Giving Care rounds. Further use of Playback Theatre and ongoing evaluation to better understand its beneficial impacts is recommended. Offering Playback Theatre events may be a worthwhile way to address the wellbeing needs of health and care staff as they continue to adjust to the pandemic and its aftermath.
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Link to promotional video used to attract participants: //youtu.be/Q5M8xKmjE1c
About the authors
Paras Patel, PhD, a Research Lead for the North East North Cumbria Staff Wellbeing Hub. He completed his PhD in Psychophysiology, understanding the link between the heart and brain and how this can impact wellbeing. He developed an integrative framework for the holistic assessment of wellbeing which included both objective (Heart Rate Variability) and subjective (Questionnaires) measures. More recently, he has been working on staff wellbeing projects including understanding the impact of various interventions on wellbeing and a project focused on Learning from health care staff experiences of attempting to take their own life: how we co-create lives worth living.
Samantha Swift, Assistant Psychologist for the North East North Cumbria Staff Wellbeing Hub developed an interest in supporting innovate ways to support Staff Wellbeing across her career. She worked on the front line during Covid19 in adult mental health inpatient services, supporting those in crisis, later joining the hub to support research and the set-up of the service. More recently she continues to support staff wellbeing in Northumbria Healthcare Trust when implementing workforce solutions and modelling a relational approach in her role as a Systems Lead. The impact of this research inspired her to attend a Playback Theatre event and she found this to be worthwhile and impactful.
Steve Nash has worked in mental health services in the North of England since 1980, in a variety of settings and roles. He has been active in Playback Theatre since 1991 when he became a founder member of Playback Theatre York. This project, prompted by the need to find creative ways to deliver staff support during the Covid19 Pandemic, provided an opportunity to bring his interests together. He became co-editor of the Journal of the International Playback Theatre Network in 2021.
The Mirror Monster: Psychological Safety and Aesthetic Distance in a Corporate Setting using Playback Theatre
By Stephen Meagher & Johanna De Ruyter
This is an edited excerpt from a chapter titled “Two Worlds Collide” (Meagher et al., 2022) that Johanna De Ruyter and Stephen Meagher both long term members of Sydney Playback Theatre Company, were invited to write by Andrew Rixon for a book he co-edited with Cathryn Lloyd called “Facilitating with Stories: Ethics, Reflective Practices and Philosophies” (Rixon & Lloyd 2022). This book provides a rich connection between theory and practice for those seeking to work with stories in organisational, community, educative or coaching settings. They chose to focus this article on Aesthetic Distance and Psychological Safety as we felt it had the most practical applications in Playback Theatre, however we also covered Entry and Contracting, Emotions within Organisations, Playback Theatre in Organisational Development, and the use of the Six Part Story Method in Reflective Practice. They will be holding online workshops on some of these topics later in 2023. Please contact the authors at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com to register interest and/or keep an eye on Playback Theatre Around the World for further details.
In 2021 a large Australian company (multiple billions in assets under management) contacted Playback Theatre Sydney to facilitate a dialogical change process. The issue at hand was an excessive level of competition between its investment, contracting, and management arms. The task was for Playback Theatre Sydney to be part of a change process to facilitate a more collaborative culture between and within the teams, with the goal of increasing productivity. The setting was a ninety-minute show during a development day in a conference room at an iconic Sydney venue. The outcome was a process after which neither the contractor (Playback Theatre Sydney) nor the recipient (CorpInc) felt that the goals had been achieved. We analysed the reasons for this “failed contracting” (Coumbe-Lilley, 2001) using the six-part story method.
Employing the Six Part Story Method for Reflective Inquiry
We used the 6 Part Story Method (6PSM) to inquire into the events leading up to, during and after the Playback Theatre show. First developed as a dramatherapy tool to help child victims of family breakdown trauma (Lahad, 1992), it has since been modified for use in personal and professional development (Vettriano et al., 2019). This involves assigning images to six categories in a storytelling structure as outlined below:
(1) A main character;
(2) A task, mission or problem that the character has to cope with;
(3) A helping force – something that will aid the character in their task;
(4) A hindering force – something that will cause the character more difficulty;
(5) The action of the story – how the character copes with the problem or task; and
(6) The ‘ending’ of the story – not necessarily a conclusion but an indication of what happens after the problem has been dealt with.
The process is mythic or fairy-tale-like in nature (Lahad, 1992). In dramatherapy this can be done either by using an image from a supplied range of cards or by having the participants draw them on a storyboard (Lahad, 1992 & Dent-Brown, 1999). We chose the latter, and first brainstormed ideas for each of the categories. We ended up with about 25 suggestions for each and then selected the ones we felt best represented the six categories. We then transferred the ideas to a storyboard as simple line drawing. We made two drafts of the storyboard. The images included archetypal elements such as a monster, a king, and a magic potion. We decided to write the story as a fairy-tale to make best use of the elements. All the characters, physical structures and events in the story represent actual participants, physical environments and events that occurred during the Playback Theatre Show. Even minor characters such as the Major-General and the Assistant-to-the-Vizier represented real participants. We found it to be a rich and revealing process. The process of creating the 6PSM was particularly useful in drawing out the components of tacit knowledge that we “knew” as playback practitioners and moving them to a state of explicit knowledge where they could be seen as discrete defined concepts. They were then available to be analysed and referenced with respect to the organisational transformation literature. This is the storyboard that we came up with.
The Mirror Monster Story
Once upon a time there was a theatre company called Playback Theatre Sydney. It was a giant hairy beast with many legs and arms that fed on stories and emotions. It was covered in mirrors of various sizes and shapes. Part animal and part story spirit, it could reflect stories and emotions back to the teller in a way that caused deep understanding, often accompanied by tears and laughter. It was known far and wide as the Mirror Monster.
