IPTN JOURNAL APRIL 2023
We are really excited to bring this edition of IPTN journal to you!
From the Editors
By Radhika Jain and Steve Nash
We are delighted to present the latest edition of the IPTN Journal, and our second issue as co-editors. We hope you will agree that it is an impressive collection of writings about Playback Theatre, containing no fewer than eight individual articles, along with book and event reviews, practitioner updates, and a new “Signpost” section.
We did not specify a particular theme for this Journal. However, it is not difficult to see connections and associations between the different topics that are addressed by our authors, who between them represent playback communities from ten different countries.
This edition opens with two articles that explore socio-political aspects of playback. Firstly, Farah Wardani chronicles the Laban Playback Theater Company’s struggle to find a way to support the October 17th Revolution in Lebanon in 2019. This is followed by Mireya P. Ruiz Esparza’s proposal for Anti-oppressive playback, drawing on her work with Leticia Nieto and the reVelArte Playback Theatre Collective in Mexico.
Next, there are four pieces of writing about Playback Theatre practice that evaluate its impact as an intervention with specific groups of people. Vera Lardi describes a project that gathered and documented personal stories of expatriation from Greek people in different parts of the world; we then move to Israel for Inbar Serfaty Netz’s study about using a blend of psychotherapy, psychodrama, and playback with traumatised single mothers. The third piece explores the benefits of Zoom playback for frontline healthcare staff in England during the Covid-19 pandemic. The primary authors, Paras Patel and Samantha Swift, kindly acknowledge the input of one of your co-editors – but perhaps the fact that this is one of two articles in this edition that were not written by playbackers is of greater interest. Stephen Meagher & Johanna De Ruyter then shift our focus once again, with their thoughtful discussion about the challenge of applying playback to a corporate setting in Australia.
Following this, Roman Kandibur (Ukraine) and Marat Mairovich (Israel), offer a longer essay, in two parts. The unconventional conversational exchange between the two authors moves the reader swiftly through their thought provoking dialogue about Playback Theatre as an act of myth making, drawing on the ideas of Joseph Campbell.
Our final article, is our second contribution from a non playbacker, in which R.B. Mickie Marie (from Indiana, USA) summarises his work with the Spotlight Players, to incorporate lighting elements into their repertoire – a subject that rarely gets a lot of attention.
In addition to these eight articles, our Practitioners section has an update from Deb Scott on the development of a new and revised Agreement between the Centre for Playback Theatre and the Affiliated Schools. This is followed by two event reports – Karen McClain Kiefer’s account of workshops undertaken in Scotland in February 2023 with refugees who are artists, and then we have perspectives on the 10th International Playback Camp, held in Turkey in August 2022, from Raz Balian, Joke Rood, and Steve Nash.
Reviews of two important books published in 2022 come next: “An Introduction to Psychotherapeutic Playback Theater, Hall of Mirrors on Stage”, by Ronen Kowalsky, Nir Raz, and Shoshi Keisari (by Diane Adderley) and “Playback Theatre around the Globe”, by Anastasia Vorobyeva, (by Conny Hartmann).
In this latest edition of the IPTN Journal, we have created a new section – “Signpost” – in which we share information about other recent publications that are aware of – books, journal articles, news items, and other web based resources.
And that’s it. Welcome to the IPTN Journal April 2023. We hope you will agree that thanks to the help and hard work of all of our contributors, we have assembled a diverse and richly informative collection of writings about the application and practice of Playback Theatre around the world.
As ever, we are keen to hear your feedback about the Journal. We still have plans to improve things in the future, and we want to incorporate your thoughts and ideas in that process. Please use the email address below to share your comments – or to simply to say hello!
Radhika Jain and Steve Nash
IPTN Journal co-editors
Please note that all of the web links in the Journal were active at the time of publication, but we realise that these can sometimes become out of date. Also bear in mind that access to some online content can be restricted by the publisher.
When the Streets are the Mirror of Playback
By Farah Wardani
Playback as a tool to induce revolution in the Lebanese community -and when stepping aside is the real show!
The October 17th Revolution in Beirut marked the start of several months of hugely popular, anti-government protests across the whole of Lebanon. In this article the author describes her response as a theatre practitioner who is committed to social change, to this dynamic and dramatic development. She discusses the realities of trying to bring Playback Theatre to the streets at a time of civil unrest, reflecting honestly about the challenges that she and her playback colleagues experienced, and the impact that this has had on them as a company.
How it began
October 17th, 2019, 8:30 pm, Beirut, Lebanon. Twenty-nine years after the ceasefire in Lebanon, the Civil War (13 April 1975 – 13 October 1990), was still alive, in the minds of the Lebanese. This open wound remains bleeding with thousands of missing, thousands of dead. The country proceeded with no reconciliation, no accountability, ruled by the same militia leaders and their followers until today. These followers are fellow citizens who live by and for the leader/political part, blocking every possibility of change, through elections, violent acts and contributing to the propaganda that provided their basic needs instead of joining a fight to establish a fair system for everyone. They prefer minimal personal gain over a relationship of rights and duties with the government.
I perform that evening as Layla, a deceased combatant from the Lebanese Civil War, as part of Malja’86 (Shelter 86), a drama based on the stories of personal, individual objects that witnessed and survived the Lebanese Civil War and were passed down to succeeding generations (Figure 1).
The stories were collected through Playback Theater performances that happened all over Lebanon, targeting every area that had been affected by war. The objects are remnants from a memory that the generation that lived through the conflict held and passed to the following generations, carrying the painful memories of the past. Sami, the protagonist of this play, searches his grandmother’s memories in an attempt to find his missing father. He encounters a variety of characters inside her memory, whom, he believes, could help him uncover the truth by telling him about their own experiences and memories.
While I was playing Layla, on the opening night, the former fighter who lives in Sami’s grandmother’s memory, during a demonstration scene that represented one of the first trade union movements that contributed to the militia leaders inciting the war, I hear people shouting “Thawra” (revolution in Arabic). I had shivers all over my body and thought I was completely absorbed in the act. I felt a connection to my community and to this ongoing war, whose horrific legacy I share with every other Lebanese. What I thought to be an immersion in a role, turned out to be an alignment with reality. Spears Street, the street beneath our studio was filled with people marching towards the downtown of Beirut, declaring the beginning of the Lebanese Revolution. Unusually, I captured a video with my phone, knowing that this was the start of something enormous.
Taking Laban Playback Theatre to the streets
The Revolution took over the country, and all planned activities were stopped to join the revolution on the ground. Mlaja’86 that opened on that Thursday night was expected to run every night till Sunday. At Laban we announced on our social media outlets the following:
“In a matter of such national importance and duty, Laban is joining the civil protests in Martyrs Square, join us to raise our voice for the people and against the oppression. See you there!“
This was a moment to be seized and built upon for us as engaged artists, as activists, as change makers.
The Revolution presented and produced street art, social art, political art, graffiti, songs, dance circles and debates. Movies were created and distributed worldwide via mobile phones. Every song was a masterpiece, every brush stroke on a wall was a mural, every dialogue was an improvised work of art.
In the meantime, we questioned “What do we have to offer?” We, a team of 25 performers, Laban, a theater-based organization, has been offering safe spaces for expression since 2009. After hours of discussion, the team members met and decided that no art could capture the moment and that taking our art to the streets would be a selfish act. Our work climbs over the shoulders of the Revolution and adds nothing to it.
Next to the Martyrs Square, a woman approached my playback colleagues and I, after entering the Beirut Opera House (Figure 2). The Opera House had been closed since the beginning of the civil war, despite the ending of the war, as the government, still controlled by the same warlords had plans to demolish it and turn it into a hotel and a private business. Just like other significant locations in central Beirut the rebels had taken over the Opera House and an act of reclaiming our stolen memory and city. The woman came to us on her bike, an extremely unusual thing to see in Beirut, a city that barely has space for pedestrians to walk on the crowded streets.
She stopped and said, “You are the playback people; I thank you for this” and made a hand gesture that embraced the whole city, the whole country, the revolution. We stood in awe and humility, and my colleague asked her to explain more. She replied: “Your theater has taught us that we all have stories to tell. We have voices to speak. Here we are writing our stories. Shouting them out, thank you!” And she rode off on her bike. We took to the streets for months, experienced tear gas and rubber bullets, got hit by the police, some of us got arrested. All of us protested, shouted, sang, danced, talked, just like in our art, and our bodies, minds, and souls produced beauty and resistance. We poured ourselves into this revolution in the same way we pour into our playback. It was a collective masterpiece in the making, a collaboration of not only the team and the audience but everyone. Meanwhile, the conversation never stopped:
“What do we do with our art? We are artists, we do it to make a living, to support our families and to survive.”
As our monthly playback performance, “Your stories on Stage” running non-stop since 2013, was approaching, we received several requests from friends and activists to hold playback performances on the street. Our safe spaces are usually the closest thing to a public space that Lebanon has had. It seemed too small compared to the filled streets and squares around the country. A former member, who left the country in the coming two years, along with 6 other team members, as they were hit hard by the crisis, the disappointing fall of the revolution and the Beirut blast. He said, “The one who opens something knows well how to contain it“.
Serving the personal, and serving the political
We decided to perform our art to contain the individuals, not the community. In our playback, we always take the story shared by an individual, an audience member, to the communal level, we go as far as we can with the echoes of each story. We tackle the political in personal stories. Now we switched the game, now is the time to tackle the personal in all this political happening. For several nights, I wished we did drum circles, street art, Dabkeh dance, or any art form that could be transformed into jam sessions and that the masses could join in immediately so that we could go on the streets and engage with the people, instead of the minimal and intimate playback. I saw other artists taking their music, clowning, and dancing into the streets but what was happening was bigger than any framed artwork from any rehearsed or prepared acts.
The monthly performance of November 2019 arrived, on the second Wednesday of the month as usual. People came in, a lot less than usual in numbers. The streets had all the eyes and light on them. The safe space remained available for those who wanted to go small in the middle of the big act. Four weeks and the policing government was turning violent already, and the rhetoric of treachery was all over the mainstream media. The stories shared, directly and indirectly reflected people’s fears. The Lebanese have seen a glimmer of hope, an extraordinary hope, and now they fear to believe it and lose it. They weren’t ready for another heartache, another loss. They are not ready to be beaten repeatedly. There has never been a revolution like this in Lebanon, but it was the dream of several generations. The story was too communal and political, but we focused on personal investment. Our stage served as a margin to the revolution. (Figure 3)
I was six months pregnant with my second child and my elder was four. We were on Al Azariyeh street where six clowns are flying around and playing with people from all ages. A financial expert has gathered some people around him, as he talked about the financial crisis that was in its early days. My son had his eyes focused on the financial expert and completely ignored the clowns. When the man finished his explanation, my son started clapping wildly. The man unintentionally had put on a show and stole the limelight from the clowns. He had the charisma, the presence, the passion, the dedication, all the ingredients needed to grab the attention of any audience. The clowns proved the theory and the direction: if the show is bigger than your art, then things pace themselves. Pause your art and your time will come.
This was not a dramatic ending of our work, in fact it was only the beginning of a reflective process, merged with real, hard work. We are now humbler, in openness to learn, change and adapt, to listen deeply on and off the stage and reflect that back in our practice. Our monthly performances carried on, up until today, moving a few months online due to COVID-19 lockdowns, but never stopped. We are more political, bolder about it and more than ever we believe that our art is a magnifier of a truth, and a justice that we seek daily. We own a very powerful weapon that is opposing a very well-armed system and we are full of confidence that we shall beat the monster and create a new story to be modeled worldwide.
About the author
Farah Wardani is a Lebanese theatre actress, trainer, clown doctor, puppeteer and applied theatre practitioner. A theatre graduate with an MA in Drama Therapy, a Diploma of High studies in theater and a BA in psychology. She is a Playback Theatre practitioner, trainer, actress and conductor. A director of Laban, a Lebanese theatre- based NGO that uses social and psychosocial theatre approaches for social change, capacity building and therapy. Farah trains and uses Theater of the Oppressed, Drama Therapy and other techniques with different communities and contexts as a medium for healing, social change, and political activism.
Anti-oppressive Playback Theatre
By Mireya P. Ruiz Esparza
This is a proposal for practitioners and audiences who want to challenge themselves to change themselves, change us and change the world. In this article the author introduces a model of Playback Theatre that is based on Leticia Nieto’s analysis of the psychological dynamics of oppression and privilege (Nieto, 2010). Building from an honest statement of her own “position“, she describes the key features of Anti-oppressive Playback Theatre and shows how this model differs from other approaches to playing the lives and stories of others. Readers are given an insight into the training and practice that are required in order to develop the skills that can enable and promote social justice for themselves, and for those around them.
Before getting to know Playback Theatre I studied anthropology and worked several weeks each month with indigenous communities. A concept I gathered during those years that has guided my path is “position”. This concept is contributed to the anthropological discussion by Renato Rosaldo: “The concept of position refers to the way in which quotidian experiences permit or inhibit certain types of discernment” (Rosaldo, 1991). Our history, our context, our lived experiences prepare us to understand certain phenomena better than others. Therefore, each person, due to their position observes from a particular angle. None of us has the complete view, so it is important to assume that our observations are limited.
Not only is our viewpoint incomplete, it is also partial. It is impossible to remove and put aside the conditioning imposed by our culture, our way of seeing – and living in – the world. There is no impartiality, nor is there neutrality when a person watches or listens. Getting rid of ideological evaluations, prejudices, sympathies and antipathies is impossible. They are always impinging at an unconscious level.
This bias inherent in any person leads us to an important declaration: all research is interpretation, and as such is provisional, in that it is created and reproduced by “positioned” people. In this sense, it is important to know the position of the person who writes (in this case me), to be a little clearer about the partiality contained in my gaze, my words, and the choices of texts and quotes I made.
I am a Mexican, a 50-year-old woman, doctor of anthropology, questioning regarding my sexual orientation, racialized as Mestiza, culturally Christian/atheist, living with a disability, and a survivor of child sexual abuse. Today, when there are some official figures on this cruel face of patriarchy, it is known that “Mexico is the first country in the world in sexual abuse of minors, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Of these violations, 90% perpetrated against girls occurs within homes and in the family environment” (Barragán, 2021). Child sexual abuse marked my life, it was a prolonged abuse that began when I was six years old and ended when I was twelve – when I had the courage and strength to stop it. Now I know that the wounds and anger that the abuse provoked in me, I channeled into social and political struggle. From a young age I remember a great impulse to fight to change the living conditions of the most unprotected people.
My heart was filled with joy when the Zapatista movement emerged in Chiapas in 1994, I was in college at the time. It has given me the evidence that political work is a service to the community, the conviction that the resolution of community problems is built collectively, and for this, it is necessary to rebuild the social fabric that has been destroyed in many of our communities. And it gave me the certainty that it is possible to build another world and that our experiences have enough wisdom to recognize the paths.
I discovered Playback Theatre in 2007 at the hands of Leticia Nieto. Her anti-oppression model “Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment” (Nieto, 2010) has made me understand the complexity of oppression, recognizing that the truth is not at the poles but across the spectrum: there are many nuances, many conflicting roles, many areas of Privilege and Marginalization, superimposed on the same person. This model has made it possible for me to see that the work of transformation implies personal work, where each person learns to distinguish the path to build anti-oppressive skills in their areas of Privilege and liberation skills in their areas of Marginalization.
Finally, psychodrama came to me with its healing power and the socionomic proposal of Jacob Levy Moreno, which has allowed me to hope that the change in the micro-social will be reflected in the macro-social. My gaze has definitively searched for ideas, spaces, tools, proposals that lead to transformation. Transformation of the world where oppressive dynamics prevail, allowing, for example, the existence of girls who are victims of sexual abuse. My position makes me interested in investigating the potentialities of Playback Theatre as a theatre of transformation.
Is Playback Theatre a theatre of transformation?
The word transformation comes from the Latin transformatio. It has the prefix trans (from one side to the other), the word forma (figure, image) and the suffix tion (action and effect). Therefore, transformation is the action and effect of changing from one form to another. Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas tell us that one of their many inspirations was Richard Schechner, who advocated a theatre of transformation – theatre that stimulates a lasting change in the identity of the viewer, as opposed to theatre as just an entertaining experience that stimulates no change.
From this definition we can determine that Playback Theatre is a theatre of transformation. Jonathan Fox says, “The overall goal is a relaxed community, listening closely to their fellow citizens, open to deep associations of memory, and ready to raise a hand to tell a story” (Fox, 2018). Being in a space like this is transformative, because in this world, spaces with these characteristics are not common. Therefore, by experiencing these spaces, it is certain that a change of form is made in the people who participate in it.
