IPTN JOURNAL MAY 2022
We are really excited to bring this edition of IPTN journal to you!
From the Editors
By Radhika Jain and Steve Nash
Greetings fellow playbackers!
Welcome to our first issue of the IPTN Journal as co-editors, and the first to be entirely published online. The journey to reaching this destination has been much longer and more challenging than either of us had anticipated when we took on our new roles at the end of 2020; but this makes arrival at this point all the more sweet.
In the time it has taken to get here, much has changed. In the world of Playback, online practice, driven by the closure of theatres and community spaces as a result of Covid 19 restrictions, is now a key part of what many of us do. This is reflected by the inclusion of several items related to online Playback practice in this issue. The potential of this medium is perhaps yet to be fully realised, but two important examples spring to mind – the online performances organised to show support for the Playback community in Lebanon after the explosion at Beirut port in August 2020, and the more recent Peace Please Festival, which mixed online and in person events to demonstrate solidarity with Ukrainian playbackers, as their country experiences a hostile invasion. It is just as well that we have found this new way to cross borders and come together in dialogue – for in the world in general, political unrest, military conflict, fundamentalism and tyranny sadly show no signs of abating.
You are of course at liberty to jump right into the different sections below and start exploring the fabulous content we have assembled with the help of our contributors and other colleagues – but for those who would like a little overview, please bear with us as we attempt to help you make the most of what is available, by summarising what is in store.
Firstly, we have four deeply thought-provoking articles that relate to our chosen theme of ‘diversity’. We settled on this vital topic after thinking about the discussions and dynamics raised during the IPTN Conference in Bengaluru in 2019, which had a very similar theme, and because of our shared sense that as an international community, we still have much work to do in this area. It is our hope that in a small way, our collaboration as co-editors of different gender and ethnicity, coming from very different cultures and continents, represents a small positive step in this direction.
The Articles themselves describe a variety of different applications of Playback Theatre, including Kiki Ng’s essay about working with deaf and visually impaired people in Hong Kong, Emily Conolan’s account of a co-created project with young refugees in Tasmania, Kathy Barlosky’s reflections on Playback Theatre and Whiteness in South Africa, and Arnet Donkin’s analysis of the experiences of those in our community who identify as LGBT+.
Secondly, we are delighted to share with you a new section, something we have titled Practitioner Resources. This features Jo Salas’s foreword from Storytelling on Screen, with a link to the materials on the Virginia Tech website; and Nir Raz’s detailed guide to hosting virtual gatherings and events (which generously includes links to a range of documentation). We also include the revised Code of Ethics for Playback Theatre Trainers and Practitioners, first issued by the Playback Centre in 2020, with an accompanying critique (Is the Code of Ethics Ethical?) written by Elsa Mauricio Childs.
Under Conferences, Performances and Events we include reports and reflections from The IPTN World Conference in Bengaluru (by Rajesh P.I); about online Open Space meetings created for playbackers in response to the pandemic (by Anisha Pucadyil); from The 4th Iberian Gathering/IV Encuentro Ibérico de Teatro Playback (by Ana Maria Fernandez Espinosa, and our one non-English contribution for this issue); and Let the Dream be Your Wings, about a Playback performance that was part of Syria Culture week in Kiel, Germany (by Ulrike Krogmann & Idun Hübner).
Finally, we have reviews of Personal Story in Public Spaces, by Akanchha Karki and David Powley, along with mention of two other important books released in the past couple of years, and which we hope to review more fully in our next issue.
We round off this editorial with two requests:
- We have been working behind the scenes on the precious library of back issues of the Journal, to make them more organised and accessible. Please take a peek at what we have been doing by looking at the Past Issues of the Journal section of the website and let us know what you think.
- We are keen to hear your feedback about the content of this Journal, as well as hearing about your experience of accessing it online. We already have many ideas about how we would like to improve things in the future, and it would be great to get your ideas and incorporate them into where we go from here. Please use the email address below.
With a massive vote of thanks to the individual authors, former Journal editors, IPTN Board members, friends and colleagues who have helped and advised us along the way
Radhika Jain and Steve Nash
IPTN Journal co-editors
Dancing with Disabilities- My 3 OMG! Moments in StoryBox
By Kiki Ng
In our view it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society.
Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) (1975)[i]
“(The convention) recognizing that disability is an evolving concept and that disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”
—Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities applicable to Hong Kong (2008)[ii]
In this article, I would like to share some of my discoveries in the StoryBox project, a collaboration between university students, the deaf community, and the visually impaired community. “Disabilities” (as employed in the title) is not only addressing deaf and visually impaired participants, but also referring to my limitations as a trainer. There were so many remarkable moments during these 11 months of adventure. I want to focus on three OMG! moments and related reflections during the elementary training of people who are deaf or visually impaired (May and June 2021). I hope to share more on the mixed-group collaboration (since July 2021) in future writings.
The social model of disability is one of the key concepts being introduced by Michele Chung, the facilitator of inclusive training of StoryBox as well as one of the forerunners who contributed a lot to accessibility work in Playback Theatre practice in Hong Kong. This suggests that “disabled” is not indicating the identity of a particular individual, but the circumstance/condition which is unable to accommodate people’s differences in qualities. This became the basis of this inclusive project. For me, the primary task of elementary training for deaf and visually impaired people was to create an accessible environment for everyone to learn and experience Playback Theatre. To ensure this was accomplished satisfactorily, I examined my previous work with physically challenged groups: people who are deaf or visually impaired, and adults with intellectual differences. I sought advice from international playbackers for their experiences in working with deaf and visually impaired people. I talked to visually impaired artists to explore different means of expression. Yet, despite all these preliminary preparations, some so-called OMG! moments appeared, while I was meeting the participants in person. These are the moments in which I was in touch with my “disability” or limitation as a trainer of citizen actors.
Citizen actor is one of the key concepts in Playback Theatre that I admire most. I believe everyone possesses a natural capacity to embody others’ stories in a satisfying way (in Veronica Needa’s expression)[iii]. In my leadership essay, How to let Citizen Actor Glow (2017)[iv], I asserted that “a multi-dimensional training is necessary for preparing the citizen actor to step forward and act”, and intended to develop a training approach inspired by Jerzy Grotowski’s advocacies and practices[v]. I am glad that I have precious opportunities to continue this research and exploration as a practitioner and trainer through the years. Certainly, I feel excited when things work well. Yet, I feel exuberant when things “go wrong”, because these are the moments in which new awareness emerges, and new paths of working are ignited. In this sense, StoryBox offered me unprecedented opportunities to face the limitations of my practices and reflect on the methodology of Playback Theatre.
Itinerary of StoryBox
1. Training of university students (Oct 2020-Apr 2021)
– Elementary training of 17 students from Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) (30 hours)- Inclusive work training (30 hours)- 4 community performance accessible to targeted groups
2. Elementary training of deaf and visually impaired participants
(May and Jun 2021)
– Elementary training of 9 deaf participants (30 hours)- Elementary training of 10 visually impaired participants (30 hours)All the trainings accompanied by the HKBU participants
3. Mixed-group rehearsals (July-Aug 2021)
– 3 sessions for deaf participants + HKBU participants,- 3 sessions for visually impaired participants + HKBU participants.- With the consensus of the groups, we organized a whole-group rehearsal
4. Public performances (Aug-Sept 2021)
– 3 public performances staged by hearing and visually impaired and HKBU participants
OMG! The communication is so complicated!
Similar to other outsiders to local deaf culture, I had certain stereotypes regarding how people who are deaf communicate before I engaged this project. One of the fallacies is that I believed having the assistance of sign language simultaneous interpreters (SIs) would be accessible enough for deaf participants in the learning and performance process. The fact is that, due to specific historical reasons, sign language has been undermined or even suppressed in deaf education since the 1960s[vi]. For a few decades, students have been dissuaded from learning sign language in Deaf Schools, and the majority of deaf students are studying in public sector ordinary schools, where they are taught (together with the hearing students) through oral language supported by assistive hearing technology like hearing aids and cochlear implants. According to the Audit Commission in 2013, there were 155,200 people who are deaf in Hong Kong. However, fewer than 4,000 of them know sign language, and of these only 2,300 are using it in daily life situations.
How does this context affect the actualisation of the project? Firstly, the training with SIs is not accessible to all local deaf people. Instead of relying on SIs, the majority of the local deaf community communicate through oral language, reading lips and assistive hearing technology. This became very complicated in times of pandemic, in which everyone is wearing a mask. Among the nine deaf participants recruited, there was one who wasn’t familiar with sign language. To ensure she could follow well and participate equally, it was necessary for me to take off my mask occasionally and recap a lot. But I observed that this was still a challenging learning process for her. I am very happy that she stayed engaged till the end despite all these difficulties.
On the other hand, for those sign language users, the simultaneous interpretation provided by the hearing interpreters might not be fully comprehensible. Since I am unfamiliar with sign language, I wasn’t fully aware of what was going on at the beginning. I just wondered, “Why are there so many interpretations going on?” — for instance, after I illustrated something, the SIs interpreted; then some people who were deaf looked puzzled, and others started to interpret the SIs. After some more communication and research, I realised there are at least three causes of such a difficult situation.
Firstly, the sentence structures of Chinese language and sign language are different. Undoubtedly our SIs are very professional. And due to the long training sessions and highly interactive nature of the training, we had two SIs in each session, so that they could take turns to interpret. But still, simultaneous interpretation is really a tough task. As observed and explained by Tsz Ying (a deaf participant with higher ability in oral language, so we can communicate without SI), sometimes the SIs were making the sign language with the sentence structure of the Chinese speakers. That was confusing for deaf participants. Secondly, the concepts and terminology used in illustration are often alien to the general deaf sign language users. Since sign language was seldom used (or even forbidden) in education settings in the past, people who are deaf mostly learn and develop sign language through daily context. When I tried to illustrate some conceptual ideas like “non-judgemental”, “empathy” and “diversity”, it was not easy to find corresponding vocabularies that could precisely translate in the existing local sign language system. Furthermore, as described by our observer Connie Tang (a playbacker who grew up with a brother who is deaf), there were very limited leisure activities available to local deaf people. Activities like Playback Theatre, which emphasises the development of values (e.g. non-judgemental) and require a certain level of logical thinking (e.g. story structure, essence of story) are even less available. As a result, compared to hearing people, people who are deaf have less resources or platforms to develop these potentials in their upbringing, especially after they graduate from school. This explains why it is difficult for some deaf people to grasp the ideas or concepts illustrated, and a lot of interpretations were going on on-site.
Apart from the illustrations, there are some barriers when a playbacker who is deaf tries to comprehend the stories of a hearing teller. Certainly, that would appear anyway when the playbackers and the tellers are not using the same language. In our case, the limited vocabulary in the local sign language system is one of the barriers. For example, there is only one sign indicating “happy” in general. Deaf sign language users express “excited”, “delighted”, “satisfied” (etc) with the same sign, accompanied by different facial expressions. With the limitation of masks during the pandemic, even the SI tried their best to interpret with different expressions, the emotions shared by the teller were hard to translate. Indeed, while deaf participants were very focused on reading the SI interpretation, it was difficult for them to look at the tellers at the same time. In this case, the non-verbal expressions of the tellers were usually left out. As the trainer and often the conductor, I tried to include all this information when I paraphrased the stories. However, I was also aware of how the recap, paraphrasing and interpretations were affecting the rhythm of a performance. What I could do, was to acknowledge these needs transparently, and arouse audiences’ attention to our differences.
The difficulties in communication did not only appear in the elementary training of deaf participants. In the training of visually impaired participants, there was a remarkable moment of miscommunication, even though we were all speaking in Cantonese. In our training, we often used the word Din-Gai (定格), which means “freeze” in Cantonese. The term literally means “freeze frame”, which is quite cinematic. When I used this vocabulary in my teaching, Gui Gor, a 70-year-old participant, told me, “Don’t use this word next time. We visually impaired don’t understand what is Din-Gai.” I was puzzled at the beginning, especially when other participants seemed to have no problem with this term. I tried to explain through touching and movement. I also tried to use the term “pause” instead. But from time to time, Gui Gor just kept going back to the term and emphasised “we visually impaired don’t understand the word”. One day, when I was reflecting on the teaching process, I suddenly realised one of the possible causes of the miscommunication–Gui Gor lost his sight totally when he was 4 years old due to an accident. That took place in 1951 Hong Kong. It was logical to imagine he didn’t have any visual cinematic experience in his early childhood. This drew my attention to the diversity of visual impairment – not only merely focusing on the level of sight and whether a person is born blind or not; but also understanding their visual experience, regarding his/her specific context. And after more communications, Gui Gor clarified the reason for his persistence in addressing the issue, “I know what I should do when you say Din -Gai now. But I want you to continue teaching more visually impaired drama in the future. I want to remind you not to use this word because they won’t understand.” This was a good lesson for me. While Gui Gor was generalizing the visual experience of all the visually impaired with his own visual experience, I unconsciously overlooked the complexity and specificity of deaf/visually impaired individuals as a hearing and seeing facilitator. I am grateful to have this precious chance to work with my deaf and visually impaired participants. They were proactive and open in addressing their needs, and this enabled me to discover my blind spots, and sharpen my awareness of the diversity of the citizen actors.
OMG! We were exploring music together!
The musician’s role is indispensable in Playback Theatre, and this is one of the essential topics to be covered in elementary training. “How to explore music with the deaf” became an issue that was necessary to be considered. In fact, a similar scenario appeared a few years ago, when I was working on an inclusive Playback Theatre project with deaf/visually impaired participants, together with their hearing/seeing children. The initial idea was to let the visually impaired participants and children be the musicians, while deaf participants focused on acting. While we were discussing the plan, one of the volunteers questioned, “why should we undermine the deaf participants’ opportunities in exploring music?” This remark was mind-blowing to me, then we started to experiment how to explore music through physical movement. I considered StoryBox as another platform to continue this experiment.
Here’s the setup of the experiment in the core training of people who are deaf:
Different instruments were scattered around, like different stalls in a flea market. Participants were working in pairs. In each group there is one HKBU participant (H) and one deaf participant (D). They were given memos and a pen to make notes on their discoveries, with the procedures suggested:
- The participants were asked to experience the instrument as an object through visual sense and touch. On the memo, both of them wrote down the feeling, impression and imagination towards the instrument.
- D “played” the instrument in his/her own way. H tried to synchronize or mirror the sound with physical moments. After observation, D expressed his /her feeling over H’s movement, then wrote down the keywords on the memo.
- H “played” the instrument (in a physically expressive way, paying special attention to the dynamic and rhythm). D tried to react with his/her body, then jotted down how he/she felt with keywords on the memo.
- Leaving the memo next to the instrument, the group moved to explore another instrument.
The group kept exploring different instruments for around 20 minutes. Then we gathered as a big group and revisited the instruments together one by one. For each instrument, I read through the memo to consolidate the general impressions documented and highlighted its specific qualities and character. I also introduced how different rhythms, dynamics and pitch are generally associated with different emotions. Then I invited deaf participants to experience the sound with their residual hearing (each hearing impairment is different) or sensing the vibrations (for example placing their hand on the speaker of the keyboard or letting them feel the vibration of a guitar with their tummy). To consolidate, I asked a deaf person to make sound with the instrument, and the whole group enacted with their bodies.
The experiment took quite a lot of time, but the process is valuable as it enables deaf participants to build a certain kind of connection with sounds and instruments. I couldn’t say they all became very interested and able to enjoy music as much as hearing people. But at least they found it fun to explore this faculty which they couldn’t relate to before:
“The teacher and partner explored the keyboard with me just now. I don’t know the difference between high pitch and low pitch. I couldn’t hear…she asked me to play, and they reacted with body movement. Low pitch is like this (a gesture); high pitch is like this (a gesture)…So I can sense the difference now. Thanks to them for letting me feel this. If I were on my own, I couldn’t know and distinguish. Their movement and facial expression enables me to distinguish and feel different emotions.” – Carol, a deaf participant.
“I realise there would be different sounds when you hit, scrap or shake the instrument. This is eye-opening to me. And I realise the sound is connected to the acting…how the sound express the emotion. It is very interesting.” – Connie, a deaf participant.
“Through the exploration of the instruments, I realise that different people react to sounds differently, and it could induce more than one emotion. I also realise different elements of music, e.g. dynamics and rhythm. This changed my perception on music.” – Anthony, a deaf participant.
In their showcase and later performances, some deaf participants volunteered to be the musician (actually for the final performances only one deaf participant expressed that she didn’t want to try being a musician). To make things easier, we arranged the position of instruments together, in relation to their qualities and feeling generally induced. I could sense that the participants (both the hearing impaired and the hearing) were happy with the exploration – not in the sense of their mastery of music, but in the sense that they could work with their limitations and constraints with companions.
OMG! Shall I let them perform alone/together in the showcase?
In the elementary training that I offer, at the end there is usually a showcase performance of the participants. Showcase performance can be an important step for the playbackers, as they would be embodying the life stories of the strangers (though the audiences are often invited by them) for the first time. It seems logical to have only the participants of the elementary training on stage in the showcase, when this is part of requirements of their training. When it comes to the showcase performance of deaf/visually impaired participants, in the StoryBox project, the situation became quite tricky, and we ended up with different cast arrangements in each of the three showcases. I would like to share the considerations and discoveries behind the decisions.
Showcase of participants who are deaf
Throughout the whole training process—including all games, exercises and practices, the HKBU students were working along with the deaf/visually impaired participants. It was observed that, the presence of the university students during the training of the deaf/visually impaired participants was beneficial to all involved parties. For me as the trainer, this was my first attempt in designing and facilitating an elementary training for a group of people with hearing/visual impairments. It is natural that something would be overlooked, or not well taken care of. The presence and assistance of the university students in the training of the deaf and visually impaired participants became an important support and complemented my facilitation; for the university students, this offered them an intensive opportunity to meet and exchange with the deaf/visually impaired people through stories, collaboration and daily encounters. In the early stage of the inclusive training (before any real encounter with deaf/visually impaired people), most of them expressed hesitation and worries. After the intensive interactions during the elementary training, their preconceptions were eliminated, and they became friends at personal level (they even went to theme park together to celebrate the birthday of a visually impaired lady!). They also became very proactive and creative in constituting an accessible environment for communication through real encounters. The deaf/visually impaired participants, who are marginalised in society, also expressed their excitement and happiness in building connections with hearing/seeing people. This was well-indicated in their reflections and learning journals as well as the observation of the social workers and interpreters (who often work with deaf/visually impaired communities).
However, the arrangement of the training and the showcase cast needed very different considerations. For deaf participants at beginner level, having a mixed cast on stage is more complicated than simply having playbackers who are deaf on stage. In conventional practices, well-trained playbackers who speak different languages could communicate and collaborate well with body language (given that they all listened to the sharing of the tellers as the materials of devising). Ideally, through their eyes, ears, skins and presences, the actors can observe and understand one another, and interweave the narratives together spontaneously. This requires a certain level of experiences, openness and confidence. It would be very demanding for the beginners. They tend to rely a lot on their accustomed way of expression (most often their first language) when they don’t feel so confident. When there are both deaf and hearing playbackers on stage, and both of them are beginners of Playback Theatre, the actor who is deaf needs to look at the SIs whenever a hearing actor speaks something verbally. This creates disturbances to their organic interaction with hearing acting partners. Indeed, many non-verbal expressions, which are very important in acting, are very likely to be left out when the deaf actor is constantly looking at the SIs instead of the other acting partners. Considering the complexity of having a mixed cast on stage and the objective of the showcase (creating good performance experience for the beginners), the showcase was performed by the deaf actors and musician, and I acted as the conductor.
Why didn’t I let deaf participants be the conductor in the showcase? There are two reasons behind the decision. Firstly, since an unexpected amount of time was spent in interpretations, the 30-hours training time became insufficient in covering all the subject matters planned. To compensate, I focused more on the training of the actors and musicians. Indeed, being the conductor of this showcase was quite challenging—she/he had to make sure all the performers (most of them are using sign language but one of them doesn’t understand at all) understand everything well, and at the same time being sensitive and responsive to the mixed (the hearing and deaf) audiences. The deaf participants were actually very talented, and I could see their potential to being good conductors, despite different complexities (e.g. to sense the non-verbal messages of the tellers while reading the interpretation of SIs) if they are given enough time for exploration and practice. But this would be too challenging for them at the time of showcase. To ensure everyone — both the performers and audiences got a good experience within this time frame, I picked up the role of conductor of the showcase.
The showcase of performers who were deaf was really successful and well-received. In the feedback forms, most of the audience described the experience as “inspiring” and “moving”. A hearing audience member said he was impressed by their body expressions, while another was surprised by performance of the musicians. An audience member who was deaf felt delighted to see the improvisational performance, which is seldom seen in their community. Yet, despite the success of the showcase, I decided to have mixed cast for the showcase of the elementary training of the visually impaired participants. This struggle and decision-making granted me a precious chance to rectify my presumptions about the empowerment of communities with disabilities.
Showcase of participants with visual impairments
According to the original plan, just like the showcase of the deaf participants, there would be only visually impaired actors on stage in the showcase. My underlying presumption was that the disabled participants were capable of comprehending and embodying the stories of others on their own. This proved to be significant and meaningful in the showcase of the deaf performers, in which the participants were so much empowered. However, while I started working with the visually impaired participants, I realised I had overlooked the differences between different disabled communities. Comparing with the deaf community, visually impaired people can be more “dependent” in many ways in their daily actions — from how they arrive and leave the training venue, to the arrangement of the meals, the visually impaired participants “relied” a lot on their seeing companions, in such a visual dominant society. However, does this kind of “dependence” necessarily imply a certain kind of “inferiority”, or shall we understand this as a specific trait of this community within this specific cultural context? That is the question.
This brought me to another layer of speculation as a playbacker—while we believe “everyone possesses a natural capacity to embody others’ stories in a satisfying way” [vii], we have to be aware of the conditions in which different people could fully exhibit their natural capacity. In my experience, playbackers need to obtain a certain level of calmness and neutrality so as to connect with the audiences and their fellow performers. If they are too pre-occupied (by anxieties, worries, judgements, emotions), it is impossible for them to listen, comprehend, empathise and embody other’s stories. For people who are visually impaired, the prerequisite to obtain such a calmness, feeling secure and being present in the moment is the clear orientation. To assist them to anchor themselves in the physical space, we created the “guide paths” with ropes. When they performed on stage with bare feet, they got some hints in terms of directions. We also provided audio-visual interpretation during enactments, so that they knew more about what their acting partners were doing on stage. However, these designs might not serve the needs of all the participants. Their preferences in anchoring themselves were diverse. Some were not using the “guide paths” at all, while others preferred not to use an audio-visual interpretation device. Yet it was observed that, they all felt comfortable working as team on stage — with either seeing or visually impaired acting partners. I believe that this spirit of teamwork, which is well-developed through their daily actions, is the best way to give them clear orientations, and make them available and confident in listening and embodying stories. Indeed, this magic of co-creation and collaboration is something that makes Playback Theatre fascinating. Thus, working together with the seeing actors doesn’t indicate the inferiority of the visually impaired, but gives full play to their strength and makes their “natural capacity to embody others’ stories” glow.
Based on the speculation above, I talked to the visually impaired group and asked them to decide—whether they wanted to perform on their own, or if they preferred to perform with the university students. The group chose the latter option. Then one of the focuses of the training became how to collaborate with one another. For instance, we had two visually impaired actors and two seeing actors on stage in free form enactment. They were encouraged to explore offers that could work in pairs or chorus. My coaching emphasised how to support offers on stage collectively. According to the feedback from the audiences, the sense of togetherness and team spirit was one of the most impressive parts of the showcase performance. Instead of focusing on the “dependence” of the visually impaired, the audiences observed and appreciated their great potential and talent.
Through the experiments with the visually impaired performers, I rectified my perception about “dependence”. Instead of indicating “inferiority”, this enables some important values and virtues (e.g. interdependence, solidarity and sense of inter-connectedness) to emerge. “Interdependence” became one of the focuses of my planning and facilitation of the following stage, in which participants from deaf, visually impaired and HKBU communities were collaborating together.
Conclusion: “Enabling” the “disabled”
StoryBox project is not merely a community theatre project. This is research—not only because this is funded by a university and we are required to produce some academic papers; but more importantly, because this is an investigation or experiment that allows me (as a practitioner) to speculate and reflect on the existing practices of Playback Theatre (at least in my own context). While we playbackers always emphasise the value of inclusiveness and diversity, there is still a lot we could consider to actualise these values in practice. As I described in the introduction, this project made me discover my own “disabilities” and limitations as a facilitator and practitioner. Again, such a “disability” is not about a fixed identity, but it addresses my current condition as a playbacker. This is something subject to change and should be changed. I am really grateful to the visually impaired, the deaf and HKBU participants, whom I usually termed as “co-researchers” of the project. Their dedicated involvement and proactive feedback in the elementary trainings (as described in this articles) as well as later stages (I will write more about these in other platforms) are actually “enabling” me as a “disabled trainer. In the future, I wish to seek ways to continue this exploration with these amazing citizen actors and make Playback Theatre more and more inclusive and accessible to different communities.
- StoryBox is funded by the Faculty Niche Research Area (FNRA) Initiation Grant, Faculty of Arts, Hong Kong Baptist University. The topic of the research is “Exploring creativity and selves in Hong Kong disabled communities”.
- Principal Investigators: Prof. Amy Lee Wai Sum, Dr. Benedict J.L. Rowlett
- Coordinator and major facilitator: Ng Yee Ki, Kiki
- Inclusive training facilitators: Michele Chung, Anthony Wong, Comma Chan
- Research Assistant and documentary director: Dorothy Cheung
- The project is also supported by the following units/organizations:
- Undergraduate Halls, Office of Students Affairs, Hong Kong Baptist University
- Unit for Students with Special Educational Needs, Office of Students Affairs, Hong Kong Baptist University
- Shek Kip Mei Lutheran Centre for the Blind
- Hong Kong Blind Union
- SLCO Community Resources
- Arts with the Disabled Association Hong Kong
7. HKBU participants: Chan Ching Yiu, Chan Ka Yee, Chan Ying Ching, Chu Ching Shan Bianca, Ho Yui Chi, Ip Wai Chi, Kwok Dick Sum, Lam Tsz Wai, Lee Chi Ching, Leung Lok Ching, Leung Wing Hei, Mak Foon Yuk, Shih Ka Ka, To Veronica, Wong Tsz Ying, Yuen Ching Laam, Yumi Leun
8. Deaf participants: Chan Tsz Ying, Cheung Cheuk Ho, Connie Lo, Fung Hiu Man, Ho Sin Ting, Tai Po Yi, Tang Wai Ching, Wong Yuen Kwai
9. Visually Impaired participants: Chang Yun Cheng, Chung Chi Kwan, Lau Kai Wing, Lau Man Fai, Mak Yuet Ping, Sarah Stevenson, Teng Ho Yin, Wan Yuk Chan, Yip Ting Yee, Yiu Tsz Yun
[i] The Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation and The Disability Alliance discuss Fundamental Principles of Disability 1975, Centre for Disability Studies, 1997
[ii] ‘Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities applicable to Hong Kong’, Labour and Welfare Bureau, The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’ Republic of China, 2018.