To work this magical understanding, Mirror Monster travelled from village to village accompanied by its band of loyal minstrels. The villagers would set out a ritual circle in the town square or town hall, the minstrels would lead Mirror Monster into the centre, and when everything was set and quiet, they would feed it with stories and emotions. Then the Mirror Monster would perform the mirror dance for the watching people. They would cry and laugh. They would feel heard in a way that would make it seem as though the room was full of giant ears. They would feel an understanding in their bones in a way that their minds could not. Sometimes, wounds both fresh and long-standing would magically heal. People would say to the Mirror Monster “You are an Oracle,” or “You are a Healer,” or “You are a Sorcerer,” but the Mirror Monster would reply “I just like to dance to the Music of the Heart.”
Sometimes travellers would see the Mirror Monster dancing from afar, and they would see their own desires reflected in the mirrors. They might see gold and jewels, or beauty, or a door into the future. They would see whatever they wanted to see.
One of these travellers was a messenger for the King of the Kingdom of CorpInc. His kingdom was plagued by a mysterious illness which made his army become angry with each other and fight itself instead of protecting the kingdom. His streets and fields were littered with exhausted soldiers who had fought to a standstill amongst themselves instead of doing their sentry duties or other soldierly things. The messenger was entranced by the Mirror Monster dancing in a village square one night. When he returned to CorpInc, the King, as was his custom, questioned the messenger.
“On your travels did you happen to see, by any chance, an alchemist who could make magic potions to cure my army?”
“Oh yes,” said the messenger, “I saw such an alchemist in a village in Playbackland. It was wondrous to behold. I’m sure it could make such a potion. It was called Mirror Monster.”
“Organise a parley with this Mirror Monster,” ordered the King, “I must have the magic potion.”
So, the messenger rode off to find the Mirror Monster. After several days and nights of searching, he returned with one of the Mirror Monster’s minstrels, named Johanna. They stopped outside the castle gate.
“Open the gate!” shouted the messenger, “I bring the emissary of Mirror Monster to parley with the King.”
The King’s Vice-Chamberlain appeared on the battlement and looked down at the messenger and Johanna.
“Who is this person?” he said, “is it a member of the peasantry? This is most irregular. Where is their retinue? Where are the standard bearers? The King only parleys with dignitaries and high-ranking consuls. Announce your business, peasant.”
“The King has asked Mirror Monster to perform for his army,” said Johanna, “can I come inside the castle to talk?”
“Certainly not,” said the Vice-Chamberlain, “state your business from where you are.”
“But I can’t even see you properly,” said Johanna, “do you think you could at least remove some of the bricks from the top of the wall so I can hear you better?”
So the Vice-Chamberlain ordered the soldiers to remove some bricks from the wall, but every time they did so, curiously, the walls seemed to get higher rather than lower, and the Vice-Chamberlain began to appear as if he, too, were made of bricks. Johanna had to shout louder and louder, and the answers from the battlement grew fainter and fainter. The Vice-Chamberlain faded away as he merged with the wall, until eventually he disappeared amongst the bricks entirely.
“Come back! We need to discuss things,” she pleaded, but to no avail. Johanna could see only the teeth of the battlement and she was talking to a brick wall. Finally, the gate of the barbican opened, and a groom emerged from the castle with a scroll, which he handed to Johanna.
“Bring the Mirror Monster to perform for the King’s army on the day after the full moon,” it read, “and bring the magic potion.”
“But Mirror Monster works its magic by dancing,” said Johanna to the messenger, “we don’t have a magic potion.”
“The King expects it. I shall tell the King it is all arranged,” said the messenger and he galloped through the gate and into the castle followed by the groom.
News that the Mirror Monster was coming to The Kingdom of CorpInc spread far and wide.
“Perfect,” said the Major-General of the army, “Mirror Monster is a great philosopher. I will send it all of our new rules and regulations and it will teach the army those.”
“Perfect,” said the Assistant-to-the-Vizier, “Mirror Monster is a great magician. It will surprise the King and the army with a magnificent trick.”
“Perfect,” said the King’s Vice-Chamberlain. “At last, these soldiers will see how stupid they look fighting each other and the King will promote me to Supreme Chancellor.”
On the day of the meeting, all the soldiers and members of the court gathered on the battlements at the front of the castle. The King stood with the soldiers disguised as a courtier, so he could observe his army incognito. Finally, the moment came. The audience fell silent.
“Let’s all welcome the Mirror Monster from Playbackland!” announced the Vice-Chamberlain, “It will cure the army of the mysterious Fighting- Itself illness.”
Mirror Monster, led by Johanna, appeared from behind a watchtower at the corner of the castle and stood in front of the castle wall. Johanna climbed a wooden tower that had been constructed in front of the battlements so that she could talk to both the audience and the Mirror Monster. It was very tall, and she felt dizzy every time she looked down.
“The Mirror Monster will only dance if you feed it stories from your heart,” she said to the audience, “who can share a feeling they have about the Fighting-Itself-Illness?” The soldiers and courtiers racked their brains. None of them had even heard of such a thing. The King looked concerned. Finally, one of the soldiers spoke.
“I have found a thought. Will that do?” she said.
“It is a start,” said Johanna, and she fed the thought to Mirror Monster. Mirror Monster danced a little dance. The soldiers and courtiers were puzzled. All they could see was a few glints of light from the mirrors.
“Where is the magic potion?” said the King.
“Where is the surprise?” said the Assistant-to-the-Vizier.
“Where are the rules and regulations?” said the Major-General, “can’t you get Mirror Monster to march up and down a bit?” and he tapped the top of the parapet with his swagger stick to emphasize his point.
“I ask for your patience. Reach down into your hearts and find a real story,” said Johanna, “Mirror Monster loves stories from the heart.”
There was self-conscious shuffling amongst the audience, and an uncomfortable silence that stretched out like a bowstring. After a while, some hands went up.
“I have another thought,” said one.
“I can remember one of the King’s sayings,” said another.
Johanna allowed the silence to continue.
Finally, one of the soldiers said, “I think I found a story in my heart.”
“Wonderful,” said Johanna, “Mirror Monster will be able to perform a special dance for you. Go on.”
“It’s a feeling I have, about all the fighting in the castle …” he started to say.
Everyone looked at him in disbelief. There were some shocked murmurs. The soldier froze. Suddenly his chainmail seemed very heavy. Beads of perspiration appeared on his brow. His eyes grew wide, and his mouth became dry.