Jonathan and Jo share that from the beginning of their experimentations they hoped that their theatre would contribute to a more just and peaceful society. The key to their vision was and is the affirmation that everyone has a story that deserves a safe place to tell it and to be listened to with respect. Little by little they realized that this vision contained a direct call for social justice, that Playback Theatre could be a place where unheard voices could have a space, as long as “… our awareness, historical knowledge, and interactive skills were robust enough” (Fox & Salas, 2021).
A space that works for social justice does not happen by itself. There must be awareness, historical knowledge and interactive skills to create a safe environment and give access to all stories. Opening a space where all stories feel welcome implies a first level of intentionality towards social justice.
But we must also keep in mind that we are all part of the oppressive system that gives room to some voices and silences others. Our position makes it impossible for us to look at all sides of a story, even if it is told and listened to with respect. If we want to go to deeper levels in this intentionality towards social justice, we need an Anti-oppressive Playback.
Playback for Dialogue, Status and Rank
- Playback for dialogue
“Playback for dialogue” is an adaptation for when there are parties in conflict in the audience (Fox, 2018). The objective is to open a space for dialogue and listening between these parties – emphasizing balance and fairness, so that both parties feel confident to tell their stories. Fox gives two examples: 1) a performance in a hospital with medical staff, families of patients and patients, and 2) a performance with people of color and white people.
There is a significant difference between social roles (doctors patients) and oppressive social assignments (people of color-white people). Whilst in both examples there is a conflict present, the quality of the conflict is significantly different.
Social roles (patient-doctor) may seem to build oppressive hierarchical relationships, but this is not necessarily the case. Social roles that are not delineated by oppressive social assignments, have more to do with behavioral styles or with situations. We can have medical staff who use their place in the hospital to abuse patients, but it is also possible to find medical staff committed to their work and their patients. In this sense, the roles are chosen (and occur within a specific context – in this case the hospital). They are roles that are taken and left. We can also find patients whose behavior may be haughty or inhibited, that is, the role of patient or doctor does not present oppressive hierarchies of permanent Privilege and Marginalization. If we focus only on the situational roles of doctor and patient, there may be a lot we fail to see.
These social roles act from what Leticia Nieto calls Status-play. Status-play is easy to observe and most likely we are aware of it. “We all know how to take a high-Status or low-Status position, and we all get lots of practice in both. High-Status behavior is marked by a dominant or assertive posture and verbal messages of assertion, leadership, dominance or knowledge. Low-Status behavior is marked by a submissive or passive posture, and verbal messages of agreement, compliance, acceptance, and support. Both high- and low- Status moves can be useful in some situations or destructive in others – these are fundamental modes of behavior, not good or bad in themselves” (Nieto & Boyer M., 2006 Part 2, 2007).
This is not so with oppressive social assignments; these are not self chosen: either you are a person of color or you are a white person. In addition, they are memberships that do not vary over time. And we know that they bring Privilege to one party (white people, in this example) and Marginalization to another party (people of color).
Leticia Nieto calls this classification and evaluation mechanism Rank. “The Rank machine does only one thing: It sorts people into two piles, a small pile of people who are overvalued and a larger pile of people who are devalued. We call these two piles Agents and Targets. Since the Rank machine is part of our deep conditioning, we rarely become aware of what it does, or even that it’s operating… We meet a person, and the Rank machine has assessed them as well as us, and categorized them and us, often before either of us speaks. We don’t have control over this; it just happens. What we do have some control of is our awareness of the Rank machine, and how we respond to the categorizing that goes on in ourselves and others” (Nieto & Boyer M., 2007).
- Status and Rank
It is useful to separate both concepts – Status-play and Rank – to understand them. However, they are always both present, so it is very productive to distinguish them. A person who belongs to a socially Marginalized group (person of color) may engage in high-Status behaviors, may be seen as confident, imposing, but that behavior does not change the underlying dynamics of social and institutionalized inequality that they experience every day. In the same way, a person with a Privilege assignment (white person) can adopt low Status behavior, go unnoticed, not take up much space, but that does not change their membership in the Rank category that grants them privileges because of their skin color.
In this sense, the rift that separates people by oppressive social assignments is deeper than the rift that separates people who play different social roles such as doctor and patient. Such examples (people of color/white people and doctor/patient) highlight significantly different situations. The conditions to be able to achieve a dialogue between the parties are also very different; if there are patients and doctors in the audience some elements are needed, if there are people of color and white people in the audience different elements are needed. The first example will reveal appropriate or inappropriate social role behaviors and the second example will reveal oppressive social assignments that maintain social injustice.
When we are faced with a conflict of social roles and we want to address it from those roles, the “Playback for dialogue” adaptation can be used – if what is sought is to generate an encounter. But if we are facing a conflict generated by oppressive social assignments, it is necessary to define an adaptation called “Anti-oppressive Playback“.
“Anti-oppressive Playback” is necessary because breaking the systemic structure of oppression is not easy. The daily experience of a person who lives with Marginalization is radically different from the daily experience of a person who lives with Privilege in the same Rank category. These experiences are also inversely proportional, that is, the less access of one, the greater access of the other. This makes true dialogue very difficult. Seating these people in the same space to share their stories requires us to keep all of this in mind. We must make ourselves the best tools to build the optimal processes and conditions for a space for anti-oppressive dialogue that can give us back the humanity that oppression takes from us, both to people who experience Marginalization and to people who experience Privilege. Anti-oppressive Playback requires a long and very specific training that needs the consent of the practitioners who want to perform it. The conditioning caused by the Rank system is profound, we are not aware of it even though it is present in all our social interactions. Anti-oppressive training always invites us to challenge the social conditioning to which we have been subjected and invites us to doubt certainties. This training makes us uncomfortable. It is a challenge that requires discipline and commitment. The training is long, because it is a slow process to get rid of the shells left by the Rank system. The training is specific because we must continually do social analysis to examine how oppressive social forces appear in our interactions. While it may be desirable for the anti-oppressive approach to be applied to all Playback Theatre, regardless of a special purpose, the demands of the training mean that I do not believe it is possible.
- A Starting Point
Nick Rowe writes “I have asked myself what I would do if, as a white, heterosexual, English, middle class man, I was cast as the teller’s actor when the teller was, say, a black New York rapper, or a woman who is openly expressive around sexuality. Would it be possible for me to do justice to their stories?”. He discusses two approaches, the “organic approach” and the “approach of radical difference”. The “organic approach” starts from the fact that the representation of the other on the stage is not problematic. It appeals to listening and to the authenticity of the person who acts. This approach “supposes a true, universal self beyond culture and language” (Rowe N., 2007).
This stance is difficult to sustain when we have the concept of position in mind. Paraphrasing Rowe, the question worth answering is: can we trust the self of the actor, especially when it comes to playing someone else who is significantly different? Jutta Heppenkausen asks herself a question very close to this: “In this work of reflecting theatrically, can we trust in an empathic capacity understood as something ‘natural’?” (Heppekausen J., 2018). The assumption that we can understand and represent lives completely different from ours, denies the concept of position. We cannot escape from our cultural, political, ideological and social gaze. Good intentions are insufficient, the goal to resonate and connect is not enough:
“If when acting I only improvise ‘from the guts’, the question arises as to how the body images that I develop spontaneously ‘entered my guts’ and what meaning they have for ‘every me’, for my socially determined capacity for action … Unintentionally consciously, the Playback Theatre companies could contribute to reproduce in the representation of the Playback Theatr the social conditions against which they committed their work” (Heppekausen J., 2018).
A criticism made of the organic approach, from the approach of radical difference, is that it focuses on identification, and identification can make the teller invisible in representation. Identification is the negation of difference and distance. Jonathan Fox shares an encounter with Pamela Freeman, an African-American woman: “I told her that it was important for me to connect positively before raising the question of our differences. She answered that for her, it was the opposite. She needed truth- telling before she was willing to connect. I learned a lesson that day, and I committed myself to learn more about the state of racism in my country” (Fox J., Leadership Online Course).
To tell the truth is to talk about what makes our access, and lived experience, different. To tell the truth is to talk about the oppression under racism that one lives, and the other does not. Talking about these differences is always uncomfortable because many times they are differences that open an abyss of incomprehension of what has not been experienced. Starting from the discomfort of difference (and not from the pleasant feeling of identification) can provide us with bridges to open true dialogues. “Not the claim to understand the other, but the recognition that the other is different and incomprehensible, this must be the starting point for intercultural training” (Heppekausen J., 2018). Leticia Nieto shared an idea from Henri Nouwen with me, “learned ignorance”: the persistent stance that I must learn each person’s meaning rather than assuming that I share them. This starting point is important in Playback Theatre and vital in Anti oppressive Playback Theatre. It is vital to be clear that the differences in life caused by oppressive social assignments position us. Recognizing that my gaze is partial allows me to be alert and accept that there are parts of a story that I can understand and there are parts that I cannot understand. “This knowledge and our ability to reflect, the intersection between an attitude of not understanding and understanding lead to a broadening of perspective in the representation of stories” (Heppekausen J., 2018).
Towards an ethic in Anti-oppressive Playback
“The key factor in ethics is the intention that underlies our behavior, the intentional motivation that drives the behavior…the intention is ethical insofar as it aims to improve the well-being of all, including oneself” (Walsh R., 2011).
To construct an ethic in the adaptation of Anti-oppressive Playback returns us to the concept of position. The concept of position accounts for a place we occupy and from where we observe and listen. Life experiences place us where we are positioned, the Rank categories also position us: age, disability, religious culture, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social class, Indigenous background, nationality, gender (Nieto & Boyer M., 2006 Part 1). While Rank assignments are stable, our position moves with every experience we have. This axiom gives us another concept: re-position.
In the preparation and training to promote Anti-oppressive Playback, we must commit ourselves to broaden our gaze and listen. Starting from our positionings, we must open ourselves to the realities that we do not see immediately to constantly “re-position” ourselves. This process will help us to avoid simplifying stories, invisibilizing or harming people.
Ben Rivers and Jiwon Chung (Rivers B. & Chung J., 2019) share a series of guiding principles, including:
- “Anti-oppressive practice requires an informed, critical worldview together with a critique of the ways in which we are entrained into accepting and normalizing oppressive ideologies.
- As practitioners, we must therefore assume responsibility for addressing our own internalized oppression and complicity with hegemonic discourse.
- We must train to identify and bracket our own personal biases, prejudices, and psychological projections especially where these reflect a privileged status.
- We should listen for the complexity of a story including its psychological, social, cultural, historical and political dimensions.
- Practitioners should understand the potential for retraumatization in unskillful enactments. We should also know how to respond to traumatic reactions if they do arise”.
In the training that reVelArte Playback Theatre Collective has had with Leticia Nieto, it has been important to know our belonging to Privilege and Marginalization groups:
- We work on our stories to reveal how the oppressive experience of our marginalization and the comfortable experience of our privileges go through us.
- We learn to develop anti-oppressive and liberation skills in our stories.
- We work to recognize in the story we each hear from our partner which Rank category we must choose to analyze first (because all areas of Rank are present and active in every story).
- We work to notice which skill – oppressive or anti-oppressive – is in evidence.
- We practice recognizing and admitting the position of Rank that each one has, in the story that listens, this is important to recognize our possibilities and/or limits.
Leticia Nieto’s model (Nieto & Boyer M., 2006 Part 2, 2007) includes 5 skills for people with Privilege (Indifference, Distancing, Inclusion, Awareness and Alliance) and 5 skills for people with Marginalization (Survival, Confusion, Empowerment, Strategy and Recentering). Some of these skills are oppressive and some are anti- oppressive. The oppressive skills of Privilege are Indifference, Distancing and Inclusion; and the anti- oppressive skills are Awareness and Alliance. The oppressive skills of Marginalization are Survival and Confusion; and the anti oppressive skills are Empowerment, Strategy and Recentering.
Anti-oppressive skills provide us with more options, more possibility for action, they connect us on a deep and true level. However, oppressive skills are always present, and we resort to them on many occasions. Knowing, understanding, and connecting with the skills in the stories we tell and hear is a fundamental to training in Anti oppressive Playback Theatre. Skills training allows us to understand that all of us have ideas and actions that are oppressive, both in our categories of Marginalization and in our categories of Privilege. Giving those oppressive actions and ideas a place, not being afraid to see and acknowledge them, paves the way for developing anti oppressive skills.
This work re-positions us personally and as a group. It allows us to train our awareness of the oppressive system of Rank to realize (ever faster) how it surrounds us and to respond to it (in our daily and group life) putting in action anti-oppressive abilities. This requires a lot of training in a practice space that allows us to develop anti oppressive and liberation skills; tools that radically change our daily experience and our relationships – even though the Rank system continues to operate.
Broadening the ethical perspective: from small to large
For Ken Wilber (Wilber K. et al., 2010) ethical development is accompanied by the ability to take on increasingly broader perspectives, moving from an exclusive interest in myself (first level) to the need to take care of the entire network that sustains life (fifth level). When we assume more comprehensive levels of ethical development in our lives, we do not abandon the first levels – we include them in the next level. Wilber calls this ethical development Integral Ethics.
A metaphor that helps is to look at each ethical level as a cinematographic shot. You can have the “extreme close up shot” which zooms in on a small part of an object or person. You can also have the “extreme long shot” that allows you to see the whole context where that object or person is. Integral Ethics assumes that each of the levels contains a fraction of the Truth. All levels together have the complete Truth. It is not about focusing on the Truth of one of the levels, but about experiencing the integrality of them. Integral Ethics can provide us with a frame of reference for our training. This view of ethics seems to me to be very useful in our lives and in the practice of Anti-oppressive Playback.
- First level: the lens of the Self
“The first task is to know yourself” (Fox J., 2006). The first level of ethics is the personal commitment to get to know yourself, inquire about yourself, and take responsibility for the decisions you make and the actions you take. Writers in this field typically share who they are according to their social memberships, allowing them to position and declare themselves. I share one example below:
“It is important to note that the authors of this article are savarna people who are female-identifying and born into households that practice the majoritarian religion in India, Hinduism. While we are speaking as active dissenters, we are not speaking of or for the lived experience of the minority communities. It is only as allies and playbackers that we author this piece. The attempt is to reflectively document the playback theatre performed at the site of resistance, Bilal Bagh. The process of writing this essay has been one of un- and re-learning along with recording of a pivotal moment in India’s political history-in-making. Each writer on this team has been challenging discourses and practices of oppression and discrimination while educating themselves about the ways to show up in allyship and solidarity, accepting the long and fruitful journey for what it is” (Srinivasan K. et al., 2020).
These women with Hindu religious culture participate with Playback Theatre in a broad protest and flesh out stories of women with Muslim religious culture. Women who, assuming their Privilege in the category of religious culture, reveal it and strive to develop the ability of Alliance surpassing the still oppressive skill of Inclusion that the privileged gaze so rests. My viewpoint is that no one should do Playback Theatre if they are not willing or capable of seeing and working on themselves.
- Second level: the lens of my groups -We/Us/Our Group
A second ethical level is to widen our gaze to include our collectivities. To fulfill this ethical level, it is important to set up homogeneous laboratories, which bring together Marginalized people in a Rank membership. Together, they can reveal the network that builds the oppression that marginalizes them and the way each one experiences it, and they can collectively outline the path to develop liberation skills. They can figure out ways to light the threshold to the next ability. We are in collective: the I, the you, the we interact at this level.
At reVelArte for several years we explored the category of gender. Only women made up the collective. We did the exploration first within the collective: reading and reflecting on the texts of Leticia Nieto; training with her; passing our stories through the body in motion; feeling, looking and reflecting on the experience lived in space. We acknowledged our histories through the oppressiveabilities. We fed our beings with the light that recognizing liberation skills in stories gives. We practiced in the body, emotion and ideas the transits that open the door to the next skill. As a second stage, for two years we shared all we had learned with another group of women, through workshops (sometimes including Playback Theatre). (See figures 2 and 3 above)
Working with my categories of Marginalization has allowed me to understand the suffering that marginalization entails and reveal the way to free myself from it. Making separate training spaces by category of Marginalization is a good strategy to go into depth- something that won’t be accomplished if the group is mixed.
“Playback, when used within social movements, is characterized by the desire to elevate and amplify the voice of the oppressed… oppressed populations are able to define their own sense of self through accounts that celebrate the richness, complexity, and dignity of their lives… Oppressed groups and their allies can use Playback to celebrate triumphs and successes, and for the transmission of important skills, strategies, values and histories within or between communities and social movements” (Rivers B. & Chung J., 2019).