[iii] Needa, Veronica. ‘Ritual, Art and Social Interaction’, Playback Theatre UK, 2016. //playbacktheatreuk.wordpress.com/ritual-art-and-social-interaction/
[iv] Ng, Yee Ki. ‘How to let Citizen Actor Glow’, Unpublished Leadership Essay. 2017.
[v] Grotowski’ Jerzy, ‘Towards a Poor Theatre’, Routledge, First edition 2002
[vi] Shi Wanping, Lu Junyi, Lu Ruihua, Zhu Junyi. “The relationship between early deaf education in Hong Kong and the origin of sign language in Hong Kong”, Chinese Journal of Education, 2011.
[vii] Needa, Veronica. ‘Ritual, Art and Social Interaction’, Playback Theatre UK, 2016. //playbacktheatreuk.wordpress.com/ritual-art-and-social-interaction/
 According to Cambridge Dictionary, OMG is the abbreviation for “Oh my God”. The term is used when someone is surprised or excited about something.
 I would like to address that, the elementary training of deaf participants did cover the knowledge of conducting, as suggested by “Core Training Competencies” provided by Centre for Playback Theatre. In the normal setting, I would have more time for individual coaching, so as to prepare them to be good-enough conductors in showcase. However, due to various limitations (e.g. time, availability of SIs), we couldn’t work it out in the elementary training of deaf participants. This was not about the abilities of the participants with hearing impairments (on the contrary, their conducting sense was quite impressive), but relates to the structure of the training and the overall circumstances.
 In the experiment of the Storybox, one of the key concerns of visually-impaired training was to give them good orientation, so as to reduce their burdens and anxieties on stage. For example, the forms they learnt were different from what “Core Training Competencies” suggested and what the deaf participants learnt. Apart from Fluid Sculpture, Transitional Fluid Sculpture, Three Part Stories, Four Elements, Free Form, the visually impaired also learnt Soundscape, Voice Mail (an online Playback Theatre form), and Three Part Solos. Some of the forms were modified. For instance, in three-part solos, they worked with a chair placed in the centre of the stage. It was observed that, with these special designs, the visually impaired actors gradually became braver and braver in their artistic choices.
About the author:
Kiki Ng actively participates in theatre, community arts, and education fields, and believes that story is one of the keys that bring changes in the World. She is an Accredited Playback Theatre Trainer from the Centre for Playback Theatre, the USA, and co-artistic director of Encounter Playback Theatre, HK (EPT). She is also a research associate and a part-time lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University. Kiki initiates different playback-related projects, e.g. StoryBox–an inclusive Playback Theatre project with Deaf, Visually Impaired, and university students; Pandoras’ Box–a multi-media women project derived from the methodology of Playback Theatre.
The Project- Playback Theatre with Young Refugees
By Emily Conolan
Late nights after work, my colleague Gini and I draft up a grant proposal. Months later, I’m standing in front of a group of her English language students at the local tech college. They’re giggling, wary. For most of them, the drama warm-up games I get them to play remind them of childhood: and childhood was a long time ago. Before the war, before the death of their sister, or their father. They’re only in their late teens and early twenties, but childhood was something that happened in a refugee camp, cut short or mixed with too-adult memories. Now, their lives are in metamorphosis, straddling worlds: not adult, nor child; not foreigner, nor Australian; not lost, nor yet quite found.
My intention is to create a group that can trust one another with their stories, and guide a creative process where some of these stories might end up on stage. We will improvise, unearth our voices, become a team, and put together a script that holds the stories they want the world to hear. I’ve been an English language teacher, writer, and refugee activist, and I know these stories form a river, only a scratch deep under the skin of every migrant. Opening a safe channel for these stories will draw on techniques I’ve learned in Playback, psychodrama, and group facilitation. I’m also straddling worlds creatively: I’m neither their teacher nor their therapist; navigating a road that’s neither re-traumatising, nor entirely safe.
Fithawit: We started from zero. At first, I was like, how will it help me doing this? But at the end when we were doing our performance, we noticed that the silly things we were doing did help.
Maryam: Now, we can trust each other and say everything we want to talk about in front of the group.
The Process, and The Problems
Acting is a foreign concept that requires these students to feel into their bodies with an awareness they’ve never had before. They can all name the English words for various emotions. They can give examples of situations where you might feel it. But I’m asking them to conjure up this emotion in their bodies on demand, like a genie from a bottle, and then hold it there: let it affect the way you move, and speak. Also, please do this in front of a derisive audience of your peers, who are prone to hooting with laughter the moment you try and produce something sincere.
The ground work was not a garden patch, but a continent’s worth of ground to cover. And the idea of a finished show sometimes felt like a mirage castle that only I could see.
Trauma and acting are uncomfortable bedfellows. Acting requires vulnerability; trauma requires armouring. And as we dig a bit deeper through the ground work, other behaviours come up in order to avoid that vulnerability: embarrassment, arguments, foot-stomping walk outs. These are survival mechanisms that have worked well in the students’ lives and need to be honoured, not aggressively stripped back. Yet despite the discomfort, our commitment to return to the project, and to each other, won out every time. ‘Creating group safety’ wasn’t the opening chapter to this work, as I had thought: it WAS this work.
Playback methods gave a framework for hearing and responding to each other’s stories. We learned forms like choruses, statue stories, moments and pairs. Rather than expecting the students to be able to whip out an improvisation on the spot, we might slow it down and I’d direct a semi-improvised scene. For example, upon hearing Manisha’s mixed emotions about leaving Nepal, I would set up a group of people saying farewell, and a group of people on the other side of the stage saying hello. In the middle, two actors representing the different sides of Manisha: you’re sad to leave, and you’re looking forward to a new life. I might then walk among the group, inviting each person to speak, and only after all this set-up would we watch the final scene. Some of these scenes made it into a scripted version.
One day, we had just finished warming up when Zainab stormed in. She was flushed, and breathing sharply.
Someone was racist to me on the way here.
The group immediately rallied around her, wanting to know, What did they say? What did you do?
Instead of telling us what happened, Zainab, why don’t you show us? Set the scene, I invited.
Zainab chose someone to be her, then cast her best friend, her teenage attacker, and his mates. She used scarves to show the street. Using role reversal, she gave her attacker his lines, and then showed the group what had happened to her. Everyone understood. But it wasn’t enough for Zainab. I could see she was still bursting with emotion.
I asked, What would you like to say to your attacker that you didn’t get to say then?
You’re ignorant! she spat, but then fell silent, churning. Somehow her words were still buttoned up inside. Tell the Universe, I invited, gesturing at the ceiling. Tell God. I knew Zeinab’s faith was important to her. The floodgates opened and words began to pour from her. She asked, Why must I be pushed from country to country and still be met with hate? They have no idea what I’ve been through! Eventually she finished, with tears rolling down her face, Now I know why some people think of suicide. There was an electric silence in the room.
Sometimes, the emotions in the group would shift as suddenly as a gently sloping beach that shelves away to the deep. You can go from knee-deep to in-over-your-head in seconds. Rufta was talking about her grandmother in light, fond tones – then suddenly, she was out of the room in tears at a speed that gave me whiplash. My own transformation as a facilitator was to get better at noticing these moments coming in, and devising a process for safely bringing the whole group back to shore.
I was forever impressing upon the students that it was their choice to share or not share, in front of each other and particularly in front of a public audience. The danger I strove to avoid was that of creating some sort of refugee beauty pageant, where trauma stories are repackaged and regurgitated in order to meet white people’s needs for catharsis, sympathy, and empty claims of solidarity; all the while re-traumatising and pigeon-holing the non-white people who tell them. We wanted to bring enough nuance, authenticity, and genuine art to the show that it took the audience beyond the knee-jerk responses of: Those poor things / Aren’t they wonderful? This work had to be grounded in the students’ own autonomy and voice, so boundaries around sharing were always theirs to choose. But in order to sense and read your own boundaries, you have to be able to sense and read your own body and emotions: and for a traumatised person, that whole process is fraught. The students themselves devised a beautiful solution that ended up being one of the most profound elements of the project: some people badly wanted their stories to be included in the show, but knew they couldn’t possibly say the words themselves. So they swapped lines with another student. Can you carry this part of my story? Yes, I can. Can you carry this part of mine? And so they found a way to straddle the worlds, between being exposed by the truth and hidden in silence.
Rufta: When I started talking about my grandma, it was really emotional. It made me look back. But instead of doing my line, I took somebody else’s line and they can take mine. So we trust each other to do other people’s stories. It’s like teamwork, we carry each other.
Fithawit: Playback is interesting because it gives life to the stories. It kind of brings you back to the time when the story happened to you. It’s emotional in a good way: you feel like the things that happened to you are happening now in life.
Gini: Having the playback forms as the structure was very helpful, because you had a way of playing with things and being creative, and even if you didn’t end up using that form, there was a way of taking people on a bit of a journey, and then often we used what emerged from that.
An Egyptian man with a henna-red beard comes up to me after the first show and grips my arm firmly. Is it age, or emotion, that is making his hands shake? ‘I know Naifti,’ he tells me. ‘I’m her uncle.’ I can hardly contain my pride in her: Naifti is the young woman whose voice we had to coax out of her like it was a ribbon of tissue paper, who spent all those years in Egypt barely leaving her tiny apartment where she stayed caring for her nieces and nephews. During the pandemic, in my online creative writing class, Naifti was so painfully shy she couldn’t bear to switch on her camera. Her uncle continued: ‘I want to tell you: you have to keep doing this work. You have to tell these stories. It’s important. We never hear our own stories: we heard them now.’
I look over at Naifti, whose wrists are so slender that when we got locked out of the classroom, she could easily reach through the bars and open the security door from the inside. Naifti had unlocked more than the security door: she had unlocked herself. She’d just been using those same hands to beat a drum, the rhythm punctuating a group poem about war. She’d thrown her voice out to an audience of 200, and we had received a standing ovation. And it had changed her. It had changed all of us. Even before the show reached the stage, I knew the journey had been profound. In sharing it with a wider audience, you could feel the love bursting through the room and coming back to us in waves.
But, on the final night, tragedy. Maryam receives news that her sister in law has been killed in Iran. As news breaks to the group, only two hours before our final show, people are reeling. Some go into shock, remembering their own sudden losses. Many people revert to their original languages and start crying out words I can’t understand, unable to hear me as I try to calm the group in English. Gini is accompanying Maryam home, and I’m all alone in a storm at sea. People are emotionally capsizing, and sobs break like thunderclaps overhead.
It’s still a miracle to me that we went on stage that night, and delivered the most powerful show of them all. I think that both Playback’s core principles, and the refugee experience itself, teaches flexibility, resilience, and trust in our chosen family. Everything we had learned about each other and ourselves came to bear on that night. We could experience our feelings, and use focus and presence to channel them into performance. We could hold one another’s stories with courage and tenderness. We were alchemists of the soul.
After the final show ended, we all went to Maryam’s house. Her family welcomed us in and we sat in a silent circle, no need for words. Our heads were bowed and our theatre blacks had been transformed by circumstance into mourning clothes. All of the worlds that we straddled coalesced into one at that moment. To simply be together was profound and holy.
Fithawit: I love the fact that it was a sad and emotional time, but we didn’t give up, we tried to do it for Maryam, and we did it.
Adonay: It changed us somehow, all of us. We got to know each other more, and after that no-one is shy to anyone any more.
Cast list for Stories Behind My Suitcase:
Archana Magar, Naifti Abdel Salam Adam, Basireh (Sara) Jamali, Susan Ahmadi, Maryam Azizi, Manisha Bista, Zainab Rostami, Sumaya Mohammadi, Fithawit Hadgu Shekedin, Hadisa Teimoori, Firozeh Tajik, Rufta Mehari Gebrehit, Abdullah Amiri, Moo Blut Lay, Adonay Tesfasilasie Tsegazeb, Tekeste Wydual John, Yan Lui Lam (Yi Yi)
About the author
Emil Conolan is a writer, teacher, and social theatre practitioner living in Tasmania, Australia. She is passionate about combining healing, social justice, and creativity. She is the published author of three novels for children (The Freedom Finders series), and the founder of an award-winning asylum seeker support organisation. She is a conductor and actor with Hobart Playback, a teacher at the Australasian School of Playback Theatre, and a board member of the IPTN.
Doing white differently? Playback Theatre and Whiteness in Post-apartheid South Africa
By Kathy Barlosky
“Doing white differently? Playback Theatre and whiteness in post-apartheid South Africa” by Kathy Barolsky © 2021 The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) taken Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance (2021), Vol 26:2, copyright © Taylor & Francis Ltd (2021), reprinted by permission of the publisher.
As a white Playback Theatre (PT) conductor, I am interested in investigating the ways in which PT provides a way of reimagining and practising new ways of understanding race and racial identities. The question asked is: how is whiteness intra-acted with, within a Playback Theatre performance from a conductor perspective? This article contributes to discussions about whiteness, clearly articulated by Tanner[i], and takes discussions in a new direction by painting a picture of whiteness enacted through a PT performance in post-apartheid South Africa. In South Africa, whiteness is not as invisible as in the United States due to whites being a minority governed by a black majority government. Yet, the scarring of whiteness due to apartheid and colonialism remains an open wound. In this environment, many white South Africans cannot avoid their whiteness so easily. Consequently, white people acknowledge they are white but often in a defensive manner that avoids conversations about whiteness and its violent impact.
I started going to school in the early nineties, which was an incredible time of change in South Africa. Apartheid was beginning to be dismantled, and for the first time in 1992, black students were admitted into government schools in the suburbs. Even though I was young, I was acutely aware of what a historically momentous moment this was. For me, this time was the beginning of forging many deep and meaningful interracial friendships which have educated and continue to educate me in multiple ways.
I carry the experience of this with me in PT and other areas of my life which has helped me undertake the messy work of relating to whiteness, my role in it and how it plays out around me. Up until now, I have not attempted to examine and share this journey critically and so writing this piece is an effort to make some of that process transparent in the hope that other white people in South Africa and PT will be encouraged to do the same.
To do this, I examine an instance that occurred in a performance by Drama for Life Playback Theatre, a professional PT group in Johannesburg, at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in March 2019. The performance was part of an Applied Theatre Honours class, who were exploring the South African constitution within a human rights framework. Drama for Life Playback Theatre was brought in for the students to engage with what the South African constitution means in their everyday lives.
I did not come to the performance in a neutral manner. Although I had not engaged personally with this group of students, I have been part of the fabric of the Drama for Life programme since its inception. First as a scholar in 2008 and then as a sessional staff member and Artistic Director and founder of Drama for Life Playback Theatre. The debates, the challenges, the journey of this institute and university I know well. It has been the home of my professional training and upbringing. I have become an ‘elder’ in this space. However, I came into Drama for Life from a different perspective, as a visitor. I have been living in Norway since 2017 undertaking my PhD, and although I have been back to Drama for Life many times as part of my research, I am no longer in the daily grind of this university space. Of what it is to live in South Africa and the reality people face daily.
In the audience, there were approximately thirty students. All the students were black, and I was the only white person in the PT ensemble in the role of the conductor. In the audience sat three other white women, two staff members and one a drop-in student from another class. For those who are unfamiliar with PT, the role of the conductor- simply put is to hold the overall ritual of a performance. This complex task entails being an intermediary between the PT performers and audience in encouraging and facilitating the audience to tell stories. The enactment of these stories then takes place through the performer’s improvisations.
Working with PT in the context of post-apartheid South Africa for the last twelve years, I have grappled with the difficulties of how democracy is realised (or not) in everyday life. The atmosphere in PT performances is often fraught with anger, hurt and unspoken histories and is reflective of a society that has been unable to do the deep and continuous work of forging a properly embedded democracy. The performance that I examine held an undercurrent of this charged environment, which made me particularly aware of my whiteness in the setting of the PT performance.
I also feel it important to name that as a white conductor exploring the performance within this context, I found there to be challenging and ongoing tensions in reflecting on my whiteness both in the practice and in the writing of this article. It has been important to interrogate my whiteness while simultaneously negotiating my experience as embedded in specific historic and structural conditions of whiteness in South Africa. My whiteness in this article highlights another difficulty because I try and relate to this conundrum from a subjective place which is inevitably tied up in white historic privilege.
Joleen Steyn Kotze and Gary Prevost[ii] argue that South African citizens are experiencing a crisis in identity as a result of the enormous social, political and economic changes that have taken place over the last twenty-six years since the country’s democratisation in 1994. Jonathan Jansen[iii] explains that these deeply contested, conflicting and emerging identities are associated with competing memories of the apartheid past on university campuses. Jansen describes this as an environment where understandings of who people think others are according to race, gender and class finds itself threatened. The experience is confounding and difficult. Frequently empathy is replaced by fury and upset, which is ‘expressed in coarse and uncomfortable ways … we have here a powerful but underexplored phenomenon’[iii]. This polarisation is not unique to universities but is accentuated in this environment as young South Africans from different backgrounds engage with each other across racial and class boundaries, often for the first time. As a PT ensemble, we frequently hear stories that reflect these crises.
These tensions are emblematic of many of the issues I have confronted as a white conductor in South Africa, raising questions of how to respond sensitively and ethically when race is in the PT room. Conducting this performance, I was acutely aware of needing to hold these difficulties regarding how my whiteness is directly implicated in these problems in post-apartheid South Africa. It is not possible as a white conductor to single-handedly undo whiteness in all its forms but what is possible is attending to diffractive moments that invite opportunities for gradually sculpting different forms of whiteness. Types of whiteness that despite holding privilege, can relate in constructive ways. PT has provided a unique and humanising space for me to grapple with these paradoxical antagonisms.
I have begun by describing the PT performance contextualising it in post-apartheid South Africa through my role as a conductor in PT. Shortly, I will go into ‘The moment of now’ which describes the PT performance which I conducted. I specifically look at how Zanele a teller in the performance and I may have been intra-acting with the matter around us and the affects this produced as performative agents. In the ritual of PT, the conductor invites audience members to volunteer sharing stories from their lives. An audience member who shares a story during a PT performance is referred to as a teller.
I focus on examining my positionality as a white South African performer in relation to the teller Zanele. Many questions may arise out of this moment, and one that is particularly pertinent is how Zanele’s voice is heard and represented in the aftermath of the performance. Zanele did participate in the focus group afterwards but did not reflect on our intra-action specifically. I decided to investigate our intra-action as it was one of many contentious moments in the performance, and also because the focus group with Drama for Life Playback Theatre after the performance stimulated many questions about my position conducting the performance as a white person.
I have therefore chosen to address in detail my position as a PT conductor as a starting point and to make this process transparent. Performer identities are underexplored in PT research, where the audience is often the primary focus which deflects an investigation into performer choices. As a result, performers may avoid engaging with critical questions concerning the way their identities impact on PT, and in this instance, it concerns racial identities, and this is what I wish to address.
The perspectives of Second-Wave Critical Whiteness studies enable me to theorise my enactment of whiteness in a nuanced way and not essentialise it. I draw on Agential Realism to investigate how whiteness emerged through material-discursive practices in the PT performance. Following that, I introduce diffractive ethnography. I locate myself more deeply in this study through an auto-ethnographic narrative that informed my conductor choices. I go on to examine the selected PT moment where performative agents arose as findings as a result of my analysis of ‘agential cuts’ (my conductor introduction and Zanele’s story).
The moment of now
We open the doors to let in the audience. I have to trust the team now, to trust myself, somehow 11 years of PT knowledge needs summoning and to count for something. Full steam ahead … conductor introduction underway and now the actors begin to introduce themselves. Now me … personal introduction change of plan. ‘My name is Kathy and ja I’m with this question a lot around, as a white South African when is my role to speak and when is my role to be quiet?’. Hmmm, I feel a bit vulnerable now, but this is my gut speaking and a disclaimer around my inner thoughts concerning my legitimacy to hold this PT space today. I feel like a rattling skeleton moving about the room.
The space begins to expand and extend, along with my slightly less rattily skeleton, but now something comes into play that I cannot escape. That is highly visible, my skin. It is white, I am Jewish, but I can no longer pull that card, not in this context anyway (Conductor journal, March 2019)
A story emerges from Zanele, a black woman about her experience of working in a corporate space in South Africa where institutional racism is rife. Zanele sums up her experience of the equality clause in the South African Constitution ‘ … the equality clause- short story at work, everybody is equal, but with everything that happens at work some are more equal than others’. In response to Zanele’s description of racial discrimination by her boss at work, I ask ‘When these moments happen, what is it like for you?’ She had mentioned being ‘irritated’ by this experience, but I wanted to open the space for the depth of the expression of this ‘irritation.’ I felt that there had been an outlining of the incident but a holding back of the personal impact on her. An unsaid, unfinished emotion hung in the air, and I thought it would help to name it. As I do this, I forget my whiteness, how this probing for a ‘deeper’ expression of feeling might come across. Even if clumsy, the specificity of this moment, this feeling seems important. Zanele exclaims; (hands up in the air) ‘I did not choose to be black that is what it was like … ’ The feeling is expressed in this moment, in the way she embodies the telling. Yet, I continue with my own sense that Zanele filters the enormity of her feeling, whitewashing her telling for the benefit of the white conductor before her. I want to stand in this. I press on nervously, ‘and what goes with that when you say that?’ Can the veil be ripped away between Zanele and me? The ensemble the audience? Can the anger enter? Yet I cannot assume it. It is not for me to name. I am searching, searching for a room of possibility. The naming of anger, to be said aloud, to be allowed, owned. My unspoken narrative as I stand there before her, ‘yes I am white, but you can say you are angry and I will not crumble or get defensive, I will listen.’ Along with this, a longing to be accepted in this space with all my whiteness and privilege that I cannot escape. Finally, Zanele responds ‘Anger … ’. After the enactment, there is a sigh from the audience a release of breath, I too begin to breathe, yet there is still something, thick and sticky (Conductor journal, March 2019)
I investigate ‘the moment of now’ above as an agential cut. Agents are part of an entangled web of possibilities that emerge as part of material-discursive practices. Karen Barad[iv] calls these moments ‘agential cuts’, a term to describe ‘material- discursive boundary-making practices that produce “objects” and “subjects” and other differences’[iv]. These temporary boundary-making differences emerge out of intra-actions that produce agents. Agential cuts momentarily stabalise agential properties that can be examined.
Second – wave whiteness studies
Second-wave whiteness studies seeks to interpret white identities by elaborating on their intersectional complexity acknowledging whiteness and its situatedness, historically and socially, providing detailed accounts of how people’s induction into whiteness variates. James C. Jupp and Timothy J. Lensmire explain that these accounts focus on white identities who ‘are attempting to come to grips with their own complexity and complicity in a white-supremacist system and seeking to learn how to fight against it’[v].
I draw on the work of two American Scholars Revered Thandeka[vi] and Timothy J. Lensmire’s[vii], who analyse how white people learn to be white as a fundamental aspect of understanding race-visibility. Both scholars theorise the complexity of white identity as an ongoing process. I employ Thandeka’s conceptualisation of how white people learn to become white through white shame[vi]. Thandeka argues that white supremacy is maintained by avoiding confrontations with whiteness and its relationship to building racist societies[vi]. This is a form of self-protection. Thandeka explains that one of these avoidances is adults being silent about racial abuse, and children witness this. Thandeka argues children then ‘deny its own resonant feelings towards racially proscribed others, not because it chooses to become white, but because it wishes to remain with the community that is quite literally its life’[vi].
Children are not aware of race until they are inducted into whiteness by adults according to Thandeka. When opportunities to socialise with black children are denied this desire to engage with different races manifests in hidden shame[vi]. White people continue to carry this shame into adulthood which becomes projected onto racial others in order to maintain white allegiances. This shame is left unexamined and often becomes exacerbated by a lack of spaces to openly interrogate race. Thandeka elaborates on white shame as a ‘pitched battle by a self against itself in order to stop feeling what it is not supposed to feel: forbidden desires and prohibited feelings that render one different’[vi].
Thandeka’s white shame framework is drawn upon to investigate how my coming into whiteness during significant changes in South Africa deeply influenced the ways in which I carry whiteness and its influence on my conducting in PT. I bring to the fore specific aspects of my becoming identity, which became entangled with socio-political and historical factors of racial inequality in South Africa. From this, I trace how historic white shame inherited from the benefits of apartheid arose and how its affect impacted the choices I made as a PT conductor. On recognising this historic white shame in relation to whiteness, I sought to utilise this as a conductor to contribute to anti-racist action within the PT performance. I look at how this materialised where whiteness and my role as a white conductor engaging with Zanele, a teller, created a crucial opening for grappling and confronting the wounds of whiteness.
Thandeka[vi] builds on the objective of second-wave whiteness studies to interpret white identities that take in ‘careful consideration of the contexts of their meaning-making and action.’[v].
To aid me in examining my white subjectivity in the PT performance, and how this was part of the performative layers of the project, I draw on Karen Barad’s theory of Agential Realism[iv]. The theory enables an investigation into how whiteness becomes through materialising discursive practices. These material-discursive practices are bound up in intra-actions which I explain in this section. Agential realism allows me to examine whiteness by bringing to attention the way the performativity of whiteness occurs in non-linear, causal delineations of space–time mattering. The value of this is to understand how my whiteness activated opportunities to do white differently as part of only one possible entwined entry point of becoming. Through this, I consider the insidious ways in which whiteness plays out and shifts without having to prioritise a particular location of whiteness that forsakes the other levels in which whiteness enacts itself. Therefore, taking into account the multiple ways in which whiteness is entangled performatively and operating individually, structurally and discursively.
Barad’s Agential realism is a post-humanist framing of performativity. Agential Reality is what arises from the inquiry taking into account what manifests in the moment. It includes discursive and non-discursive material in examining the nature of material-discursive practices. In breaking away from representationalism, it propounds, a causal relationship between specific exclusionary practices embodied as specific material configurations of the world (i.e. discursive practices/(con)figurations rather than ‘words’) and specific material phenomena (i.e. relations rather than ‘things’)[viii].