“Oh no!” he said after a long pause, “It’s not a feeling. I think it’s actually just a thought after all.”
And so they fed Mirror Monster thought after thought. Some were small, some were big, and some were tangled up like grapevines. Mirror Monster danced. Even though it was only being given thoughts, it could feel the soldiers’ hearts through the brick wall, and so it danced harder and harder, and leaped as high as it possibly could. Some of the soldiers and courtiers could even see some glimpses of themselves in the mirrors, so high did the Mirror Monster jump and dance.
Suddenly there was a commotion. Two of the soldiers had started fighting each other.
“At last,” said Johanna to herself, “Mirror Monster can show them what it looks like to fight amongst themselves. This is perfect.”
But just as she was about to gesture to Mirror Monster to start a dance, the King stood up and threw off his hood. The two soldiers, the courtiers and the rest of the army all froze where they stood when they realised the King was in the audience. “Stop that at once!” he said angrily. “We don’t want to see that sort of thing in front of the Mirror Monster. I declare this meeting over.”
“But Your Majesty,” said Johanna, “if you allow Mirror Monster to dance for the two fighting soldiers, it may awaken their hearts.”
He turned to Johanna. “Rubbish! Where is the magic potion? Are you the apothecary? I was promised a magic potion!”
But Mirror Monster danced anyway, and behind the King a strange thing was happening. Some of the soldiers had started hugging each other. Not all of them. A great number still had angry looks on their faces, but more than a few had started embracing each other.
“Look, Your Majesty,” said Johanna, pointing at the happy soldiers, “something is happening!”
“Silence!” roared the King, “Where is the magic potion?” And he stormed off, down the battlement stairs. The Major-General, the Assistant-to-the- Vizier and the Vice-Chamberlain all followed.
“Hmmph!” said each of them as they walked past Johanna. “What a disappointment.”
Soon the castle wall was empty. Johanna and the Mirror Monster looked at each other.
“Thank you, Mirror Monster,” said Johanna. “You danced as hard as you could. But I suppose we must find a way for you to dance through brick walls. Every time we dance for a King, we are never allowed to set foot inside the castle.
Exploring the importance of Psychological Safety and Aesthetic Distance
Everyone looked at him in disbelief. There were some shocked murmurs. The soldier froze. Suddenly his chainmail seemed very heavy. Beads of perspiration appeared on his brow. His eyes grew wide, and his mouth became dry.
“Oh no!” he said after a long pause, “It’s not a feeling. I think it’s actually just a thought after all.”
This excerpt describes a pivotal moment in the show when a teller retracts a moment halfway through the telling. One of the soldiers finds “a story in my heart” in response to an invitation from Johanna, however he swallows his words when confronted by the reactions from the other soldiers as he quickly realises it is not safe to reveal himself to the gathering. This introduces the linked concepts of psychological safety and aesthetic distance in relation to the Playback Theatre performance.
Psychological safety in organisations was first described in the 1960s (Schein & Bennis 1965) and refined in the 1990s (Kahn 1990, Edmondson 2014). It is characterised by high levels of trust within the organisation and as a shared belief amongst individuals that they will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. Google’s People’s Analytics Unit has identified adequate psychological safety as the number one characteristic of successful high performing teams (Bergman & Schaeppi 2016). It has been noted that it is easier to achieve high levels of psychological safety at a team level rather than organisational level unless the organisation is small (Newman et al., 2017). This is because it depends on intimate interpersonal relationships and levels of trust which are difficult to achieve uniformly in a large organisation.
This has clear implications for Playback Theatre shows, which rely on the willingness of individuals to share vulnerable personal experiences with an audience. In the case of “CorpInc”, the audience included members of three teams, plus management personnel including the CEO, and employees in another city via a live video link. Reflecting on the CorpInc show, there was a low level of psychological safety within the audience, and the responses from the participants tended to be more reflective of emotional labour (“thought after thought”) rather than authentic experiences (“stories from the heart”) regarding the issue at hand. Emotional labour is a concept which is defined as the work of regulating feelings and expressions of emotion to fulfil occupational requirements in interactions with clients, co-workers and managers (Hochschild 2010) and is discussed in another section of our chapter.
The concept of aesthetic distance has been recognised for centuries. In ancient Greece, Aristotle warned against making theatre too realistic, using the term mimesis (to mimic) to describe theatre as a verisimilitude rather than a reality. In the 18th century Immanuel Kant introduced the idea of “disinterested delight”. Edward Bullough introduced “Psychical distancing as a factor in art and an aesthetic principle” (Bullough, 1912) and is recognised as the author of the modern conceptualisation and the term was coined by Thomas Scheff (T.Scheff, 1979). For the purposes of this analysis a useful definition is that it is the frame of reference that an artist creates using technical devices in and around the work of art to differentiate it psychologically from reality (Cupchik, 2002). Playback Theatre uses various devices to achieve this purpose, including spatial distancing, temporal distancing, and metaphorical distancing amongst others. This allows the audience to regulate their own capacity to safely identify with the staged action and access new knowledge and meaning.
The magnitude of the aesthetic distance is important. If the distance is too small, it risks the audience being overwhelmed by the action and disengaging as a defence mechanism. An example is the portrayal of sexual violence. If it is too realistic it will trigger a range of strong emotional and survival responses in the members of the audience. If it is too abstract or the metaphors are too vague, and the aesthetic distance is too great, the action will not resonate with the lived experiences of the audience and they will become restless, inattentive, and confused. Ideally the audience will be optimally distanced and able to view the performance from a psychological liminal space where the viewer can simultaneously engage with both the physical portrayal of the actors and their own lived/unconscious experience, enabling freedom of movement between the internal and the external. Einet Mashaal-Nitzan describes the issue of aesthetic distance as “core” in evaluating whether a Playback Theatre show is a success or a failure (Mashaal-Nitzen, 2012). She defines these viewing areas as sub-distance (too close), optimal distance (ideal) and over-distance (too great).