A greater challenge at this level, is to work on our categories of Privilege. Privilege is so comfortable that it is difficult to become conscious of it. We settle for reaching the Inclusion skill (from Leticia Nieto’s model) and avoid going beyond it, because the next skill is very uncomfortable. My life partner is in spaces where men work on their Gender Privilege. In these spaces the Playback Theatre could also be very useful. Opening spaces where we work stories that come from our Privileged categories can help us illuminate what remains in our blind spots until today. Until I do deep work with each of my categories of Privilege, I will not be ready for stories of privilege in Playback Theatre.
- Third level: the lens of all human beings
A third level involves the third person (he, she, they), “all human beings“. Preparing for diversity requires spaces with diversity: “it is important for companies seeking to enable a dialogue on diversity and social justice to include a membership that is diverse in age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, legal status and so on” (Sajnani N., et al., 2007). Having a diverse group prepares you for spaces where Privileged and Marginalized people are present.
“…a company that does not explore its own stories of issues of race, class, and other categories of oppression will probably not be sensitive to the stories embedding these themes when they occur in performances, and there is a strong likelihood that prejudice will be perpetuated. This process is never easy or quick. But it is essential” (Fox J., 2006).
We need to create a laboratory with people whose memberships are Marginalized, for some, and Privileged, for some, to deal with the conflicts that arise when we talk about our systemic differences. A diverse laboratory to deal with the anger experienced by an Empowered Marginalized person in the face of the Indifferent Privilege of the other, and to deal with the painful discomfort of Awareness of Privilege that always wants to return us to the subtle oppression of Inclusion.
In such a laboratory we can learn what to do when the narrator speaks from their privilege. It is a general concern for practitioners “to make sure that oppressive dynamics are not reproduced inside or outside the performance space” (Rivers B. & Chung J., 2019). The ethical guidelines for trainers and practitioners of Playback Theatre, state, among other things: “When necessary we take appropriate action to address prejudice that may be expressed consciously or unconsciously by a teller or workshop participant“ (Salas J. et al., 2020). Reflection on what appropriate action might be led Jonathan Fox (Fox J., 2006) to write an article called “The Limits of Empathy: Avoiding Bias on Stage” on how to deal, in Playback Theatre, with stories that reveal oppressive prejudice and bias.
To face these complexities there is a horizon that gives me a world of hope. This horizon is shared by Leticia Nieto “even the most oppressive history can be received by anti-oppressive arms willing to support the smallest movement towards liberation” (Nieto L., 2019). This phrase is potent. It is not an easy task, but it is important to develop that capacity. Nieto´s model provides us with the tools to be able to open ourselves – not only to stories of Marginalization, but also to stories of Privilege. Practicing it in a laboratory will give us the experience to be skillful in conducting and enacting those stories.
“The ethical challenge was: how to serve a narrator who does not show an anti-oppressive/anti-racist conscience? We could not protect the public from the statement ‘we have to overcome the race’ with its effect of discount and contempt … What we must do is address it when it becomes apparent; address it without embarrassing the narrator, without going on to educate/indoctrinate, without interrupting the ritual container” (Nieto L., 2019).
- Fourth and Fifth Level: the lens of all beings in the world and the cosmos
In Ken Wilber’s Integral Ethics, we find two more levels. The fourth level that integrates “all beings in the world”, where the view is extended to the whole network of life on the planet. The fifth level requires having the perspective of all sentient beings in all worlds- where the gaze transcends the planet and is in connection with the place we occupy in the vast and infinite cosmos.
Playback Theatre practices have reached the fourth lens. The reflections of Jo Salas (Salas J., 2019) in the text “Climate change and Playback Theatre” are part of this intention to use Playback Theatre as a tool to open ourselves to the experience of connecting with this level. Integral Ethics invites us to have a daily practice to connect with all levels. Strengthening the necessary muscles that allow developing the ability to assume broader perspectives and keep them in mind. Integral Ethics can be a frame of reference that guides our training.
Closing and Opening
Many practitioners have paved the way for an intention to use Playback Theatre to respond to the deep call for social justice. Some have started to describe the learning from this work. There is still much to read, listen, comprehend, practice, dream, systematize to continue investigating and opening paths.
This article represents one step in the systematization of ideas that can give us a theoretical background to our social justice work in Playback Theatre. Researching and writing it has made me feel that I belong to a community of playbackers who have their minds, hearts and bodies set on transforming the world – on giving the stage and microphone to the stories that reveal Marginalization and Privileges generated by the system of oppression in which we live. To this community, thank you for existing. I see you. I hear you. Let us keep giving life to an Anti-oppressive Playback.
Leticia Nieto, Irene Andrade, Claudia Ledesma, Isabel Pérez, Eva Isela Mejía.
Thank you for being there…
Thank you for the collective journey, the shared path…
Barragán, A. (2021) “El 90 % de las violaciones contra niñas en México sucede en el entorno familiar”. El País. Sección México, Noviembre 3
Fox, J. (2006) “The Limits of Empathy: Avoiding Bias on Stage”. Company Partnership. February
Fox, J. (2018) “But What Is It For?” . Leadership Online Course Lecture notes 5a, Centre for Playback Theatre
Fox, J., and Salas, J. (2021) “Playback Theatre and Social Change (from Personal Stories in Public Spaces: Essays on Playback Theatre by Its Founders)”. Tusitala Publishing, New Paltz, New York
Fox, J. (no year) “The sociopolitical context of our stories”. Leadership Online Course Lecture notes 9a, Centre for Playback Theatre
Heppekausen, J. (2018) “Historias difíciles en tiempos difíciles. Distancia estética y fortalecimiento de la capacidad de acción en la representación teatral tomando como ejemplo el Teatro Playback” Traducción: Cristina Frodden. The IPTN Journal (Interplay). March 11
Nieto, L., and Boyer M. (2006) “Part 1: Understanding Oppression: Strategies in Addressing Power and Privilege” In ColorsNW Magazine, March
Nieto, L., and Boyer M. (2006) “Part 2: Understanding Oppression: Strategies in Addressing Power and Privilege. Skill Sets for Targets” In ColorsNW Magazine, October
Nieto, L., and Boyer, M. (2007) “Part 3: Understanding Oppression: Strategies in Addressing Power and Privilege. Skill Sets for Agents” In ColorsNW Magazine, March
Nieto, L. (2010) “Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment. A developmental strategy to liberate everyone”. Cuetzpalin Publishing. EU
Nieto, L. (2019) Text in Playback Theatre Supervision Course with Jonathan Fox [xx] Salas, J. (2019) “Climate Change and Playback Theatre”. In Playback Theatre Reflects. August 4
Rivers, B., and Chung, J. (2019) “Playback Theatre and Social Change: Functions, Principles and Practices”. In Playback Theatre Reflects. May 21
Rosaldo, R. (1991) Cultura y verdad. Nueva propuesta de análisis social. Grijalvo, México
Rowe, N. (2007), Playing the Other, The Ethical Limitations of Playback Performing (Chapter 9). London: Jessica Kingsley.
Sajnani, N., Crandell D., and Israel, B. (2007) “Workshop: Playback Theatre and Social Justice- What’s at Stake Relative to Diversity and Anti-Oppression”. June 16-18
Salas, J. (2019) “Climate Change and Playback Theatre”. In Playback Theatre Reflects. August 4
Salas, J., et.al. (2020) Code of Ethics for trainers and practitioners. Leadership Online Course Lecture notes 10c, Centre for Playback Theatre
Srinivasan, K., Priya L.S.N., and Ravikumar, R. (2020) “Bilal Bagh: Playback Theatre at a Historic Protest by Muslim Women”. In Playback Theatre Reflects. July 10
Walsh, R. (2011) What is Ethics, and What is an Ethical Life? (1). Channel Dr. Roger Walsh //youtu.be/UPPAWNL8CTs
Wilber, K., Patten, T., Leonard A., and Morelli, M. (2010) “La Ética Integral”, en La Práctica Integral de Vida. Traducción del inglés de David González Raga. Editorial Kairos, 283-313
Fox, J. (2018) “The Theory of Narrative Reticulation. A brief description”. December. Leadership Online Course Lecture notes 3a, Centre for Playback
Fox, J. (no year) “Life-changing stories”. Leadership Online Course Lecture notes 8a, Centre for Playback Theatre
Heppekausen, J. (2015) “Lo personal es político: contribución a una ética, a un mundo más humano” Teatros de transformación. Coordinadora Ana María Fernández Espinosa. ÑAQUE Editora, España
Hosking, B., and Christian, C. (2010) “Playback Theatre as a Methodology for Social Change”. In Centre for Playback Theatre -building communities of understanding-. April
Leadership Online Course Lecture notes 2e, Centre for Playback Theatre
Ross, N. (2021) “The Spirit of the Order: Playback Theatre Against the Normalization of Evil”. In Playback Theatre Reflects. January 2
Salas, J. (2011) “The participant performance model”. (Excerpt from “Stories in the Moment: Playback Theatre for Building Community and Justice” by Jo Salas, in Acting Together: Performance and the Creative Transformation of Conflict, Eds. Cohen, Varea and Walker. New Village Press).
Salas, J. (2017) “Standing Up: Playback Theatre and School Bullying”. In Playback Theatre Reflects.
Volkas, A. (2010) WWGN – Maya interviews Armand Volkas. Channel Worldwidegoodnews. //youtu.be/aHOz3cxaVyg
Volkas, A. (2013) Interview conducted by Lisa Gale Garrigues, posted 5/23/13 //www.healingcollectivetrauma.com/armand-volkas-healing-the-wounds-of-history.html
About the author
Mireya resides in Mexico, and she is the founder of the Mexican School of Playback Theatre. She completed Leadership Training in Playback Theatre in 2022 and this article is an adaptation of her essay on the same topic.
Playback Psi (Ψ) Greece – Documenting Stories of Expatriation through Playback Theatre
By Vera Lardi
The content of this article is based on the material published in the book “Stories of Expatriation: Personal Testimonies and Chronicles from the Heart”, published in Greek by The Association of Dramatic Expression and Therapy Palmos (2021).
The Association of Dramatic Expression and Therapy “Palmos” in collaboration with “Playback Psi” theatre company designed and implemented the project “Stories of Expatriation“. The project ran from January to December 2021. Playback Theatre was used to collect testimonies of émigrés and repatriated Greeks. These stories were then published in a Greek publication entitled “Stories of Expatriation: Personal Testimonies and Chronicles from the Heart“. This book includes the transcript of the stories, a description of each representation by the performers, photos, the feedback from the audience and an overall analysis of the collective storyline for each performance. This project was funded by the Greek Ministry of Culture and the publication is endorsed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, General Secretariat for Greeks Abroad and Public Diplomacy.
The aims were to record the social, political, educational and cultural characteristics of the Greek mobile and immigrant population, to revive and record the historical memory of the Greek Diaspora and the challenges of integration in the host areas. It also aimed to strengthen the feeling of belonging within each community and examine the effect of “acculturation” on the communities’ life and artistic creation. “Acculturation comprehend those phenomena which result when groups of individuals having different cultures come into continuous first-hand contact, with subsequent changes in the original culture patterns of either or both groups” (Redfield et al., 1936).
January – October 2021: Get in touch with the communities, organize the performances and rehearsals.
October – November 2021: Perform Playback Theatre to the communities, record and process the material.
December 2021: Complete editing the material and publish the collective volume “Stories of Expatriation: Personal Testimonies and Chronicles from the Heart“.
Playback Psi group
Playback Psi consists of a group of performers, musicians, visual artists and light designers. Some members of the group have also been trained in conducting and the roles interchange. In this project, each performance involved four Playback Theatre performers, a musician, a visual artist who produced a painting during each gathering and a conductor. A tech person was involved in the online performances and a light designer in the live ones.
The population involved came from Greek Communities of the Diaspora including people who experienced either voluntary migration, or exile and social exclusion from their homeland. Greek people with different characteristics of age, gender, identity and ideology, located in various parts of the world who had consented to the recording of the performances and the publication of their testimonies.
• Self-governance of Greeks of Budaors (Hungary)
• Greek Community of Zurich (Switzerland)
• Association of Greek Writers of Five Continents
• Greek Community of Berlin (Germany)
• Greek Community of Dresden (Germany)
• Greek Community of Venezuela
• Greek Cultural Organization “Nostos” (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
For the description and evaluation of the project, the team sought a methodology of analysis inherent to Playback Theatre. The understanding of the narratives was based on the “Red Thread” by Jonathan Fox (2007). In the context of a playback performance, a mental thread unfolds, each new story complements, answers or opposes the ones already told. This news raw material is recreated by the artists on stage. So, in the end a new, collective and self existent piece of art is created, which includes all the narratives, representations, associations and feelings of the performance.
As a tool for evaluating the performances, the group used “Narrative Reticulation“, (Fox, 2019), a theatre appraisal method that explores the dimensions of a playback performance: collaboration, spontaneity, embodiment, story sense, milieu, atmosphere and guidance.
Common themes in storytelling
The Greeks of the diaspora experience immigration in great diversity depending on their age, circumstances of immigration and the conditions they encountered at the country of arrival. It is a large diverse community that breathes through different generations and carves its own path through History. The commonplace in most stories was the internal conflict of the “here” and “there“, that defines a double life in-between two homelands. Nostalgia and loss prevail, especially among the elders. Tellers shared that their choice to leave Greece was sometimes well planned, sometimes abrupt. However, most people have testified that they are largely satisfied from their present conditions. They referred to the important role of the Greek communities in solving practical problems and in dealing with loneliness. They gave value to their community’s solidarity and recognized a transnational element in humanity.
Specifically, the older members of communities created by Greeks escaping conflict, such as the Hungarian community, felt the need to restore the historical memory. They referred to the differences between the younger and the older generation. They expressed their concern for the traditional Greek customs and manners that are lost in second and third generations. They also talked about the changing political scenery that creates ambivalence between appreciation and disagreement.
Economic migrants, on the other hand, scientists and people with international charity activities, living in Germany and Zurich, expressed their disappointment and anger for the weakness of the Greek state to support them. Most younger people reported that the main reasons for migration were academic advancement and professional stability. They talked about their pursue of working opportunities, better quality of life, creating new relationships and intercultural families. They talked about the host cities’ multiculturalism, diversity and inclusion. There was, however, a senior teller that brought the perspective of a contemporary radicalizing world and the rise of extremism. He offered a descriptive image of the earth moving on its axis at the opposite direction. The members of the Greek Community of Dresden, in particular, emphasized the role of the community and its substantial support. The main theme of this performance seemed to be “Togetherness“.
In other cases, like in the performance for the Association of Greek Writers of Five Continents, the storytelling began with the citation of literature by the audience and led to a theatrical dialogue of deep emotional sharing, where speech flowed poetically through the telling and representations.
In the performance for the Argentinian Community, despite the efforts of equally exploring the here and now of the participants, their attraction from the past was irresistible. Their need was to remember their ancestors and the ancestral land. The atmosphere was flooded with emotions, smells, sounds, images from the homeland. The narratives were a journey of movement on the map, partings and encounters, both real and imagined. They met with deceased loved ones emerging from the past, their hard work, the long journeys with the boat, the women who wandered away from their villages as “émigrés brides“. A long silence at the end held both the intensity of the emotion and the mutual respect for this online soul deposition.
Due to the COVID-19 restrictions, the performance for the returning expatriates of Caracas in Venezuela was the first live performance of Playback Psi since March 2020. People got together after a long time. This performance was emotionally charged influencing the overall atmosphere. The applause was heard for the first time in months creating moments of strong connection between the performers and the audience.
Challenges and allies
Travel Restrictions during Pandemic
Due to the travel restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, Playback Theatre performances were organized mainly online. Playback Psi had already adapted Playback Theatre online in a series of performances performed in the beginning of the pandemic with the title “Tiles”. Preparing for these online shows was a challenge in itself. Doing improvisational theatre at a distance required a lot of faith that the interweaving and catharsis that takes place in live performances is possible to happen online. It also required long hours of rehearsals and experimentation, in order to adapt all expressive means to the unprecedented conditions.
The Ritual plays an important role in Playback Theatre. It supports the creation of a safe space for the stories to emerge. Maintaining the ritual, during the online performances, was challenging. Technically, the audience is presented with a name tag in their personal space and performers are exposed to potential failing of the network, people leaving the room, misuse of cameras and microphones. Being aware of these challenges, the group invested time on connecting with the communities prior to the actual performances. Personal communication with the contact people of each community helped the audience to warm up prior to the performance. The audience was well informed of the process and purpose of the gathering and in most cases, they came to the performance excited to share their stories. In any case, there was always a tech person involved, taking care of live connection problems.
Musicians-members of the communities were invited to participate and to perform their songs live at the performance. Despite the differences and diversity encountered, music proved the strongest connecting cord among community members. Traditional music, folk songs, contemporary compositions were performed and sung live by the audience on many occasions. A performance would often start or finish with a member of the community singing and playing an instrument. Music underlined the atmosphere, condensed emotions, connected the present with the past, bonded community members from different generations and linked the mother land with the present place of residence.