Agential realism is helpful as a way of theorising whiteness that does not fall into the trap of examining whiteness on an individual scale but as bound up in sedimented layers of localised historicity. I investigate the arising sedimented material of whiteness, particular to a South Africa context that was generated by the matter present in the performance. To help orientate how causal relationships in Agential Realism may come into being certain terms are necessary to consider. I will expound on the terms of intra-action, agency and entanglement as an intrinsic part of understanding Agential realism and its implications in this article.
The concept of intra-action is applied to unravel the becoming of my white subjectivity as a material-discursive practice. Barad explains, intra-actions are specific causal material enactments that may or may not involve ‘humans’. Indeed, it is through such practices that the differential boundaries between ‘humans’ and ‘nonhumans,’ ‘culture’ and ‘nature,’ the ‘social’ and the ‘scientific’ are constituted[viii].
I utilise intra-action as way to understand the relational performativity of the becoming of whiteness and reconfiguring it as dynamic materialisation of matter. I investigate the ways in which it may be possible for a PT conductor to do white differently through the process of intra-acting with an awareness of arising materiality. Intra-action is used instead of interaction to indicate that the agents involved in the particular intra-actions do not pre-exist independently. Rather they are material which continually alters and manifest as part of materialising of the world. Through these performed intra-actions differentiations materialise that are ‘enacted in the ongoing ebb and flow of agency’[viii]. These intra-actions are realities in and of themselves that highlight the ongoing reformulation of the world and it’s potential. Through this dynamic reconfiguring of unfolding relationships, agents arise.
In the section ‘A Conductors diffractive analysis of the Playback Theatre performance’ I discuss how intra-acting with Zanele, a PT teller diffracted the current issues that post-apartheid South Africa is wrestling with regarding whiteness. I consider how all matter matters when trying to engage with how whiteness comes into a performance space. This agential intra-activity of becoming is what creates possibilities for exercising white subjectivities in new ways. How whiteness is performed and articulated as part of this mattering is what leaves traces that imprint on other bodies. Whiteness in South Africa was and continues to be, violently imprinted on the bodies of black South Africans. Yet as matter is constantly unfolding as a doing in evolving intra-activity, it presents unique and ongoing possibilities to take responsibility for the brutal mattering of whiteness and attend to it.
I examine agential whiteness in the performance which I identify arising in their different ways as the basis of this study and my response to these agents. According to Barad agency is ‘understood as attributable to a complex network of human and nonhuman agents, including historically specific sets of material conditions that exceed the traditional notion of the individual’[iv]. The view of agency is not as internal to individuals, but a relational process, experienced with others. Arising agents create differentiations to other forms of world mattering which form into temporary localised boundaries that reveal agential possibilities. Barad names the way in which these agents become real and differing to one another as ‘ontological entanglement’[iv]. I identify ‘to speak or not to speak’ and ‘Unspoken anger towards racism in post-apartheid South Africa’ as emerging entangled agents of matter that occurred within the PT performance. Being attentive and aware of the agential material arising from intra-actions is paramount; it creates opportunities for individual whiteness to be destabalised and analysed as one of many nodes of possible constellations of whiteness. I seek to unpack how intra-acting with Zanele provoked different agents that became an enactment through our intra-action as teller and conductor. These arising agents opened the way for reconfiguring entanglements of whiteness locatable outside of our intra-action.
Diffractive ethnography guides the analysis where according to Jessica Smartt Gullion ‘the researcher is a presence, and active force’[ix] in the research process. Diffraction ‘involves reading insights through one another in ways that help illuminate differences as they emerge: how differences get made, what gets excluded, and how exclusions matter’[iv].
The method of Diffractive Ethnography provides a way of identifying critical moments as a conductor that materialised to exercise the possibility of transforming whiteness. I examine these diffractive encounters in relation to the agential cut with Zanele and how it manifested through intra-actions. By tracing this intra-action and how one ‘becomes’ is an ethical act. Ethics Barad argues ‘is … not about right response to a radically exterior/ized other, but about responsibility and accountability for the lively relationalities of becoming of which we are a part’[iv]. This ethical attentiveness is not about falling into the trappings of white guilt but a commitment to the process of tracing intra-actions that diffract to make a difference in engaging with whiteness in PT.
I held focus groups with the audience members, and the PT team separately after the performance. There were also three participant-observers in the audience whose role was to observe the performance from a more detailed perspective. I now turn to my auto-ethnographic narrative, followed by the diffractive analysis of the agential cut experienced with Zanele.
In this section, I am inspired by Thandeka[vi] and Lensmire’s[vii] explorations into people’s life stories to understand further the different ways in which people become white.
In Thandeka’s research[vi], the stories of coming into whiteness are often heartbreaking tales filled with angst. In recalling my first memories of coming into whiteness, I assumed I would uncover an equivalent story of despair, but instead, something different emerged. The story takes place in 1989 before Nelson Mandela’s release when I was six years old. My sister Vanessa who is sixteen years older than me, is an integral part of how I learned to be white. The stories she told me and her actions and role in The Truth and Reconciliation commission exposed me to experiences very different from my white peers.
The food drop
One day I find myself in a supermarket with my mum buying lots of pre-made meals. This is unusual, but I do not ask why. Next thing we are delivering these meals to my sister and her fellow anti-apartheid student activists in a holding cell at a local police station. They had been protesting against apartheid policies at the very same university (Wits) that I would attend and teach at almost 14 years later. I understood that these students were in there not because they were criminals but because they were brave. I don’t know if my mum at the time had explained why they were in there, but I knew my sister was part of the ‘anti-apartheid struggle’ (PhD journal, May 2020)
The experience that I describe left a deep impression, ingraining in me an awareness of issues of race. I began to understand as a white child that I was part of an unjust system, but this realisation was also infused with an optimism around how that could be challenged. I am aware that most white South Africans of my generation did not grow up this way and were not so starkly exposed to how brutal white authority can be. Lensmire in reiterating Thandeka’ s research explains ‘white racial identities emerge in racial abuse, by white authority, of its own community.’ In my experience, this abuse did not occur through family relations, as is often the case but ‘in larger relations constructed in law, policy, and social class. The result is a white racial identity riddled with shame and ambivalence … ’[vii]. Witnessing these white students jailed during apartheid showed me how white shame and ambivalence could be drawn upon to mobilise against white supremacy, an abusive authority and social order that growing up I did not want to be part of.
The way I came to engage with Zanele’s story, was aided directly by my experiences of coming into whiteness which was negotiated through my sister’s influence and growing up through a specific historical and socio-cultural time in South Africa.
A conductors diffractive analysis of the Playback Theatre performance
Below I analyse how Zanele, the audience and I intra-acted with the materiality that we were confronted by, in the performance. The materiality produced different diffractive opportunities for me as a white conductor to exert becoming white differently. I look closely at my intra-actions in the performance and artistic choices, reflecting on my enactment of whiteness and negotiation of it. Barad reminds us that we do not exist in silos. ‘Individuals do not pre-exist their interactions, rather individuals emerge though and as part of their entangled-relating’[iv]. I describe performative agents that found themselves becoming in the performance. These performative agents illustrate how through the PT performance I attempted to resist embodying a stereo-typed representation of whiteness attempting to destabilise perceptions of whiteness by the choices I made as a PT conductor and how I related to the teller, Zanele and the audience.
‘To speak or not to speak’
‘To speak or not speak’ (performance transcript, March 2019) as a white person, my opening statement at the beginning of the PT performance and question to myself is a theme of salience in South Africa currently[x],[xi]. This introduction was not the one I planned and arose from the intra-action with the audience as co-participants in the performance. I needed to be honest about my vulnerabilities and limitations in front of the audience I was about to conduct for.
Lensmire explains that in becoming white children lack spaces in their lives ‘to explore how we think and feel about race, white children become white adults with a deep, unnamed confusion and shame about racial matters’[vii]. Luckily growing up, I did have spaces where I could talk about race and engage with my whiteness. Thandeka points out that when white children are born ‘personal racial identity is, in effect, nonexistent because the socialisation process has not yet been undertaken by its white community of caretakers, legislators and police force’[vi]. As such no one is born racially white, it is learnt. Early on, I came to understand I could comply and embody an abusive whiteness I did not relate to, or I could make different choices. Making different choices was also more possible for me in my family as I did not have a fear of being punished for it. Still, despite this, the historic shame of my white skin as a South African in the PT performance felt magnified as I led an all-black ensemble, in front of a majority-black audience. As a conductor, the audience did not know about my coming into whiteness, and so my authority as a conductor in the PT performances needed to be earned.
Recognising this, I wanted to indicate that my whiteness, even if holding a position of power at that moment in my conductor role, is not whiteness that must pre-determine power relations in the space. I cannot minimise or ignore the reality of what it is to be the only white person in the ensemble conducting for a majority black audience in a South African context.
My whiteness has given me a place of power and privilege in the world and needs to be engaged with in a meaningful way. Vice explains some of the specifics of South African whiteness,
‘What then is it about South Africa that makes whiteness here feel morally different—or at least more charged—to whiteness elsewhere? For one, whites are a very small minority and one’s moral instincts recoil from the fact that wealth and privilege are distributed in so drastically skewed a way. For another, we are planted on one continent but brought up on the cultural influences and narratives of another … we have lived here for generations; we identify as South African at least because we ‘fit’ the landscape and have a history here. The fact that some feel the need to assert that they are ‘African’ is an indication of their uncomfortable position …[xi]‘
Being a white conductor in this space becomes even more significant in this South African terrain. White South Africans assert, they are ‘African’ and at the same time are in denial about acknowledging the shame connected to the brutal consequences of white settler colonialism, whose traces reverberate in post-apartheid South Africa. It is an inescapable fact that white people benefited from colonialism and apartheid and continue to benefit from the inequality that was created by it, myself included[xii]. Yet on the whole white South Africans remain defensive about this. When confronted by one’s white privilege even indirectly, the affect of this historic white shame often crudely bursts out in the shape of aggression and defensiveness[xiii].
This emotional response for Thandeka is part of a pressure valve of white shame that creates a silent ‘hidden civil war’ where ‘desire and felt differences must be suppressed … because one’s community deems them bad’[vi]. For white South Africans to acknowledge their unearned privileges as part of benefitting from three hundred and sixty-eight years of colonialism would be to lose face and self-respect. It would be to recognise whiteness and one’s self as being implicated in morally reprehensible acts.
In building up a platform to earn my legitimacy to be conducting the performance, I was revealing to the audience my internal battle with whiteness and the shame I carry as a white South African who has benefitted from settler-colonialism and apartheid. My opening statement acknowledges that I cannot escape that I am white, so the next best thing I can ‘do’ is being white differently[xiv]. I hope that through my introduction and reflection on myself, that this acknowledgement can ease open a space that acknowledges the tumultuous territory that we are all in as South Africans when trying to create and facilitate conversations about race. About who we are, who we imagine ourselves to be and who we could be to each other. By saying it out loud was also a way of keeping myself accountable to myself.
When I reviewed the diary of a participant observer (March 2019), she noted an audience member who spontaneously responded ‘excellent’ in reply to the reflection on myself. The participant-observer in the focus group expanded on this expressing how the introduction was done and how some things were able to be said after that, that challenged telling in a politically correct way. Even if the stories were personal, they could also be contentious (participant-observer focus group, March 2019). I like to think this was feedback that from the start of this performance that perhaps a different narrative could emerge, of what I represented in the space. I was attempting to work with the idea of ‘creolizing subjectivity’[xiv], that acknowledges that I enter the context from a position of power, but that whiteness and racial identity is unstable and can be contested. Monaham expands ‘a creolizing subject attends to and actively participates in this ever-shifting and developing contestation of the significance and meaning of the racial reality that both shapes and is shaped by her agency’[xiv].
Here the ‘markers’ of white shame associated and enacted by many white people can hopefully be consciously eroded so that I can embody an existence as a white South African that is more than just my race through emerging intra-actions. The ‘markers’ that play out in South Africa and the West is a white shame that pervades with no reflection on itself. As a defense, it muscles in, dominates, splaying itself out pretty much most of the time without question. When challenged, it gets bristly and arrogant and fearful, often fuming with a reaffirmed sense of its threatened position in the world[vii]. These outbursts are bound up in shame as Thandeka describes where whiteness self protects a ‘core sense of self’[vi] to maintain white authority adopted in early childhood. To question white authority modelled by caregivers is permeated with fears of rejection by its community. Thus, the developing attitude of white children is to get ready to act in a certain way that promotes values that protect whiteness.
I cannot erase the gulf between who the audience is, and who I am, but I can name it, make it visible in our intra-action so that neither of us is pretending that it is business as usual, which often happens in South Africa. From this place of difference and taking responsibility for it, it is possible to engage in listening that is difficult but that allows me to respond in the most authentic way I can, opening up for different becomings of whiteness.
‘Unspoken anger towards racism in post-apartheid South Africa’
Zanele’s story was seemingly ‘small’ in the arc of the PT performance. It was in the warm-up phase. Yet her struggle to tell her story to me, the vagueness of her telling was an indication of its gravity. Her story was not about an overt act of racism but a micro-aggressive act towards her, probably one of multiple experiences over her lifetime, yet no less injurious and corrosive. The materiality of unspoken anger as an affect in response to whiteness lay present within our intra-action as teller and conductor. I had to trust that our exchange could be more than a repeating of old narratives and histories, but an opportunity for a reshaping them.
An illustration of this occurred when, during the performance, a story came from a black woman who was not South African. Suddenly a narrative that is not often visible became visible. As one participant-observer elaborated:
‘It just made me think of these tiny ways as South Africans we are just not ready for black people not to be black people from here. So, it made me think of that in terms of how our constitution works in even the wider sense of what a constitution is.’ (participant-observer, March 2019)
After Zanele’s sharing many such stories emerged addressing a range of themes from gender-based violence to challenging ideas around South African masculinity.
Njabulo Ndebele argues, ‘a historic opportunity has arisen now for white South Africa to participate in a humanistic revival of our country through a readiness to participate in the process of redress and reconciliation’[xv]. As a white conductor, I sought to meet Zanele with this intention. In Zanele’s story, her white colleague did not stand up for her in confronting the actions of her white boss. I did not want to be complicit in repeating the same lack of acknowledgement. Thandeka[vi] explains that the creation of white racial identities occurs through racial abuse by white authority. The abuse through the policing of white identity continues to be meted out by family, friends, and in this case, the behaviour of Zanele’s boss in front of her white colleague. Zanele’s colleague in her silence became complicit in the micro-aggressive racist act directed towards Zanele. Her colleague’s silence was an example of the continuation of this abuse, where she became complicit out of anxiety in standing up for Zanele. Abusive white authority produces fear and white shame not just through stereotyping black people but in the way white people perpetrate violence amongst themselves towards other white people. By doing this ‘white shame functions as a psychological guard, as an L.A. cop [South African in this scenario] whose sole duty is to keep the emotions of the residents of this realm in check’[vi]. The maintenance of this fear amongst the realm of white people in South Africa is what normalises daily racist acts and maintains white supremacy.
I wanted to work differently with the materiality that I was sensing through our performative intra-action of white South Africa’s who have not taken on the responsibility of redress by stepping out of this terror from white abuse. I chose to remain with Zanele, both nonverbally and verbally. As Zanele held back on the emotion of her story, it gave further reason to spend time with her and not brush over it. As she began to speak directly about her experience of racism, I became aware of my whiteness in our interaction and the shame I felt through the tension in my body.
In a sense, I was temporarily in shut down, a clear sign that something was happening that needed listening in to. This messy dance with Zanele was stomach-churning. I had to hold the space with a certain amount of confidence as a conductor, but I did not feel confident. I was conscious of my unfolding vulnerability in front of Zanele, the PT team and the audience, of not displaying characteristics of the ‘all-knowing’ conductor. I had to force myself to relinquish power on a more unconscious level, the power of the ‘all-knowing white conductor’ and to begin to reconstruct white abusive authority and my feelings of shame into constructive anti-racist action. In South Africa knowledge, power and the preservation of whiteness remain intimately linked in post-apartheid South Africa[xvi].
I could not wear the conductor persona in PT that the ego loves, who is suave, who knows just how to say and do all the right things at just the right time. The way I have learned to become white has given me the ability to acknowledge my whiteness and understand the white supremacist structures Zanele was talking about. I searched within myself to trust my embodiment of whiteness to be capable of disrupting the white supremacist structures Zanele was speaking about but on a relational level between us. The situation prompted me to root my feet firmly on the ground to help the rest of my body to engage and listen. My senses heightened; I began to take Zanele in. Suddenly I was also able to take in the larger room witnessing this intra-action between the two of us. Our intra-action was not an isolated one-on-one engagement with each other. I had to perform a different version of whiteness while acknowledging the presence of the white institutional materiality of the university space, which held the PT performance. One student commented on the conflict of opening up during the performance in the setting of Wits, ‘as safe as the space is we are still in an academic space, and it is not safe to the extent to if I break down and cry after the performance what is going to happen? So it’s tricky in that context’ (audience focus group, March 2019). These material elements were looming in the intra-action threatening at times to get the best of all of us.
I was encouraging a breaking of the silence of how South Africans invite conversations about race into spaces across racial divides. I could not leave Zanele, myself and others in the murky swamp. I had led us there by encouraging Zanele to express her feelings. I had now to guide both of us out, and together. Remarkably, we managed. The affirmation of this was the teller that followed Zanele told a similar story of racial discrimination. Below one of the participant-observers expands on this:
‘The girl that was sitting next to me kept going umm ummm. They [the audience], their bodies, they were performing right, there was something so affective about it. Then at the end of the story, there was also a sigh and you [Kathy] brought our attention to the collective sigh that just took place, and I thought that was quite nice … For all of us to feel it, we have all just gone ‘shooo!’ It was easier to go into the next story.’ (participant-observer focus group, March 2019)
I had to perform a different version of whiteness; a form of whiteness that would not continue to be complicit in abusive white authority. For me conducting Zanele’s story was about creating a space that could acknowledge her anger in a way that white people do not participate in enough. I am not black and cannot claim to know what it is to be black. The only insight and knowledge I have is that all my working life, I have been in the situation of being the racial minority as well as in my social circles. In these contexts, I have had the privilege and gained the trust of people to learn about races, cultures and worlds outside of my whiteness. This invaluable lived experience is what consciously informed my conducting decisions that day. I was also driven by what is possible when choosing to attempt to meet another in a real and compassionate way.
The line of questioning I chose attempted to tread carefully, gently to allow space for the acknowledgement of the injustice of Zanele’s experience, that communicating this to me directly as a white conductor was okay, that it could be safe. There were also three other white women in the room. They too were part of the audience along with the majority-black students. It was about us all hearing and witnessing Zanele’s experience in full. The understandings taken from her sharing were bound to be interpreted differently, but it was an attempt to be working on multiple levels of acknowledgement bound up in sedimented historic matter. Acknowledging the difficulty of the here and now moment of articulating her experience to a white conductor. Acknowledging the ongoing trauma that South Africans carry from the legacy of apartheid. An acknowledgement that racism is alive and kicking in South Africa in 2019. An acknowledgement that all of us are struggling to find voice, agency and our place in South Africa’s new democracy. All these factors were materialising impacting the PT performance. I had to remain steadfast in the belief that I could transcend my racialisation during the performance beyond the predictable ways of embodying whiteness. I had to trust the socio-political ways in which I have been raced as something that might be relevant in racially charged moments.
In South Africa across all our divides, victims and perpetrators, we find ourselves in the unique position of being beside one another in trying to make sense of what it is to live in a post-conflict, post-colonial society. PT practitioners should never assume that because an audience is majority black or white that people’s identities are fixed according to assumptions associated with racial categorizations. It also gives a PT audience more credit for the agency they possess. Understanding the socio-political dynamics and history of groups of people provides PT practitioners with information that needs recognition, but we need to find ways to work with it. By seeing our audiences as people with multiple experiences and relationships to history and the present invites new patterns of relating where novel narratives are invited.
Nisha Sajnani et al.[xvii] articulates the unique contribution PT can make to mediating competing memories and discourses. Sajnani highlights how the conductor plays a crucial role in facilitating multiplicity, ‘the conductor develops such a space where stories shared can live besides, rather than replace, each other’[xvii]. Working with this sentiment in a tangible way means having the capacity to listen to the multiplicity of matter. Not being able to escape my whiteness and sensing the situation, I took the calculated risk to probe further with Zanele, actively working with an awareness of the matter arising through our intra-actions. Not attempting to grasp the full meaning of Zanele’s story could have also had a negative consequence. By not being willing or able to digest her experience and giving into white shame, would only have reaffirmed racial assumptions about white South Africans. I had to trust my foundation of working with PT over time and previous intra-actions of becoming white as a resource to create a different image in the moment. The moment was an education for me about the reminder of presence required to listen to pain, to be open to it and not to become immobilised by white shame. It was a reminder that as black and white people, we can begin to talk about racism and that it does not need to implode, that we can all discover something new.
This PT performance demanded a listening into my performance of whiteness and its impact on the audience in front of me. I resisted relating to Zanele and the PT audience as objects of oppression, feeling deeply connected to them in different ways as fully-fledged human beings. I also resisted feeling pressured to take on the role of the white oppressive authority and going into a white guilt compensatory default mode, but with much difficulty.
Doing white differently?
In this article, I examined an agential cut in a PT performance and what it generated concerning my whiteness as a conductor. I discovered the significance of how the ways in which I have come into whiteness intra-acted with discursive material which created agents with Zanele. These agents, ‘To speak or not to speak’ and ‘Unspoken anger towards racism in post-apartheid South Africa’ produced through our intra-action created critical diffractive opportunities for exploring doing white differently as a PT conductor.
The agential cut revealed fissures where powerful affects loomed concerning apartheid which challenged me in doing white differently as my body bears traces of being entangled with this past and the privilege that comes with it. Yet I know I am not only this. How I have been raced and my white becoming in the moment recognised these agents and attempted to reconfigure them in seeking to create ‘a new white humanity’[xv] in the spontaneous moment of conducting. If not, I would not have been able to conduct Zanele’s story in a way that invited her necessary anger into the performance space. As a conductor I wanted to acknowledge the painful traces of this mattering entrenched in South Africa.
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About the author
Kathy Barolsky is a Drama and Movement therapist (MA RCCSD) and Applied Theatre practitioner (MA Drama for Life, Wits) and Playback Theatre Leadership graduate (2013). Currently she is a PhD candidate as part of the Building Democracy through Theatre project at NTNU, in Trondheim Norway. Kathy founded Drama for Life Playback Theatre in 2008 where she was the artistic director with Cheraé Halley until 2017. Kathy’s Applied Theatre, therapy and research career is shaped by a concern with the challenges of diversity, transformation, and emotional wellbeing. She designs interdisciplinary trainings and runs groups across diverse contexts drawing on experience in the fields of Playback Theatre and Drama and Movement Therapy.
Stepping Out of The Shadows
By Arnet Donkin
Playback Theatre has at its very core principles of social justice, inclusion and equality. Much has been written on how Playback Theatre can provide safe spaces for communities and individuals to explore issues linked to their identity. There is little that has been written about how stories from people identifying as LGBT+ are welcomed, received and responded to within Playback Theatre.
In any audience, it can be assumed that there is a possibility that someone could identify as LGBT+ or, maybe experiencing confusion or repression because of the norms expressed within their particular society of culture which leads them to suppress an acknowledgement of their sexual identity or gender questions.
What is it like for those companies working within areas where LGBT+ rights are not established, where laws and/or culture make the open telling of LGBT+ a high-risk activity? Are these stories ever invited? Can they safely be invited? Even in countries where LGBT+ rights are established, are these stories invited? How can companies create a safe and inclusive space where people are confident to reveal and explore through the telling of their stories, aspects of their identity which might be looked down on by some in the community?
Since the original draft of this essay, as a result of the Covid pandemic forcing many Playback Theatre companies to explore ways of sharing through online means, there have been new possibilities for people around the world to link and connect. There is perhaps another essay to be written exploring the extent to which the move to online Playback Theatre has enabled those in more liberal countries to open up and welcome stories from other who may themselves be in countries where laws and attitudes are less welcoming.
Even in some countries, where the law makes discrimination illegal, people can still often feel uncomfortable in telling stories that expose their sexuality. A teller may be feeling a social discomfort, a question of whether it is ‘socially ok’ fearing being mis-understood or judged. When these stories are spoken, how ready is the company to respond?
I have witnessed stories from LGBT+ people being played back in ways that felt clumsy, perhaps, a lack of understanding of the significance of aspects of the story, perhaps reflecting prejudices and assumptions made by actors about LGBT+ people. What is the role of the conductor in both inviting and maintaining the safety of all tellers? Is it possible to inadvertently ‘out’ someone on stage through the questions that are asked?
How can a company prepare itself to welcome and respond to stories from the LGBT+ community in a way that will help the actors to listen and reflect accurately the stories that may be told?
Stories always have a context
The initial draft of this article began on the day that London celebrated its annual Pride festival. In many countries around the world, June sees the beginning of a month of celebration, Pride Month, marking the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in America. This event is commonly recognised as the cradle of the modern-day gay rights movement[i]. At the same time, I was reminded by my social media feed that all is not equal, that in so many countries voices are silenced, and stories and lives cannot be openly celebrated in ways in which the ‘telling of personal stories may not always be appropriate.’[ii]
A post from 2014 that re-emerged on Facebook reminded me of the violence meted out on those celebrating Pride in St. Petersburg in 2014 by the Russian police; An email highlighting a campaign to raise money for the first LGBT+ Pride in Uganda reminding me of the young man from Uganda, a country where both male and female homosexual activity is illegal, that I once met. Fleeing persecution for his sexuality, he was seeking refuge in a country he thought to be safe, yet at the same time now experiencing the oppression that happens even in a country (the UK) assumed to be safe.
Beyond legislation, it is often the attitudes prevalent in wider society that dictates whether a person feels able to live openly and to step out into their authentic identity. There is a wide global disparity in attitudes towards homosexuality. The attitudes of wider society and the stifling oppression that can be experienced when growing up and living in a society where you fear that to reveal yourself will put you at risk; risk of ridicule, of shame, of disownment from your family, of violence or even death. This is an experience or sentiment that has been felt by many engaged in Playback Theatre from around the world, a concern as to the freedom or otherwise to express identity as an LGBT+ person.
Note about the language and terminology used in this article: Language is a continually evolving process. Increasingly people choose to identify themselves with regard to their sexual identity or gender identity in many different ways, this can also vary according to the region and culture in which people live. Most importantly, when talking to a person, it is important to use and reflect the terminology or vocabulary that they choose for themselves to describe their identity.