Because Playback Theatre is immediate, and is participatory theatre, there is minimal temporal distance between the recalled experience of the teller (who is both co-author and audience member) and the theatrical response by the performers. Attention to the other techniques of aesthetic distance is critical if optimal distance is to be achieved. An example recounted by Rea Dennis from a successful series of shows for Mercedes Benz in Brazil involves the performers replaying an experience about organising that very performance using the analogy of a “Voyage to the Golden Gates’’ with the Playback form of a “Narrative V“. This employed the techniques of metaphor and a stylised, semi-abstract form to create aesthetic distance, to which the audience responded enthusiastically (Dennis, 2010).
We suggest there can be an inverse dynamic relationship between psychological safety and aesthetic distance with respect to Playback Theatre. The greater the psychological safety the closer the aesthetic distance can become. The audience, as co-authors of the performance, can share more vulnerable experiences and the actors are able to portray these experiences with greater intensity. If either of these agents, or the conductor ventures into sub-distance there is a risk that the psychological safety may be violated and diminished. Then the audience may not volunteer their authentic experiences and the actors may not feel safe to take dramatic risks in portraying them. Venturing into sub-distance is what happened to the soldier and his “story in my heart” when he, as author and co-creator of performance, suddenly felt unsafe and retracted his experience. When this happens, the conductor must make an intervention to restore the psychological safety before the performance can continue at the same aesthetic distance, such as by acknowledgement of the subtext of the interaction, or the aesthetic distance will most likely be increased organically by the audience with respect to further offering of experiences.
In terms of organisational theatre and change, this dynamic relationship is critical to the success of the process. To enable participants to safely and creatively explore the issue at hand, Playback Theatre should be performed with optimal aesthetic distance. In our experience in organisational settings, this is intuitively signified when the audience responses move from superficial emotional labour to authentic emotional sharing. Ideally this can be achieved with a high level of psychological safety. Playback Theatre is consciously designed to engender psychological safety through its ritualistic form (Fox, 1994), but the issue that is commonly encountered with organisations is a pre-existing environment of low psychological safety. This may be due to a large audience from different teams, strong hierarchical structures, poor preparation of the audience for the show, or fear of punishment or humiliation from leaders and colleagues. These will all impact on the level of psychological safety. Some of these issues are best addressed at the entry and contracting stage. Negotiating smaller, more connected audiences, warming up the participants to the themes, onboarding the stakeholders so that the processes of the show are valued and are seen to be valued, can all improve the level of psychological safety. However, if the mood of the show reveals low levels of psychological safety, then the conductor and the actors have the option of working to increase the relative aesthetic distance to prevent the audience from doing this themselves by withholding their experiences. Techniques such as humour, metaphor and exploration of relationships and events within the theme but experienced outside of the immediate group have all been shown to be useful in our experience. We have also found it useful to employ scripted pieces and forms with inherently greater aesthetic distance, such as Machines and Landscapes. Other companies will undoubtedly have developed organisational forms of their own and there is scope for further exploration on this theme.
The relationship between Psychological Safety and Aesthetic Distance is dynamic and changes with the arc of the show. There is further discussion of this in another section of our chapter “Two Worlds Collide”. We, as Playback practitioners have always had an innate understanding of these concepts, but have found the inquiry process exceedingly valuable in crystallising them and aligning them with current theory and practice within the field of Organisational Development. It has sharpened our appreciation of the challenges involved in organisational Playback and enhanced our ability to negotiate the needs of the show with clients in the entry and contracting phase.
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Coumbe-Lilley, J. 2011. “Failed Contracting: Lessons Learned from False Starts with National, State and Local Sport Organizations.” Journal of Sport Psychology in Action 2, no. 3: 131–42.
Cupchik, G. C. 2002. “The Evolution of Psychical Distance as an Aesthetic Concept.” Culture & Psychology 8, no. 2: 155–87.
Dennis, R. 2010. “Intimacy at Work: Playback Theatre and Corporate CulturalChange in Mercedes Benz, Brazil.” Journal of Organisational Transformation & Social Change 7, no. 3: 301–19.
Dent-Brown, K. 1999. “The Six Part Story Method (6PSM) as an Aid in theAssessment of Personality Disorder.” Dramatherapy 21, no. 2: 10–14.
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Fox, J. 1994. Acts of Service: Spontaneity, Commitment, Tradition in the Nonscripted Theatre. New Paltz: Tusitala.
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Mashaal-Nitzen, E. 2012. “The Aesthetic Experience or What Happened to the Audience at the Sheba Medical Centre.” Interplay XVII, no. 1.
Meagher, S., De Ruyter J., and Rixon A., “Two Worlds Collide.” In Facilitating withStories: Ethics, Reflective Practice and Philosophies, edited by Rixon, A., and Lloyd, C., 177-212. Cambridge Scholars Publishing
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About the authors
Steve Meagher has been a Playback Theatre practitioner since 1994, primarily with Playback Theatre Sydney as an actor, conductor and director, and is a storyteller, writer and facilitator. He has carried a love of story with him since he was a young boy and continues to find surprise and delight in personal stories and the many ways that Playback Theatre offers in expressing them. He has performed and facilitated hundreds of Playback Theatre shows in Australia and Internationally. His passion is sharing the use of story as a transformative force.
Johanna de Ruyter
Johanna de Ruyter is a long-term member of Playback Theatre Sydney since 1991, and has fulfilled multiple roles in the company actor, conductor, client liaison, leader, collaborator, and designer. In her conducting, coaching and facilitation, she applies insights and practices to Playback Theatre from her many years engaged in collaborative performance creation in scripted/unscripted theatre and applied improvisation, as well as leadership training, team development, martial arts/yoga and embodiment principles and practices. Johanna is passionate about communication processes that change the quality of how we perceive, connect and communicate.
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New Scots Creative Arts Residency: Beautiful People with Beautiful Stories taking Beautiful Risks
By Karen McClain Kiefer
This article by Karen McClain Kiefer summarises her experience of facilitating Playback Theatre workshops as part of an event for artists who are refugees now living in Scotland (New Scots). Karen introduces the overall programme and its participants and describes the demands (and potential risks) of being engaged to provide “optional workshops” to a group that has no previous experience of playback. The importance of trusting the process, however tricky that can sometimes be, and the resulting sense of joyful achievement and connectivity, will be familiar to many trainers and practitioners.