The Aesthetic Imagery
Symbolism in Playback Theatre is the powerful means to reach the essence of the story. Playback Psi group looks for the symbolic elements and archetypes offered by the tellers and aspires to represent them as unique manifestations of a universal human experience. The stories of expatriation were rich in symbolic figures, bodily, olfactory and auditory memories.
Nature came alive in various forms: a little fish in the ocean, mountains surrounding both the present and the past imagery, roots, leaves and seeds of a tree. The color blue, which is the main color of the Greek national flag, appeared through the infinite Aegean Sea, the endless sky and the rivers crossing Europe. People’s transitions were represented by transportation means such as the train, the boat, the airplane and a little girl’s pair of worn-out shoes that do not fit. Archetypes of the Mother, the Father, the Friend and the Home – either left behind or rebuilt – depicted separation, shelter and comfort. Also, figures representing Greece, the community, the nations, freedom, the deceased and the dreaming appeared in the stories.
Common bodily memories of hiding, hugging and letting go, eyes in tears and the helping hand emerged, as well as, olfactory and taste memories, such as, the smell of oregano, baking sweets roasting pistachios and the bittersweet taste of expatriation. Auditory memories, like the ethnic music and the folk songs were present all along underlining the atmosphere. The lyrics of Greek poets, the sound of one’s language, the sound of the cities and of people meeting on the streets and also, the incomprehensible sound of a foreign radio station, all came alive. The Greek circular folk dancing symbolized occasionally the life of the community. The past lived within the present and the human experiences were underlined with a diverse mosaic of contradicting emotions such as relief, confusion, fear, grief, isolation, caring, strength, resilience, nostalgia, solidarity, joy, sorrow, hope and gratitude.
The Power of the Untold
The silences, the breathing, the inarticulate sounds, the changes in rhythm, the short pauses, the intensity and timbre of the voices, the changes in the storyteller’s look, the mouth that speaks, smiles or hesitates, the body that stands awkwardly and sometimes expresses itself with a spontaneous reaction, were all little undiscovered treasures. They hide invisible places and people in the story. Each story involves many others untold. Each performance includes, also, the stories of the spectators who remained silent because they hesitated or did not get the chance to talk. It also includes absent members of the community. All of the above, cannot be recorded verbatim but are elements that determine the atmosphere. They influence the thread of the stories shared. They constitute the first raw material, which, often subconsciously, defines the aesthetic choices of the performers. They complete the speech and guide tellers, listeners and performers towards an interpretation of each single testimony, as well as, of the totality of the narratives.
The experience of the performers
As far as our experience of this process is concerned, we engaged in a project that involved a lot of preparation and commitment. Our primary plan was to visit most of the communities and perform live, but traveling restrictions was changing unexpectedly making it impossible to plan ahead and organize. In these adverse conditions, we did not know where this journey would take us, but we never thought of aborting. Our stable points of reference were Playback Theatre, the Greek language and the desire to be together. Retrospectively, we realize that these conditions are intertwined with the life of every traveler we met on this journey. The reason behind our persistence came from our need to co-create and to confirm that we are not isolated in the lockdown. It may sound familiar, Playback Theatre for us is a way of living. It is a way of comprehending the world, the human experience and ourselves within it. Connecting with our contemporary expatriated Greeks was a way to comprehend and deal with our own circumstances. We sought to connect with people sharing the same cultural background who have survived a similar kind of alienation.
The thread of all stories of expatriation implied an existential loneliness. This is what brought us all together. In these performances we quelled this loneliness and connected. These were the moments when the essence of our meeting crossed the boundaries of national identities and got a universal meaning. Meeting with the expatriated Greeks helped us, also, appreciate the colors, smells and landscape of our homeland, that we take for granted, and remember that the feeling of being at home is a matrix of relationships that do not premise geographical proximity.
We consider “Stories of Expatriation: Personal Testimonies and Chronicles from the Heart” a collective creation. The editorial team, the members of Playback Psi group, the presidents of the Greek communities, the people who brought us in contact with them, the tellers, the audience who watched the performances, are all co creators of this project.
Plans for the future
We are artists who live and work in Greece. Our plans for the future are to get in touch with more Greeks living abroad and play their stories. We wish to reach out for funding in order to translate the book in other languages and explore Playback Theatre further, as a data collection method in field research. We will continue our open performances to the public and in special setting such as, schools and mental health institutions and we will continue to offer Playback Theatre training at the Greek Playback Theatre School.
Contributors to the book
Editor: V. Lardi. Text entries by: D. Begioglou, M. Kastrinou, V. Lardi, G. Papadopoulos, L. Yotis. Text reviewers: A. Polymenopoulou, L. Yotis. Transcriber: A. Hatzyargiriou. Visual Artist: M. Horhocea. Photographer: I. Navridis. Layout designer: C. Fragiadaki. Graphic Designer: K. Primikiriou.
Contributors to the performances
Director of online performances and technical support: C. Theocharopoulos. Director of live performance: L. Yotis. Conductors: L. Yotis, C. Theocharopoulos, D. Begioglou. Musician: A. Misirliadis. Visual Artist: M. Horhocea. Light designer: N. Theocharopoulos. Projection mapping: A.Doukas. Performers: D. Begioglou, C. Fragiadaki, A. Hatzyargiriou, M. Horhocea, M. Kastrinou, V. Lardi, M. Maragopoulou, C. Theocharopoulos, C. Webster, L. Yotis. Communication Team: D. Begioglou, A. Hatzyargiriou, M. Maragopoulou.
Palmos and Playback Psi company
Palmos is a non-profit Association of Dramatic Expression and Therapy, based in Athens, Greece. It was founded in 2005, by Lambros Yotis, psychiatrist (University of Athens, Greece) and dramatherapist (PG Dip and PhD, University of Hertfordshire, UK), theatre actor (Drama School of Athens), stage director and Accredited Playback Theatre Trainer (Centre for Playback Theatre, NY). Its members are accredited psychotherapists and professionals in social work, education and the arts. The aim of this association is research and action in the field that joins theatre, psychotherapy and social sensitization.
Playback Psi theatre group is based in Athens, Greece and was first established in 2004, by a number of performers (actors, dancers, musicians, singers, stage and light designers) under the facilitation of Lambros Yotis. Its aim is to promote theatre as a means for social, educational and therapeutic change. Playback Psi is a member of IPTN and has been performing in their home theatre, in a number of central Athenian theatre stages as well as for audiences in a variety of settings, such as conferences, schools, educational, psychiatric and rehabilitation settings.
The Greek School of Playback Theatre was established in 2019 by the members of Playback Psi group. It is accredited by the Centre for Playback Theatre (CPT) and offers all levels of Playback Theatre training.
- The book “Belonging in Playback Theatre: The Greek Playback Psi Theatre Company” (Yotis, 2020) offers the learning and experience of Playback Psi members, after 18 years of reflecting upon people’s stories in a variety of settings. It is available in English in international book platforms.
Fox, H. (2007). Playback theatre: Inciting dialogue and building community through personal story. The Drama Review, 51(4), 89-105
Fox J. (2019). Guidelines for Mastering Narrative Reticulation, The PlaybackNR Workbook, Tusitala Publishing
Redfield, R., Linton, R., & Herskovits, M. J. (1936). Memorandum for the study of acculturation. American anthropologist, 38(1), 149-152
About the author
Vera Lardi studied History of Art and Design and Theatre Studies (University of Wolverhampton, UK). She is a psychodrama psychotherapist (Center of Athenian Psychodramatic Encounters, Greece), a professional theatre performer (Drama School of the National Theatre of Greece) and an applied theatre trainer. She is the founder of the interdisciplinary hub “Art In Perspective“. She has been a member of Playback Psi since 2005.
“Breaking Silence Together”: Outcomes of Playback Theatre Therapy and Participation in the Play “He who made me a woman”
on the Lives of Single Mothers who Participated in the Process
By Inbar Serfaty Netz
This article is looking at a therapeutic group process and its influences on the participants. This therapeutic group process has started with Playback Theatre, at the Yachdav Centre for single parent families and was meant to give space for the women, with their needs and personal challenges and not only as a parent.
The therapeutic Playback Theatre, lasted about a year and allowed the women to open up and get support, after which the women felt the need for broader recognition of what they had gone through and expressed their desire to convey a message to the public. This gave birth to the play which followed and reflected the therapeutic playback process. Writing the play and the rehearsals toward its staging were a direct continuation of the therapeutic process, and the actual presentation of the play, six times, over a period of nine months, marked the completion and internalization of the process.
This article will show how the entire process helped the participants to better acquainted themselves with their own struggles and improve their lives, which was the main goal of the process.
The First Stage : The ‘What’ and the ‘How’
I am writing this study dealing with the outcomes of therapy through Playback Theatre and participation in the play “He who made me a Woman” on the lives of the group of single mothers who participated in the process in order to examine playback’s therapeutic power, as well as the use of a theatrical production, with screenplay and direction, based on the stories that emerged in the playback therapy group, in order to learn from it about the effectiveness and feasibility of this sort of therapy as it transpired in this group I directed.
For me the question of whether the ongoing process impacted participants, and whether they underwent changes resulting from the therapy through playback consists of a few smaller questions: Have changes occurred in their attitude toward themselves, in their mental state, and/or in their general mood as a result of the process? And if changes did indeed occur, have they resulted in changes in the women’s actual lives and in their decisions on work, family, daily conduct and relationship issues?
Thus, the findings of this research may constitute a basis for continued exploration and development of additional playback groups. The reformulated research question is, then:
“What are the outcomes of the treatment through Playback Theatre and participation in the play ‘He who has made me a woman’ on the lives of the single-mother group who participated in the process?“
- Research Participants
My research participants are three women from the group of seven single mothers who participated in both the therapeutic playback process and in the play. According to Yalom (2005), the ideal size of a therapeutic group is within the range of 5-10 participants, so accordingly, my group was an average-sized one.
The choice of these three specific women for the research was based on their ability to represent the group in terms of the various types of women of which it consisted, both in terms of age, starting point, personal style and positioning in the group, as well as taking into account their verbal and expressive abilities so that they could provide full responses to my questions. The three women participating in the study have allowed me to expose and use their stories for the sake of research (I do so using pseudonyms).
At the time of the premiere, the women were between the ages of 28 and 42. To date they are 34-48 years old. The three women are mothers (of 3-5 children) who have experienced violence at some point in their lives.
Identifying the need, and my personal context:
When I was already the mother of three children, I became acquainted with Playback Theatre. The feelings that this form of art evoked in me, both as a storyteller and as an actress, moved me emotionally. Playback is not a therapeutic tool by definition, but I felt its power over me and over my fellow students. At this point I re- experienced the desire to study some form of therapy. In my search for such a form, I came upon psychodrama.
During my psychodrama studies, I did my internships in shelters for battered women, in a domestic violence treatment centre, and in a boarding school for girls who were removed from their homes by court order for various reasons pertaining to their welfare. In these places I experienced therapy in general, and psychodrama in combination with the arts in particular. When I started working in psychodrama and art therapy, my first workplace was the Yachdav Centre.
I felt that in order for women to truly be able to move on from their complex and traumatic pasts to a better future, it is necessary to work on their inner patterns of abuse (i.e., on the different personal characteristics of each of them pertaining to it). I discerned the need for therapeutic work on the difficulties that arise (and break out in front of the children), and felt this must be done in a safe space that I hoped we could create for them in the Yachdav Centre, which was already a meaningful place for them.
The Yachdav Centre where the group met – the institutional context:
The Yachdav Centre, in Eilat, is a service that has been operating since 2002 and was established in recognition of a municipal need, where 23% of the families in the city (located at the southern end of Israel and defined by some as a “city of refuge“) are single-parent families. On the national scale, Eilat is between first and second place on this parameter.
The Centre runs a variety of programs for mothers and children and provides a response to needs at the individual and family level: parental guidance, empowerment and development, work on self- image, help in receiving what they deserve from the national insurance and other such agencies, enrichment activities, afternoon club, help with homework and more.
Mothers can choose in which groups and activities they wish to participate, and thus create small and intimate groups to which they are committed. At present, about 120 families are registered in the Centre.
Development of the idea of treatment via Playback Theatre:
I recognized these mothers’ need for therapy, and since the centre does not have a mandate to provide individual treatment, I proposed group therapy through psychodrama. When I brought my proposal to Aviva, the Centre’s director, she shared her dream with me: she asked me to lead a therapeutic theatre group that will bring the women’s stories onto the stage. At that point I had no knowledge of theatrical instruction and certainly not any experience in directing plays. I suggested an alternative: I suggested that I give group therapy through Playback Theatre, in which I did have experience. The mothers will learn this theatrical instrument and at the same time they will undergo a therapeutic process. I added the option that if the women in the group will want to perform, we can do a playback performance at a later point in time, we may do so for other mother’s within the Yahcdav’s safe space.
Group psychotherapy and the use of Psychodrama and Playback Theatre for group therapy:
“Through group processes experienced by participants in support and change groups guided by professionals, it is possible to assist people in mental, interpersonal and social distress” (Yalom, 2005). Yalom claimed that there are 11 factors through which change occurs: instilling hope – receiving encouragement from other group members that have improved. Universalism/generality – realizing one’s similarity to other group members, participation and sharing problems encourage patience and give a good personal feeling. Information sharing, altruism – satisfaction from helping other group members. Corrective reconstruction of the primal family group, developing techniques of socialization, imitation, mutual learning, group cohesion, catharsis and understanding existential factors (Yalom in Neumann, 2010. This is a chapter in a Hebrew book of psychiatry).
Concerning the group, the facilitator and psychodrama, Neumann explains: “The group serves as a mirror for its members and enables reflection through them, enabling individuals to express themselves in a supportive and sympathetic atmosphere. This can lead to catharsis and serve as a corrective experience. The group offers additional perspectives that can strengthen him/her on the one hand and, on the other hand, serve to provide him/her with alternative responses in the future.”
Unlike psychodrama, Playback Theatre events are usually held as one-time artistic performances of improvisational nature, with the main goal being the creation of a space for containment and inclusion in order to engage the audience by hearing stories and recreating them as scenes, forming intimate closeness, mutual support and possibly imparting therapeutic value (Fox in Offner, 2011. This article is originally in Hebrew). Salas (2007) speaks of playback’s healing potential stemming from individuals’ ability to tell their stories within an attentive, nonjudgmental space. The enactment of the story on the stage is the artistic process that renders meaning to a life story in an aesthetic theatrical manner. She speaks of our fear of chaos and meaninglessness, and of how the aesthetic reflection of our experiences grants them meaning, providing the narrator of the story with confidence and inspiration.
Salas notes that playback can be used as a therapeutic tool thanks to three factors:
- The group is run by a facilitator who is a trained therapist and knows how to guide the story with clinical sensitivity.
- Playback is a tool that distances: on the one hand the narrator watches and does not participate; on the other hand, the enactment is controlled within a structure of mirroring forms and rituals.
- The very fact that a narrator (who could even be a psychiatric patient) knows how to match his story to the level of confidence that the group gives him.
The three above factors produce therapeutic conditions that prevent loss of boundaries, especially when all this happens in a loving environment, which endows suffering with some logic and order. When we speak of playback’s therapeutic capacities, I as a psychodrama therapist see the empowering context of individual visibility, with the individual’s personal story within the group. The empowering context of personal growth through the discovery of the inner creativity of other group members fits in with basic theories of psychodrama.
The role of Playback Theatre facilitator in a therapeutic group:
Lubrani Rolnik (2009) mentions that leading a performance is essentially similar to leading a group and that the role of the facilitator is to unite the group, establish attention, serve as a receptor for anxieties and unify the group, establishing attentiveness and processing contents so as to make them meaningful. All these are true also for leading a working Playback Theatre group.
Salas (2007) also speaks of the facilitator’s role in the context of working toward a performance. This still relates, to my mind, also to the leader’s work with his group – being the conductor of the artistic piece created through playback, and also the one who promotes the process through creating a connecting channel between the audience (in this case – the group), the actors (group members on stage) and the narrator (also a group member).