Within this article, the term has LGBT+ is used to represent all those people who may identify their sexuality or gender in any way other than the heterosexual and with female / male gender identity.
Responses to stories told by LGBT+ people within Playback Theatre
In researching for the article, I was fortunate to receive over forty responses to a questionnaire circulated through the International Playback Theatre community. My writing reflects on the stories and experiences of people from many countries across the globe. I am immensely grateful for the openness and honesty of those who chose to share their stories, experiences and reflection.
Narrativizing identity: Intrinsic in receiving stories from people who identify as LGBT+ is the unravelling and disclosure of identity. Jonathan Fox [iii] says that the main purpose of Playback Theatre is in ‘narrativizing identity’. This is explained as a process of defining my identity, not by describing it, but through telling a story about myself. Jonathan Fox quotes Nira Yuval-Davis who defines identity as “a specific kind of narrative in which people tell themselves and others who they are, who they are not and who/ how they would like to/should be.”
The fact that a person identifies as LGBT+ also plays in the background of the story to a greater or lesser extent depending on the political, cultural, religious or social context in which that person lives. The extent to which a person feels a need to ‘narrativize’ their identity as an LGBT+ person will often depend on the context they experience and the extent to which they can fully embrace their identity within their everyday life, friendships and relationships.
Stories told from around the world and how they were received: In some parts of the world, the stories and experiences relayed to me were very positive, for example, an American playbacker (involved for over twenty years with a group) explained that the “themes run from coming out, fighting for justice, exploring identity, claiming space, loving and supporting queer folk, being accepted and seen as transgender.” This person says that over the twenty-two years of public performances, the group has been connected to the queer community which was reflected in the stories told within their public performances. Within this company and in this community, stories about ‘coming out’ would often be told and celebrated.
In other parts of the world, the experience was reflected differently. In an account related by a Playback Theatre leader from Singapore, it was recounted about the anxiety that a teller felt in coming to the tellers’ chair to relate their story about ‘coming out’, asking the audience that this be kept ‘within these four walls’. We also hear how sometimes not everyone in the audience is fully accepting of the story. Whilst the teller is described as feeling “a sense of relief at telling her story about coming out to her mother.” and “the audience as mostly accepting and supportive” there were indications that not everyone in the audience was entirely happy. The Playback Theatre leader explained that in their feedback forms an audience member said that the conductor should have asked for another story from an opposing point of view.
As Playback actors and conductors, we have to hold an awareness that sometimes in upholding our values of inclusivity, openness and equality we will be challenged and will need to consider how we respond appropriately. But, there are times when everything does come together and everyone in the room feels at one and we can feel the healing brought by enabling the teller to share their story.
A moment told from the Philippines reminds that we have to really listen to the feeling that is told and to focus on that, resisting what could easily be comedic. “A new college graduate who often dresses himself as a woman came into his first day of work wearing a skirt and was reprimanded by his boss. Telling him it was inappropriate.” The actor goes on to say that “we performed it using a long-form, the teller says that he is glad that it did not turn out a comedy because he was afraid that he would be a laughing stock.” The theme of being ridiculed was then picked up by other audience members, helping the young man to place his story in that of the wider community.
A story from India describes powerfully what some will be fearful of in ‘coming out’ as LGBT+: “The teller narrated how his family was completely against him when he said he was gay. So much so that, they bundled him off to some kind of ‘counselling or psychiatric centre’ where he was administered electric shocks to ‘cure’ him of his ‘condition’. He distanced himself from his family and set upon to build his life on his own. Today he lives his life independently. He was in tears as he narrated his story”. The actor recounting this story goes on to say: “At the end of the enactment of the story, the audience gave him a standing ovation as he left the teller’s chair.” Asking how the company had played this moment, the actor tells us that “His story was performed back in the form of a chorus. It was one of the most striking and heart filled choruses that our team has ever performed. It was such a powerful moment that it filled that space with hope and strength and power, sensitivity and awareness.”
This is the moment when we feel Playback Theatre is at its best when the teller feels heard both by the actors and by the audience when there is a deep sense of sharing and understanding felt throughout the room. It is not always like this and two stories, one from Lebanon and another from Taiwan highlight some of the risks when a teller discloses their sexuality whilst bringing a story to the tellers’ chair.
A Playback actor from Lebanon tells of a moment from a performance: “one time we had a story from a guy who was suffering because he could not find a man to love. He lives in Tripoli, a conservative city, and he wasn’t able to live normally”. The actor goes on to describe the reaction to this story: “Everyone was so kind when we did the story. We focused more on the community in Tripoli and the suffering and some of the audience laughed at him (the teller) but we contained the whole situation.” In this example, the actor is describing a man’s longing for love in a country where to be found out to be gay holds the risk to be arrested and imprisoned for one year. The company chose to focus on the oppression within the country, the inability for this man to have an open, positive relation as would be available to him were he not identifying as gay. Following the enactment, the conductor spoke about bullying and the dangers of bullying in society, relating this to how the man was experiencing his life as a gay man. In this way, the actor believes that the company ‘contained’ the moment.
Sometimes stories such as the previous story very directly place a spotlight on the oppression within the institutions that govern or set the moral compass within society. A story from Taiwan: “A teller ‘came out’ disclosing their sexuality in a public performance and shared the repression of the church.” Whilst the pain of this story was felt by the teller in watching the enactment, the reaction of some in the audience highlights the difficulties that can be faced within a performance when stories are told that go against the accepted ‘status quo’ in a region. The actor from Taiwan goes on to explain that “We performed her deep pain (I was an actor on stage). The teller wept. As I saw, lots of the audience wept too. Some of them left.”
For some in the LGBT+ community, particularly for older people, the invitation to tell stories may open up memories of loss, particularly for those who lived through the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. It can also bring up other deep feelings as demonstrated in this account. This was told by a Playback Theatre leader from Singapore: “A few years ago, I did a series of workshops with gay men with HIV. These stories were also powerful in their own way. Many stories from different stages of their lives were told, but I remember most the anger at partners who transmitted the virus to them.”
When the Playback Theatre gets it wrong: Several people spoke of their experiences where they were left feeling that their stories had been played back as comedic or insincere, particularly where relationships were portrayed.
Comments made included “there’s a cheapening/ignorance of the value, pain and loss of our loves… perhaps it’s because our relationships are not seen as valuable. The Playback was so insincere that I didn’t continue exploring my story in the life of the company as I didn’t trust the company to adequately hear or understand the gravitas of the story.”; “I never trusted them with my relationship stories. They played them back without the sensitivity I witnessed in other stories.”; “I often felt quite marginalised in heterosexual company life. I think they saw LGBT+ stories as having little to do with them and often failed to recognise their own power and privilege as straight people.”
Similarly, another person tells of an experience in which he felt the actors did not fully appreciate and reflect the significance of the moment he spoke about his parents discovering that he was gay. “My coming out story, which is personal because for many LGBT+ people it acts almost as a rite of passage, was presented as a comedy. The audience responded well to it, laughing and laughing. It was good in terms of creativity, but it made me feel rather uncomfortable.”
Playback Theatre in different social and political contexts
Anastasya Vorobyova[iv] discussed with me the paradox that we can easily feel in performing Playback Theatre, especially in countries where we might experience oppression of one kind or another. She reflected on the thoughts of Jonathan Fox explaining “We are committed in our work to accepting everyone as a potential teller and to consider any story, sincerely offered, as worthy. This puts us in the paradoxical position of being non-political (since we have no narrative agenda). Yet our deep commitment to the right of all people to speak and be heard, including those devalued and disrespected by majority groups, is sometimes regarded as highly political.”[iv]
Attitudes towards and the rights of LGBT+ people vary hugely throughout the world. In some countries, even death penalty can be meted out to a person accused of being gay while in some others, same-sex couples can marry and enjoy all the legal privileges associated with any other citizen of the country.
Even in countries where all citizens enjoy the same rights by law and statute, the application of these rights is not always equally delivered. The same would apply not just to those identifying as LGBT+ but also to other groups who may regularly experience oppression and discrimination for example as a result of racism, ableism, etc.
In Asia, Africa and many parts of the Middle East, and Eastern countries of Europe, laws and cultural attitudes can be much harsher than in Australia, America and Western Europe. For example, the attitudes in India are changing as the legislation that provides protection and equal rights for LGBT+ people are progressing. However, in Russia, the Ukraine and some other countries in Eastern Europe, even where legislation may be shifting, commonly held attitudes are still very hostile to LGBT+.
It is important to recognise that attitudes and beliefs can shift in societies over time. It is for this reason that many of us choose to be a part of Playback Theatre and use it as a driver for positive social change.
It is important to remember that whilst laws can change, hearts and minds may take longer. How prepared are our Playback Theatre companies to invite, to receive these stories and to play them back with authenticity and also to manage the audience reaction?
Raising our awareness: Assumptions about gender sit deeply within most of us. We are mostly born and raised in a ‘hetero-normative’ society. A world where the assumption is that boys will grow to assume certain roles in life, girls will grow to assume others. Boys will have girlfriends, later they will get married and have children and live happily ever after! The stories that we are told as children, the learning we receive at school, the messages given to us by media and marketing all reinforce the ‘heteronormative’ world view.
One Playback actor commented, “I remember once I shared a love story during a performance and didn’t mention any gender or name of my partner. But actors made an assumption that this is ‘he’. So, I struggled after this as a teller.”
There can be conflicting difficulties for the conductor: “Sometimes it’s a very tricky moment for a conductor. Don’t ask many questions in order not to push the teller to ‘come out’ in a public performance. It might be not comfortable for a teller, because of the political reasons in the country and intolerance of some of the people. But at the same time, we also need to show we respect LGBT+ rights and have intersectional awareness. How can we do it?”
Welcoming stories from LGBT+ people
Creating a safe space: From this research, key factors have emerged that would appear to support an individual to feel safe and welcomed to reveal their identity as LGBT+, in a space where Playback actors may be able to hear and enact with truthfulness the stories of LGBT+ tellers.
Good Playback Theatre operates within three areas, often referred to as the ‘three circles of Playback Theatre’ – art, ritual and social interaction. When the elements composite in each of the three circles come together well, we experience what is termed as ‘the zone of good Playback’[v]. Within each of these three aspects, there are factors that significantly contribute to the readiness of Playback Theatre to welcome the stories from LGBT+ people.
Social interaction will include event management; the publicity done prior to an event. What are the images used? Are they inclusive and welcoming to all? How does the company signal that it will hold and manage a safe atmosphere where all stories would be welcomed and held respectfully and safely?
It also includes the awareness the company has of the social issues that may be experienced by those who may come to the performance. How is language used to signal and reinforce an inclusive welcome for everybody? How skilled is the conductor to manage conflict that may emerge through the telling of a story, a dissenting voice in the audience? Can the conductor support and hold the emotions of a teller who may feel anxious, or expose deep emotion in the retelling of a story? Are the actors skilled in listening to the deeper emotion or feeling that may sit behind what is sometimes told as a funny story?
Ritual has an important role in maintaining the safety of everyone. It makes clear that there are rules, that the actors, the conductor are able to hold the space. It brings some predictability whilst at the same time ensuring that each individual is given adequate space to share, to be heard and to have the opportunity to give a personal response. The ritual can help to contain ecstatic and deep emotion, it can also help in managing the dissenting or opposing voice. The ritual of the Playback performance can take us beyond the immediate moment of a story, the details of actions to feel the deeper meaning that can be shared and felt by all in the audience and in the event.
Art, the aesthetics of the performance, and the expressiveness and versatility of the actors working collaboratively and spontaneously, transforms moments into magical representations of both an individual’s truth and also connect that truth to the truths that may exist for the wider community. The ability of the actors to express emotion and to play out events without over-dramatizing, making assumptions, generalising or falling into stereotypes, overplaying a comedic element at the expense of the deeper significance of a story, all contribute to the willingness of all in the audience to share.
We have to understand, as Playback Theatre actors and organisers, how we can refine and shape our skills in these important aspects in ways that truly welcome the voices of those from the LGBT+ community.
Playback Theatre values: The basic value underlying Playback Theatre is a respect for all people. Each person’s story can help to find meaning for the personal stories of others as well as the story of the community.
Even in countries where the rights of the LGBT+ community are not protected and there is a very real risk to the safety of the teller in revealing stories about their sexuality, it can still be possible to create a safe space. A company member from one such country described how in their company, “we try never to expose or ask questions that might cause the teller to share intimate details that might hurt them in the future, personally or socially, yet still we are receptive and inviting to whatever they want to share. Tellers are usually very satisfied.” This company had been described as ‘one of the safest spaces for the LGBTQ community in the country’.
Exploring how your company is upholding the Playback values, especially its openness to all members of the community, is an important factor in ensuring the company is working to be inclusive to LGBT+ individuals.
Building trust: The willingness of people to tell their story is fundamentally underpinned by trust. The extent to which we disclose truths about our identity, who we are and how we feel will depend on our trust on those who will receive that story.
What are the elements that build trust?
- Managing the rituals of the space such that it communicates to the audience that they are in a safe space.
- The welcome that is given when the audience or workshop participants arrive.
- The language used by the conductor, the actors, especially avoiding gender related biases and assumptions. Cues given, perhaps in the welcome statement by the conductor, maybe in the opening statement from one of the actors, that reassures an LGBT+ person that the company understands and welcomes their story.
- The presence of company members who themselves identify as LGBT+ is mentioned by a number of companies as a factor they believe to build trust
- Ensuring that there is space for all voices to be heard.
Managing risk: There is risk inherent in the Playback Theatre process as audience members are invited to share personal, and sometimes intimate, stories from their lives. Risk is not a bad thing intrinsically; it is something that has to be managed.
For many, to openly reveal their sexual or gender identity is an issue that provokes deep personal anxiety, particularly in young people who may be living in families where they know, or believe, that they will be rejected or worse. However, there is also the very real danger in revealing your story in countries and cultures where there is the very real threat of physical violence not just to yourself, but also to your family members or to others that you have associated with.
Jonathan Fox talks of the ethical concern of ‘personhood’ and asks the question of companies, “has everyone present agreed the same principle of personhood on which Playback Theatre is based?”[vi] Personhood implies the state of being a human being with rights and moral status. In Playback Theatre, we always aim to treat the teller with ‘sensitivity and openness’.
Inclusive language: Inclusive language with regard to LGBT+ is not always easy. Language is always evolving and changing, preferred or accepted terminology shifts, changes and evolves and there are variations in different countries and regions. At the very least it is good to avoid making assumptions about gender, either for the teller or for those within their story.
Listen to how they refer to themselves and to the important people in their lives. Don’t assume a husband, wife, or partner is of the opposite gender.
It would be important to check with organisations within your own region or country to identify language and terminology preferred in your own area.
Building an understanding of LGBT+ identity, culture and concerns: The actors need to have cultural knowledge. As practitioners, we need to assume responsibility for addressing our own internalised narratives and complicity with the set of beliefs that might be dominant in a particular society. How do we do this as Playback actors? There is a responsibility on all members to consider how they can raise their own awareness, through talking to people, through reading, through their own exploration. Within the company, it would help to make space and time to reflect on how stories have been responded to, whether any stereotypes are emerging or are assumptions being evident. Another valuable source can be local LGBT+ organisations. Companies should take care to ensure that the person identifying as LGBT+ within the company does not get made to feel like the ‘token gay’, or the one with all the answers, or the one who should always be put forward to speak on such issues.
Playback Theatre practitioners should train to identify and bracket their own personal biases, prejudices and psychological projections especially where these reflect the privileged status of the practitioner. This can be done by taking part in training to understand the social dimension of the work that is done and the power relationships within the society. This will help them be aware of oppressions arising from assumed ‘normal’ gender relationships and to be guarded against confirming to what media, advertising, education, religion and state might be reinforcing. Those choosing to take part in Playback Theatre need to take responsibility to understand this within the context of their own country or region.
Working in partnership with other organisations: Working in partnership with other organisations can help a company to work with LGBT+ people. Partnership can also help create safe spaces; spaces where the audience not just shares a feeling of safety and intimacy, but also have the ability to provide ongoing support.
Company life: Companies, where members express some of the most positive understanding of LGBT+ issues, speak of having a diverse membership. Many speak of members within the company who are themselves gay and who regularly share stories of their lives, their love, their pain.
Inclusivity sits at the heart of Playback Theatre values. However, at the same time, it is not always easy to build a truly diverse company. Many companies often struggle in building a diverse company membership, whether it be in terms of racial and ethnic diversity, gender, age, socio-economic differences or sexuality. When only one company member identifies as a member of a particular diverse section of society care needs to be taken that this person does not become seen as the ‘token gay’; consider what needs to be done to ensure that this person does not feel isolated.
The role of the conductor in creating a safe and inclusive welcome: Within the Playback Theatre performance, the conductor has a key role to play. They are responsible for holding the space for the performance, by being aware of the needs of the audience, individual actors and the teller.
There is a responsibility on the conductor to maintain an ethical balance, to offer an opportunity for an opposing view when a story which may reflect an oppressive view is told. To be able to understand when oppressive views, behaviours or language is present, the conductor must themselves understand what might represent oppression within the society and community that they are working with and performing Playback Theatre for.
In welcoming and creating a safe space for LGBT+ tellers, the conductor should consider the inclusiveness of language used. Of critical importance also, is to ensure that they do not ask a question in a way that inadvertently forces the teller to come out. For example, if a teller mentions their ‘partner’ (and the conductor says, what is your ‘wife’s name?) the teller may be pushed into an uncomfortable place of having to either not answer or correct the conductor.
Conclusion- Playback Theatre as a means of social change
How can Playback Theatre play a part in supporting a positive change in attitudes and reduce oppressive practice around the world?
Around the world Playback Theatre companies are striving to open up conversations within their communities and are providing spaces where communities can share and hear the different stories lives and experiences, witness the feelings and emotions as they are enacted on stage and the response of the tellers in seeing their story played back, an acknowledgement that they have been heard.
We will not change the world, but in little ways, we can influence it. Again, and again, through integrity and a mindful approach to what we do, through Playback Theatre, we can help shape the lives of some in our communities, one by one.
I offer below a brief list of things that a Playback Theatre company might wish to consider to create a safe and welcoming place for both actors and tellers to bring their lived experience of being an LGBT+ person.
Key factors to make your Playback Theatre company more LGBT+ friendly:
- Listen to how people describe their own identity, gender, partners and relationships and reflect their choice of language.
- Listen for the ‘heart of the story’ don’t get distracted by gender or sexuality issues unless it is relevant to the story, however, be ready to understand the complexity of issues that can exist for someone who is trying to have a love relationship outside of society norms.
- Avoid making assumptions about a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity: use gender-neutral terms such as partner(s).
- Avoid terms to describe LGBT people which may be derogatory.
- A cautionary note: some LGBT people may have reclaimed derogatory words such as ‘dyke’, ‘fag’, ‘queer’ or ‘tranny’ to describe themselves, but it isn’t appropriate for your organisation to use these words to describe people. As a general rule people should avoid using the label ‘homosexual’ as it is still viewed negatively. Most people are happy with lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender but if in doubt – ask!
- VERY IMPORTANT: Ensure confidentiality to both company members and audiences, unless they personally choose to be ‘out’ themselves. Confidentiality can be a matter of personal safety rather than purely about privacy.
- If you are regularly performing in a venue, is it possible to display a visible non-discrimination statement, for example: ‘our organisation provides equality of services and care to everyone, regardless of people’s age, disability, gender, gender identity, race, religion or belief or sexual orientation.’ Make sure your company members all know what this means!
- Are you in a venue where clear statements on zero tolerance for racist or homophobic language are displayed?
- Does your Playback Theatre company have a formal policy on equality and diversity, and does it make specific reference to sexual orientation and gender? (This may be very important if you are applying for grant funding) Is this available to people?
- Do you monitor feedback from audiences and workshop participants? Are you able to identify from this how LGBT+ people experience participation and inclusion in your company’s work? Important note: If you are asking for any information about sexual orientations, any form used needs to state clearly what the information will be used for. You should also give people the option to opt-out of making a declaration of their sexual identity. Without this monitoring, LGBT people’s exclusion will continue to be ignored.
- If someone has told a story as an LGBT person that perhaps is clearly difficult for them, or perhaps a coming out story for the first time. Is it possible to have a chat with them after the performance, maybe a thank you for sharing your story, a check-in that they feel ok about it?
- If you have company members who identify as LGBT+ do you ever quietly check in with them about how they feel? Are there processes within your company to explore dynamics and relationships generally?
- Explore ways of creatively integrating LGBT+ issues into your work rather than separating them out or having them as an add on.
- Look for opportunities to work with an LGBT+ specific organisation either to provide training for your company or to offer Playback Theatre for a targeted LGBT audience. Note: If doing this having had no prior experience, take time to check with the organisation or do some local research on some ‘do’s and do not.’
[i] Wikipedia, The Stonewall Riots, [internet cited 16/06/2019] Available: //en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stonewall_riots
[ii] Hosking, B. and Penny, C. Playback Theatre as a Methodology for Social Change, Center for Playback Theatre
[iii] Fox, J. ‘Leadership Online Course Lecture notes 5a’, Centre for Playback Theatre, 2019
[iv] Vorobyova, Anastasya. Information provided in response to the online questionnaire for this research, 2019
[v] Dauber, Heinrich and Jonathan Fox, eds. Gathering Voices: Essays on Playback Theatre. New Paltz, N.Y, Tusitala Publishing, 1999
[vi] Fox, J. ‘Leadership Online Course Lecture notes 4c’, Centre for Playback Theatre, 2019
What is my story? What brings me to the ‘tellers chair’?
This is an abridged version of an essay written for my Leadership studies in 2019. Inspired by my own journey, both of coming out as an older man, and from hearing stories of others who remain ‘in the closet’, the essay explores the readiness of Playback Theatre companies and practitioners to invite, to hold and to respond, to the stories from people who would identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT+). I will declare my own bias and interest at this point.
I now identify as a ‘gay man’; however, this was not always the case. I have children, have had two long-term relationships with women who are the mothers of my children. For nearly fifty years of my life, I was seen as and identified as a ‘heterosexual male’. I live in a country where I have seen the possibilities for gay people become more open and accepted. I have been threatened and attacked for being gay here in the UK and at the same time, have been able to walk publicly with my male partner, holding hands and openly showing affection.
I was born in 1960 at a time when in the UK you could be arrested for being a ‘homosexual’, a ‘faggot’ or a ‘queer’. Potentially this could have resulted in imprisonment, shaming publicly in the media, at risk of losing your job. Growing up in a provincial area far away from the cosmopolitan centre of London, England, there were no gay role models that I could identify with. Information could only be sourced through what was taught in school, through hearsay or gossip. There was little information available to help understand what it might be to be gay, to have the possibility to love a person of the same-sex as another and a partner. It was not until 1967 that the law in England began to change allowing sexual relationships between men of 21 and older.
Hiding in the shadows: In 1981 I chose to marry at the young age of 20, I felt happy that I could confirm to people that, yes, I am a heterosexual man. I was now married to a woman so therefore I must be a ‘real man’. But why did I feel this need to convince others that I was a ‘real man’? After an abusive childhood which left me with a legacy of guilt and shame, I stepped into and lived a life as a heterosexual married man. I moved out of one relationship and into another relationship until 2009 when I made the frightening decision to declare my hidden sexuality.
Shame and guilt: I remember the anxiety that I had about coming out. How would this affect my life? What would people think of me? Working as a teacher in schools would people think of me as a paedophile? (for so long, gay men have been referred to as deviants, as sexual predators, so often links are made and publicised in tabloid media about gay men who are paedophiles with the implicit accusation made that all gay men are paedophiles).
Relief: In 2009, I spoke the words openly for the first time, ‘I am gay’. My friends within my Playback Theatre company were among the very first that I spoke these words to. This was no coincidence, we had spent many years together sharing some of our deeper and most meaningful, most painful and most joyful moments, feelings, hopes and desires. Our company rehearsals were a place of trust and safety. Despite this, almost nine years on, it was only then that I chose to speak of how, for years, I had chosen ‘not to tell’ certain stories within our Playback. I spoke of shame, of fear, of embarrassment. A reminder that what is not told, the stories that remain with the audience unspoken, in itself has a deep significance.
Acceptance: Since ‘coming out’ my life has transformed. There are no regrets about this, even though it brings challenges; since stepping out of the shadows and into my true identity, my experiences, the acknowledgement from friends and people that I meet, and most profoundly unreserved acceptance from my children, has been deeply liberating. There is an honesty in how I live my life, how I am seen and can be seen. I am aware that there are times still when I hold back when I choose not to tell, the cultural context remains ever-present, particularly when travelling abroad but also still sometimes here in the UK.
Coming out and the impact on my Playback Theatre life: Coming out has changed my experience within Playback Theatre. I feel more able to express stories of my love and my longing. I can bring myself more fully into the work as an actor, feeling confident to express myself as a gay man on stage. Through leading workshops, at gatherings and conferences exploring LGBT within Playback Theatre, I have been fortunate to be able to meet and network with others and join forces performing Playback together at a deeper level exploring our lives and identities as queer or gay people.
Gratitude: On a personal note, I will acknowledge that the space created within Playback Theatre, both within my own company, Mirror Mirror Playback Theatre, in Playback gatherings and as an audience member with other Playback Theatre companies, helped me to understand my own story. In becoming increasingly aware of what I chose to tell and chose not to tell; it was only a matter of time. My gratitude is deep to those who have stood beside me, made space for my stories and reflected back to me with sensitivity, love and honesty.
Storytelling On Screen, An Online Playback Theatre Archive and Guidebook
By Jordan Rosin and Heidi Winters Vogel, with Sammy Lebron
In October 2021 Virginia Tech School of Performing Arts and Virginia Tech Publishing announced publication of an open education resource consisting of a collection of full-length recordings of online Playback Theatre performances, and a 55-page explanatory guidebook. The guidebook features a foreword by Playback Theatre co-founder, Jo Salas, in which Jo explains the adaptation to online performances and some of the key concepts, roles, and forms involved in online Playback Theatre. The guidebook contains hyperlinks to specific sections of the archive where a given form or concept can be seen in action. The full resource can be found here: //hdl.handle.net/10919/104420
In recognition of the way that online Playback Theatre has flourished since spring 2020, and in order to raise awareness of this rich resource, Jo’s Foreword is reprinted in full below, with kind permission of the publisher and the authors.
The text below was originally published as part of ‘Storytelling on Screen: An Online Playback Theatre Archive and Guidebook’ by Virginia Tech School of Performing Arts in association with Virginia Tech Publishing on 10 October 2021. Licensed CC BY NC SA.