Oleksandra is a watercolour artist. She fled Ukraine last year with her teenage daughter, Anna, a dancer, and they found refuge in Scotland after driving 4000 km across Europe. They are two of the ten participants Steve Nash and I were fortunate to work with in February during a week long workshop in Central Scotland funded through the Scottish Refugee Council (SRC). This was the first residential component of a year-long programme to enable refugee artists to pursue their creative ambitions and build community here. The programme includes residential multi-disciplinary workshops, mentoring, and a culminating showcase exhibition in October. Intentionally forward-looking, the SRC refers to this as a “New Scots” programme – preferring this moniker over “refugee” – to foster a sense of belonging in their new home environment, however permanent or temporary.
We came together as people with different backgrounds, art forms, and lengths of residency in Scotland (or the wider UK) in a beautiful place just west of Perth, UK called the Bield, an arts and spirituality retreat centre that nurtures creativity through engagement with nature and the arts. An old Scottish word, “Bield” is rich and resonant in meaning, from shelter and refuge to welcome and strength – a perfect setting for an SRC programme. The project originated through the Bield by Liz Crichton, their Art Facilitator, who serves as the project’s Programme Manager.
Liz and I are arts-focused colleagues who have collaborated on numerous exhibitions and projects (at the Bield and in other unconventional venues) and we both especially delight in exploring culturally-relevant and timely issues through the integration of multidisciplinary artforms – her focus being primarily visual and installation art and mine primarily incorporating Playback Theatre along with installation art.
Given that a primary aim of the SRC’s arts and culture work is “creating new stories to tell about ourselves” (About Our Arts and Culture Work, 2023), playback was a natural fit for the programme among other, predominantly visual, artforms. Steve and I were there to help everyone tell their stories and experience the artform of Playback Theatre. During this first residential week in February, participants were offered a visual art workshop, materials and art space to work on their own projects, and two afternoon Playback workshops.
To build trust and a cohesive programme style, Steve and I co- coordinated with Liz the flow of the week and facilitated some of the large group icebreakers and activities. From the first evening’s bonfire, it was clear how important and meaningful bringing these artists together in a relaxed and creative environment is. And we were able to integrate another art form – music – within the overall experience, thanks to Steve, invited artist and arts facilitator Alina, and the myriad of percussion instruments we brought. Most of the group, including Alina, were from Ukraine, and one artist was from Syria, and another from Iran. Steve and Liz are both from the UK and I have been a resident here from the US for the past six years. Around the fire, our different cultures emerged freely and we enjoyed learning more about each other through them. The stories shared through music helped to break the ice for later sharing.
What we have encountered in these “New Scots” are incredibly talented artists seeking new lives, community, and new opportunities for creative expression. They are beautiful people with beautiful dreams who have been forced to take very difficult, life-interrupting journeys requiring great risk and courage. And for many, like Oleksandra, this is reflected in their artwork.
“I couldn’t paint flowers“
As a displaced artist (now, a New Scot) mourning her homeland, Oleksandra’s creative expression is more important than ever, and she notices how it has changed since the invasion. In this time of turmoil, Oleksandra has turned from painting botanicals to a subject more precious to her – her daughter Anna:
“My passion is watercolors. [B]efore the full invasion [of] Ukraine I painted flowers, held watercolor workshops for adults, experimented with watercolor. When I came to Scotland, I tried to paint the same as before the war, but instead I got completely different works. I started with graffiti and charcoal, and then watercolors were added, because I felt the need for color. The theme of the works also changed – since I didn’t have joyful emotions to share […] with people, I couldn’t paint flowers. I lost everything I loved because of the war, but the most precious thing I have is my child, whom I brought here in search of safety. And she was my basis, my inspiration and my model for artworks.“
One of the most inspiring aspects I found in Oleksandra’s character and among the other participants was their resiliency in taking risks and improvising amid the turmoil into which their lives had been suddenly thrust. These artists have been displaced not only from their homes, but from their studios, their supplies, their models and other forms of inspiration, their venues, and from creative spaces. Many are living in hotel rooms. Yet, they are finding a way for creative expression. Their art is finding a way too, and we were thrilled to be able to see some of it in progress during the week. The depth beneath the haunting beauty of their work silently spoke of navigating difficult territory on an inner journey as much as their harrowing physical one.
Olga, a graphic designer, shared a collage she did during one of the workshops in which she depicted layers of shadowy and grey images covering a bright yellow one, her favourite colour. She constructed it in such a way that she can peel back some of the shapes and images to reveal something brighter underneath. By the end of the week, she indicated that she had already been able to peel some of it back because she has begun to feel more hopeful.
Every participant revealed parts of themselves and their stories throughout the week – through their art, through informal evenings of music and games, and through conversation.
And then there was playback.
None of the participants knew about Playback Theatre, and because all the activities were optional, we were uncertain how many, if any, would show up to our two brief workshops. And so the plan to have some sort of performance on the last evening was also held necessarily fluid – Steve and I discussed Plans A through E to try to anticipate whatever we could think of, including the option of a Duet style performance with just him and me if it came to that. Steve insightfully mused that most playback workshops are planned for people who have chosen to be there, and so there are certain expectations trainers can have that makes planning easier. Put more plainly, he summarised the experience as: “Beautiful people, beautiful place, funny gig“. But just as the New Scots artists have had to improvise on their journeys and in their artforms, so did we – we did not know how many would come and our Playback workshops competed with precious time in the art room with the coveted materials there.
As it happened, six out of ten participants attended the first workshop and five were present at the second. . .but not all the same people. So there was some re-working of our already fluid agenda required, and a very focused second session on the two forms we would use for a performance that evening. Our flexibility and thinking-on-our-feet were met with a delightful willingness by the five present to take risks. And the 90-minutes within which we had to work were both productive and extremely enjoyable. We were struck by the willingness of the participants to share of themselves, tell their stories, and demonstrate their deep listening by beautifully portraying others’ stories via playback. We discovered in the moments of that second workshop that as important as flexible facilitation skills are for having a successful outcome for participants, the courage and perseverance of the participants are vital for the facilitators. As I think back on it now, it was as though we all helped each other across uncertain territory to a mutually desired finish line – feeling ready to perform the stories that wanted to be heard among the whole group. They did it. We did it.