In the therapeutic group, I borrow the four roles of the Psychodramatist, as defined by Moreno (Kellermann & Moreno, 1992), while adapting them to Playback Theatre. These roles correspond and add on to the roles that have been mentioned here:
- The Analyst- watches and listens, in order to absorb the patient’s messages in their totality, empathetic, attentive to the subtext/heart of the story, giving a meaningful mirroring and checking with the patient whether what is happening on the stage seems right to them, and if not, how to make it more accurate. In a therapy group using playback, the above occurs within group conduct and in a theatrical way in light of the enactment of stories, where the reflection is given by the members of the group. I do not usually repeat enactments for the sake of accuracy, as I believe that the next stories will provide what is needed, according to the principle of the “Red Thread” (Fox & Dauber in Lubrani Rolnik 2009) but there still is room for the narrator to say what suited them and what was lacking. In situations where there is emotional excitement on the part of the narrator, a new significant layer emerges in the story following the enactment, I allow for another short enactment in order to fulfill the narrator’s immediate need.
- The Producer/Director – Moreno speaks of turning details into action, of responsibility for warm-ups, for the atmosphere, structure, aesthetics, rhythm and timing of actions. The producer/director is also responsible for mobilizing the creative forces and facilitating spontaneity, as well as making connections between fantasy and reality. In playback therapy I would speak of the same responsibilities. This role is reminiscent of the way Salas describes the facilitator’s roles, but also, when connecting all the above, we will refer to the therapist as the person in charge of the group Narrative Reticulation (Fox, 2019), which occurs at each session as well as in the group process.
- The Therapist – the change agent who helps the patient move a step forward in the therapeutic journey. They are required to have extensive theoretical and therapeutic knowledge so that they can choose the right intervention and make an informed choice as to emphasizing a certain aspect of the narrator’s story. This is also consistent with my approach to working in a playback therapy group, where, like in regular playback, I will sometimes check with the narrator what they would like to see next time. Through the launch I will point to what I see as the heart of the story we are dealing with at present, emphasizing its core so as to outline how it should be enacted to my mind, and in particularly emotionally complex stories, I will give even more precise highlights.
- The Group Leader – who enables an empowering climate and supports through setting – as a clear structure for continuity during the meeting and formulation of clear group norms, while cultivating group cohesion, balancing tensions and formulating common goals. This leader is responsible for encouraging all members to participate, while enabling the creation of relationships and communication between them, whether by verbal means or through action, and is also responsible for removing obstacles that may harm cooperation. I do not see a difference between the responsibility of the psychodramatist as a group leader and that of the therapist, through Playback Theatre.
The therapeutic process:
The process of establishing the group began with personal interviews. Eighteen women were referred by the staff. Of these, 13 women began the therapeutic process and 12 completed it. At the end of the process, the women participated in authoring the play. Nine of them went on to rehearsal stage, but two of them left the city at a relatively early stage of the rehearsals, so that 7 women actually participated in the play.
Through the personal interviews, I discovered that most of the women who were referred to me have experienced, in addition to the failure of their marital system, at least one or more relationship with either physical, verbal, economic and/or sexual violence. A significant number of them were in a state that may be termed CPTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – a term originated by Lewis Herman).
Trauma, therapeutic approaches to work with trauma, and their integration into playback group work:
Levine (1997) recognized the essence of trauma as a situation where during the traumatic event the body used the freezing strategy, or was denied the physical ability to escape or struggle, so that the energy that was stopped by the mere immobility, and the actions that were not performed at the time of the event continue to be imprisoned in the body, so that the person remains stuck with their “frozen fears” and unable to return to normal life.
I refer extensively to the issue of trauma because to my mind the condition of the women I worked with fits in with Levine’s definition of trauma relating to the freezing state of remaining in a relationship in which terror is a daily experience. The situation of these women, whose fantasy of a ”good” family dissolved at every level, and whose trust in the person who was supposed to be closest to them was shattered, fitting Lewis Herman’s definition of CPTSD, a term coined to express a state in which a person is under tyrannical control for a significant duration, including domestic violence.
The therapeutic stages in the playback group according to therapeutic approaches to treating trauma:
According to Lewis Herman (1992), there are three stages in dealing with trauma: 1. Creating security 2. Remembering and mourning 3. Renewed connection. The process of recovery is actually a gradual shift from danger to security and trust, from dissociative trauma to memory, and from isolation involving moral turpitude to renewed social contact. Although the stages are not necessarily linear, the first essential step is that of creating a sense of security and restoring control to the patient.
In my view, the very coming of those women to the Yachdav Centre provided them with a network of social support and a professional response to their various needs. They were in the company of other single mothers so that they did not feel alone in their difficult situation.
In addition, Aviva and the staff at the Centre assisted the women in coping with various authorities, including emotional support and listening to them at times of acute crisis situations. I must point out that over time it turned out that in most cases the traumatic experiences were not discussed among the women. The therapeutic group became a source of social and emotional support and established social connections in a complex and significant manner which differed from the way in which the Centre itself served the women, by virtue of the fact that it was defined as a space for them as women rather than as mothers. At the beginning of the process, I worked with the women on warm-ups, teaching them to employ a new short form of playback every time. The short forms stimulate the expression of contemporary, simple and short stories from the women’s daily lives without arousing pain or trauma. This created the right pace for establishing contacts and trust in the group.
Women who were more closed by nature and had trouble sharing or going up on stage participated in the opening, warming-up and concluding parts of the sessions, and other than that just watched. I invited them to participate actively on the stage and tell their stories so that they would know that they were visible, and to allow them to depart from the onlooker’s position, but I made sure to leave them in control of the timing for this to happen. At first, only funny stories came up, and so were the enactments. Later came more serious stories, and the enactments were still funny. Then a more complex story came up and the enactment was still funny. At this stage, about two months after the group began meeting, I raised the question to the narrator who sat next to me as to how she felt about the enactment of her story. She responded lightly, saying that its being funny suited her. I shared my thoughts with the group about this, saying that I was wondering myself about how much pain it would actually be possible to bring up in the group when all the enactments were funny. All the responses, except for one, essentially said, “Our lives are hard enough, it’s better to laugh about them. The playback allows us to do that, it’s an outlet“. The other reaction, from one woman, was: “I cannot believe I will tell anything painful here, in this situation.” At the next session, the pain and complexities began to rise and the enactments began to be more suited to the contents of the stories. This too was consistent with the theory that enables the group to control the pace and contents, with my identification and assistance as facilitator, holding the process, to examine the place where the group stands and its needs at that point in time.
At this point we began to work with the Playback Theatre long form of open stories, and gradually there came stories that presented current difficulties, as would fit the stage we were at according to Lewis Herman. In terms of the contents of the stories (after passing through the light stories), the issues of coping with managing a household that felt like it was disintegrating, stories of coping with children when there is no ability to contain their challenges while there is a lot of anger accumulated from other sources too, or when children become bossy since the mother has no strength left to resist and set limits, or when children are in a crisis and all the energy is directed to maintain the status quo. At the same time, the difficulties of running a household alone came up: loneliness as an adult who holds everything on her shoulders and finds no support systems (apart from Yachdav, which was a lifeline for most women). The experience of contempt and accusation by service providers at welfare centres, the National Insurance Institute and the like, and the places where they were discriminated against as single mothers, job interviews, or the search for apartments for rent, came up as well.
The warm-up work in playback, in most sessions, gave room (at least at the first stage) for the body and its movement. The movement work was not easy for most women – they had to overcome the elements of external shame and internal discomfort, so at first, we worked through children’s physical movement games, only later reaching movement for the sake of movement. When we got to this, it was personal work that later connected to work in pairs and in the group – we held emotional discourse and expression through motion, paying close attention to rhythm and energy, and emphasizing expression through movement during the playback enactments. At this stage we began to touch on intuitive movement work, and later there was work in pairs which included testimony and listening to internal feelings that arise as a result – procedures connecting participants to the felt sense as Levine describes it. It should be noted that it took about five months for all these abilities to develop, but also the traumatic stories took a similar amount of time to come up.
The second stage according to Lewis Herman consists of two parts: memory and mourning. This stage deals with past experiences. Lewis Herman notes that at this stage of memory and mourning, group work focusing on a traumatic experience shared by all group members is particularly helpful. The group setting constitutes strong stimulus encouraging the recounting of the traumatic memory, and one participant’s memory may evoke that of another.
In my group, the memory phase came up, piece by piece. The domestic violence in its various manifestations emerged (it should be noted that some stories of abusive relationships in the women’s families of origin came up as well. On the therapeutic level, these relate to circumstances and to the women’s abilities to build relationships in adulthood, but this was not a significant part of the women’s stories, and later in the play they staged, it wasn’t part of the message).
As in the principle of the Red Thread, one story did indeed lead to the following one. Parts of personal stories joined together to form a collective horror story. The enactments were powerful due to the mere fact that previously untold parts were presented on the stage, as a participant enacting the story, identified with a situation within the story which she heard, expanding it with her own experiences, and this was almost always in a way that was valid and true for the narrator as well. At the level of mourning, I could recognize that there was work done on the aspect of guilt and shame concerning the inability to pull out of the cycle of violence. There was work on depression following separation from a spouse that affected the women’s parenting, which was sometimes experienced, by their children, as abusive or neglectful. The women’s mourning stories differed from each other, but in whatever form the mourning manifested, it was recognized and supported by the group.
In my view, the group, who learned how to use playback, developed the ability to improvise, listen, share and reflect, and thus developed a significant resource that strengthened them and their self-worth. This group, which in time became a cohesive group that initiated activities outside of the therapeutic setting (for example, a communal holiday meal, in order to overcome the feeling of loneliness on holidays, expressed in one of the stories that came up in the group) is a kind of pendulum, in which the stories express the pain and the group expresses the resource. There is also the pendulum-like fluctuation between the narrator’s pain and the creativity reflected on the stage. One’s ability to mirror a story about another’s trauma vortex through the body, which releases energy trapped in it from the personal story of that same “actress“, activates the recovery vortex for both women.
The third stage according to Lewis Herman is the re-connecting stage, where the future comes in, and where there is usually a reappearance of the patient’s preoccupation with their body, their needs, and relationship issues; but this time it is with the recognition of the trauma’s having impacted their life, and integrating its lessons into their life, among other things by seeking new experiences or through readiness to cope and struggle with the fear.
Towards the end, stories of a different kind started to come up – of new challenges related to coping with the children’s difficulties, subjects of pent-up or externalized sexuality with a desire for change, developmental issues – such as beginning studies and changing work places. Indeed, it was that some of the women were experiencing some movement and change in these realms. However, in my view, the third stage that Lewis Herman mentions had only begun. It continued with the will to convey a message and to get on the stage in front of an audience. The struggle against fear, the integration of the trauma into one’s life, and helping others as part of self-healing, were carried out through and on the occasion of playing on the stage.
In the rehearsal process I saw how repetition of particularly difficult scenes stabilized the second stage for those who went through it and actually completed it, for those who did not complete the process of memory and mourning within the group process through playback. Levine speaks of the need to anchor the coping abilities in the body, which will develop a capacity for recovery and awareness.
When I watched the women during rehearsals and in front of the audience, acting and moving on the stage despite their fear, repeating the scenes of horror time after time and going on to the scenes of recovery, I saw all of this as the anchoring of what had changed within them in their bodies, as Levine explained.
Analysis of the contents of the play “He who made me a woman” and their connection to the processes in the playback group:
From the outset, the idea of staging a play comprised of the Yachdav Centre women’s stories was Aviva’s. After about a year of playback work, the women expressed their desire to realize Aviva’s dream to convey a message to an audience following their work, while contemplating the difficulties they experienced and the results of the process they underwent. The decision was reached by the group as a whole. Although, there were women in the group who declared that they would not go on stage, they supported the idea and volunteered to work behind the scenes. The play was originally written and dramatized by the women in the group, with direct reference to their personal stories in the therapeutic Playback Theatre group and to the message they wanted to convey, using ideas and forms that came up during their enactment, choosing roles, playing each other’s roles and sometimes also their own. The direction of the play and its “Mise en scene“, was held by two professional women, an amateur theatre director and a community-theatre teacher, who joined us from that stage on, in order to author the scenes with the ideas that the woman imagined, to be impressive stage scenes. The music, that accompanied the scenes, was chosen by the women from their world of content and style and in accordance with the scene. Prop use was minimal, black clothes were the basic outfits, as is customary in playback shows. Contrary to most Playback Theatre, the play did have a backdrop. The music, the props and the backdrop added a dimension that stabilized and enriched the texts.
The Second Stage of the Study: Collection and Discussion of Findings – a look at the process, from interviews conducted in December 2013
The play was a staged structured product of this therapeutic process. It was performed six times on stage – five times in Eilat and once again in Be’er Sheva as part of a community theatre festival. It was very successful, and clearly conveyed the message that the women wished it to convey.
Analysis of the findings from the interviews and the women’s responses, along with my own impressions of the process, compares the women’s situations at four points of time: upon entering the process, during the process (therapy through playback, rehearsals, and the actual play), right after its completion, and five years later. The purpose of this comparison is to find common denominators, to examine what the women actually experienced, the essence of the process as a whole, whether and how the process affected the well being of group members, as far as the tools which they received from it, may assist them in coping with their emotional and cognitive as well as objective situations.
- Entering the process
Interview findings showed that the three women entered the process in a poor state of mind and emotional health:
Olga was in a passive stage, in which, as she said, she was “looking for anything to hold on to.” She was 26 and the mother of five, the youngest of whom were 3-year-old twins. I met her in the dyadic group in which she participated with her eldest daughter. I knew that she had separated, about two months beforehand, from her violent partner, the father of her children. She was full of fears and doubts about this step she had taken, and the children’s father did not yet give up the relationship and would come to her house as if they hadn’t parted. At the interview for the playback group we talked about the masks that she “wore” in order to protect herself, and through which she outwardly exhibited herself as a strong character and especially through the “everything is fine with me” mask, when in reality she was seeking a path to salvation.
Ruthie was the mother of three children from her first marriage. Later on I discovered that she was in a serious crisis regarding her second relationship, as she said in her interview following the conclusion of the playback therapy process: “Our relationship was comprised of ups and downs, violence, lack of mutual respect. At a certain point I stopped respecting too.” In the interview with Ruthie before the group process began, I tried to figure out who the woman in front of me actually was. I must point out that I had difficulty in figuring her out. Her speech was associative and I found it difficult to follow her train of thought. She did not talk about domestic violence and what she said sounded rather confused. Yet, I felt her place was in the group.
Sarit, then 42, was a mother of four, three from her marriage to a violent man, and one out of wedlock from a try at a second relationship that failed, was a wreck. She was previously a battered woman who was trying to rebuild her life. She described her state upon entering the process as “total insecurity. I would even say – a poor emotional state.” I also met Sarit in a dyadic group, where she came in with her third son. She was a woman who barely speaks, and on the other hand I realized that the women of the Yachdav Centre love her company. In our interview prior to the group process she said she did not believe she would succeed in opening up, but because she trusts Aviva and me, she is willing to try.
A personal goal in group entry:
The three women noted that at the beginning of the process they had no idea what playback was about and they entered it for different reasons – Olga wanted to please her surroundings and show willingness to change, Ruthie wanted to try out being an actress on a small scale, and Sarit entered in the hope of gaining more confidence.
Feelings about group integration:
Two of the women, Ruthie and Sarit, noted that their entry into the group was accompanied by apprehension and even actual fear, which stemmed from a lack of trust. For Ruthie, the process began from a point where she felt like an “outsider“, as she explained: “Before I got to the group, I was always afraid to come to a place where I will be judged. The group knew that I was in a violent relationship. Very slowly I began understanding that “here you won’t be judged, here you will be supported“.
A similar but different feeling was expressed by Sarit who said: “There is always this fear that maybe people are unreliable, that if you tell something maybe it’ll come out, that you might be judged, but after you know the group and the girls and you see that everyone needs therapy, you learn to open up and share.“
As an onlooker I saw how hard it was for Ruthie to join the group, and her few attempts to bring herself to open up, which were, initially, not very well-accepted by other women. I saw Sarit observing, in a way I could not always understand at first. She was withdrawn but still had a significant presence, and I felt that she was, still, gaining something from being in the group despite her silence.