Storytelling On Screen, An Online Playback Theatre Archive and Guidebook, Foreword by Jo Salas
Jo Salas is the co-founder, with Jonathan Fox, of Playback Theatre and the founder of Hudson River Playback Theatre in Upstate New York.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020, Playback Theatre practitioners and ensembles all over the world were stopped in their tracks, along with most of the rest of society. Suddenly it was not possible to do a performance, to participate in or teach a workshop, to attend a gathering, to travel. We could not even meet with our company members. For some of us, the pandemic meant a significant loss of income as commissioned performances and training workshops were abruptly canceled.
But, as the world struggled to adapt to this new reality and Zoom became part of daily professional and private life, the international Playback community adapted as well. Some groups began meeting for rehearsals online. Some offered virtual performances. Training workshops were reconfigured as Zoom workshops. There were even online gatherings and conferences. Despite all that was lost, we discovered that indeed it was possible to meet in an authentic space online and share stories. We found new ideas in the very constraints we faced. We created artistic new forms. This flowering has continued.
Playback Theatre is a grassroots theatre where a team of improvisors enact audience members’ personal stories on the spot, a seemingly simple practice developed carefully over forty-five years. It depends on the successful creation of an atmosphere of trust, respect, and—paradoxically—adventurousness, in which strangers feel both safe and inspired to take the risk of sharing personal experience in a public or semipublic setting. It is up to the conductor (the onstage facilitator) and the rest of the team to build connection, inclusiveness, trust, and openness on the audience’s part to their own and others’ stories. Most often, Playback takes place in informal community settings with an intimate audience of no more than fifty or sixty, with houselights up so the performing team can see the faces in the audience. The show has a recognizable arc: a ritual that serves to hold and weave together the unpredictable stories themselves.
Our pandemic challenge was to re-create all of this in the flat, distanced universe of Zoom, with performers and audience members each in their own little box on the screen, in their own homes, in their own often far-flung locations. Ensembles learned from their experimentation and from that of others: playbackers were generous in sharing their discoveries with each other. Over time, online Playback Theatre has become a viable form. (Not every group or individual chooses to perform online, preferring instead to wait until in-person performing becomes possible again.)
Storytelling on Screen includes some examples of online Playback Theatre performances that show both the possibilities and the pitfalls of this adaptation. Online performances, training, and gatherings are likely to continue long past the end of the pandemic, now that we know they are possible. The archive’s value will be in supporting practitioners who work online from necessity or choice to fulfill the basic promise of Playback: to deliver a human-scale, authentic, and aesthetic experience of hearing and honoring the stories of our audiences.
Performing online holds several advantages and opportunities, as we’ve discovered. A performance is accessible to anyone, anywhere, as long as they have internet access. This has meant that not only are audiences likely to include people from multiple parts of the world, but the performing team itself may consist of performers currently in five or six countries. As well as existing ensembles offering shows, there have also been many ad hoc performing teams deliberately reflecting worldwide diversity. Some have come together for a single show; others formed ongoing ensembles that exist only online, like World Playback Theatre and Pangea Playback Theatre, whose performances appear in the archive.
This new frontier has been a stimulus to creativity—another plus. Practitioners had to adapt long-familiar forms and to create new ones. In Playback’s oral tradition, where new ideas spread from person to person, people learned from what they saw and then tried it out with their own ensembles. By now there is a growing bank of effective performance forms, a sort of ongoing research and development available to and benefiting everyone. Some discovered that solo or duo enactments work particularly well on Zoom, like the two-person response in the Pangea show with a dancer in one box and a spoken-word artist in the other. The sequential solos of “If It Were a Dream” in the Ume show are another example. Companies learned how important it is for performers to be distinguished from audience members visually—with coordinated clothing and neutral backgrounds—as well as with their unfailingly focused presence.
The essential ritual of Playback Theatre is the necessary container for the stories that will come. How to create a sense of heightened occasion and theatrical arc when the show from start to finish is an unchanging set of squares filled with heads and shoulders? How to launch a show gracefully when you must start off with technical information? In the most effective online shows you see an opening ritual that includes Zoom instructions delivered as lucidly and briefly as possible, followed by performers introducing themselves and Playback with sincerity and an artistry calibrated to work on the screen. You see a conductor who holds the ritual at all times. You see actors and musicians who contribute with rhythm and timing of their enactments and the quality of their presence.
Music’s essential role in building ritual and conveying emotion becomes even more important online—and even more difficult to fulfill. Zoom is not forgiving to weak music that might be acceptable in an informal in-person setting. Music at a high level of competence as well as sensitivity greatly strengthens the impact online.
Performers soon discovered the novel potential of doing Playback in your own home: you can grab a household object to use as a prop or a puppet. You can squat under your kitchen table, peek from behind a plant, step outside onto the deck. Occasionally an actor has made creative use of virtual backgrounds, as in the story set in the mountains of Italy in the World Playback Theatre performance.
Zoom itself offers at least two other tools that can be a positive addition. One is the breakout room, creatively used in the Pangea Playback Theatre show as an analogue to the “audience introductions” in a live show when audience members are invited to talk with one or two others. And there is the chat, an effective means of headlining a story or sharing a feeling (as in the World Playback Theatre show) and for building connection (Pangea’s audience members shared locations through the chat). (The chat is not visible in the recordings.)
Lastly, there were some very pragmatic advantages: the ensemble is not paying rent for a performance space. The show is not subject to cancellation because of weather. Publicity is rarely more than a Facebook announcement. And although internet use has its own environmental cost, no one is burning fossil fuels to attend.
With all the very positive impacts and potentials of this new, unexpected development in our practice, there are also considerable downsides as well. Any seasoned Playback company would prefer to be performing in person, where we can see our audiences both as individuals and as the organism that they are, where we are together in a shared physical environment, where people can easily and informally connect with each other before and after the show, where the ritual of the performance is demarcated by use of space as well as time.
The first great disadvantage is Zoom itself. There is simply no way around the awkwardness of the technical requirements. The best we can do is to manage them with all possible dignity, efficiency, and mindfulness, particularly the unavoidable instructions at the beginning of a performance that, if not expertly dispatched, can derail the all-important opening. It is necessary to have a tech person on hand throughout. Even so, problems are inevitable, from the need to constantly remind a laggardly audience member to turn off her camera, to a performer’s internet connection breaking down mid-show.
The Zoom setting brings with it other difficulties as well: audience members get up and wander; they eat in full view of everyone else; some might remain off camera, creating an uneasy sense of being watched by people you can’t see. These behaviors work against creating the atmosphere that Playback depends on.
The other insuperable problem of online Playback Theatre is the impossibility of shared use of space and physical interaction on the part of the actors. Even non-physical interaction is made difficult by the medium. Actors can’t turn and face each other. The bedrock of theatre is interaction: a story comes to life through the interplay in movement and dialogue of actors embodying characters. What do we have when this is impossible? At best we have beautifully expressive sequences of individual action, responding and relating to each other thematically. At worst we have a jumble of unconnected interpretations, with one form looking very much like another.
The absence of three-dimensional space also makes it harder to establish the arc of the show. In person, the Playback performance begins with a ceremonial, interactive opening followed by a period of warm up where tellers share briefly from the audience and performers respond with short forms. Then, typically following audience members’ introductions to each other, there is a key transition: the conductor invites a teller to the stage to tell a longer story, casting its main characters (to be followed by other similarly longer stories and their enactments). The moment is dramatic and signals a building of intensity and engagement. It is hard to approximate this moment on Zoom, particularly if the conductor does not take care to verbally clarify this change. There is no teller’s chair. There is no liminal space to traverse between the audience and the stage.
The conductor must also conduct a story without physical proximity to a teller who may be vulnerable and emotional. In traditional Playback Theatre we conductors sit beside our tellers, we note how they are doing, we can support them if need be. Our inability to do this on Zoom extends to the whole audience: we simply cannot monitor and respond to emotion as we are used to. It raises ethical questions about our responsibility to maintain safety no matter how the stories may turn and deepen.
One more limitation: the vast majority of online Playback audiences so far (to my knowledge) have been other playbackers. While it is wonderful that our community has been able to connect and care for one other in this way, Playback Theatre is meant for a wider population, not to serve only ourselves. Can we reach out online to others outside the Playback world? Can we do good enough work that they, unfamiliar with Playback, will find it convincing and worthwhile?
By now, a year and a half after the pandemic began, online Playback is a sturdy and growing phenomenon. It is effective to the degree that its practitioners are grounded in the highly developed practices and principles of traditional Playback Theatre. It is these practices and principles that must underlie and guide our work in any context.
My hope is that soon we will be able to reunite with our ensembles and our local audiences—and that online Playback Theatre will also continue to grow and thrive alongside the traditional form.
A note to viewers of the archive: traditional Playback Theatre is notoriously difficult to film. The atmosphere eludes the camera. Online Playback is technically easier: instead of multiple cameras, all you do is press “record.”
But the immediacy is still lost. You, the viewer after the fact, are not part of creating the magic. We must watch online recordings with this in mind.
About the author
Jo Salas is the co-founder of Playback Theatre, a performer and trainer, social activist, and passionate grandmother. She grew up in New Zealand and now lives two hours north of New York City near woods and mountains. Jo has taught Playback Theatre workshops in twenty-seven countries and was a keynote speaker at the academic symposiums on Playback Theatre held at the University of Kassel, Germany, and Arizona State University. Jo’s publications on Playback Theatre include numerous articles, contributions to anthologies, a TEDx talk “Everyone has a story,” and three books: Improvising Real Life: Personal Story in Playback Theatre, now published in ten languages, Do My Story, Sing My Song: Music Therapy and Playback Theatre with Troubled Children, and Personal Stories in Public Spaces: Essays on Playback Theatre by Its Founders, co-authored with Jonathan Fox.
Creating Virtual Regional Gatherings – A Toolkit
By Nir Raz
The Covid times presented many challenges across the world, one of them, being the loss of contact with other people from our community. This situation created a new way for connections within the virtual platform (VP). This platform was not developed until recently because the alternative, of meeting face to face, is and has been far more appealing. But now the reality puts us on a road with two options. The first is to make connections through a VP while the second is to not meet at all. After learning how to use a VP and researching how to apply Playback Theatre forms online, I was happy to share my knowledge during several free workshops to community leaders around the world. Gerry Orkin and I co-wrote a complete guide for Playback Theatre in a VP. And with Michael Cheng I cooperated in a community meeting on the topic of ethics in virtual performances. These encounters began my journey into developing virtual encounter under the guidance created by the community.
This article represents the next steps in my vision to join playbackers around the world through the VP Zoom. Zoom became the main platform for Playback because it is free, easy to install, easy to learn the basic features and gave the opportunity to make a performance setting. The idea was to create Regional Virtual gatherings (RVG) of playbackers who speak the same language, have comparable cultural backgrounds and share a similar social agenda. This article will serve as a guide on how to organize a RVG. It’s a step-by-step guide from vision, to the first steps, to the technical details.
In order to base the article on experience, not just an idea, I organized two RVG, one in South America and one in South Asia, working with great partners Helen Marcos from Mexico, Sabrina Francis and Parsapu Suresh Kumar from India and the Gatherings Committees.
The mission of the RVG is to create a place for learning, meeting, supporting and exchanging ideas. In order to develop this safe space, we created the following principals:
- Try to include as many playbackers from the community as possible – we did it by making the price affordable (10$ per person for the two days gathering) the price gave a possibility for playbackers from lower socio-economical status that normally can’t afford to come to International gatherings to join and have an international experience. Also, because it is a VP it solves the geographical challenges that exist in big continents like South America and South Asia. Of course, there were people in places without internet or computers that unfortunately could not attend. We had 250 people from 20 different countries from all South America and Spain, in the first gathering, and 120 people in the South Asia gathering that came from four different countries.
- Supporting the community and giving back – All the income from the gatherings, after minimal expenses go to Playback groups that participated and turned in an application sharing social projects within their community that they as a Playback group would like to get involved in and the gathering gave them the financial support to get started. In this way the fruits of this gathering will resonate after the RVG is over. In addition, by working with other groups of similar regions, we learned how to work with different populations like refugees, children, cancer recovering patients for example. We can enhance and expand our knowledge and at the same time create a space to give this knowledge back within our own communities.
- Costs for a virtual gathering are minimal – Including everything, we were able to keep the costs under $250 and servicing 250 people! So, 25 participants paid for all the expenses, and after some scholarships, all the money went back to Playback groups in those communities. It is important to mention all the organizers and teachers did the two gatherings as a donation to the community and they also paid the gathering 10$ gathering fee. Of course, you may consider giving some presenters a free entrance and to pay the organizing team from the event income.
- Creating a local community of people that have similar values and a strong passion for Playback theatre – our goal was to gather everyone online, and to create a space for people to connect during our two-day workshop. What was completely unexpected, yet a wonderful side effect was the friendships that were born and grew from the VG. I have received many warm emails from people around the world sharing that they connected with a new person that they met at the gathering, from far away or nearby, whom they hadn’t had the privilege of meeting prior to the gathering and have now developed new friendships.
How to Gather an Organizing Team
This stage in the process, in my opinion, is a key point in the success of your gathering. Choosing the right partners is extremely important, though not an easy task because the team needs to form the right balance. Below are some points that are important to take in consideration when you choose your organization team.
Small Team – from my experience the organizing team needs to be small, 2-3 persons max. Working with a small team allows for the decision-making process to go smoothly and quickly. Yes, it is more work for each individual within the team, however, it is also easier to divide responsibilities and to delegate. On a separate note, I tried to do another virtual gathering for a different region and decided to explore and experiment with a larger organizing team, and so I invited a couple of individuals from each country represented. We were a larger organizing team. My idea was to give space to more voices and opinions, and respect that each country is unique and different. Though there was a lot of excitement and passion, and we met several times, the process got stuck and eventually stopped. And the gathering never materialized.
Chemistry and Flexibility – When choosing a partner, you need to check that you have the same goals and that the two of you can be flexible enough to give space to the other person’s thoughts, ideas and opinions. Before choosing a partner to work with, it is a very good idea to discuss expectations and make sure that you are both on the same page. Chemistry is also important because you are going to spend many hours together, so it is imperative to feel comfortable with your partner.
Connection to the Playback Community – it was important to make sure that they are individuals well associated and/or know how to reach the participants. Someone who understands the community and can connect with the group leaders in their region. In addition, they should know the culture in the area, so that they can guide you when needed from not falling into holes and traps during this journey. For example, when I talked with Helen Marcos from Mexico, she explained that in South America there is another form of theater very similar to Playback, called Spontaneous Theatre. In the past, these two communities tried to connect and work together, but it was a little complicated.
Gathering Committee: Because in every community and country there are key figures, for example, leaders who brought Playback to that country, and other individuals who are respected and have a strong voice, it is important to collaborate with them and give them the respect that they have earned, and hopefully they will support your gathering.
Finding the Ideal Date
In order to find the right date for the gathering it is important to check the following things:
- When people from the community are relatively free, maybe weekends are better for these kinds of events.
- Try to see that it is not too close to other Playback events.
- Pay attention to National and local Holidays in different countries because during these periods people are less available and less flexible.
Creating a Logo
Creating a special logo that represents the gathering is a very important visual element which brings the cultural idea of the region:
How We Started
After having the dates, logo, timetable and building the structure of the gathering, it was time to advertise the VG and create registration forms, Workshop offerings, social Project offerings and performance offerings. Links to all of the forms that we had in the South Asian PT gathering are included at the end of the article.
How to Build Every Part of the Timetable
We took into consideration the cultural needs and the capacity of staying online for a long time, and in front of the screen. We gave time to breaks for breathing and absorbing the experiences that the participants had. It is important to take in consideration that is very hard to stay focused for a long period of time in front of the screen so everything needs to be condensed.
Opening Ceremony- We gave the Opening Ceremony 30 minutes. We weren’t sure before the gathering, but we now know that it was a very good decision because it obligated us to be effective and efficient. It started with a blessing from the organizers, we took a moment to thank all the Teachers & Helpers, continued with technical explanations about links, workshops, zoom usage, etc. And, concluded with asking and reminding everyone of the importance of respecting the timings because we had a full schedule and people need screen breaks. We also asked the participants to bring costumes and flashlights to the dance party. We continued with a warm up. We did a Follow the Leader activity with music in the background, and we used the Spotlight effect on Zoom to change the leading participants every few seconds while the others participants mirrored the movement. We finished the opening ceremony with a greeting to all and asking them to enter the first workshop link.
First Workshop- The first workshop lasted 1.5 hours. We divided the participant into small groups based on their preferences, so that every workshop would hold between 12- 15 people. Every workshop had a separate zoom account in order to have the possibility to divide into breakout rooms. It was important to have small groups so that a certain level of intimacy can be developed and felt in this environment during the period of the workshop. We had 9 concurrent workshops by local teachers during this segment.
After the first workshop we gave everyone a 30 minutes break.
Home Groups- Home Group is an ongoing workshop that is facilitated by a senior Practitioner. The idea behind the Home Group is for participants to go through a deep process in a specific topic, while at the same time, create a space for sharing experiences and feelings from the different parts of the gathering. The Home Group got 2 hours on the first day and 2 hours on the second day. The Home Group is attended by the same participants and led by the same facilitator on both days. We chose for the Home Groups the most experienced teachers from each country. The idea behind this choice was to give place for participants to also connect with others and have a free space where they could open up and share and process moments from the gathering.
We gave a 30 minutes break after the Home Group.
Performance- Taking into consideration that we would not need to explain what Playback Theatre to the participants is, and that the audience will come to the performance after a long warm up, we decided that a solid hour was the right amount of time. During this part we offered 3 performances at the same time. Again, participants got to choose which performance to attend. After the performances we moved straight onto the dance party without a break. We figured that people could take a break if they needed, and at the same time we wanted participants moving into something active right away.
Dance Party- Our dance party lasted one hour. You can find a DJ playlist we used in www.mixcloud.com. People came with costumes, flashlights and used different fun backgrounds. From time to time, I used the Spotlight effect in Zoom that changes the focus onto different participants. In this way the people that were with nice costumes or those who danced in a happy way could get the spotlight. And in that way, there was positive energy for everyone!
Debrief- At the end of the first day we had a meeting with the helpers and the organizing team to talk about the second day and discuss any glitches etc. that had come up.
Pre-recorded Interview with Jo Salas & Jonathan Fox- I would like to thank from the bottom of my heart Jo Salas & Jonathan Fox for this open and emotional interview that was made for the gathering participants. The questions were submitted by participants of the gathering, collected before the interview, and the vision behind this interview is that it will be available to anyone holding an online gathering and would like to share it with their participants.ii
We gave this first part 30 minutes for watching the pre-recorded Interview with Jo Salas & Jonathan Fox, (to which we added Spanish subtitles for the gathering in South America), followed by 15 minutes for small group conversations in breakout rooms of 5 people, and finally during the last 15 minutes, one participant from each breakout room shared in a few sentences what came up and was discussed in their small group.
Second Workshop- For the second workshop we invited international teachers. We had 5 teachers and therefore the groups had to be bigger. We dedicated 1.5 hours for the second workshop, and made sure that none of the workshops had more than 22 people. Creating an intimate environment during the workshops gives the participants a feeling of really being part of the workshop, especially since we are really so far away from each other. In the South American gathering we had a lot of workshops offered by different teachers, so we offered workshops by local teachers only.
Participants had a 30 minute break after the workshop.
Home Groups- During the Home Groups, as mentioned earlier, the participants and facilitators were the same during both two hour meetings. In this way groups of people got to know each other better and had a chance to get to know other participants in a more intimate setting. The theme of the Home Groups was the same as main theme of the gathering, while at the same time it was open to a lot of variability and flexibility.
We gave a 30 minute break after the Home Group
Performance- Again, for this performance we dedicated a 1-hour block, taking into consideration there is no need to explain what is PT and in addition the audience has come after a long warm up. Therefore, again, we are able to save time and skip the long introduction and warm up. We again offered 3 wonderful, simultaneous performances by local Playback groups from the same region.
We didn’t give a break after the performance because we wanted the participant to go directly to the closing part of the gathering and not to disconnect or finish their day early.
Closing- We gave 30 minutes for the closing part of the gathering. We started by thanking the Teachers, helpers, organizers and participants. We asked each participant to get a piece of paper and a marker. We gave the participants 5 minutes for this part. Their task was to paint, draw or write what their feelings were about the gathering and what they were taking from it and adding into their lives. After 5 minutes, we put on some gentle music that gave a feeling of hope. We asked the participants to put their art, drawings, words, phrases, in front of the camera.
I used the Spotlight effect in Zoom to change the focus on different drawings every few seconds. Until everyone got a chance to share their feelings on screen. It was very emotional and a perfect artistic closing to the gathering.
Attached are two sample summaries that can give you the idea on how to build them.
The 2 or 3 organizers will be in charge of the technical parts before and during the whole gathering, including troubleshooting any problem that may be presented or brought up by the helpers and group leaders. Organizers can move from workshop to workshop with their video off to check that everything is working out well and that things are progressing smoothly. And in addition to assist in any problem or concern that might come up or question. In addition, all the group leaders and helpers had the organizers phone numbers, and they had access to us if at anytime a problem came up. The more possibilities for communication, the higher the success.
Managing the Zoom Links for each event
So, we are now moving into the more technical details of the conference. Don’t worry it’s really not too complicated!
First purchase Pro zoom accounts, as mentioned above Zoom is the most comfortable platform. You need to get Pro zoom accounts equal to the highest number of workshops. For example, in the South Asian PT gathering we had 9 parallel workshops on one day and 5 on the second day.
However, we needed to purchase 9 Pro accounts for one month. (It is also possible to use Pro Zoom accounts of playbackers who are comfortable sharing their account).
Main Room Pro-account:
If you have more than 100 people, including the conductors and volunteers, then you need to extend one of your Pro-Accounts for more than 100 people. The price of an expansion is under $50. This was the main host account for the Opening, Dance party, Interview and closure. You can use the same account for one of the workshops and Home Groups.
After purchasing all the accounts, you designate each account for different workshops on each day, for specific Home Groups, for performances etc. and then send the designated links to each participant. Google forms can be transformed into excel or another spreadsheet, and in that way the information becomes easily accessible. In addition, then you sort the excel by workshops and then just copy paste onto participants email addresses. Same thing can be done for Home Groups and performances.
You can copy all the email addresses of the participants that are in a particular workshop and send all of them, at once, one email with the workshop name and the assigned link. And then repeat. And repeat, and you are done! Just remember to BCC (blind carbon copy) everyone (to keep participants’ personal information private).
In order to avoid confusion and to keep it simple, we decided to send in advance just the first day links. So, each participant received in advance 5 separate emails. Each one had a specific subject title and included the link for that specific event. For example:
- Link for Opening Ceremony
- Link for the first workshop (name of the workshop)
- Link for the Home Group (name of the Home Group)
- Link for the Performance (name of the performance)
- Link for the dance party
The emails with the links for the second day were sent at the end of the first day.
It is possible to send the participants all the links in one email, but it takes more work to coordinate, and it might create confusion. From our experience the system of 5 emails worked very well even with people who didn’t have any virtual experience.
The helpers are a very important part of the success of the gathering. It is important to choose a group of very responsible people and have at least one or two meetings before the gathering. During these meetings we bonded and developed a level of comfort so that the helpers felt very comfortable asking for anything during the gathering. In addition, we used the time to teach them the technicalities of zoom and our congress, timeline and expectations, troubleshooting tips, gave them their specific job descriptions, and answered any questions they may have had. For each workshop and for performance there was a helper who was there to support the conductor.
Please find below the task list for the volunteers in the gathering
We held a conductor meeting a few days before the gathering in order to connect, share our excitement, bond and develop a connection. We wanted to make sure our conductors felt supported and knew we were always available and in that way they could also support each other and the gathering with passion and enthusiasm. We used the time to explain our goals, the specific timeline we are following, volunteers, technical issues and ensuring any questions are answered. This meeting was very helpful for us as organizers and the conductors felt part of the team. It gave everyone a big picture of the event and the leaders also felt involved and invested in it. By doing this they were better able to support the participants during the gathering.
It’s important to send a feedback form in order to learn from the experience of the participants, teachers and volunteers.
Doing Playback online has become a reality and I believe that it’s something that will continue after the pandemic is over, especially in big countries and continents and also in low socio-economic regions. We are all awaiting live international gatherings to come back soon one day, and they will. However, they weren’t accessible to everyone in the past and they will continue to not be accessible to everyone in the future for many reasons. Some people with less financial resources aren’t able to participate, sometimes because the distances are too great, other times people have personal responsibilities and can’t take the time to travel and even due to limitations in number of participants at a conference.
So even when we start again to travel internationally and meet in person for Playback congresses, there is a space for Online Virtual Gatherings. In my vision every live congress could have a virtual counterpart, where participants unable to attend have an opportunity to participate, have a chance to be part of something wonderful.
Conductors and teachers who give a live workshop can also offer the workshop online. Or some teachers teach in person while others teach online.
Going online opens up a number of issues but I believe that by thinking through the ethical considerations we can find the right balance (for example in relation to privacy and confidentiality).
It is important to acknowledge the challenges and obstacles on the way. Like technical issues (that I hope this article will help you overcome), challenges with people that do not trust that it is time for this kind of gathering, challenges with community leaders that want to have more influence in the content. It is important to remember that you cannot make everybody happy, and the sad reality is that you may have to step on some toes on the way. But, I believe that if you have the big picture and a mission in front of you, good things will happen, and the important thing is to look forward and not let these obstacles overwhelm.
I believe that online gatherings will be part of the landscape in our community in the future especially for big continents like South Asia and South America, for the reasons mentioned earlier in this article. After exploring and understanding that is possible to do Playback online and to host meaningful and successful online gatherings, these give a fair opportunity for some to meet, to listen to stories and to do playback, especially for the people who don’t have the financial resources. So, the online component is here to stay, side by side with the live gatherings.
In this article I present a structure for building a Regional Virtual Group I hope this information will help a lot of visionaries, like me, and you, to build your regional communities. I hope you find within this writing the support you need to bring to life a virtual online gathering.
This tool can be used for groups of similar social and cultural objectives and help communities become closer and stronger and happier. It can also be used for gatherings of groups from different cultures who want to work together and learn from each other. And in addition, it can be used to discuss difficult topics within communities who are struggling and need a safe space to communicate.