That evening – the evening of the Playback performance – was our last evening together for this residency. All were in attendance, including Liz and the owners of the Bield, in the comfy lounge-turned theatre, and there was a poignancy mixed with playfulness in the room. We heard stories representing both of those energetic elements, and during the first half of the performance our new New Scots Playback actors beautifully and artistically portrayed the moments and the stories back for the group, accompanied by Steve, our musician. For the second half, Anna’s dancing talents were highlighted in a “Poetry in Motion” Playback form in which Steve began with music and singing; Anna joined in with dance movements, wearing on her head her art piece from the week: a wreath which she crafted from natural elements around the property; and I moved from conductor to poet. Finally, Steve and I did end up doing a “Duets” form, a back-and-forth between singing bard and poet. Immense gratitude filled the room from all present throughout the performance and afterwards – gratitude for each other, for being able to be together in the ways we had been.
One of the most tender moments of the evening came from our group’s Syrian artist. Throughout the week and during the performance, he discovered how much angst he had about his family members back in Syria, suffering amid the huge earthquake that had just devastated that region and the continuing aftershocks. He was able to find some words to express the fear he had been carrying, not knowing when the next one might hit, or if the next phone call from his family might bring tragic news. His vulnerability moved the group and opened a deeper level of sharing.
Liz commented on the importance of playback in this New Scots programme, especially in helping artists confront their inner journeys and as a tool for them to process their experiences and facilitate reflective insights. Particularly moved by the Syrian artist’s sharing, she observed:
”Playback opened up a space that enabled people to share things that they may not have shared with anyone before, certainly not new acquaintances. The power of him sharing in that forum was tremendous. Now that he has given voice to it, he is able to own it, and work with it.“
She will be accompanying the artists over the next several months on Zoom to see how they are getting on and to help provide resources to enable their art-making. Steve and I and our Mosaic Playback colleagues may get the privilege to see some of them on Zoom over the summer as well, to stay connected and to share a different kind of playback forum. And we are thrilled that our full Mosaic company is planning to join the group again on site at the Bield during their final residency in October for the culminating art exhibition – to hear more stories and perform with and for them.
A Beautiful Spark
Near the end of our first evening together at the bonfire, the group was fascinated by the dancing fire, in which we could each see so many elements of beauty and inspiration – different colours, different intensity, different shapes. In the darkness, there were many sparks of light.
The next morning when I ventured past the remnants of the fire and of our time together from that previous evening, I noticed something.
Something glowing. . .
This was a powerful metaphor for the group as well – their spark remained glowing all week.
As New Scots artists and playback practitioners, we faced real moments in our shared process together, and we looked behind and beneath them. Sometimes we discovered an ember of hope.
‘About Our Arts and Culture Work,’ Scottish Refugee Council (blog), accessed March 9, 2023 //scottishrefugeecouncil.org.uk/working-for-change/arts-culture/about-our-arts-and-culture-work/.
About the author
Karen has enjoyed working with corporate and community charitable organisations, facilitating personal, professional and spiritual development programmes over the past two decades. She is currently completing her PhD at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, in which she explores various contexts of ‘empty space’ with emphasis on playback and improvisational theatre and the challenges we face in encountering the unknown. Karen is a community theatre co-founder, director, improvisor, a certified Advanced Playback Theatre Practitioner, and a member of Playback Edinburgh, Mosaic Playback and True Heart Theatre.
An Introduction to Psychotherapeutic Playback Theater: Hall of Mirrors on Stage. By Ronen Kowalsky, Nir Raz, Shoshi Keisari
Reviewed by Diane Adderley
Published January 31, 2022 by Routledge, ISBN 9780367766290, 216 Pages
This book is a heroic endeavour. To present, largely by way of the written word (though there are some beautifully evocative illustrations by Anna Ponomariova), a field of work which is deep, intense and highly charged, requires a great deal of analytical and facilitative skill from the conductor/group therapist, as well as huge energy and commitment. The practitioners hold the multi-tasks of bringing to the fore the links between group members’ stories, the resonances which emerge in the enactments for both performers and tellers, and the gradual development of confidence in the clients’ artistic expressivity to reflect the many levels present in each story offered. All this is, of course, in the service of connecting that emerging spontaneity and creativity with the various needs for personal change to be enacted beyond the confines of the therapy group, in the outside world.
I related most to the latter chapters which dealt with the specific use of the Playback Theatre model itself and particularly to the needs of various levels of structuring. Playback forms may be highly structured and not individually exposing for the beginner in an early stage therapy group, particularly considering the vulnerability of such participants. As the group’s formation deepens, the conductor moves the participants on to forms which are also highly structured but perhaps involve participants in some small quantity of “solo” work, the conductor calibrating carefully which forms to call depending on their knowledge of the group and its individuals. Thirdly comes the use of open improvisational forms with very little pre-determined structure, the most high-risk forms, in terms of fears of judgement and exposure, but perhaps the most potent in terms of participants taking their courage in both hands as they learn the value of expressing themselves in everyday life.
I found myself struggling in the early chapters, where the emphasis I felt was more on the analytical aspects of the work, to maintain connection, focus and concentration. I seemed to have to read every paragraph at least twice, not being versed in the language of analysis (though on second reading, the descriptions are clear if complex). I learned a great deal about group analysis, for which I am grateful. Much of it I had intuited in my experience of Playback Theatre over the years as to the “therapeutic” nature of this unique form of theatrical performance. I had always felt that playback is “therapeutic” i.e. can certainly have a healing or even cathartic effect for the teller, performers and observers, but had always taken on the view that PT is not, in itself, “therapy” – i.e. with the specific purpose of individual change and development. I had always seen the purpose, as Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas have said, as social communication, connection and learning, transforming “an audience of strangers into an audience of neighbours”.