For Olga this was a journey of self-discovery through acquaintance with and contemplation of the girls in the group. She identified similar traits in them that she had in herself and started to come to terms with: “In every encounter I saw myself reflected in someone else. There was a period of time when I connected with Rachel very well. I suddenly realized how much there is inside of this woman that I didn’t expect at all. I did not know how much she is holding inside and it made me realize that I also have these times when no matter how much I talk, people don’t know me… For me personally it was very interesting because I am a person who looks on and learns. It’s important to know how to use this tool, without altering my identity due to over-identification … It’s a lot about onlooking, not always immediate action. At every stage I was particularly connected to a different woman. I saw myself every time at a different point and I felt OK with all these points because they appeared in other women too. It’s OK… and even if I’m withdrawn and everyone points at me as someone who doesn’t share or tell anything… it’s OK. I’m not the only one.“
Experiences and insights from the playback process:
Olga recounts that on the one hand, in the playback process she began to acquire confidence “to make everyone laugh and to be silly in front of everyone and to appear stupid … maybe because the Playback Theatre helped me a lot in as it set me free… It’s a great tool mainly for groups … We felt good among ourselves, we felt open and safe…“. On the other hand, she notes that one of the main processes she underwent was the realization that in her daily life she was acting “like a machine“, devoid of emotion, and her decision to see everything in a lighter way and to connect to her emotions was made thanks to the playback group. She describes a case in which she humorously described an incident that happened to her with her children. It was a case that actually hurt her, and her reaction in front of her children was a mixture of weeping and at the same time an attempt to disguise her anger. When she told it in the group, she tried to relate it as a funny story. The enactment she received led her to an insight that she says has accompanied her since: “I understood, within myself, that even though I tried to make the girls laugh, I actually fooled them and myself. Because within me I was hurt, and mainly angry. One of the girls enacted it in a light spirit and laughed about it, just like she really copes with her own reality and, somehow, I was jealous of her attitude … This was repeated in another story, where I saw her lightness and asked myself how she does it, how she’s able to see it differently (i.e., the good side of it) and I’m not. I realized my story was not authentic, and the group enacted it the way I presented it.“
Ruthie’s process was no less complex. She was in a second relationship with a violent partner and recounted how she did not understand this until she heard the other women’s stories, which posed a mirror in front of her, so to speak. There and then she realized that it was actually the story she was living herself, and that she had to get out of it. “When I was in the situation of domestic violence I was not aware that it was pure violence, I thought I was the one who’s wrong and that this is the way it should be, all kinds of things were said in the group and then I asked myself ‘Is it happening to you too? Is it okay? Is it he who is causing this situation?’, and then I realized that he had to be in my life so that I could reach new insights, maybe not at such levels of violence. I was looking for a way to get out of it. It’s not easy to reach such a decision… “. In addition, the process Ruthie underwent includes her integration into the group and her understanding that it can help her as it is a supportive resource for her. “When I came out empowered from playback sessions, I realized that my work on myself can receive as many tools as it can give. Maybe they’ll accept my weirdness. Today I understand that women’s power is not only negative but can also be very positive“. By this Ruthie was referring to her feelings of being misunderstood and rejected by girls and women along her life.
In her interview Sarit said that the playback process and conversations with the women in the group helped her to feel free and as a result she began to open up and tell her story: “when you begin to participate you feel liberated … In the beginning I couldn’t speak at all but the stories that the other girls told made me identify with them, and I started to identify and offer them tips. Later on, I started to talk about things that were going on at home, like the violence that was going on, the drugs, the need to get out of it and my inability to even think that it was possible to get out of all this, and slowly I realized that it’s something that once I dealt with openly, I could handle.” Sarit realized that she was not alone, that there are women with similar stories. The fact that participants in the group identify with each other encouraged her to share and feel more liberated. Sarit’s description is consistent with Lewis Herman ‘s (1992) assertion that a group focusing on trauma stimulates the recounting of more traumatic memories, provides a new emotional perspective, and creates a bridge to other’s similar memories.
The three interviewees point out that the playback process has led them to emotional freedom and to significant insights into their situations and their functioning in the world. They used the group as an attribution group, i.e., as a referral point for reflection and feedback, and learned from other participants both about themselves and about alternative ways to react to diverse situations. They learned to appreciate the group’s strength and the benefits of this social circle. The similarity between their stories helped them to feel freer. These findings are consistent with Yalom’s (2005) claim regarding the effects of group and therapeutic processes on people in personal distress. According to him, the therapeutic group provides, inter alia, a means for developing techniques promoting socialization, imitation, mutual learning, group cohesion, universality, catharsis and understanding of existential factors.
Experiences from the play “He who Made me a Woman”:
The fear of speaking and being exposed in a small group is minor compared with the exposure to a large and judgmental audience which occurs in a play open to the public. Olga described appearing for rehearsals as a war: “It was a struggle for me, even to just appear for rehearsals. There too I found I was working on myself and realizing that I was undergoing a process.” She adds: “Today when I look back it feels very natural, as if that was how it was meant to be, maybe because it was a Playback Theatre that was very helpful in freeing me emotionally“. She explains that she felt safe with the women of the Yachdav Centre, but that acting in front of a largely unfamiliar audience was more difficult: “I didn’t think I could stand on stage… but at a certain point it suddenly came naturally to do something bigger“.
In the preparation period toward one of the plays Olga was ill and her ability to function was very limited. She was late to every rehearsal and the women developed an antagonism toward her. At the same time we received information from her social worker that there were complaints about her functioning as a mother, but Olga was just unable to lift herself in terms of mothering, despite her efforts, and perhaps as a result of too much activity in other realms of her life. During the lunch break on a day of rehearsals, on the day we performed the fourth play, she quietly told me that she was just notified that the welfare personnel had collected her children from school and transferred them to their father as part of a process that might lead to them being removed from her custody. She asked me not to discuss the issue, not even with her, since she must function in the play. I found myself in a difficult dilemma. On the one hand, I saw her putting on old and detaching masks; on the other hand, it was not safe for her to break down exactly when she was required to function. I also knew that if she fell apart, there were six other women for whom I was responsible who would be hurt by the situation. After holding a conversation with Aviva we chose, with a great deal of difficulty, to respect Olga’s request and not to try to talk with her about the matter. The play was as successful as the previous ones. In the end Olga came over to thank me, saying that if she had broken down that day and could not have acted in the play, that would have infinitely expanded her feeling of failure, which she already had as it was. Later on, Olga found the strength to rise up and bring her children back within a few days, and gradually returned to functioning as a mother again.
The contribution of the playback process and play to participants’ lives:
The women’s thoughts and feelings as to the playback therapy and its impact on their lives were overwhelmingly positive. By all of them there seemed to be an improvement in the situation, both on the objective level and in terms of their personal feelings. Olga said she underwent a significant change from always trying to please everyone to being more flexible with herself, and toward her children she found herself replacing the words “first of all no” with “actually, why not?“. She said she learned “to look at everything that happens to me in life and say to myself: Surely what happened to me has happened to at least two other people in the world, so I’ll think about how they deal with it. I’ll view it from the outside.” She learned to connect to her emotions and try to notice when she behaves like a machine: “The whole play and process influenced me. It caused me to go through processes in new ways.” She notes that she is more confident, more joyous, optimistic, knows how to see the good side of things, and “self-conscious not in the critical sense, but in the sense of knowing myself“. She now knows that she is able to contain more than she once thought she could.
Ruthie focuses on the play’s impact and on the process of her separation from her partner as well as on the development of her new career. She describes the process as consisting of three chapters (or stages): “The first chapter (the playback group) was something new, different, something I had not seen or encountered until then, and the work in the group was fruitful.” As to the first chapter she adds that in the past when people didn’t understand her, she would give up and retreat, whereas today “I will be there and explain myself until they understand me.” The middle chapter (rehearsals) was bland as far as she was concerned, and she did not feel she got anything out of it. “I don’t remember that I succeeded or managed to go through a process there.“
For Sarit the process was a release from bonds of guilt for the sake of restoring self-confidence and personal growth: “All along I felt I was a really big part of this performance. It gave me a lot of confidence, even beyond what was necessary. It opened doors before me. It gave me this power to talk to people freely, to explain myself, to say that it’s done, that this was a part of my life that I’m not to blame for. I always thought I was guilty for being beaten. Now I have the power to go up to a woman who is suffering from violence and say to her: ‘You don’t deserve this.’ In the past I couldn’t do that“. Playback let her reveal herself and let go of embarrassment: “Something I would not have dared to say was that I’m suffering from domestic violence. It was always like ‘dirty laundry is to be washed at home, nobody needs to know’ until I got to the playback group and realized that it shouldn’t be like that.” The description of the most significant change she gained through the Yachdav Centre comes from Sarit, who told Aviva: “You know me from the beginning, from when I was a wreck. A walking corpse, not a person. I was depressed. I don’t know how I managed to raise my children. What happens in the house happens in the house. I wouldn’t have had the strength if it was not for you (the Yachdav staff), who encouraged and supported me. Thanks to your encouragement I entered this process.” According to Lewis Herman (in Naor, 2008), the core of the experience of emotional trauma is that it robs its victim of strength and separates him from the surroundings, and therefore it is important that recovery be based on empowerment and on the creation of new relationships based on emotional support and on trust, that will help to create release and assist in exiting the cycle of violence.
- A look at the process and its impact on the interviewees’ lives five years later
Current situation, in general:
Sarit defines herself through comparison to her initial situation and says that she is a strong woman who knows how to understand and receive what he deserves. Ruthie describes herself as more calm and optimistic now, and says that she is still working on self improvement, in addition to the fact that she is now aware and expressive of her feelings, unlike in the past. Olga says her life is excellent, she is achieving goals she set for herself without despairing if the results differ from her expectations. The three answers present a positive picture of the women dealing with situations that come up in their lives and striving for progress.
Connections seen by the women between the playback process and current situations and changes they have undergone:
Sarit and Olga talk about their self-confidence as a fundamental change that occurred in the process and accompanies them in their lives. They attribute to it their ability to make choices in their lives – i.e., to choose at any given moment to act in the way they see fit. Olga also adds self-acceptance of the mistakes she has made and will still make, knowing that she is in a constant process and that her intentions are good. Ruthie too speaks about the understanding that the process is going on to this day and it is her responsibility to continue it (when she chose, following the process and after moving to a new place, to enroll in a playback course in order to continue the inner process with herself). Sarit describes her newly-gained self assurance as something that enables her to stand up for herself and demand what she deserves, and adds the release from guilt feelings as a fundamental change that happened thanks to the playback process.
All three women note, in one part or another of their letters, the ability to connect, cope, express and even regulate emotions, as part of their development in the process. They also note something that grew in the process and accompanies them in life now – the ability to persevere, or stick-to-itiveness, stemming from contemplation and the ability to choose not to give in to themselves nor to give up on themselves. Ruthie notes that she learned how to focus and express herself more clearly. She also notes that she learned about management, separation processes in a healthy manner, unlike the escape or disappearance method she used to employ in such situation in the past.
Ruthie speaks of the practical know-how she acquired from the process in the context of getting organized and coping with bureaucratic difficulties. Sarit says that in times of crisis she reminds herself of the process and draws strength from it in order to cope, and Olga says that in complex situations she tries to extricate herself from the picture and look on as a mere observer so as to gain a change of perspective. She also says that today she shares her difficulties with others in order to receive help, thanks to the process and unlike her habitual behavior in the past. All three women point out that today they are more daring and bold, and describe how in difficult situations they use what they saw and learned in the playback process.
From the interviews as well as from the text of the play and its messages, written by the women themselves, an optimistic picture emerges. It appears that the playback process and the play that followed it had a significant impact on the lives of the participants. The effect manifested in their ability to create trusting relationships, to open up and feel free to be themselves, and also to create a new world for themselves following the process. Changes took place in job placement and in relationships, and these were changes for the better. Parenting went through turning points in terms of the ability to cope and in mothers’ approach to their children, in different ways by different women, but in all cases from a healthier place. Our study participants testify that today, five years after the end of the process, they are in a better place on the personal, work and marital levels, and they attribute this to what they underwent in the playback and the play process. In light of the interviewees’ responses, it seems that the group therapy framework chosen by Aviva, director of Yachdav, was right for them, and though they did not know it beforehand, they found it to be better than individual therapy.
Fox J. (2019) The Playback NR Workbook, Tusitala
Kellerman, P. & Moreno, J. (1992), Focus on Psychodrama. Jessica Kingsley, London & Philadelphia
Levine P.A. (1997) Waking the Tiger- Healing Trauma. North Atlantic Books
Lewis Herman J (1992) Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books
Lubrani Rolnik N. (2009) Life in a Story- Playback Theatre and the Art of Improvisation. Mofet- Kibutz Meuhad
Naor Y (2008) Dialog with the Body- Moments of Grace in a Shelter for Abused Women. The Israeli Journal of Group Therapy and Guidance
Noyman M. (2010) Group Psychotherapy. Selected Chapter of Psychiatry, 5th edition
Offner M (2011) The Influence of PT on the Practitioners, by PT Actors Perspective. Academic Journal of Creative Arts Therapies. //ajcat.haifa.ac.il
Salas J. (2007) Improvising Real Life. Tusitala
About the author
Inbar is practicing and living playback since 2006. Playing conducting teaching and using it in therapeutic settings. Accredited Playback Theatre Trainer from the Centre for Playback Theatre (CPT), Inbar is also a Schema Therapist. Being passionate about those two subjects, she is using creative ways in combining them through workshops using ideas from Schema Therapy and tools from Playback Theatre
Understanding the Impact of an Online Playback Theatre Intervention on Staff Wellbeing
By Samantha Swift, Paras Patel, Angela Kennedy & Steve Nash
In early 2021 the National Health Service in England funded the development of ‘Staff Wellbeing Hubs’ to help health and care staff to access wellbeing resources during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the Hub that was set up in the north of England, the therapeutic value of the arts, and of narrative and reflective approaches in helping people cope with adversity and recover from trauma, was recognised from the outset.
This article looks at the impact on a group of ‘front line’ health practitioners who chose to attend an online Playback Theatre event as a way of dealing with their experiences of providing health care during the pandemic. A significant majority (82%) reported that it was a worthwhile experience that they would recommend to their colleagues. Qualitative feedback from participants suggests that Playback Theatre can provide an innovative and valued intervention for collective reflection and sharing, and that it encourages connection, emotional processing, personal healing, and hope.
Samantha Swift, Assistant Psychologist, North East and North Cumbria ICS Staff Wellbeing Hub
Paras Patel, Senior Researcher, North East and North Cumbria ICS Staff Wellbeing Hub
Angela Kennedy, Clinical Director, North East and North Cumbria ICS
Staff Wellbeing Hub
Steve Nash, Playback Theatre York, Independent Mental Health Consultant
The Staff Wellbeing Hub
The Covid-19 pandemic created a unique set of pressures for health and care staff who were trying to continue to provide high quality care, whilst simultaneously managing major changes in service delivery and responding to the needs of service users and colleagues who were experiencing reduced social contact as a consequence of shielding and isolation.
North East and North Cumbria (NENC) Staff Wellbeing Hub was developed in the north of England in January 2021 with funding from the National Health Service, to ensure that support was available to help front line staff to address their individual and collective needs. The Hub provides confidential access to a range of wellbeing resources and to experienced therapists, based on the following five trauma-informed principles:
- Relationships are the basis of recovery: staff want and deserve real contact with experienced mental health experts from the outset
- Whole-system thinking: working productively across agencies to create easy and timely access for staff and to plug any gaps
- Normalisation and strengths-based approach: non-pathologising language and preventative offers for individuals and teams
- Empowerment: a range of good quality offers to choose from, including specialist therapy and confidential self-referral
- Addressing complexity: dealing with the unique and multi-layered nature of staff mental health
Those responsible for developing the Hub felt it was important for staff to have access to a diverse range of activities so that their individual needs and style of coping/processing, could be supported. From the outset the value of the arts and of reflective and narrative approaches in promoting collective healing following adversity and trauma was recognised. Playback Theatre was selected as one of the offers that would be made available and reviewed via a focused evaluation.
How pandemics impact health and care staff
A metanalysis of 38 studies exploring how pandemics impact on staff mental wellbeing found that staff who are working with affected patients, where there is a risk of transmission of virus, had greater levels of both acute and post traumatic and stress (Kisely et al, 2020).Similarly, frontline workers in the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic had higher prevalence rates of depression, anxiety and PTSD compared to the rest of the population (Murphy et al, 2020). In the US, Panchal et al (2020) compared all essential workers in any role or setting compared to non-essential workers, and found that essential workers were more likely to report depression and anxiety (42% vs. 30%, respectively), the onset or increase of substance use (25% vs. 11%), or to have seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days (22% vs. 8%). In a UK poll of 996 healthcare staff 50% reported that their mental health was impacted by the Covid-19 crisis (Thomas & Quilter-Pinner, 2020), with 95% supporting government actions for more support for health and care workers’ mental health.