My goal is that this article will serve as a toolkit and a checklist that will enable visionaries to create virtual gatherings of all different topics and subjects. In addition, during real life gatherings in the future, I hope that this tool will be used to support a parallel online gathering.
ii If you are holding an Online Virtual Gathering and would like to share the interview of Jo Salas and Jonathan Fox, please email me firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you the interview.
Home Group Offering:
Social Project Offering:
Summary of workshops Day 1:
Summary of performances Day 1:
With the Summaries you send a form of the Workshops, Home Group & Performance Selection. Attached is a sample form:
About the author
Nir Raz is an artistic director, group conductor, stage artist and entrepreneur. He teaches worldwide Playback Theatre, theatrical work with groups and medical clowning. Nir has published several books and articles about theatre and group dynamics. Co-Founder and director of the Israeli Institute of Psychotherapeutic Playback Theatre. A medical clown at the Schneider Children’s Medical Center. Nir’s artistic journey started as an actor and storyteller because he believes that people can deeply engage and connect through stories. In Playback Theatre he found a tool that allows for individuals, communities and even strangers to build bridges and communicate. His passion is meeting and interacting with people!
Code of Ethics for Playback Theatre Trainers and Practitioners
In her footnote to the updated version of the Code of Ethics, Jo Salas states:
“The first version of Code of Ethics was completed in November 2012, as part of building the Centre for Playback Theatre’s Accreditation process for Trainers. This version was then adapted in March 2020 to include all practitioners, with a vision of mindful and intentional ethical considerations in our Playback community.”
As you know, March 2020 was also the start of the global coronavirus pandemic. We therefore wanted to take the opportunity to re-promote the latest version by including it in our first issue.
Elsa Maurício Childs was inspired to write about the Code as the result of an invitation by Will C and Playback in the Port (PITP) to participate in an online panel to reflect on the Code of Ethics, for the first edition of PITP’s ‘Playback Discussions’ in August of 2021. The theme for that event was ‘Is the Code of Ethics Ethical?’
We encourage you to read Elsa’s article as a companion piece to the statement below.
Radhika Jain and Steve Nash (eds)
Code of Ethics– For Playback Theatre Trainers and Practitioners
Using our Code of Ethics, ethically
The Code of Ethics was written by a team of people – Anna Chesner, Jen Kristel, Veronica Needa, and myself – who developed the accreditation program starting in 2011. We based it on the much briefer code that the Centre had been using in PT Leadership, with reference to codes of ethics used by comparable organizations, including the Israel Playback Theatre Network. Accredited Playback Theatre Trainers are asked to explicitly adopt this code, and the Centre now suggests that all of us, accredited or not, use the Code to guide our practice.
As a founder of Playback Theatre, I’m glad to see the Code used more widely. We are a peer-led community: there is no official body that has power or control over our work. It is up to each of us to ensure that what we do as individuals and groups remains ethical.
Although the Code of Ethics is primarily a guide for a practitioner’s or group’s own practice, it also gives a basis on which we can maintain ethical practice in our community. As we take on this shared responsibility, let’s do so with wisdom and kindness. Making accusations and counter-accusations is all too easy. Instead, we can be mindful of creating what the veteran African American activist Loretta Ross calls a “call-in” culture rather than a “call-out” culture[i]. “Calling out”, even when justified, can be harsh and counter-productive. “Calling in” is done in a loving and tactful spirit, without shaming.
Let’s use the Code of Ethics to ensure that our work, our communications, and our collegial relationships are always safe and respectful.
Jo Salas, APTT Co-founder of Playback Theatre
Code of Ethics
For Playback Theatre Trainers and Practitioners
As practitioners and trainers of Playback Theatre, we agree to uphold the following Code of Ethics:
We interact with our audiences, students, tellers, company members, and colleagues with respect at all times. We acknowledge and affirm the integrity of the other party and behave in a way that does not seek to undermine or shame the other. We understand and respect the rituals, traditions, principles, and practices of Playback Theatre, and undertake to acquire that knowledge.
We are open to any story and also ready engage with ethical complexities within a story. We seek to include voices that are often unheard in our communities.
We allow the events of a performance to emerge out of the moment, without being pre-set or manipulated. Stories or tellers are not chosen prior to the show (unless in exceptional situations, which should be transparent.)
We commit to ensuring that we have sufficient training and supervision for any Playback Theatre project that we undertake, acquiring further training as needed. We commit to practicing and/or teaching Playback Theatre at the level of our competence and not beyond.
We promote the human rights of all those present and not present. When necessary, we take appropriate action to address prejudice that may be expressed consciously or unconsciously by a teller or workshop participant.
We strive to maintain respectful, cooperative, and supportive relationships within the Playback Theatre community. We respect boundaries between companies and undertake to be transparent with our colleagues, particularly in areas which may have financial or professional impact, including in relation to financial supporters. We respect each other’s proprietary material including company names, publicity materials, and project descriptions. When companies, training entities, or trainers are in geographical proximity they need to negotiate and respect regional agreements.
Privacy and confidentiality:
We acknowledge that stories told in a performance are not subject to confidentiality. However, we undertake to repeat or write about stories only in a respectful and discreet way.
For trainers of Playback Theatre:
Ethics topics in training:
As trainers, we commit to developing self-awareness and awareness in our students of ethical issues in Playback Theatre.
As trainers, we commit to an adequate level of supervision.
[i] Ross, Loretta, I’m a Black Feminist. I Think Call-Out Culture Is Toxic. New York Times Opinion August 17 2019
Is The Code of Ethics Ethical?
By Elsa Maurício Childs
My first contact with the Code of Ethics was in my initial Playback training, in the beginning of 2017, by the hand of José Marques. It was the 2012 version of the Code, in a Portuguese translation, which, in relation to the 2020 version that we all know, did not have the reference to committing to only practicing Playback at the level of our competence and the whole paragraph on Collegial Relationships, which was a part of the original English text. The 2020 version also includes a fundamental preface which, in itself, raises productive questions for discussing the topic, the main part of which is suggested by the words that introduce the preamble to the Code: “Using our Code of Ethics, ethically”.
Once a Code of Ethics becomes a finished document, it becomes a tool, and tools are not intrinsically ethical or unethical. They are merely instruments that help guide us toward ethical behavior, that is, behavior that is in keeping with a good conduct or system of moral values, defined in this Code as those inherent to the concept of Human Rights. But like all tools, the Code can be used ethically or unethically. Thus the need to preempt the document with this seeming tautology – “Using our Code of Ethics, ethically” – which seems to reveal this a priori (and correct) assumption that the Code of Ethics is not inherently ethical, is not ethical by itself, without the choices performed by the subjects who use it.
One of the characteristics of ethical behavior should be its incorporation of critical reflection. The Code of Ethics should embody this in the first instance. Documents that are set to guide future actions and not just present actions should be recursive, that is, one should be able to step outside the document without ever stepping outside the spirit of the document. The document itself cannot and should not be taken as the last word on matters of ethical behavior. It is a map towards ethical behavior, but also one that allows us to keep drawing this same map as new terrain emerges.
The subtitle “Using the Code of Ethics, ethically” points to a self-reflective, critical perspective on the ethical nature of the Code – embedded in the Code itself.
Any Code of Ethics is also, inherently, a political gesture, in the sense that it mediates decision-making processes within the community of individuals that is supposed to uphold it. Inherent to the nature of any Code of Ethics is also, then, the notion that it involves a relationship between an I, a subject, an individual, and another subject, an other. In the case of Playback in particular, which is defined at its core by the representation of otherness, as we are acting out the stories told by others, so the whole question of the relationship to otherness becomes absolutely central, whoever this other may refer to, with all the implied diversity that this entails. At the same time, as Will C points to in his interview with Noa Leibu for her podcast Playback Theatre Talks[i], while telling the story of a culturally diverse audience being driven to tears by a performer’s gesture, Playback Theatre aims at finding what I call emotional universals, metaphors that may tell us all, at the same time as it retells the individual stories of beings necessarily diverse from those who enact them. Given the fact that Playback does this through improvisation, through emergent communication, without a pre-analyzed or pre-approved script, the possibility of miscommunication with the other should be a major concern for our community and, thus, for our Code of Ethics as it tries to guide us into choosing to act ethically. And especially in a moment in the history of the world where multi-cultural encounters seem to have become the norm of our Playback practice.
Here I want to quote what Will C said in an interview with Anisha Pucadyil and Laxmi Priya for the Improv Boost[ii], when he underlined that we “have to actually seek out difference aggressively and incorporate that into our design”. This reminded me of Audre Lorde’s essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”[iii], when she says “difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening… Community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist” (110-111). Thus the necessary presence of the clauses on Inclusiveness and Human Rights in the Code of Ethics, which, to me, are the most important ones, even if further and deeper elaboration on these issues within the Code is clearly warranted, given their centrality for the work we do in Playback. Thus also, I am guessing, the brief reference to the need to “act in a way that does not seek to undermine or shame the other” in the first clause of the Code on Respect.
I would also quote Nick Rowe on the centrality of the relationship with otherness in Playback, in his chapter “The Ethical Limitations of Playback Performance”[iv], whose reading I highly recommend. With the help of literary critics and philosophers, from Terry Eagleton to Lévinàs, and the work of other playbackers, Nick Rowe underlines that “the question of ethics concerns the face-to-face ‘disposition’ toward the other”, that “[e]thics concerns how we are ‘disposed’ to the other, not a ‘position’ which is closed and non-relational”, since “a sustained awareness of the irreducible otherness of the other … [i]s an attitude essential in playback performance” (151 and 156).
As it stands, the Code of Ethics does not sufficiently emphasise the absolute centrality of the other in the ethical choices we make when we do Playback. Instead of expanding on the centrality of diversity by including further considerations on this topic it all too quickly jumps to secondary questions on training and competence. Examples would be:
- the necessity for us to acknowledge one’s own privilege in terms of gender, race, culture, language, age, sexual orientation;
- the need to help create brave spaces for risk taking while being mindful that risks may be more consequential for some than for others;
- the need for constant self-education, beyond Playback, on questions of multicultural communication, political and economic history, social structures, identity politics and power relations.
This seems to me to be the way to mitigate the inevitability of our own blind spots when it comes to interacting with others – as human beings in general, and also as trainers, conductors, leaders and performers with the utmost responsibility of respectfully telling as the other.
[iii] Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”. 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110- 114. 2007. Print.
[iv] Rowe, Nick. Playing the Other: Dramatizing Personal Narratives in Playback Theatre. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley. 2007. Print.
 For those interested in digging deeper into this matter, I would recommend a consideration of the history itself of the creation and re-creation of the Code of Ethics, as it evolved from Jonathan Fox’s original brief statement on this matter, to its first existence as a full document developed by a CPT committee, in the context of the
accreditation program, after which it started being more generally considered as a set of guiding principles to the Playback community at large, and, finally, to the 2020 and current version of the Code. This revision came in the aftermath of the 2019 Conference, where the Code was evoked to address certain ethically problematic situations, giving rise to a long discussion on the question of the Code of Ethics between the CPT and the IPTN on whether the latter should formally adopt the code or not. I would like to thank Jo Salas for discussing the history of the Code with me and the importance of retracing it when addressing the text.
 It is noteworthy that this is the only clause of the Code quoted as reference in the document on the Ethics of Online Playback Theatre – although it is recognised that this is very much a work in progress.
About the author
Elsa has been practicing Playback since 2017, completing the first two levels of training with the Iberian School of Playback Theatre, with which she cooperates regularly as a performer, and advanced practice training with Jo Salas. In 2018, Elsa founded her own Playback company, InVerso, made up of professional actors. She is also a founding member, performer and trainer with Projecto Eco and part of the international online Playback group Perspektives. Elsa has done multiple in-person and online Playback Theatre workshops and training with some of the most experienced playbackers in the world. She tries to bring poetry, dance and a deep aesthetic awareness to her practice. Elsa also works as an actor, an assistant stage director, a producer and a writer in non-Playback theatre. She is one of the founding members of A Corda, a non-profit cultural association that creates multi-disciplinary works crossing Theatre, Music and Literature, and one of the founders of the feminist group Eufémias, who created the Eufémia Festival: Women,Theatre and Identities.
Conferences, Performances and Events
The Adventures of Bengaluru
By Rajesh P.I
Preparing the bid
Context: Playback Theatre is less than 25 years old in India. Over the years, as Playback Theatre steadily grew in India, news of the various IPTN Conferences would reach us through IPTN journals and also through the sharing of a few Indian Playbackers who were lucky enough to get a scholarship to attend these Conferences, held on other continents. The allure of the immense learning that these Conferences provided and the ability to network with Playbackers from around the world was irresistible.
In 2017 February I took on the role of India & South Asian Representative of IPTN. It was around the same time that IPTN had announced bids to host the 2019 Conference. The deadline was 31 March. Being the regional representative gave me the confidence that I could go ahead without going through what could have been a cumbersome process, for various reasons, of consensus building among the Playback leaders in India. So, I decided to move forward single-handedly and conveyed the same to IPTN.
With regards to volunteers, I have always had the support of a large community in my theatre group – The Actors Collective. I was sure that support was never going to be an issue. We had enough and more volunteers to support the event. It also helped that the team comprised members of diverse ages and backgrounds who provided a much-needed perspective when required.
Scouting for a location: I have lived my entire life in Bengaluru. It was the erstwhile garden city of India, now the Silicon city of India. It also has the most pleasant weather in India. There was no doubt in my mind that while bidding, the event needed to be hosted in this city. Here is where I felt most confident about. I had support here. Doing it in another city would be very difficult for me. So along with a few of my group members we scouted the city for a hotel that would provide accommodation for about 500 delegates and also the space for various workshops to be held simultaneously. This was about 20 large rooms for workshops and Conference needs. We visited the biggest hotels in the city, and we discovered that they did not have the necessary infrastructure to host an event of this magnitude. It was very disappointing.
Once we had exhausted searching for locations in the heart of the city, we started looking for space around the Bengaluru airport. The airport is situated about 30-40 kms away from the city. We would be able to make ends meet, but the distance from the city was a dampener. Delegates would be cooped up far away from the sights and smells of Bengaluru. The idea was not appealing, and we were at our wits end.
Another idea that emerged was to have the Conference around the metro line. To use the efficient metro system that the city had and to locate multiple venues in hotels and spaces in and around the metro line. It would have required extensive orientation for the delegates about the metro lines in the city. That idea was nixed as it was felt that it could prove too cumbersome and very uncomfortable for delegates during peak traffic times to ride the metro.
Two cities and a train: I had a dream of hosting the event in my native state Kerala. In a discussion with a dear friend, a French expat staying in Bengaluru, a suggestion emerged of an option to host the event in both places – Bengaluru and Kerala. The idea occurred to host the first two days in and then for all delegates to travel by a day train, lasting 8 hours, to Kochi, to spend the last two days there. The train would become a symbol of a shared experience of multiple conversations, journeying together and spending great quality time with each other. I believed that all the Conference objectives to get people together would be achieved by this master stroke.
Along with a team member, I visited the Railways office and got information that it was possible to hire a train with our own dedicated stops, pantry et al. The costs for this were manageable as well and so the idea was beginning to take shape. But we still needed a good venue in Bengaluru, in the absence of which the idea was a non-starter
This was around the time that I visited Fr. Biju at Christ University to discuss something else. At the end of the meeting, in passing, I happened to mention about bidding for this Conference and how I was struggling to find a venue in Bengaluru. His eyes lit up and he immediately shared, ‘we can host it here so please bid for it!’ I felt a sudden surge in energy and was thrilled to hear the news. Christ University had the infrastructure we were looking for.
While creating the bid, I felt we must give three options for the consideration of IPTN. Option 1 was hosting it in Bengaluru itself, at Christ University. This ensured we would have four full days for the Conference and one day to acclimatize. It seemed a very safe option. Option 2 was the two cities with a dream train journey idea. This was also doable. Option 3 was to do the event entirely in Kochi. This was a tough option for us, but it gave us access to some of the most beautiful places in the world.
Armed with these three options, we sent our bid with a prayer and patiently waited for the IPTN board to decide.
Winning the bid
As I got to understand from Brian Tasker (then Board member of IPTN), Russia and the Philippines were the two other bidders. He mentioned that couple of things worked in Bengaluru’s favour. One was its geographical location with easy accessibility to many in India as well as to those from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal; places where Playback Theatre was established and whose people’s access to the wider world can be restricted. Also, the Indian visas were easier to procure than visas in the western world, the conference in Montreal being a case in point as many were denied the visa.
‘WE GOT IT!!!’ three words that woke up 100 odd members of a WhatsApp group at midnight. We had conquered the world. A two-decade dream was bearing fruit for me, personally. Nothing could get better than this! There was intense celebration and jubilation. Bengaluru had just won the bid to host the 10th IPTN Conference. Our dream had just come true. It was a very intense feeling. The victory was even sweeter when we got to know that we had outbid two others for the Conference. We had won round 1 and the journey now lay ahead of us. I knew that I had to handpick my team with care. This was not a short burst, but a marathon that we were talking about. Temperament, focus, passion, involvement, sincerity and consistency were traits I was looking for in my team of volunteers. Everything else was secondary.
Our communication with IPTN was through Emails and Skype calls. Our first Skype call with the IPTN Board happened on 17 May 2017. A small core team of volunteers and I interacted with the board. The first meeting was more about getting to know each other and setting the ball rolling. We met Brian Tasker and Christian Faber – two outstanding gentlemen who would be on this journey with us representing IPTN. While we had a large team of about 30 volunteers and more, waiting in anticipation, we felt that to facilitate quick decisions we would require a small core team. Sunil Vijendra and I, along with Brian and Christian became this core team.
IPTN offered us a loan advance of 5,000USD for initial expenses, but we did not accept it. In the interest of financial transparency, we agreed that it was better that all payments (incoming and outgoing) were routed through Christ University. The University had a very robust audit system like most reputed institutions, and we were keen to leverage it. From an auditing perspective this was a sound move and would help us in the efficient running of the Conference and at the same time, help us track every penny.
Gender representation: I was hoping that a woman representative/s from my group would join this core team, however the responsible and capable women that I had in mind, did not have the time or space to meet the demanding nature of being a core group member. At that time, the more mature & capable Playbackers were in their early 20’s. Others were fairly new or not active. For this age demographic, planning for something for two years was simply incomprehensible. They were unsure of their own life plans in the next 3-6 months and did not want to be tied down to Bengaluru for this event. Likewise, Brian and Christian tried to get a woman Board member from IPTN to join us, but that search also did not bear fruit. We started off as four men in the core group and continued that way right till the end of the Conference. Although, eventually, my team of volunteers consisted of 8 women and 7 men.
The Bengaluru option: The IPTN board settled for the option to have the Conference entirely in Bengaluru. Although the two-city option with a train journey in between was very exciting, the only reason for not pursuing that idea was that a large number of delegates were in the age group of 55 years and above. It was felt that from a health perspective and keeping in mind the demographic of the delegates, it would be safer to have the event in Bengaluru alone. In addition, Christ University as a venue was perfect for the Conference. It was easily accessible as it was located in the heart of the city. The airport was an hour away and accessible through dedicated airport buses and taxis. Christ University was a fairly large campus with a great tree cover and the sounds of the streets were fairly muffled within the campus. The security was great, and outsiders had minimal access. There was also the option of providing great accommodation within the campus for about 200 delegates. All of this made the Bengaluru option the most feasible one.
Finalizing the Conference dates in December: We zeroed in on early December 2019 for the Conference. This was keeping in mind that the weather was most pleasant in Bengaluru at that time. It was neither too hot nor too cold. Moreover, it was before the Christmas holidays so if people wanted to make a holiday of it, the opportunity presented itself naturally. We hoped that this would encourage more delegates to visit India and travel quite a bit.
Celebrating diversity, encouraging diversity: While bidding for the Conference, we came up with the theme Celebrating diversity. In our preparatory discussions, Brian suggested that we add Encouraging diversity to it. His reasoning was that it was not enough just to celebrate but to include the mindset of ‘encouraging’ which was a step ahead from merely acknowledging or celebrating. Our positioning of this theme was also in relation to India which was a perfect example for this theme. A melting pot of cultures. Multiple ethnic groups living with great harmony for thousands of years. A complex ecosystem of myriad languages, cuisines, cultures within one nation. The diversity was mind boggling. So, it was natural that the theme of the Conference should reflect the essence of the land.
Learnings from previous Conferences: Over the years, in different Conferences the aspect of conflict has reared its ugly head upsetting the flow and ‘hijacking’ the course of the Conference. It has left delegates divided and disturbed. Whether in Frankfurt or in Montreal it has never been addressed for what it is. International politics has consistently invaded Conference spaces, dividing delegates over issues beyond the purview of Playback Theatre and certainly not in the hands of the Conference organizers. Interestingly, over the years, while these events have had a stranglehold on the respective Conferences no one has been able to address them either way and usually these issues ended up being brushed under the carpet. In hindsight, people remembered the Conference for these things and not what a Conference organising committee had painfully tried to present. As an Organizing team, we wanted to make a difference to this narrative. Our approach was simple and direct. We had the responsibility to ensure that all stakeholders’ trust in us was validated. We wanted a healthy Conference where the focus was exclusively on Playback Theatre. The theme – Celebrating diversity, encouraging diversity; was exactly suited for this purpose. All voices were equally important for us. We would encourage different voices in a supportive and healthy manner. We would take all steps to ensure that we don’t shy away from challenges but face it. It was time for IPTN and the Conference organizing team to take back the narrative.
Using the expertise of Armand Volkas in this regard was a master stroke. Armand, who is the Director of The Living Arts Counseling Center in U.S.A uses action methods for social change, intercultural conflict transformation and intercultural communication. His contribution in mitigating conflict, we felt, would be the balm that the Conference needed. We factored in pre-Conference workshops with him and his group – Living Arts Playback Theatre, a presentation on stage as a part of the inauguration function as well as workshops within the Conference itself.
The planning phase
Organizing the details of the programme schedule: We decided that the event would be spread over 5 days from 4-8 December with an inauguration ceremony on the 4th evening. This would be followed by performance by The Actors Collective – the host group.
We arranged the schedule such that each day would start with an outdoor warmup activity, followed by Home group sessions in the first half and different workshops in the second half. We retained the idea of the Home group from previous conferences as it would help delegates to work consistently with set groups. The evenings were to be dedicated to performances from various groups.
Conference Party: The idea of a conference party, a highlight of all conferences, was discussed. But owing to restrictions at the venue, around time and alcohol permits, we decided to forgo the idea of a party from western perspective. Instead, we planned on using that time in the late evening to be a celebration of Indian culture, art and food supporting the local customs.
Sight-seeing options in and around Bangalore: To enhance the overall experience, we planned to encourage delegates take in the sights of the city and other places close by. We wanted to be able to give delegates information that they could use and so planned to share information on the internet through the Conference’s Website, Instagram and Facebook accounts. We also tied up with two local tour operators for this purpose.
Translation: With such a diverse community, the need for translators is a huge need when organizing a Conference of this nature. When we explored locally, we found that translators charged a premium in Bangalore. We opted to approach this issue more creatively. We decided that the translators could be within the delegate community and in the respective homegroups, each homegroup leader along with their respective groups could identify potential volunteer translators who could do the needful.
Memorandum of Understanding: At the planning stage, we drafted a three-party MoU document – between Christ University, The Actors Collective and IPTN – that would lay out the roles, expectations, and act as an overall guide.
Pricing the conference
Brainstorming on costs: We had lots of brainstorming on the topic of pricing for the Conference. When we listed down, the major portion of the expense was towards the venue and food.
The Christ University as venue: After deliberation when the IPTN board decided Bangalore as the venue, the Finance team volunteers met the Christ University Finance team to understand additional information and requirements around all aspects around funds. This included receiving funds, payment for expenses, auditing and finally returning the excess amount back to IPTN for scholarship purposes for the next conference.
Refining the cost: As we were getting closer to the event, it was time to announce the delegate fee and some early bird options! This is where the ‘finance team’ started breaking down the potential expense list to a more granular level. We looked into the cost of the venue, food (including the Conference party) and the conference kit. From a venue point of view one of the big savings offered by the Christ University was that it was made available at free of cost. In addition, since we approached the vendor list provided by Christ University, we received good discounts even from premium vendors for food and Conference kit. This helped us in bringing the cost of the delegate fee down by around USD 100 for the early bird offer. The final offered rates were USD 255 and USD 295 as Early Bird and Full registration fees. And discounts offered were – 10% for IPTN members, 20% for regional representatives and workshop leaders and 50% for Homegroup leaders.
Registrations and Scholarships: We had a total of 300+ early bird registrations for the conference! And more with the full fee. We provided full scholarships utilizing the scholarship fund from the previous conference and from the current conference income from paid delegates. After all the expenses the additional money was sent to IPTN to be utilized for scholarships for future conferences. Apart from these funds, a fund-raising initiative initiated by the Australian Playbacker, Gerry Orkin added to the Scholarship fund.
To have fair assessment of scholarship applications, the core committee decided it was important to have an independent committee from previous Conference organizers from across the globe to review and approve the scholarship application. The Scholarship committee did a great job in reviewing the application and an independent committee ensured an unbiased decision on the scholarship decision. The total scholarships awarded were about 32.
In this context it must be mentioned that due to the Organizing Committee’s desire to have Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas as our VIP guests, it was decided that we would finance their airfare from the US to Bengaluru and take care of their accommodation, food and all other expenses. This was the least we could do for the founders of Playback Theatre.
Meeting with Indian groups: While we could provide a subsidised rate to Indian and South Asian groups, because of proximity, some Indian groups still felt that the amount was too high. The core group, after careful consideration of running costs, felt it would be very difficult to offer further concessions. However, we decided to offer more scholarships to Indian and South Asian groups. However, some groups were still not happy with this, and we were in no position to meet the request for further concessions. We offered a unique opportunity to the larger Indian Playback Theatre community to interact with Jo Salas and Jonathan Fox in an exclusive one-day workshop that would be held a day before the Conference. We felt that this would be an opportunity for the larger Indian community who were unable to attend the Conference.
The Visa Conundrum: India was primarily chosen because the expectation was that we would have fewer visa issues if at all. The previous experience at Montreal, where a liberal country like Canada had refused visas to some delegates especially from Sri Lanka came to mind. We were hoping that experience would not be repeated. Moreover, Christ University had organized many international conferences and we were under the assumption that they would be able to help out in a big way.