Clearly the work delineated here IS therapy – so why, I wonder, the shyness about calling it “Psychotherapeutic Playback Theatre” as opposed to “Group Psychotherapy using Playback Theatre methods”, for instance. Might there be some concerns about the response from the analytic community to such an assertion? Clearly, the writers treat the work with great respect as “therapy“, as do the participants and quite rightly so.
For me as an activist in learning style (Moreno: “Don’t tell me, SHOW me“), this book was quite a tough read, and I became much more engaged in the latter chapters which spend more time on the specific uses and adaptations of both the well-known playback forms and those developed in this work itself. Don’t get me wrong – it’s all well worth reading but took considerable effort and energy for me. If I had not been working towards a review, I doubt I would have managed to read the whole, but I’m glad I did. If you are interested in moving to a more specifically “therapy” form of Playback Theatre, I would certainly encourage you to take on the task.
For me, a more useful way of communicating the work might have been to include some form of visual to accompany the book, perhaps in the style of Jinnie Jeffries’ series of videos of actual psychodramas some years ago, made with a group of willing participants. Given that playback is such an all-encompassing creative form – art, music, dance, song, movement etc. – the written word alone is a very limited device for accurate communication. I’d like to have seen how the conductor would draw out the connections each member of the group made to the story they had watched/performed in. Since the pandemic, many playback companies have developed ways of performing online which could give group analysts without experience of such work a clearer idea of what playback theatre is, with the proviso of noting that Psychotherapeutic Playback Theatre is a development of this. Failing that, perhaps presenting an account of a session as the opening chapter might have caught my interest and engagement more easily from the beginning, warmed me up more to wanting to delve into what was happening.
The book consists of an Introduction plus 10 chapters which, without listing them all, delve deeply into such concepts as:
- A picture from the photo album of the mind
- Theatrical mirroring
- Expansion of the self through the other
- Playground to stage
- The psychological importance of containers
- Dramatic resonance in group work with personal story
and much more besides. There is a comprehensive bibliography, largely of analytical texts from a wide range of sources, though also including some playback texts (obviously), dramatherapy and psychodrama literature. Throughout the book there are numerous references for further reading if the reader is so inclined. Clearly the writers, between them have vast experience and wide-ranging knowledge of their fields. It’s very impressive.
A regular piece of feedback at playback performances is that it’s “magic – how do you do that?”. I only recall one mention of this word, towards the end of the book, in a comment from a participant. Perhaps that is what I’m missing – the sense of magic, of the joy experienced in the moment of artistry, that in a purely verbal account, focused on the analytical, is hard to convey. There are certainly hints throughout that participants find the work highly rewarding – a little more “trumpet-blowing” would not go amiss for me.
I’m also interested that the writers refer to the “red thread” of connection between stories. There is, perhaps, something a little outdated in the use of this metaphor, which Jonathan Fox has now moved away from, preferring instead “narrative reticulation” – reticulation being the term for the kind of patterns of veining on, for example, a leaf. He used a five-starred sycamore leaf in a presentation of this idea at a Playback Theatre conference some years ago, to indicate not one thread, but a multiplicity of mini-veins associated with a number of main veins which all connect at the apex, the point where the leaf connects to its stem – the beginning of a performance. I imagine this is more the kind of connecting matrix that the conductor/group therapist of Psychotherapeutic Playback Theatre is aiming to elucidate. It certainly is less linear than the “red thread” metaphor.
In conclusion, this book is indeed a heroic endeavour and I needed some of that quality to make my way through it, but I am glad that I did. I learned a lot about the analytical approach and would certainly encourage any practitioners who want to move into this field to use it as a key text. It’s much more than an Introduction and I applaud the authors for their diligence and hard work in producing it.
About the author
Diane Adderley (she/her) is a psychodramatist, senior sociodrama trainer and Accredited Playback Theatre Trainer, and currently the honorary president of the British Psychodrama Association (BPA). She co-founded Playback Theatre Manchester in 1992, now in its 32nd year and going strong and is part of the training team for the UK School of Playback Theatre. She has contributed as co-editor, chapter and article writer to many publications on sociodrama and is on the editorial team for Tele tronic, the newsletter of the BPA. Diane has a private therapy practice in north Manchester, UK and delivers online sociodrama workshops as a guest faculty member for Tele’Drama International, on such topics as ageing, climate crisis and the pandemic. She is also currently co-leading a support and sociodrama training group for Ukrainian psychodramatists.
Playback Theatre Around The Globe – Pocket Stories to Learn from by Anastasia (Nastya) Vorobyeva
Reviewed by Cornelia (Conny) Hartmann
This book is a love story between Nastya and Playback Theatre. And while reading it you may fall in love, too. It’s the very personal and honest story about both of them meeting many years ago for the first time and being together since then, travelling around the world.
It’s a book for experienced playbackers and newcomers as well. For the beginners to tell them what Playback Theatre is, how it works, about its basics and what it possibly can be, about its power, about cultural and social awareness and what difference it could make in the world. For long term-playbackers to remind them of exactly the same. The book shares basics, in the best sense: the foundation of Playback Theatre and what it means, if we take it seriously.
I started playbacking twenty-five years ago and joined “Blickwechsel” in Freiburg, Germany for about twelve years. And I liked it. But then I discovered my very vivid love for dance and I decided to quit Playback Theatre and focus on dance. Mareike, since years leader of “Blickwechsel”, persuaded me three years ago to join the International Playback Theatre camp. She fished me with telling me that Nastya (the organizer of the Camp) and her group Vozdukh are combining Playback Theatre and dance. And that I must take a look on that.
Once in the camp I discovered the magic of Playback Theatre again, and I met Nastya, believing so firmly in the power of Playback Theatre to make a difference, to change the world a tiny bit into a better place, “not solving problems but helping to understand them”. Not only, I came back to playback but also back to my group. Thanks to Nastya.
I find the same persuading power in this book.
It is simple and complex at the same time. Written in plain English and talking about very complex stuff: feelings, conflicts, longings, home, differences, hope, pain, war, suppression, love, guilt, shame, forgiveness, needs… All about being human and leading one’s real simple daily life: as simple as complex.