Evidence of related interventions
i. Communal approaches
Collective approaches to healing following adversity, where groups come together to process events and facilitate support have been shown to be effective (Pinderhughes, Davis, & Williams, 2015, Igreja & Baines, 2019). Theisen-Womersley and Theisen-Womersley (2021) refer to qualitative research on the experiences of people in non western communities who were isolated from their fellows, often under adverse or traumatic circumstances, noting the value of collective recognition and acknowledgement of experience. Reneau and Eanes (2020) considered literature in relation to students with collective experiences of loss and adjustment as an impact of the pandemic lockdown restrictions on work settings. They highlighted the importance of ‘meaning making’ including the reappraisal of beliefs and reflection on events that have occurred. They also recognised that sharing stories with others can be an important way to target the collective pain of the pandemic.
ii. Narrative methods
Narrative approaches are used therapeutically and, in the media, to acknowledge experience and support sense making. They include talking therapies that focus on hearing and understanding a person’s story (White & Epston 1990); systemic therapies that value narratives from multiple perspectives within a family or group (Dallos & Draper, 2010); the use of relational dialogic approaches such as Cognitive Analytic therapy (Ryle & Kerr, 2020), and other methods that emphasise using narratives to facilitate emotional processing or healing. Eyerman, Alexander and Breese (2015) highlight the value of approaches that transform lived experiences into television and written media, requiring a retelling and reconstruction of stories of war and other large scale traumatic events.
iii. Reflective Practice
Reflective practice is recognised as a valued way of providing team support in health and care settings (British Psychological Society, 2007). To support the psychological needs of healthcare staff during the Covid-19 pandemic, space for taking stock was recommended, using trained psychologists to facilitate reflection and processing of experiences (British Psychological Society, 2020). Established reflective practice formats in healthcare include individual supervision, and group based processes. “Schwartz rounds” focus on key topics for staff delivering a service, and the feelings elicited (Robert et. al, 2017, Flanagan et. al, 2020); “Balint Groups” focus on clinical cases, paying attention to the therapeutic relationship (Balint, 1979,1993); and “Taking Care Giving Care rounds” use a structured format to promote compassion for oneself and for others (Flowers et al, 2018, Jones, Waites, Sciar, 2020). All these formats align with Schon’s model (1983), with reflection on action after it has taken place, and each provides space and time to process and take stock of what has happened.
iv. Therapeutic use of drama
Applied theatre and drama therapies have been used to support those with emotional suffering and trauma, often targeting cultural experiences (Leveton, 2010 & Van Der Kolk, 2015). Drama techniques “allow us to speak the unspeakable, experience comfort, compassion and support from others” and ensure that “hope is restored” … (Leveto, 2010). In Taiwan, drama therapy activities were used in counselling groups for college students identified as needing support related to traumatic experiences, life adjustment, and behavioural concerns (Chang Liu & Yang, 2019). Delivered in ten group sessions over six months, these activities had several measurable beneficial impacts, such as increased self-awareness, and self-expression.
v. Performance and healing
A literature review (Heras and Tàbara, 2014) found that drama/performance is a powerful tool for disseminating information, providing a way to reflect as a group and to think critically on a topic. When applied to therapeutic or healing purposes, this was linked to increased freedom of expression and empathy towards others. The study concluded that performance methods appear to serve several potential functions, including integrating knowledge and different perspectives, and communicating complexity, which in turn provides an opportunity for a self-reflective process.
Playback Theatre is a performance-based methodology that incorporates many of the beneficial aspects of the therapeutic interventions that are summarised above. Whilst it is not a clinical intervention, Playback Theatre is increasingly recognised as an arts based medium that can help groups and communities explore and address a wide variety of personal, social and cultural issues (Fox and Salas, 2021). Potential wellbeing benefits include promoting healing from collective and individual trauma and personal suffering (Salas, 2020, Munjuluri, et al., 2020). It provides a way of encouraging reflection, witnessing individual experiences, and building group connection and communal understanding (Fox, 2007).
The suitability of Playback Theatre as an offer from the Staff Wellbeing Hub was strengthened by the fact that at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, playback practitioners quickly adapted new techniques that allowed the form to be accessed as an online methodology (Rosin, Vogel & Lebron, 2021). This meant that staff could participate in a creative and interactive group activity without breaking the social distancing regulations introduced to reduce the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
The NENC Staff Wellbeing Hub commissioned Playback Theatre York to design and host an intervention for frontline staff working in health and social care settings, with the aim of providing an innovative approach to supporting individual wellbeing as a part of a shared reflective experience. The result was a series of two online performances called “Beyond the mask – your stories seen and heard“.
As this was a new intervention for health and care staff, in addition to being implemented during the Covid-19 pandemic, evaluation was built in to learn more about attendees’ experiences of Playback Theatre and its impact, and to inform its potential future use.
An electronic advert was shared via the Hub distribution list, and Hub clinicians also promoted the opportunity with key contacts who acted as “spokes and outreach” leads. Staff attending existing reflection groups (such as Balint groups) were also informed. A promotional video was created to explain what to expect when attending the event. Attendees completed an online form to book a “seat” and a Zoom link giving access to the event was shared via email. Staff could contact Playback Theatre York or the Hub for further information.
In total, 23 health and care staff attended one of two individual playback performances, the first was held in May 21 and the second in September 2021. Attendees included 11 women and 8 men, with 4 not providing a response for gender, and with a mean age range of 46.5 years. Professional roles were mainly clinical, but included those working in communications, data analysis and public health. 19 attendees were from North East and North Cumbria Health and Care Services, and 4 with employers from other regions.
iii. The online events
The two staff wellbeing interventions each ran for 1.5 hours. After each event (or show), an anonymised online questionnaire containing a mixture of qualitative and quantitative questions was sent to attendees by Playback Theatre York, using email addresses provided when booking a place. All 23 audience members completed this and a further 4 responded to a second evaluation from the NENC Staff Wellbeing Hub. This second survey was only available for the first (May) performance; for the second show the two questionnaires were merged, to simplify the ask made of participants. Questions asked related to the expectations, experiences, and impact of participating in the event.
Quantitative Feedback on the Experience and Impact of Playback Theatre
Twenty-three attendees provided responses on their level of agreement to a set of statements about their experience of participating, selecting one of five response options:
|Statements related to the experience of Playback Theatre||Strongly Agree||Agree||Neither agree nor disagree||Disagree||Strongly disagree|
|I found listening to other people’s stories valuable||80%||16%||4%||0%||0%|
|Listening to other people’s stories made me feel less isolated||75%||12%||13%||0%||0%|
|Playback Theatre helped me connect more with my own feelings||80%||12%||8%||0%||0%|
|Playback Theatre helped me connect with other people’s feelings||67%||24%||4%||0%||4%|
|I thought this was a worthwhile experience||83%||12%||0%||5%||0%|
|I would recommend Playback Theatre to my colleagues||80%||16%||0%||4%||0%|
|I would like to attend another Playback Theatre show in the future||71%||25%||4%||0%||0%|
Qualitative Feedback on the Experience of Playback Theatre
After the first show, 4 attendees responded to a Hub survey regarding expectations and the impact of Playback Theatre, and whether needs were met. All reported their expectations had been met, with three stating their needs were also met (one person described not having any needs to be met). No one reported having outstanding needs or distress that the Hub could help with, although one person suggested the need to further develop preventative interventions. All four reported that attending Playback Theatre had no negative impact on them or their capacity to function.
An inductive thematic analysis of this qualitative data was guided by Braune and Clarke’s (2006) six step method. Two researchers from the Hub reviewed the data to identify themes independently for reliability, and then agreed on ten concluding themes.
|Connection – includes connection to others in the audience, to the wider community and the story of covid, as well as to themselves and their own experience.||A true sense of feeling connected! Validation of Playback as a powerful form to connect. Connectedness to the wider story of Covid Connecting to the emotions of my experience and shared experiences of others. There was nothing in this that did not connect in some way. Thank you.|
|Reflective process – the extent to which the experience gave an opportunity for reflection||That playback theatre, is a very powerful reflective tool. The beautiful art mediums of music, dance and theatre, which playback champions, there is a space for reflection and connection. Hearing and seeing my story skilfully played back|
|Processing emotions – that participation facilitated processing in some way, including thoughts and emotional reactions, and the impact of external events||I think it was a good experience and method to process some difficult experiences. The experiences that people were sharing seemed to come from their experiences and their internalised thoughts about the whole situation. I talked through my wellbeing with a psychologist which was helpful too. This was more dramatic and powerful a form of processing. It helped me access some cathartic method as I don’t have clinical caseness of problems currently which require intervention.|
|Collective Sharing of Experiences – those with some form of common shared experience, were able to come together to share stories, and this process and hearing others’ experiences was appreciated.||I liked how the experiences that people were sharing were not well rehearsed scripted stories. That we have a shared experience amongst one another. Appreciative of the vulnerability that able to be shown, shared and felt among the group. It has encouraged me to share more…|
|Validation – of one’s own and others’ experiences, recognising common humanity, with a need to be heard, understood and validated. The sense that a safe space was created, an environment to contain emotional experiences.||Validation of experiences of NHS staff It helped me to feel acknowledged and created a sense of sharing. It made me feel understood better. You showed how seasoned you are at containing people emotionally.|
|Increasing awareness of others – Attendees’ comments indicated a theme of increasing awareness of others, both in terms of their experiences and how this has impacted them, and sense of empathy for others.||How important it is to support our health and care staff who have experienced trauma due to working in the pandemic. Empathy towards others. That we have a shared experience amongst one another.|
|Acknowledging the Playback Theatre Approach – the unique approach of Playback Theatre as an intervention, recognising relational skills. such as sensitivity, kindness, honesty, genuineness, authenticity and respect. Also recognition of the skilfulness of the performers in delivering an organised and professional show, understanding the stories shared, and performing in a containing and meaningful way. This mostly covered positive appraisals to acknowledge the Playback Theatre approach, though one person provided a contrasting view.||Thank you for the authenticity and respect from the performers. Acknowledgement to the conductor for his honesty and genuine care for people throughout. I was quite blown away by how well organised, orchestrated and delivered by the Playback team – really impressive! At times I found myself thinking it was all a bit weird, the ‘playing out’ of people’s emotions and their experiences that I worried for them in my feeling this discomfort (“are they OK with these people putting their feelings out there?”) but actually you showed how seasoned you are at containing people emotionally … I felt the performance lacked gaiety and energy and felt I had been at a funeral by the end of it. The music was monotonous. I think you can interact with people in an energized way even on painful topics but i didn’t feel you got the rhythm right – at least not for me. It was so professionally hosted. Excellent. I thought the mix of actors/methods improvising stories was really good. Thanks so much to all of the actors who were sensitive and kind.|
|Positive Experience – comments related to attendance being a positive experience, which is reflected in descriptions||Enjoyed the experience. Was a lovely way to reflect. Was a very nice way to spend my time one evening after work. An incredible experience!|
|Personal Healing – the impact of the intervention in terms of facilitating personal healing, and the potential for this to have a powerful impact||Through the zoom online PT performance, and it was both enlightening about a complex topic like the impact of covid on health care, as well as personally healing. Very powerful experience which I gained a lot from. You might think what on earth is this at first, but then you will discover how powerful it is.|
|Hope – themes of hope that was developed and drawn on throughout working in the pandemic, and hope for the future after covid, with awareness that hope may not yet be processed or felt.||I will take away from my experience of the playback performance … so many things haven’t been processed fully, or at all…, as well as positive things like progress and hope. My participation has fostered my hope and resilience and strengthened my sense of humanity that I am not alone when going through this journey. There is hope for the future after COVID.|
These findings suggest that Playback Theatre offered as a single session event for health and care staff provided an opportunity that enabled staff from different organisations to connect to their own and each other’s emotional experiences. Given the impact of the pandemic on staff mental health – including higher rates of mental health problems (Murphy et al, 2020, Thomas & Quilter-Pinner, 2020), increased problematic methods of coping or serious considerations of suicide (Panchal et al., (2020) and the prolonged pressures and lack of social connection that staff have faced, Playback Theatre may provide a timely and effective way of addressing staff wellbeing needs.
This evaluation did not attempt to assess changes in mental health symptoms or presenting problems, but the findings suggest that the beneficial impacts and experiences closely align with the aims of mental health or stress management interventions. For example, the theme of “hope and feeling hopeful” is recognised as a source of strength during times of stress (Folkman, 2013), a theme that is relevant to the needs of staff who have been exposed to multiple and prolonged stressors as the result of a pandemic.
Shattell, Starr & Thomas (2007) found that people with mental health problems need to feel “heard, seen and validated” to support their recovery, which Playback Theatre clearly achieves, as evidenced in attendees’ feedback around the theme of validation. This outcome may be linked to Playback Theatre York’s ability to provide a safe space to hear and contain emotional experiences sensitively, as was noted in the data, and to use personal stories to help people feel heard and able to make sense of their experiences, both being objectives in many narrative approaches (White & Epston 1990). Attendees’ experiences suggest that Playback Theatre produced important effects like those found in other mental health interventions. This includes personal healing, hope, and increased awareness of others.
Furthermore, to target mental health needs effectively, one of the requirements of compassion focused therapies (Gilbert, 2014) includes recognising the common humanity we all share. Evaluation themes of connection and increased awareness of others, and attendees’ reports that the event helped them to connect to others, suggest that Playback Theatre enables people to recognise this common humanity in each other. Moreover, this also aligns with aims of mentalization based therapy, which is to understand the perspective of others, as doing so provides a mechanism for emotion regulation and being able to relate to others (Bateman, Fonagy, & Allen, 2009).
The data suggests that this intervention enabled participants to heal, instill hope, increase their awareness of others and of themselves, and to develop a sense of the wider story of the pandemic, transforming individual stories into a shared narrative, with attendees participating in a structured communal experience. This seems comparable to Reneau and Eanes (2020) who recognised the value of college students sharing stories together to help to address the collective pain of the pandemic.
The data also provides evidence that arts based methods can assist with processing of emotional experiences, with one quote highlighting that the event “was [a] more dramatic and powerful form of processing… it helped me access some cathartic method”, in addition 92% of attendees reported that Playback Theatre helped them connect with their own feelings. This perhaps links to Heras and Tàbara’s (2014) proposed function of performance methods as offering a powerful way to share information and discuss complex ideas, in this case, the stories and emotions of staff during the Covid 19 pandemic. It may also be related to offering a meaningful way to reflect back emotional experiences and speak the unspeakable (Leveton, 2010); and to increase self-expression and self-awareness (Chang, Liu & Yang, 2019). Although the exact mechanisms are unknown, the data demonstrates that the use of improvisational theatre had a beneficial impact for staff who shared stories on their experiences of the covid-19 pandemic. It also highlights Play back Theatre’s ability to sensitively validate emotions and contain challenging experiences. It can provide an attractive offer for staff who wish to try something different, and participate in something which may have a beneficial impact after a single 1.5 hours session.
Implications for further work
This evaluation included both quantitative and qualitative feedback, providing an overall understanding of staff experiences of the impact of Playback Theatre. Limitations included the sample size for the evaluation which related to challenges in recruiting staff to a novel and therefore unfamiliar intervention, and the nature of a survey based evaluation as compared to using more in depth focus groups or interviews.
This evaluation has highlighted that Playback Theatre provides an overall positive experience with beneficial impact, but it was not able explore in any depth the mechanisms that gave rise to this. Further qualitative surveys may provide greater insights as to which aspects of Playback Theatre contribute to its impact. Larger scale evaluations, with comparison reflective group formats and a control group may also broaden this understanding. Further work could explore the use of Playback Theatre with single teams, or with different professional roles.
Overall, the data reflects that Playback Theatre can be a positive intervention for health and care staff in a pandemic. The methodology does not allow for causal conclusions on these outcomes, but this innovative reflective process appears to have been restorative for the health and care staff who participated, and it created an opportunity to pause and take stock on the impact of the pandemic.
To support the psychological needs of healthcare staff the British Psychological Society (2020) recommended using trained practitioner psychologists to facilitate reflection on the pandemic and processing of these experiences. The findings described in this evaluation demonstrate that Playback Theatre offers an innovative format that can support staff to engage in a reflective group and process their emotions, and to empathise with the feelings of others. The sensitivity and skill of the Playback Theatre Company was acknowledged in several feedback quotes from attendees. This is suggestive of the practitioners’ ability to listen to staff stories of the pandemic and attune to the emotional content of the narrative, which is necessary in order to re-enact what can be intense and sometimes traumatic individual and group experiences, whilst at the same time providing a safe emotional container.
These skills align with core interpersonal competencies in a therapeutic relationship (Liddell, Allan and Goss, 2017, and Roth and Pilling, 2007). This suggests that Playback Theatre is a reflective practice format that can be an effective way of supporting health and care staff to process the personal and professional impacts of the pandemic. Whilst this evaluation does not provide research controlled comparisons to other formats that are available, it strongly suggests that Playback Theatre could be an additional offer to supplement clinician led reflective processes, or formats such as Schwartz rounds, Balint Groups, and Taking Care Giving Care rounds. Further use of Playback Theatre and ongoing evaluation to better understand its beneficial impacts is recommended. Offering Playback Theatre events may be a worthwhile way to address the wellbeing needs of health and care staff as they continue to adjust to the pandemic and its aftermath.