However, what we did not realize until too late, was that the Visa issue had its own complexities in India. Some delegates were refused visas on technical grounds. Our attempts to negotiate through Christ University were not always successful. Some delegates were denied visas while with others, the Indian Government made exceptions and approved after initially denying visas. Much of our energy was taken up by the visa issue. Future Conference Organizers must bear in mind that Visa related decisions are state matters and as individuals and even at an organization level, there is very little they can do. To make amends, although it was never our fault in the first place, we ensured that we refunded the visa fees paid by the delegates who were denied visas. Delegates did get back to us to convey their gratitude and that our action had somewhat helped them tide over the disappointment of missing out on the Conference.
The book and the academic aspiration: Playback Theatre around the world: Diversity of Application was conceived to commemorate the Bengaluru Conference. Submissions were invited and among those who responded, eleven authors were chosen as contributors from Brazil, Cuba, France, Hungary, Greece, India, Israel, Lebanon and Ukraine. The topics range from working with women as mothers, professionals impacted by violence and caregivers, children in conflict with law, chorus, education, conflict zones and mental health among others, altogether a comprehensive study of Playback Theatre in action. The book was edited by Brian Tasker and Dr. Baiju Gopal from Christ University. The book is currently available on Amazon.
Lodging: Compared to previous conferences where delegates had to travel between their lodging to the Conference venue and sometimes between different Conference venues, the Bengaluru Conference was special because we had moderately priced lodging at the Conference venue itself.
Moreover, there were many hotels within a radius of a kilometre or two where delegates could stay if they chose to.
Volunteers: The Actors Collective had a set of volunteers along with the students from Christ University who were all thoroughly briefed about how to conduct the various parts of the Conference. They acted as guides, provided information, co-ordinated, did the running around and played a stellar role in being the backbone of the Conference. Their sincerity and drive were certainly commendable.
Incidentally, from the Organizing team, a few of the volunteers could not participate in any of the Conference events. They made a courageous choice to stay with their administrative responsibilities so that others may experience the Conference unhindered. Unfortunately, this was necessary to ensure the smooth running of the Conference.
Honouring our mentors: One of the most moving moments of the Conference was the moment we honoured the pioneers in India for enabling Playback growth here. The fact that they were all women added to the sheen of the event. They were Bev Hoskings (who had brought Playback Theatre to India along with the now deceased Mary Good), Sr. Clare and Christy who were the first Indians to watch a Playback Theatre performance at a World Women’s Conference in Beijing and invited Bev and Mary to visit India to train Indians in Playback Theatre.
Performances: Many groups expressed their desire to perform in the Conference. As much as possible we gave an opportunity to a diversity of groups. The opening performance for the delegates was provided by the host group – The Actors Collective. From the second evening onwards, there were multiple performances happening simultaneously in different spaces in the University. Delegates had access to a variety of styles of Playback Theatre on display. Care was taken to ensure that no country dominated but that there was an equal opportunity to see a global palette of styles and influences in Playback Theatre performances.
On the evening of the grand dinner, we had a Playback Theatre performance performed by the Vozdukh Centre and which was conducted by Jonathan Fox. All in all, there was a rich display of Playback Theatre work throughout the Conference.
Managing Expectations: India is a country in the process of growth. Very many things that are taken for granted in the western world, may appear a luxury here. Managing expectations became a huge part of our work as organizers. Conducting an international Playback Theatre conference in India brings forth its own opportunities and challenges.
A glitch in the room registration system at the University meant that some delegates originally who were promised a room at the University were offered the same at the other branch, 11 kilometers away. However, this aspect came to light at the last minute and we were hard pressed while dealing with it. To assuage the feelings of the delegates and to make their experience comfortable, the University went out of its way to provide a bus, free of cost to transport the delegates back and forth.
Not all the Conference venues had air conditioning, and this was a dampener for the delegates used to air conditioning in their own countries. Bengaluru has the most pleasant weather in India, and we have a history where we rely more on fans than air conditioners. Delegates experienced a need to adapt to the available infrastructure. In that sense the Christ University infrastructure was among the best that we could source in Bengaluru and probably in the country even.
What can we learn?
This journey of two years was made up of so many calls, emails, long meetings, and above all, a lot of dreams. We knew it was not to be a paid assignment but were keen to do it for the larger community, and against all odds.
There were some difficult and unpleasant interactions with some people from the Playback Theatre fraternity. As a community, we can try to be more supportive of the host team and less disruptive.
The element of Racism did play up with our volunteers experiencing some bad behaviour on this account. The existence of racism is something the Playback Theatre community should be cognizant of and strive towards eliminating.
On the opening night, we were criticized for lack of women representation on the dais for a programme. This programme was organized by Christ University, and we had nothing to do with it. Yet we were criticized for it. What was sad was that the whole thing played out on social media when a simple conversation with us would have cleared things up. Together we could have sat together and worked out what we could do differently in the rest of the Conference.
The harassment continued on social media even after the Conference, with criticisms, unsubstantiated allegations, and unwarranted comments. We didn’t react. This kind of harassment doesn’t sit well with the ethics of Playback Theatre and its community. In the name of activism, there seems to be a growing trend of bullying, harassment and tearing down of reputations.
This raises questions on inclusivity, empathy, and compassion – aspects seen in the workshops conducted by so many brilliant Playbackers only to vanish on social media. The international Playback Theatre community must introspect.
It must also be noted that many delegates wrote back to say with mostly positive feedback.
At the end, a thank you note is in order and as the Indian Playback Theatre Host of the Xth International Playback Theatre Conference, I must share my gratitude to the team that made it happen. Firstly, I want to thank these fantastic people who co-created this Conference – Brian Tasker, Christian Faber, Fr. Biju, Fr. Lijo, Padmakumar, Sunil Vijendra, Honey Raza, Anshul Jhambani, Vibha Kamath, Sneha Jacob, Sannidhi Surop, Baiju Gopal, Siddhant Dhimaan, Vivek Purushothaman, Shraddha Modi, Nisha Bhimaiah, Felix Hartley, Suraj Makhija, Jibrael Jos, Swathi Kumar, Sangeeta Goel, Riya Soni, faculty, and student volunteers of Christ University.
Meeting space support – Mansee Shah Thard and Lahe Lahe.
Initial support – Akash Narendran, Laxmipriya, Rashmi Ravikumar, Deepti Bhaskar, Sneha Nagaraj, Sneha Abraham, Anju Ann Mathew & Anumita.
Overall background support – IPTN Board under the leadership of Jori Pitkanen, Ashwita Goel, Bernie (my four-legged friend who bid me goodbye once the Conference was over) and my mom. To all the wonderful people from around the world who supported us and encouraged and thanked us, much love to you.
Where will this Conference go from here? Whoever takes it up must be prepared for all the good and the bad that will come with it. We wish you well.
(Framework for article provided by Christian Faber. Written by Rajesh P.I with inputs & overall suggestions from Brian Tasker – Winning the Bid from the perspective of the IPTN board, The Book and the Academic Aspiration & Sunil Vijendra – Pricing the Conference.)
About the author
Rajesh P.I is a Playback Theatre practitioner for two decades now. He is the Founder and Artistic Director of The Actors Collective. Apart from theatre, Rajesh is a Reiki healer, animal lover and regards kindness the greatest gift of all.
Open Space: An Oasis for Playbackers to Refuel
By Anisha Pucadyil
It has been a year and a half (since June 2020) of hosting online ‘open space’ inspired gatherings for Playbackers. This initiative is one of a number of online activities that grew in response to the almost endless series of lockdowns. We found ourselves in once the pandemic hit our respective homes. It was intended to create some space for people to bring their own playback-related topics to the table for discussion. The Playback Open Space online sessions were initiated by Johanna De Ruyter and Gerry Orkin (from Australia) on Zoom adapting the format from a widely used facilitation approach called Open Space[i]. The principles of Open Space are that whoever comes, whatever happens, and however long it takes is what is meant to be. It invites participants to suggest topics and then creates spaces and times for those topics to be explored by whoever wishes to.
Early in the series of sessions, Laxmi Priya and I (from India) got involved in helping with the tech of managing the sessions including creating spontaneous breakout rooms, as it became clear that online facilitation benefited from a bigger team. Over time we have taken turns in other roles including holding space. We were enthusiastically joined in 2021 by Elsa Childs (from Portugal) and Johnnie Jablonka (from Australia) bringing poetry and music to sessions and allowing more sustainable sharing of roles in the team.
For me, my passion for the sessions has been sustained by the joy of discovering Playback Theatre online and the connections developed with Playbackers from around the world. Playback Theatre is a form that can’t be learned in isolation; however, the actor needs to create their own path of learning. The sessions provided one less structured forum to help one speak about that with which one is currently curious and alive.
The process of a Playback Open Space online session starts with acknowledging all the wonderful people in the room. This is followed by a short check-in where people meet in groups of three and four. We then try to create a safe space for participants to share topics or questions, by listening closely and listing then setting up breakout rooms for each topic. We then explain the Open Space principles and process including the ‘law of two feet’, encouraging participants to stay in a conversation only as long as they feel served and inspired by it. There is always a room/lobby kept aside for those who would like to spontaneously share stories and watch them be played back or practice conducting or playing back. The overall session is planned for about two hours long with two thirty to forty-minute breakout sessions. At the end of the first session, we regroup in the main room to listen in to summaries from different rooms. This helps to build a shared ecosystem of learning and exchange. People may decide then to continue on the same topics or start with new ones.
The themes are varied and rich across the sessions, from team building and conflicts in groups to skill building for online teaching and training to ethical dilemmas in pursuing Playback Theatre as an art form. The sessions have also provided room for brainstorming and improvisation in the discovery of new forms or tweaking familiar ones. Intergenerational learning based on curiosity was most moving and kept me coming back again and again.
Recently when I had the opportunity to meet Victoria Needa (London, UK), she observed the difference between the expectations of an audience for an Open Space event where the agenda is set by participants and a playback jam session where the team and the conductor set the themes and bring the audience in. It is possible these online sessions can democratize some of the ways we connect as playbackers internationally. It also seems fitting and fills a need – for Playbackers to have a space for rest, sharing, and learning through reflection in the midst of all the space-holding we do as conductors, actors, musicians, and tellers.
The circles of resonance have rippled wider and the flowing circle of participants from different parts of the globe has enriched each of the short but fulfilling virtual interactions. One participant noted that they enjoyed the excellent facilitation and the small enough group to create a good working atmosphere. The possibilities of cross-pollination of ideas, techniques, to connect us more deeply and make every Playback Theatre performance more successful has demonstrated how such forums can be invaluable resources for practitioners.
It is important to note that as the world was forced into isolation, we were all affected by it differently. Some of us live in communities where people faced major health risks and lost income, each of us knew someone who lost a family member. Some (including the organizers) were privileged to not worry about where our next meal would arrive. We came with different languages, genders, abilities, playback experiences and found some common ground.
In running the Playback Open online Space, we have realized if we want to be more inclusive of diverse participants, we need to oil our machine for the sessions and try some different strategies. These have included switching who is heading the ship through safe waters, to bringing different textures to how the ship is rowed. No one person is attached to a particular task but we have tried to take turns chipping in for everything: design, facilitation, tech, drafting invitations, opening, and closing. We realized and shifted to asking for rather than assuming, so as to honor the pronouns people would like to be addressed by. Early in the process, organizers decided to keep the sessions free and without payment for facilitators. It was felt that this was not in the spirit of co-creation and growing together through sharing. Open Space approaches work against hierarchies of knowledge, as content is created ‘in the moment’. In line with Playback, we can follow impulses and ‘move’. Reflecting on the biases of the organizers, we began in a more ‘Asia/Oceania’ friendly time zone (Sunday afternoon/evening) when not much else in the Online Playback Theatre Universe was at such times. We have stayed around that while experimenting with ways to include others across the ocean.
Further ideas to improve access and inclusion are being explored such as volunteers to support translations for those who need it, a transcription tool on zoom to help understand different accents. We have begun to reflect on other issues of access and inclusion and are keenly aware of the digital divide however the aim, for now, was to explore what is possible.
The scope of possibilities is huge; can we create more oasis of honoring our feelings, holding space for reflective and exploratory conversation that support the curious participant to deepen their engagement with Playback? Become a committed Playbacker? There have been only about 200 participants across the many instalments: a small subset of the 4,300 subscribers of the Facebook group “Playback theatre around the world“. A hat tip to this group and the advantage of not breaking into too many subgroups to be able to keep abreast with what is happening with those who shared opportunities, shows, learnings, and training.
In the time of instant everything, in forty-six years the playback community has grown slowly and steadily and adapted as the world has changed. The quarantine and lockdowns – albeit unfortunate circumstances – have made learning and playback accessible through zoom and social media. We also acknowledge the magic of the internet that bends time and space while putting us in boxes where we are able to mirror actions, resonate with poetry with tears, and hold space even in silences.
As we tear back to our imagined realities of what the normal is, we are left to ponder what our learnings have been in these days, months, years of greater isolation. We have had the chance to explore with a more global group, what are the skills required to practice Playback Theatre? How can we honor each teller? how could these skills and exchanges be more accessible for those who can’t travel halfway around the world or can’t meet face to face? It now remains to be seen whether future organizers of Playback Theatre meetups would consider an online component in terms of performance or open space to allow these rivers of learning to keep flowing. And whether the principles and processes of the open space approach might have a place in that.
I’ll leave you with a song by Barbara Mc Afee:
There are songs in the soil and the rivers and trees
And the ears of your heart can hear them
And some come alive in the meeting of eyes
When you take the time to see them
I will listen to the deeper story
I will see how life’s going to move in me
I will listen to the deeper story
I will see how life’s going to move in me
[i] For more detail see eg //openspaceworld.org/wp2/what-is
About the author
Anisha is a student of psychology and cheerleader for early access to the Arts for everyone. Having the unique opportunity of relocating from Bangalore to London in the midst of the pandemic, she has dug her toes into Playback Theatre and improv which she started just during the lockdown. She is excited about the intersection of community building, introspective reflections, and spontaneous art that playback channelizes. She is part of several international improv teams and Citylamps, ACT online and True Heart Theatre, London Playback Theatre in person.
IV Encuentro Ibérico de Teatro Playback (IV Iberian Playback Theatre Meeting)
By Ana Maria Fernandez Espinosa
Testimonios De La Experiencia Del Encuentro
Eran alrededor de las 3,30 de la tarde del día 5 de Noviembre, y muchas personas nos dirigíamos al Centro Social “Luis Buñuel” de la ciudad, con mucha curiosidad e ilusión, y también algunas dudas…¿estará cerca del alojamiento?, ¿dónde estará el restaurante?, ¿y cómo será estar tanto tiempo con la mascarilla puesta?, ¿merecerá la pena todo el esfuerzo previo de la preparación, y la participación en este encuentro?, ¿podremos responder el equipo organizador a todos los inconvenientes que se presenten?, ¿podremos comunicarnos suficientemente bien, con las personas que hablan otros idiomas? ¿y cómo incorporar a esta experiencia a Ferrán, compañero del comité organizador, que no pudo estar presente por razones de salud…?; porque sentirle, ¡si le sentíamos presente entre nosotros y nosotras!stas, y otras preguntas circulaban por nuestras cabezas, imagino que especialmente dentro de la de Diana (su lista de tareas a realizar, su deseo de que todo estuviese “a punto”, etc..), y en el resto de su cuerpo…; ella, como representante local del equipo organizador, fue quien tuvo muchíííísima responsabilidad en las gestiones organizativas. El resto (Nadia, Ferrán, Antonio y yo misma, estuvimos también en el comité organizador)
El tiempo era fresco, y pensábamos en abrir las ventanas, para prevenir el contagio por Covid. Contábamos con algún sistema de calor, que buscábamos con muchas ganas en algunos momentos; y nos habían avisado para ir abrigad@s..¿habríamos traído suficiente abrigo?
Allí estaba el espacio de la recepción, colocado junto a la sala principal del encuentro, señalizado con los carteles anunciadores del encuentro, el programa general y los carteles individuales de cada taller, para facilitar la inscripción a cada uno (lo que se hizo al comienzo del encuentro). ¿Se desplegaría el “hilo rojo” en estos espacios arquitectónicos?¿Habría suficiente “sensibilidad télica” en este grupo, que nos caldease el corazón?
Las personas de la organización comenzamos a recibir con mucho entusiasmo a cada participante, entregando un cuaderno (con la imagen del IV Encuentro), y un bolígrafo.
Recibimos también a Ben Rivers, nuestro docente invitado a la masterclass y otras actividades, que nos hizo recordar otros comienzos de encuentros ibéricos de teatro playback, en los que participaron otros expert@s invitad@s, que nos dejaron su huella, su cariño y su presencia en esta red de vínculos, de vida, de sorpresas, creaciones colectivas y aprendizajes, que deseamos seguir tejiendo con la magia de esta comunidad que crece.
Toda aquella incertidumbre de los últimos meses, toda la preparación que ya casi finalizaba…. y el proyecto empezaba a transformarse en real, y se abría otra vez, de nuevo, la puerta a la magia de las almas que se conectan a través de esta experiencia de encuentro. Y un nuevo pedacito de historia, de los encuentros ibéricos de Teatro Playback estaba a punto de ser escrita…
La historia de distintas personas intentando hacer algo común, sin prejuicios, sin idioma común, con visiones diferentes de la vida, la realidad y la ficción. Y la vida sigue, el supercovid viene y vuelve la distancia, los miedos, las fatigas y la esperanza de un mundo mejor.
-Anónimo (formulario de evaluación)
Volviendo al recuerdo del Encuentro, me vienen los detalles del inicio del viaje, de las charlas de la compañía que tuve durante el trayecto Salamanca –Zaragoza.
Me viene en especial una que tuvimos mitad en broma mitad en serio, sobre los semáforos. Debatíamos sobre si los semáforos oprimían a la persona o no, porque ciertamente te expresan/imponen cuando puedes parar y cuando puedes seguir el paso en función del color que ellos marquen. Y claro, a ti no te queda otra que hacerles caso, aceptas consciente o inconscientemente lo que la máquina de colores te pide.
A la entrada en Zaragoza, como llegábamos con el tiempo justo y en realidad no queríamos llegar tarde (hablo en plural por que íbamos 5 personas en el coche, aunque en realidad son todo sensaciones y experiencias mías, habría que preguntar al resto si lo ven desde el mismo prisma) nos saltamos (me salté) unos cuantos semáforos, pasando a circular por los pelos sin tener ningún accidente (¡gracias universo!)
Los alegres conductores zaragozanos nos pitaban sin cesar dándonos la bienvenida a la ciudad ¡qué majos!
El caso es que esta idea de los semáforos se ha quedado en mi cabeza… ¿Qué pasaría si no hubiese semáforos? Si no hubiese instrumentos que regulasen un poco la circulación, quizá el mundo sería un caos…
Y esto me llevo del encuentro de playback… que hay una organización, que hay una estructura detrás que contiene y que regula, que facilita el tránsito. Da igual en que parte del mundo se haga, hay una estructura que facilita que las personas nos podamos juntar para contar historias.
Como también tuve la oportunidad de participar en la actuación que se hizo, me quedo con la reflexión de que el teatro playback facilita mucho el trabajo en colectivo manteniendo cada 1 su propia individualidad y eso está guay. -María Castro
Leyendo el relato de Maria me quedo pensando en esto de las normas, de los límites, del respeto y de lo difícil que es a veces marcar este límite entre la libertad individual y el cuidado grupal, y más en medio de una pandemia, con todo lo que conlleva; siento que las personas de la organización llevaron a cabo esta responsabilidad de una forma respetuosa, pero cuidando al grupo.
Recuerdo una de las historias que compartió un narrador en la función final. El título de la función era como el del encuentro, algo así como “después de la tormenta”. Se compartieron historias de tormentas personales y físicas, esta historia en concreto, me pareció muy tierna. La historia de una relación muy especial entre una persona y su perra. El narrador compartió su experiencia en una gran tormenta, el miedo, el frío, la incertidumbre y como él y el animal se acompañaron, se cuidaron, y eso generó un vínculo aún más fuerte. En el Teatro Playback ocurre lo mismo, compartimos historias, vivencias, experiencias, que a veces son difíciles, son las tormentas de la vida, pero el compartirlas y transitarlas con la persona conductora y el grupo, nos ayuda a aliviar y a generar vínculos y espacios sanadores.
La magia del encuentro de teatro aún resuena en mi mente cuando pienso en los días que compartimos juntos. Para mí, en un principio fue un momento lleno de ilusión e incertidumbre que se fue transformando en seguridad y confianza según iban pasando las horas.
Recuerdo con ternura…
…La cantidad de detalles que fueron cuidados minuciosamente por parte del equipo de organización: distancias de un sitio a otro, alojamiento, comidas y cenas, aperitivos y bebidas calientes para tomar entre horas…
…El compartir unos días de convivencia con los miembros de la compañía (¡fuimos la gran mayoría del grupo Entrespejos!) y de conocer a otras personas que disfrutan haciendo playback. Estreché algunos vínculos, puse cuerpos en perspectiva, en tres dimensiones (como diría Ana Fernández), y conocí a personas que había visto en otras ocasiones a través de la pantalla.
…El entendimiento a pesar de ser de diferentes países y hablar otros idiomas.
…La posibilidad de ver cómo otras compañías hacen la misma forma y como cada una de ellas, como si fuera un ser vivo tiene un estilo muy particular.
…El espacio de inclusión, tolerancia, respeto, seguridad y familia que viví durante el encuentro.
…La función. Fue increíble, por un lado, ver las caras de las personas que se acercaban por primera vez al teatro playback y, por otro lado, ser espectador de una compañía que se creó para la ocasión.
Desde mi punto de vista, el dispositivo de teatro playback facilita y favorece que solo con una palabra (la forma) tengamos un espacio seguro a partir del cual empezar a crear. Una palabra, que, en sus distintos idiomas, despierta en el cuerpo una forma de hacer y proceder. La reflexión que me llevo del encuentro es: “Las posibilidades de la creatividad llegan hasta donde yo misma me ponga el límite”. Así que, os cuento que este encuentro me ha permitido dinamitar los límites de mi espontaneidad, ver otras posibilidades y movimientos, entenderme sin palabras y vivir unos días muy familiares compartiendo algo que me apasiona.
Compartir música es en ocasiones una tarea muy complicada. Cuando se participa en su creación la tarea implica mucha disposición y escucha. Si a su vez se añade la posibilidad de encontrarse con otro músico la tarea se complica. Ya no solo reside en que cada uno de ellos se involucre en esa creación si no que al hacerlo también exige que se comuniquen entre ellos. La música tiene infinitud de posibilidades, pero necesita de un orden en la relación ente los distintos sonidos y silencios que la forman. Cuantos más músicos participan en la creación mayor es el número de líneas, melodías, armonías… que surgen en el tiempo y estas solo tienen sentido en su relación con las demás. Si no, no sería música, sería ruido.
Escuchar al mundo con su propia música mientras este se retroalimenta con todas las músicas de los otros acaba siendo solo eso: música.
Mi testimonio del encuentro de Zaragoza es que el Teatro Playback crea nuevos mundos posibles! Es algo potente y muy especial. Permite rasgar nuevos horizontes y ultrapasar fronteras de todo o tipo. Creo que es una experiencia que todos y todas deberían de experimentar, pues yo creo que cambia el mundo pues nos cambia internamente y profundamente! Es una celebración, una experiencia de encuentro profundo. Es una fiesta! Por supuesto, tiene momentos difíciles y duros cuando conectamos con la realidad no tan dulce, pero así mismo es potente, pues hay siempre esperanza y creatividad colectiva que es algo magnifico!
Tras el interregno que nos llevó a celebrar el III Encuentro Ibérico de Teatro Playback en formato online, muchas dudas e incertidumbres se cernían en el aire, respecto a la organización del IV EITP, presencial. Aun así, y por la forma valiente y soñadora en que se reconoce a este colectivo organizativo, no bajamos los brazos y nos pusimos a trabajar.
Reunidos en torno a una mesa virtual, “lanzamos al aire” algunas propuestas de lugar, y la elección recayó en el territorio que creíamos que proporcionaría, en la actualidad, más y mejores condiciones para lxs participantes: Zaragoza. Después, intentamos dividir las tareas para que el proceso se desarrolle sin problemas y seamos eficientes. En un equipo que ya se conoce, los procesos ya están más engrasados, pero aun así, siempre hay algunas piedras en el camino, que se presentan aquí como ejemplo. Cómo lidiar con la dispersión y la confusión cuando nos comunicamos en varios canales al mismo tiempo. La existencia de dudas a la hora de elegir la mejor plataforma para comunicar. Hacer frente a la ausencia de comunicación y/o a la falta de iniciativa de l@s compañer@s. Sensación de que el proceso no avanza.
Una vez superadas todas estas cuestiones, la mayoría de las veces mitigadas con una “llamada de atención” de un@ compañer@, nos encontramos en una fase en la que las mariposas empiezan a sacar lo mejor de nosotros. ¿Se sentirá la gente preparada para volver a viajar? ¿Surgirán problemas difíciles de resolver debido al covid-19? ¿Tendremos suficientes participantes? ¿Siempre conseguiremos mantener el IV EITP al final?
Por mucho que hubiera dudas e incertidumbres, éstas se transformaron, confirmando una vez más que nuestro EITP está floreciendo y desarrollándose de forma saludable y sostenida. Nuestro compromiso con la práctica y el desarrollo del teatro playback en la Península Ibérica sigue intacto, y esperamos poder llegar a más y más personas que, como nosotros, se dedican en cuerpo y alma a esta forma de teatro tan original y humana.
Gracias a todos, a todas y a todes.
Ser parte de la organización del Encuentro “Ibérico” de Teatro Playback, y no ser de origen Ibérico… pero sí de corazón.
El Teatro Playback me ha acompañado en mi proceso migratorio en España desde hace siete años. Me ha dado raíces y cimientos en esta tierra compartiendo la transformación y el empoderamiento creativo como mujer migrada.
Sin duda a través de los Encuentros Ibéricos me he hermanado con practicantes del Teatro Playback de la península ibérica a tal punto de olvidar las fronteras y los mares que me separan de mi tierra. No me he sentido en absoluto extranjera, sino parte de ésta comunidad que va creciendo cada día más.
Comencé mi participación en el comité organizador desde el III Encuentro en el 2020, cuando la pandemia nos dejó enmarcados en pequeñas ventanas de zoom. Dificultades con las conexiones y dispositivos, pero adaptándonos rápidamente a la tecnología, creando canales creativos, permitiendo además que miembros de compañías de España, Portugal y Latinoamérica compartiéramos las experiencias con la metodología escénica, el 2020 me regresó a mis orígenes playbackeros, me regresó a México en un clic.