In the Introduction, Nastya tells about her childhood and her time as a teenager, struggling with limiting narratives, prejudices and violence against queer people in the Russian society. She talks about fighting for her real self, discovering and exploring it and finally choosing her own path despite all this; last but not least through Playback Theatre and playbackers she met.
“There are no broken hearts“, she says. “When our heart cracks open, we can see wider and dig deeper into the empathy we need more than ever.“
How can we train and cultivate this empathy and awareness through playback and at the same time train and cultivate it for playback and performances?
The chapters of the book are dedicated to several questions in Playback Theatre and are to be read as some kind of guidelines. They are fed by a lot of stories, Nastya put in her pockets while travelling around the globe, working with playback, meeting so many different people from different backgrounds, cultures and histories. Playback Theatre taught her a lot about life, she writes, but actually I think Nastya allows also life to teach her a lot about playback.
The themes in the chapters are not to be understood as guidelines in the sense of recipes, more in the sense of questioning our attitudes, to the teller, to the stories, to the audience, to the social dimension. So, chapter by chapter she shares her experiences with us.
How to go beyond dualistic thinking, not thinking of others in us and them, accepting our own and others’ truths at the same time. How this can be the start of a healing process. How a story emerges while we are cultivating the here and now. How important it is to be aware of the tellers’ identity and the social context in which a story is told. How important the training of social awareness and the understanding of intersectionality is to make this happen.
How Playback Theatre, in being aware of social dimensions and human rights is extremely political. ‘From knowing comes care and from care comes change!’
How we can take care that the silent voices in the audience, the unspoken perspectives, are heard. How we can give space to stories about trauma and not let the audience or the teller drown in it.
How we sometimes have to admit the limits of Playback Theatre’s ability to face the nightmares of war, and how despite this they kept trying to work with separate groups of Russian and Ukrainian people because it was the only way not to provoke more trauma, pain and conflict.
Some months after I read Nastya’s book I joined the German Playback Theatre gathering. There the question came up, how can playback in Germany become younger and more diverse. We talked, discussed and playbacked around it. With Nastya’s book in my pocket I think: becoming more diverse in playback means leaving our comfort zone, being really decided and curious to know and learn. It’s not about “finding diverse people”. It’s more about being willing to change our attitudes, to allow being shaken by others. To open up for the reality of those minorities which I am not a part of. To be willing to change our habits, speech, thinking and actions. Not because it is ‘politically correct’. But because we can be sure that this makes our community a better and safer place for everybody, where no one has to ignore discrimination to be able to be part of it.
Nastya shares very honestly failures and mistakes while trying this. But she dedicates her book to her firm belief in the power of Playback Theatre and in the trust that we can make it, if we really, really listen and honestly try to understand our fellow humans.
This book is a treasure box of pocket stories you can carry with you. It’s a heartening book full of courage and hope, of knowledge and visions and of tenderness.
(The book is available from the author at firstname.lastname@example.org)
About the author
Cornelia (Conny) Hartmann is a member of the playback group “Blickwechsel” in Freiburg/ Germany. She is a dancer, educated at TIP Freiburg (School for Contemporary Dance, Improvisation and Performance). To be able to follow both of her passions, she is exploring and teaching how to combine dance and physical movement with playback. To earn her living she works as a social worker in a school for not privileged kids. And she also loves that.
Signpost: recent books and articles about Playback Theatre
Books (and chapters in books) about Playback Theatre
A Stage for Everyone: Leading, Directing and Instructing Playback Theatre Groups; Einat Mashaal Nitzan, Independently Published, 2022 (English)
Two Worlds Collide: Exploring the use of PT in Organisations; a chapter by Stephen Meagher and Johanna de Ruyter, in ‘Facilitating with Stories: Ethics, Reflective Practice and Philosophies’; edited by Andrew Rixon and Cathryn Lloyd, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2022 (English)
Tell me, let’s see! A guide to story theater and narrative pedagogy; Päivi Rahmel, Metropolia University of Applied Sciences Publications, OIVA series 23, 2021 (Finnish)
50 Group Exercises in a Circle: Activities for Group Leaders, Therapists and Trainers (50 Exercises Trilogy); Nir Raz, Independently Published, 2021 (English)
(See also 50 Group Exercises in Pairs; and 50 Group Exercises in Threes and Fours; by the same author)
Enacting Testimony, Trauma Stories in Playback Theatre; a chapter by Jo Salas, in Trauma in the Creative and Embodied Therapies: When Words Are Not Enough; edited by Anna Chesner and sissy lykou, Routledge, 2020 (English)
Belonging in Playback Theatre: The Greek “Playback Ψ” Theatre Company; Lambros Yotis (Author, Editor), Independently Published, 2020 (English)
Playback Theatre Journal Articles
- The use of the BASIC Ph model as an additional listening tool for Playback Theater performers and conductors: An exploratory study, Hila Haban Ashkenazi, Atar Dahan,Susana Pendzik, The Arts in Psychotherapy, Volume 83, 102019 April 2023
- Use of Playback Theatre with Assistive Technology for Inclusion and Community Building for People with Disabilities, Uma Shankar Veeravalli, Radhika Jain, International Journal of Management and Applied Science (IJMAS) , pp. 98-100, Volume-8, Issue-9, 23rd December 2022
- Social role development in Playback Theater groups in light of the Mackenzie and Livesley Model, Oshrat Mizrahi Shapira, Naphtaly Shem-Tov, Shoshi Keisari, The Arts in Psychotherapy, Volume 80, 101942, September 2022
- Playback Theatre, social justice and empathy: A diffractive review, Kathy Barolsky, Applied Theatre Research, Volume 9, Issue 2, p. 117 – 132, 1st November 2021
- Playback Theatre: Group, stories, and stage as elements of change, António-José Gonzalez, Tiago Xavier, Nuno Amarante, Rita Barros, Beatriz Amaral, Miriam Bernardino, Margarida Lima, The Arts in Psychotherapy, Volume 81, 101968, November 2022
News Reports and Website Posts about Playback Theatre