Este IV Encuentro Ibérico 2021 nos emocionaba tanto desde que comenzamos las juntas virtuales para organizarlo, entusiasmados de regresar a los cuerpos, a las voces, a los espacios tridimensionales y al calor y energía propia del teatro en vivo.
Mascarillas, distancias de seguridad, geles antibacteriales, formaron parte de nuestro quehacer escénico.
Apasionados y con ganas de reencontrarnos, playbackeros de Portugal, España, Bélgica, Finlandia, Siria, Francia y México viajamos kilómetros hacia Zaragoza para compartir un fin de semana lleno de propuestas y provocaciones creativas, nuevas prácticas, muchas preguntas e historias para contar y escuchar.
Los abrazos no se hicieron esperar y empezamos el IV Encuentro Ibérico la tarde fría de un viernes de noviembre. Reencuentros en el hostal, en la calle, en la entrada del Centro Social Luis Buñuel, gritos de emoción, abrazos, ilusión plena de vernos de nuevo.
Caras conocidas y desconocidas pero hermanadas por un mismo lenguaje.
La diversidad de lenguajes emergieron: francés, inglés, árabe, portugués, castellano, catalán, diversidad de orígenes y culturas. La destreza lingüística de algunos miembros del comité organizador ayudaron a la traducción simultánea entre el inglés y el castellano, el árabe y por parte de los participantes el francés. Conforme fueron pasando las horas creo que fuimos olvidando en qué idioma nos comunicamos, olvidamos lo que nos separaba y el Teatro Playback nos abrió, de nueva cuenta, una puerta de comunicación.
Un centro cultural autogestivo nos acogió con una gran resiliencia y valentía. Canciones, ritmos, voces, e historias conectadas. Tres días que se nos fueron como agua, Performance, talleres, mesa redonda, fiesta, comidas, risas y un hasta luego, nos vemos en el 2022 en Portugal. Ya espero con ansias que el V Encuentro podamos quitarnos las mascarillas y enmarcar una sonrisa por el placer de entretejer nuestras historias en escena. ¡Vamos a ver!
¿Qué has aprendido y que te has llevado contigo (pregunta de orga-team)?
Unos regalos, unos arrepentimientos (no haber asistido al taller de Elsa Child), unos enfados por llevar mascarilla durante el taller, que aumentan cada día.
Mi primer evento de PT como espectador. La actuación increíble (alguien no informado no podría adivinar que era una compañía improvisada) y, sin embargo, una experiencia muy mala para mí. (Compartiré sobre eso en otro lugar). Algunas cosas de las que no era consciente antes: las diferencias y desacuerdos entre PT y TE, y sin embargo la firme conciencia de compartir un linaje común, de ser parte de la misma familia.
La diferencia abismal del estatus del PT en el mundo ibérico, frente a lo marginal que es el PT en Francia. La improvisada y espontánea flexibilidad de los facilitadores en cuanto a idiomas. Cuán acogedores fueron todos y ayudaron con la traducción.Un vistazo a la vida cultural en Zaragoza: en el albergue, un evento casi todas las noches.
¿Con qué me quedo del encuentro?
¿Qué imagen elegiría?
¿Qué metáfora lo simboliza, es capaz de condensar la montaña rusa emocional que viví esos días?
Me viene a la mente una inmensa red tejida entre cada una de las personas que estuvieron allí, de una manera o de otra: personas que participaron de todos los talleres del encuentro o de tan solo uno, personas que en la función actuaron, o narraron, o estuvieron presentes… todas ellas colaboraron a hacer crecer esa red… una red viva que no comenzó a tejerse esos días, sino que flotaba en el aire desde hace tiempo, desde antes de que yo misma supiera qué es esto del teatro playback… una red que esos días para mí se hizo inmensa y que ahí sigue, inacabada porque sigue entrelazándonos, sigue entretejiéndose de historias, canciones, experiencias compartidas, y que volveremos a descubrir flotando en el aire en otoño de 2022 cuando nos encontremos de nuevo en Portugal y esa maravillosa torre de Babel en la que se han convertido los encuentros ibéricos de TP se ponga de nuevo en marcha, para atraparnos e insuflarnos vida. -Diana Calvo
About the author
Ana Maria Fernandez Espinosa- Enfermera especialista en salud mental; Psicodramatista y Psicoterapeuta; profesora jubilada de formación profesional (Sanidad); Co-directora de la Escuela Ibérica de Teatro Playback (coordina el grupo local Entrespejos); Directora de la Escuela de Psicodrama, Sociodrama y Teatro aplicado “IMPROMPTU”; colaboradora del Máster de Teatro aplicado de la Universidad de Valencia; miembro de la AEP (Asociación española de Psicodrama) y de la SEPTG (Sociedad española de Psicoterapia y Técnicas de grupo); apasionada de la conexión desde la humanidad, y de las actividades que promueven la “ética del amor” Ha publicadoy/o coordinado algunos artículos y libros, entre ellos: ”Teatros para la Transformación”, Ñaque, 2015; y “Teatro Playback: Historias que nos conectan “, Octaedro, 2018.
Let The Dream Be Your Wings: Playback Theater Performance At Hansa 48
By Ulrike Krogmann & Idun Hübner
• Imagine you go to the theater and …you get to know the person sitting next to you.
• Imagine you go to the theater and …you learn more about yourself.
• Imagine you go to the theater and …you hear stories from the audience that you will never forget.
• Imagine you go to the theater and …the audience is mixed: people who grew up in Germany and others who grew up in countries like Syria, in Iran or in Afghanistan.
• Imagine you go to the theater and …you can share your experiences, personal stories and feelings spontaneously and see them on stage.
‘Faces of Change’ Playback Theater Group
If so, then you have been to a performance by “Faces of Change” Kiel’s first Playback Theater group, a ZBBS project. It is multicultural in the truest sense of the word because it consists of actresses and a musician who come from countries such as Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, South Africa and Germany. On Friday, 10/22/21 they performed together with the Playbackers Hani Al Rstum and Shadi Al-aiek from Syria in the Hansa48 for about 40 enthusiastic people. The performance was accompanied by musician Saad Alsayed with percussion and hang. (www.playbacktheater-kiel.de)
Syrian Cultural Weeks in Kiel
As part of the Syrian Culture Weeks in Kiel, Hani Al Rstum and Shadie Al-aiek were invited to give a workshop and help create a performance in the Hansa48 cultural center. They brought their sensitive and free spirit, which gives wings to dreams, to Kiel. Participants in the workshop directed by Hani were able to experiment with it in the Hansa48.
After the workshop there was a performance with Hani Al Rstum and Shadie Al-aiek and the playback theater group Faces Of Change.
Our Guests: Hani Al Rstum and Shadie Al-aiek
Hani Al Rstum and Shadie Al-aiek are originally from Syria and have been doing peace work in Lebanon for a long time. Their cultural center, which was managed by Hani for years, was a place of fighting and was won back for culture. Bullet holes and tunnels that were dug to rescue the injured remained as a warning. In this cultural center they did performances for years. To conduct and perform in such circumstances, you need dreams, competence, resilience and courage. Hani Al Rstum and Shadi Al-aiek combine these skills. Hani is a psychologist and works with the means of theater and has been doing cultural projects for many years. Shadi Al-aiek is a visual artist and Playback Theater player.
The Performance ‘Let The Dream Be Your Wings’
As an introduction and on the topic of the evening: Which dreams and hopes gives you strength to face hardship and difficulties in life, the players introduced themselves with sentences on this topic on stage. “I wish for peace in the world in these times,” said a player from Afghanistan. This statement moved the audience because it was clear to everyone that peace in this country is now seriously endangered by the invasion of the Taliban. Another tells how she dreams of a second Nelson Mandela who can bring peace and respect to the world. A bearer of hope who managed to address people across borders.
That evening, the desire for peace, freedom and security was heard in many of the stories from the audience. For example, a Syrian man had the idea that the international connection between people of all origins would be carried out into the world. Contrary to well-known, national tones that can be heard both among people who grew up in Germany and among fellow immigrants, his idea of freedom and international exchange was so important to him that he passionately expressed it publicly in the theater.
Another narrator from Iran was very happy to be here and to see so many friends on stage instead of sitting on the sofa. With her contribution she encouraged the other women to express themselves freely and openly in front of an audience.
A woman who grew up in Lebanon described how her life in Germany had changed for better. Instead of pressure and systematic repression, she was finally allowed to receive support. Here in Kiel, where she arrived as a young woman a few years ago, she got access to education and the German language. As she emphasized, her development had not yet come to an end.
Another woman expressed how much she missed culture in the times of Corona. She felt locked up and lonely without attending cultural events. Her story made it clear that culture is not a luxury that can simply be discarded. The corona measures have impaired the free and peaceful life here.
The stories from the audience showed how a connection between different worlds can work. It can be achieved through liberation from oppression, education, free creativity. Through openness and expression of what moves you inside, a connection between cultures and across nationalities is possible. The last story from a teacher from Kiel made it clear. She spoke about a Syrian woman who did a good job as a teacher and yet had to leave the job after a few years – without getting any reason for her dismissal. The players had the courage to call racism by it’s name and break a taboo. In everyday life, racism is often not mentioned because it is accompanied by shame and feelings of guilt on both sides. “I know that I know nothing”, were the words of the protagonist at the end of the story. Through the courageous play on stage, the discrimination on which the story was based became tangible.
The storyteller was very moved by the narration of her inner conflict on stage. Because of the intense play, she came into action a few days later and quit her job. Since she was fascinated by acting, she began to act in a theater company herself.
The audience was enthusiastic and after the performance they sat together for a long time and exchanged phone numbers. Two women from the audience would also like to join our group and the audience expressed the wish for another Playback Theater performance.
The dream, contact and encounter at eye level between people of all origins, has gained wings and hopefully it will continue with Playback Theater in Kiel in the Hansa48.
About the authors
Ulrike Krogmann loves the real moments in Playback Theater performances and feels gifted by the stories in the audience. For her, creating these true moments begins with listening. With a lot of joy in learning she visits international festivals like the Camp in Belarus. She is co-founder of the Hamburg PlaybackBühne a professional ensemble (www.playback-buehne.de) together with her friend Dorothea Erl. Together with her friend Idun Hübner she founded a second playback theater group in Kiel. Their shared dream of a multicultural playback theater group came true: “Faces Of Change” (www.playbacktheater-kiel.de) She is an accredited Playback Theater Trainer from the Center for Playback Theater, USA.
Idun Hübner has been passionate about the performing arts since the beginning of her studies in 1981, hereafter performing with various theatre groups. She was part of a circus group for many years and after finishing her studies in “Theatre and Play Education” she founded a project in Cape Town, South Africa doing “Juggling Shows” with street children. In Kiel, Germany along with her friend Ulrike Krogmann she works with refugees and they have done numerous theatre projects involving refugees and students. Five of these projects won awards. In 2019 she participated in the International Playback Theatre Camp in Belarus. That is where she fell in love with Playback Theatre!! After returning to Kiel with the power of Playback Theatre in their hearts Ulrike and Idun founded the “Faces of Change” Playback Theatre group in 2019.
Books & Book Reviews
Personal Stories in Public Spaces by Jonathan Fox & Jo Salas
Reviewed by Akanchha Karki & David Powley
Personal Stories in Public Spaces, Essays on Playback Theatre by its Founders, Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas, Tusitala Publishing, New Paltz, New York, 2021.
Review by Akanchha Karki
When reading ‘Personal Stories in Public Spaces’, which consists of essays on Playback Theatre by its founders, Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas, I experienced a deep and reassuring conviction about my own work, values and beliefs. I realised how much of my practice is informed by Playback Theatre, and how in my formative years Playback Theatre became the guiding star of my life. I am penning down this reflection not so much as an academic critique, but more as a note of gratitude to the contribution made by its founders whose humility, unwavering passion and commitment to social change has perhaps kept the form alive in over 70 countries, 46 years since its inception.The nature of Playback Theatre as experienced by many is transformative and ‘magical’, yet it is not very well known. Jo Salas, in her chapter ‘Telling Stories in Public’ (2020) suggests that this is perhaps because Playback Theatre cannot be packaged and broadcast, it is live, ephemeral and unpredictable. It is also a form that works well in intimate settings and requires a team of committed performers and ensemble that takes years to develop teamwork and skills. Even though there are other popular forms of story sharing that emerged from the hunger that ‘we all have stories and we long to tell them’, what makes Playback different is that it embodies stories in action, not just narration, its emphasis in the role of emergence, and the atmosphere that is crucial for emergence to take place.
I was instinctively drawn to the last chapter by Jonathan Fox, ‘Garland of Flowers’ (2017), because as a Playback Theatre practitioner based in Nepal, I feel a sense of overwhelming pride that the co-founder of a form that is the heart of my existence, ‘owes its genesis’ to Nepal. It is a beautiful recounting of Jonathan Fox coming full circle to the place where he served as a peace corps volunteer in the 60s, and perhaps aspects of its culture that helped ignite the idea of Playback Theatre in him. He felt that a Nepali proverb, ‘Bhannelai Phul ko Maala….’, which translates to ‘To the teller, a garland of flowers, to the listener, a garland of gold, may our story go to heaven, and come back to be told again’, sums up his life’s work, which is truly special. His reunion with ‘Mother Paudel’ the ‘maker of his food’ in a small village of Sunuwal is sweetly dramatic, like a heartfelt moment right out of a Playback Theatre event.
Perhaps, what is most interesting about this collection of essays is that one can trace the evolution in the understanding of Playback Theatre in its founders. The dates on the essays range between 1981-2020, which is a remarkable time for reflection and evaluation. In the first chapter, ‘A Changing Landscape’ (2020) both Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas answer a few pertinent questions. Playback Theatre emerged in the mid 70s, in an era of enormous turmoil and expansive social change. As Jonathan remembers, it came from a sincere desire of wanting a theatre that was ‘personal’ and ‘intimate’, where social interactions between players were as important as the product. Despite the five-pointed guiding star (Oral tradition, Creative dynamics, Experimental Theatre, Psychodrama, Social activism) anchoring the premise of Playback Theatre, the founders felt that the form didn’t quite fit anywhere and needed its own ground. They remind us of Playback’s fundamental value: to listen with attentiveness and compassion in an empty, egoless way, not planning, not worrying, not judging and most importantly, being committed to address social inequity, while maintaining integrity and ethical standards. What moved me specifically is the founders acknowledging that they have some regrets despite the majority of groups practicing ‘good’ Playback Theatre. How if they could rewind, they would have imparted Playback Theatre with clearer guidelines and few warnings: that practicing Playback Theatre is a responsibility, supervision is required, formal training is a must. They would have encouraged people to remain humble and honest about their own capacities, to have social awareness, respect and consideration for colleagues.
I once voiced ethical concerns regarding the Participant Performance model of Playback Theatre, while Jonathan Fox was in Nepal through the EnActing Dialogue project. Having done Playback up until that point purely out of intrinsic passion and guided merely by ‘gift economy’, I too was skeptical as to how ‘dialogue facilitators’ untrained in theatre and having lived through trauma themselves could possibly practice something so sensitive, without it resulting in an artistic failure. I feared the possibility of re-traumatization and the infectivity of shallow performances possibly overwhelming the audiences. I didn’t mean to question the integrity of the project, but I know my intervention caused discomfort. In the chapter ‘Unexpected Resilience of Participant Performance Model’ (2020) Jonathan credits the model for its capacity to discover sources of healing and resilience and that according to evaluation reports, in such polarized post conflict communities, impact was ‘significant’, changes in attitudes were observed, and acceptance gained.
I always find myself pondering about what then is ‘good’ Playback Theatre? The chapter by Jo Salas (1999) on the same has to an extent, grounded me over the years. ‘Playback Theatre is both an artistic and an interactive social event involving both complex group dynamics and sensitive one to one communication.’ In that sense, Playback Theatre is an art, but it is also service, and a balance between both is essential for ‘good enough’ Playback work to happen. Many practitioners now also use the Narrative Reticulation theory (a brief description is included in the book) proposed by Jonathan Fox (2018), in order to assess the effectiveness of Playback work. The four attributes: story, atmosphere, spontaneity and guidance need to coexist in harmony in order for interconnected flow of stories to occur.
I personally resonated with the questions raised by the chapter ‘Playback Theatre, Diversity and the two economies’ written by Jo Salas (2005). The story of Jerome, who couldn’t continue Playback Theatre despite wholly belonging to its essence is very relatable, especially in a country like Nepal, where most Playbackers are struggling theatre artists who have bills to pay and family to take care of. I acknowledge that consistently being able to practice Playback Theatre for the love of it, is my privilege, which I normally compensate with other jobs but many may not be able to. In that sense, I have learnt to be less critical about Playback practices that may not entirely be driven only by volunteer viability or fulfilled by ‘gift economy’.
I felt seen when reading the chapter ‘Is Playback Female?’ because though gender can no longer be thought of in polarity, but as a spectrum, I too feel the nurturing, empathetic, receptive, supportive nature of Playback is very much ‘feminine’ in what we understand feminine qualities to be, irrespective of the gender that houses them. In ‘Is there More…?’ I nodded all the way, because I feel truly grateful to be able to do work that feels like play.
The chapter ‘Enacting Testimony: Trauma Stories in Playback Theatre’ reminds us of Playback’s ‘inherent aspects of collective storytelling, embodies an artistic distillation, and the call to the imagination can help transform painful, overwhelming memories into meaningful stories that survivors can tell themselves and to others’. I recall once conducting a Playback event in a post conflict setup, where an old mother who had lost two of her sons to conflict shared her story. She was very emotional and fragile throughout her sharing, and I could sense that the actors were also a bit jittery as to how they could possibly enact such an emotionally charged story. At one point the teller got up and pointed to an actor and said, “He looks exactly like my son”. At this point she was walking all over the performance space, and I was following her, trying to get a grip of the situation. I knew in my heart that what she needs is not to see her traumatic experience be enacted in front of her, but it would be nice to offer her something. Finally, when she had calmed down a bit, I asked “what can we do for you, mother?”, to which she replied, “I just want to hear a nice song”. The musician caught on immediately, took center stage and sang for all of us, a beautiful song about memories of the war. Till date, it is the most defining moment in my Playback work. It reminds me of the importance of listening and honestly being in the moment.
The founders have also acknowledged the need to adapt Playback Theatre in times post pandemic, and hope that we can continue to serve and connect with passion, integrity and conviction. Playback Theatre is a powerful tool for dialogue, because it has the capacity to hold complexity without forcing resolution. It embraces the multifaceted nature of reality and subjective experience. As the world is undergoing a massive humanitarian crisis, human beings are becoming isolated and more polarized, the significance of a form like Playback Theatre and most recently of practices like the Listening hour (2020), initiated by Jonathan Fox is becoming more and more visible, but we need to want to truly listen to each other because “if we can’t bear to listen to each other, no connection, no dialogue, no reconciliation is possible. It is only from this expanded inner space that change of any kind can come.”
Review by David Powley
In their introduction to “Personal Stories in Public Spaces” Jonathan and Jo hope that “reading these essays will feel like being part of the conversations that take place so often in our living room…” A friendly and modest invitation from the founders of Playback Theatre, extended to us as equals, into the relaxed intimacy of their home, to be part of a still on-going discussion. Our hosts are not icons. These “essays” are not tablets of stone.
Put together as they are in this book they tell a very personal story in a very public space, of the roads taken by Jo and Jonathan in the creation and growth over 45 years not only of Playback Theatre but also of their own lives as practitioners and as a couple living and working together. They tell it with a matter-of-fact honesty, humility, generosity, and warmth.
A good example of how the separate parts of their story are bound together in this book, is the way Jonathan’s share is framed in the first chapter by his arrival in Nepal as a young Peace Corps volunteer and, in the last chapter, by his return to Nepal, forty-eight years later, to run a Playback training workshop. A sort of homecoming to the place where perhaps (he wonders) his challenging experience there as a young man “had sparked the creation of a contemporary theatre in New York”.
At that homecoming he meets again the woman who had been given the job of “the maker of his food” all those years ago. She and her daughter hand him “an exuberance of bougainvillea blossoms.” But as they talk together, it becomes clear to him that her memory of that time was totally unlike his.
His poetic telling of that meeting, in its restrained simplicity, moved me almost to tears. The irony of it. The missed opportunities. Living in parallel worlds while meeting every day for two years. Just the kind of situation Playback Theatre has been developed to attend to and heal.
And, yes, it opened a gap in my own mind, through which flowed many memories. If this had been a Playback performance, I’d have offered to be a teller. And as this kept happening to me as I reached each stage of their journey it took me a long time actually to reach the end of the book!
As you would expect, at most stages of the journey we learn something more about Playback Theatre as an art form. There’s a lot about how it works in general and on the specific skills it demands. Most of the time both Jonathan and Jo base their discussions on examples of performance in practice, which makes the process of analysis more immediate and personal. Inevitably, as most of the “essays” have been published before, there is some repetition of the basic description of what Playback Theatre is. But for anyone new to the form that may be a good thing.
There are also excursions into a more theoretical, academic realm. Jonathan’s discussion of how Playback shares non-scripted traditions from the past and is influenced by modern thinking about the arts and what makes people tick is clear and informative. It underlines the importance of understanding that the process doesn’t arise from a vacuum and the references quoted are useful for anyone wanting to follow that path further.
In the opening chapter, in answer to questions they ask themselves, they describe the more immediate influences of their social background on their thinking. In a question about “gender balance in Playback Theatre” from the perspective of their marriage, Jo writes: “This is the most personal topic we’ve ever written about.” They are willing to write it now, though, because it addresses increasing concerns “about gender equity and sexism.” So, they tell the story of how inequity existed between them early in their relationship, and as co-founders of Playback, and how they overcame it. That is how deeply engaged they are prepared to be with what is a universal issue.
It should be no surprise, then, that their chosen road took them to adapting Playback to address most of the current issues in a wide range of social and geographical contexts.
Racism, bullying, conflict, diversity, immigration…and more. Each one demands research and a number of adjustments to the way the performances are handled. None more so than when taking Playback performance and training into different countries and cultures, often in dangerous places. You can go with them some of the way in this book.
However, as Jo says, adaptations are necessary for many Playback companies themselves. For example, is it appropriate for an all-white company of middle-class liberals to be playing for an audience of African Americans? So, how to diversify its membership? Not just in ethnic terms but also financial. Who can afford to take time off their paid work to do work that is basically unpaid, however much they may love it? And however, much they wish to offer their work as a gift. Who can afford to feed what Jo identifies as the “gift economy”?
Talking of gifts, “beware of people bearing gifts” might well have been an appropriate warning to countries receiving the gift of American peace corps volunteers, as idealistic young men like Jonathan, avoiding a war they didn’t believe in, were recruited to work in them, often in remote places, to keep communism at bay and supposedly to help their inhabitants to “improve” their lives. Imperialism in a different guise.
It is also a warning for Playback Theatre players to check their motives for engaging with their audiences. However, from the countless visits Jonathan and Jo have made to other countries all over the world as trainers and performers it is clear Jonathan and Jo have developed the skills needed to work within their hosts’ cultural framework and to serve the declared needs of the people they train – as the few examples included in this book illustrate. As importantly and impressively, they are still learning from them.
What’s more, they are still adapting to new challenges: in the pandemic with Jonathan’s “The Listening Hour” and with Jo’s impassioned plea for Playback action in the face of the rapidly escalating climate crisis.
And now, if that’s not enough, even as I write this, Afghanistan.
In my first paragraph I said Jo and Jonathan are not icons. I’m sure they’d be relieved to hear it. I imagine they are in effect worshipped by many and many will want a piece of them. And I imagine, that can be very tiring and certainly not desired. However, there is no escape from the fact that their achievements have been impressively huge – as this book gives us a taste of – for all that their invitation to us is so modest. Anyway, I for one admire and thank them for it and am glad they are still active and have a daughter carrying on with their mission.
And, by the way, I loved Jo’s suggestion that Playback Theatre is essentially female. I agree wholeheartedly. Let the Hero clear out the stables.
About the authors:
Akanchha Karki is a theatre maker who enjoys facilitating conversations around mental health, gender and feminism and invisible identities. She is slowly freeing herself by learning to accept the greys, the nuances and complex layers of this world. She has been practicing Playback Theatre for a decade now and feels that it has very much shaped her values and beliefs, in her work with Katha Ghera, a Kathmandu based theatre collective and in life. She is grateful to Playback for making her empathetic, patient, resilient, and giving her a sense of purpose.
David Powley has had a long and influential career in education, especially in drama and applied theatre. Until 1991 he was Head of Drama, Film & Television at what is now York St. John University in York, UK, co-founding and directing the Post-Graduate Diploma of Dramatherapy. In the 1980s he was editor of the British Association of Dramatherapists Journal and he represented Arts Therapies on what is now the Health Professions Council, helping to establish formal recognition for practitioners in the UK’s National Health Service.
Between 1991 – 2018 David was a freelance Dramatherapist practitioner, supervisor and group trainer, working in UK and several other countries. In 1991 he became Chairman of the International Theatre of Spontaneity (i.e. Playback Theatre) founded by Christina Hagelthorn, and he also served as an IPTN Board member. In the same year he co-founded Playback Theatre York and was an active member until 2018. He is now an Honorary Member. Since 1993 he has been a Trustee, Theatre director, Actor and Convenor of the “Ryedale Writers” group at the Helmsley Arts Centre in North Yorkshire.
Playback Theatre Around the World, Diversity of Application
Playback Theatre Around the World, Diversity of Application, Christ (Deemed to be University) Bangalore (January 3, 2020)
This collection of essays was brought together by Baiju Gopal and Brian Tasker and was published to commemorate the 10th IPTN international conference held at Christ University in Bengaluru, India in December 2019, and the 44th year of Playback Theatre. Edited by Brian Tasker (former editor of the IPTN Journal) and Baiju Gopal (Associate Professor at Christ University), it contains eleven diverse accounts of Playback Theatre practice from Brazil, Cuba, Israel, Ukraine and other counties. It is available to purchase on amazon.india and amazon.co.uk in both kindle and printed formats. If you encounter difficulties purchasing a copy, please contact Baiju Gopal on email@example.com for assistance.
Editors’ note: We hope to include a full review of this publication in the next edition of the IPTN Journal
An Introduction to Psychotherapeutic Playback Theater – Hall of Mirrors on Stage By Ronen Kowalsky, Nir Raz, Shoshi Keisari
Published January 31, 2022 by Routledge
216 Pages, ISBN 9780367766290
Editors’ note – This new book presenting Psychotherapeutic Playback Theater as a unique form of group psychotherapy, was published just before our IPTN Journal release date, and we plan to include a full review in our next edition.