Balint, E. (1979). The Balint group approach.
Balint, E. (1993). The doctor, the patient and the group: Balint revisited. Taylor & Francis.
Bateman, A., Fonagy, P., & Allen, J. G. (2009). Theory and practice of mentalization-based therapy. In G. O. Gabbard (Ed.), Textbook of psychotherapeutic treatments (pp. 757–780). American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc..
Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative research in psychology, 3(2), 77-101.
British Psychological Society. (2007). New ways of working for applied psychologists in health and social care: Working psychologically in teams.
British Psychological Society. (2020). The psychological needs of healthcare staff as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Chang, W. L., Liu, Y. S., & Yang, C. F. (2019). Drama therapy counseling as mental health care of college students. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(19), 3560.
Dallos, R., & Draper, R. (2010). An Introduction to Family Therapy. Berkshire: Open University Press.
Eyerman, R., Alexander, J. C., & Breese, E. B. (2015). Narrating trauma: on the impact of collective suffering. Routledge.
Folkman, S. (2013). Stress, coping, and hope. In Psychological aspects of cancer (pp. 119-127). Springer, Boston, MA.
Flanagan, E., Chadwick, R., Goodrich, J., Ford, C., & Wickens, R. (2020). Reflection for all healthcare staff: a national evaluation of Schwartz rounds. Journal of interprofessional care, 34(1), 140-142.
Flowers, S., Bradfield, C., Potter, R., Waites, B., Neal, A., Simmons, J., & Stott, N. (2018). Taking care, giving care’rounds: An intervention to support compassionate care amongst healthcare staff. In Clinical Psychology Forum (pp. 23-30).
Fox, H. (2007). Playback theatre: Inciting dialogue and building community through personal story. The Drama Review, 51(4), 89-105.
Fox J and Salas J (2021) Personal Story in Public Spaces, Essays on Playback Theatre by its Founders., Tusitala Publishing
Gilbert, P. (2014). The origins and nature of compassion focused therapy. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 53(1), 6-41.
Heras, M., & Tàbara, J. D. (2014). Let’s play transformations! Performative methods for sustainability. Sustainability science, 9(3), 379-398.
Igreja, V., & Baines, E. (2019). Emergent Themes. A Companion to the Anthropology of Africa, 251.
Jones, C., Waites, B., Sciar, K. (2020, May 6). 20 Minute Care Space Webinar [Webinar]. Association of Clinical Psychologists UK. //acpuk.org.uk/20_min_care_space/
Keisari, S., Yaniv, D., Palgi, Y., & Gesser-Edelsburg, A. (2018). Conducting playback theatre with older adults—A therapist’s perspective. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 60, 72-81.
Kisely, S., Warren, N., McMahon, L., Dalais, C., Henry, I., & Siskind, D. (2020). Occurrence, prevention, and management of the psychological effects of emerging virus outbreaks on healthcare workers: rapid review and meta-analysis. British Medical Journal, 369.
Leveton, E. (2010). Healing collective trauma using sociodrama and drama therapy. Springer Publishing Company.
Liddell, A. E., Allan, S., & Goss, K. (2017). Therapist competencies necessary for the delivery of compassion‐focused therapy: A Delphi study. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 90(2), 156-176.
Munjuluri S, Bolin P K , Lin A Y T, Garcia N, Gauna L, Nguyen T & Salas R, (2020) A Pilot Study on Playback Theatre as a Therapeutic Aid after Natural Disasters: Brain Connectivity Mechanisms of Effects on Anxiety: Chronic Stress, Volume 4, 1 – 9
Murphy, J., Spikol, E., McBride, O., Shevlin, M., Bennett, K. M., Hartman, T. K., … & Bethall, R. P. (2020). The psychological wellbeing of frontline workers in the United Kingdom during the COVID-19 pandemic: First and second wave findings from the COVID-19 Psychological Research Consortium (C19PRC) Study.
Moran, G. S., & Alon, U. (2011). Playback theatre and recovery in mental health: Preliminary evidence. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 38(5), 318-324.
Panchal, N., Kamal, R., Orgera, K., Cox, C., Garfield, R., Hamel, L., & Chidambaram, P. (2020). The implications of COVID-19 for mental health and substance use. Kaiser family foundation.
Pinderhughes, H., Davis, R., & Williams, M. (2015). Adverse community experiences and resilience: A framework for addressing and preventing community trauma.
Reneau, C. M., & Eanes, B. J. (2020). The Invisible Pandemic of Grief: Finding Meaning in Our Collective Pain. Illness, Crisis & Loss, 1054137320963888.
Robert, G., Philippou, J., Leamy, M., Reynolds, E., Ross, S., Bennett, L., & Maben, J. (2017). Exploring the adoption of Schwartz Center Rounds as an organisational innovation to improve staff well-being in England, 2009–2015. BMJ open, 7(1), e014326.
Rosin, J., Vogel, H.W., & Lebron, S. (2021) Storytelling on Screen: An Online Playback Theatre Archive and Guidebook, Virginia Tech, //vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/handle/10919/104420
Roth, A. D., & Pilling, S. (2007). The competences required to deliver effective cognitive and behavioural therapy for people with depression and with anxiety disorders. London: Department of Health. Retrieved from, //www.ucl.ac.uk/pals/research/clinical-educational-and-health-psychology/research-groups/core/competence-frameworks-2
Ryle, A., & Kerr, I. B. (2020). Introducing cognitive analytic therapy: principles and practice of a relational approach to mental health. John Wiley & Sons.
Salas, J. (2009). Playback theatre: A frame for healing. Current approaches in drama therapy, 445-460.
Salas, J. (2020). Enacting testimony: Trauma stories in Playback Theatre. In Trauma in the Creative and Embodied Therapies (pp. 19-29). Routledge.
Schön, D. A. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York: Basic Books.
Shattell, M. M., Starr, S. S., & Thomas, S. P. (2007). ‘Take my hand, help me out’: Mental health service recipients’ experience of the therapeutic relationship. International journal of mental health nursing, 16(4), 274-284.
Theisen-Womersley, G., & Theisen-Womersley, G. (2021). Collective Trauma, Collective Healing. Trauma and Resilience Among Displaced Populations: A Sociocultural Exploration, 147-173.
Thomas, C., & Quilter-Pinner, H. (2020). Care fit for carers: Ensuring the safety and welfare of NHS and social care workers during and after Covid-19. Institute for Public Policy Research.
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.
White, M. & Epston, D. Narrative Means To Therapeutic Ends. London: Norton.
Link to promotional video used to attract participants: //youtu.be/Q5M8xKmjE1c
About the authors
Samantha Swift, Assistant Psychologist for the North East North
Cumbria Staff Wellbeing Hub developed an interest in supporting
innovate ways to support Staff Wellbeing across her career. She
worked on the front line during Covid19 in adult mental health
inpatient services, supporting those in crisis, later joining the hub to
support research and the set-up of the service. More recently she
continues to support staff wellbeing in Northumbria Healthcare Trust
when implementing workforce solutions and modelling a relational
approach in her role as a Systems Lead. The impact of this research
inspired her to attend a Playback Theatre event and she found this to
be worthwhile and impactful.
Paras Patel, PhD, a Research Lead for the North East North Cumbria Staff Wellbeing Hub. He completed his PhD in Psychophysiology, understanding the link between the heart and brain and how this can impact wellbeing. He developed an integrative framework for the holistic assessment of wellbeing which included both objective (Heart Rate Variability) and subjective (Questionnaires) measures. More recently, he has been working on staff wellbeing projects including understanding the impact of various interventions on wellbeing and a project focused on Learning from health care staff experiences of attempting to take their own life: how we co-create lives worth living.
Dr. Angela Kennedy
Dr. Angela Kennedy is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist with 33 years experience of working in mental health. Her work has focused on the relationship of trauma to severe mental health problems, as well as issues of compassionate leadership and system transformation. The Trauma Informed Community of Action emerged from her efforts to bring people together towards change and inform best practice. More recently she set up the regional support services for staff during covid and her current research is focusing around staff experience of suicide, leadership, and trauma related projects. She is passionate about using the arts and collective healing to support and connect communities.
Steve Nash has worked in mental health services in the North of England since 1980, in a variety of settings and roles. He has been active in Playback Theatre since 1991 when he became a founder member of Playback Theatre York. This project, prompted by the need to find creative ways to deliver staff support during the Covid19 Pandemic, provided an opportunity to bring his interests together. He became co-editor of the Journal of the International Playback Theatre Network in 2021.
The Mirror Monster: Psychological Safety and Aesthetic Distance in a Corporate Setting using Playback Theatre
By Stephen Meagher & Johanna De Ruyter
This is an edited excerpt from a chapter titled “Two Worlds Collide” (Meagher et al., 2022) that Johanna De Ruyter and Stephen Meagher both long term members of Sydney Playback Theatre Company, were invited to write by Andrew Rixon for a book he co-edited with Cathryn Lloyd called “Facilitating with Stories: Ethics, Reflective Practices and Philosophies” (Rixon & Lloyd 2022). This book provides a rich connection between theory and practice for those seeking to work with stories in organisational, community, educative or coaching settings. They chose to focus this article on Aesthetic Distance and Psychological Safety as we felt it had the most practical applications in Playback Theatre, however we also covered Entry and Contracting, Emotions within Organisations, Playback Theatre in Organisational Development, and the use of the Six Part Story Method in Reflective Practice. They will be holding online workshops on some of these topics later in 2023. Please contact the authors at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org to register interest and/or keep an eye on Playback Theatre Around the World for further details.
In 2021 a large Australian company (multiple billions in assets under management) contacted Playback Theatre Sydney to facilitate a dialogical change process. The issue at hand was an excessive level of competition between its investment, contracting, and management arms. The task was for Playback Theatre Sydney to be part of a change process to facilitate a more collaborative culture between and within the teams, with the goal of increasing productivity. The setting was a ninety-minute show during a development day in a conference room at an iconic Sydney venue. The outcome was a process after which neither the contractor (Playback Theatre Sydney) nor the recipient (CorpInc) felt that the goals had been achieved. We analysed the reasons for this “failed contracting” (Coumbe-Lilley, 2001) using the six-part story method.
Employing the Six Part Story Method for Reflective Inquiry
We used the 6 Part Story Method (6PSM) to inquire into the events leading up to, during and after the Playback Theatre show. First developed as a dramatherapy tool to help child victims of family breakdown trauma (Lahad, 1992), it has since been modified for use in personal and professional development (Vettriano et al., 2019). This involves assigning images to six categories in a storytelling structure as outlined below:
(1) A main character;
(2) A task, mission or problem that the character has to cope with;
(3) A helping force – something that will aid the character in their task;
(4) A hindering force – something that will cause the character more difficulty;
(5) The action of the story – how the character copes with the problem or task; and
(6) The ‘ending’ of the story – not necessarily a conclusion but an indication of what happens after the problem has been dealt with.
The process is mythic or fairy-tale-like in nature (Lahad, 1992). In dramatherapy this can be done either by using an image from a supplied range of cards or by having the participants draw them on a storyboard (Lahad, 1992 & Dent-Brown, 1999). We chose the latter, and first brainstormed ideas for each of the categories. We ended up with about 25 suggestions for each and then selected the ones we felt best represented the six categories. We then transferred the ideas to a storyboard as simple line drawing. We made two drafts of the storyboard. The images included archetypal elements such as a monster, a king, and a magic potion. We decided to write the story as a fairy-tale to make best use of the elements. All the characters, physical structures and events in the story represent actual participants, physical environments and events that occurred during the Playback Theatre Show. Even minor characters such as the Major-General and the Assistant-to-the-Vizier represented real participants. We found it to be a rich and revealing process. The process of creating the 6PSM was particularly useful in drawing out the components of tacit knowledge that we “knew” as playback practitioners and moving them to a state of explicit knowledge where they could be seen as discrete defined concepts. They were then available to be analysed and referenced with respect to the organisational transformation literature. This is the storyboard that we came up with.
The Mirror Monster Story
Once upon a time there was a theatre company called Playback Theatre Sydney. It was a giant hairy beast with many legs and arms that fed on stories and emotions. It was covered in mirrors of various sizes and shapes. Part animal and part story spirit, it could reflect stories and emotions back to the teller in a way that caused deep understanding, often accompanied by tears and laughter. It was known far and wide as the Mirror Monster.
To work this magical understanding, Mirror Monster travelled from village to village accompanied by its band of loyal minstrels. The villagers would set out a ritual circle in the town square or town hall, the minstrels would lead Mirror Monster into the centre, and when everything was set and quiet, they would feed it with stories and emotions. Then the Mirror Monster would perform the mirror dance for the watching people. They would cry and laugh. They would feel heard in a way that would make it seem as though the room was full of giant ears. They would feel an understanding in their bones in a way that their minds could not. Sometimes, wounds both fresh and long-standing would magically heal. People would say to the Mirror Monster “You are an Oracle,” or “You are a Healer,” or “You are a Sorcerer,” but the Mirror Monster would reply “I just like to dance to the Music of the Heart.”
Sometimes travellers would see the Mirror Monster dancing from afar, and they would see their own desires reflected in the mirrors. They might see gold and jewels, or beauty, or a door into the future. They would see whatever they wanted to see.
One of these travellers was a messenger for the King of the Kingdom of CorpInc. His kingdom was plagued by a mysterious illness which made his army become angry with each other and fight itself instead of protecting the kingdom. His streets and fields were littered with exhausted soldiers who had fought to a standstill amongst themselves instead of doing their sentry duties or other soldierly things. The messenger was entranced by the Mirror Monster dancing in a village square one night. When he returned to CorpInc, the King, as was his custom, questioned the messenger.
“On your travels did you happen to see, by any chance, an alchemist who could make magic potions to cure my army?”
“Oh yes,” said the messenger, “I saw such an alchemist in a village in Playbackland. It was wondrous to behold. I’m sure it could make such a potion. It was called Mirror Monster.”
“Organise a parley with this Mirror Monster,” ordered the King, “I must have the magic potion.”
So, the messenger rode off to find the Mirror Monster. After several days and nights of searching, he returned with one of the Mirror Monster’s minstrels, named Johanna. They stopped outside the castle gate.
“Open the gate!” shouted the messenger, “I bring the emissary of Mirror Monster to parley with the King.”
The King’s Vice-Chamberlain appeared on the battlement and looked down at the messenger and Johanna.
“Who is this person?” he said, “is it a member of the peasantry? This is most irregular. Where is their retinue? Where are the standard bearers? The King only parleys with dignitaries and high-ranking consuls. Announce your business, peasant.”
“The King has asked Mirror Monster to perform for his army,” said Johanna, “can I come inside the castle to talk?”
“Certainly not,” said the Vice-Chamberlain, “state your business from where you are.”
“But I can’t even see you properly,” said Johanna, “do you think you could at least remove some of the bricks from the top of the wall so I can hear you better?”
So the Vice-Chamberlain ordered the soldiers to remove some bricks from the wall, but every time they did so, curiously, the walls seemed to get higher rather than lower, and the Vice-Chamberlain began to appear as if he, too, were made of bricks. Johanna had to shout louder and louder, and the answers from the battlement grew fainter and fainter. The Vice-Chamberlain faded away as he merged with the wall, until eventually he disappeared amongst the bricks entirely.
“Come back! We need to discuss things,” she pleaded, but to no avail. Johanna could see only the teeth of the battlement and she was talking to a brick wall. Finally, the gate of the barbican opened, and a groom emerged from the castle with a scroll, which he handed to Johanna.
“Bring the Mirror Monster to perform for the King’s army on the day after the full moon,” it read, “and bring the magic potion.”
“But Mirror Monster works its magic by dancing,” said Johanna to the messenger, “we don’t have a magic potion.”
“The King expects it. I shall tell the King it is all arranged,” said the messenger and he galloped through the gate and into the castle followed by the groom.
News that the Mirror Monster was coming to The Kingdom of CorpInc spread far and wide.
“Perfect,” said the Major-General of the army, “Mirror Monster is a great philosopher. I will send it all of our new rules and regulations and it will teach the army those.”
“Perfect,” said the Assistant-to-the-Vizier, “Mirror Monster is a great magician. It will surprise the King and the army with a magnificent trick.”
“Perfect,” said the King’s Vice-Chamberlain. “At last, these soldiers will see how stupid they look fighting each other and the King will promote me to Supreme Chancellor.”
On the day of the meeting, all the soldiers and members of the court gathered on the battlements at the front of the castle. The King stood with the soldiers disguised as a courtier, so he could observe his army incognito. Finally, the moment came. The audience fell silent.
“Let’s all welcome the Mirror Monster from Playbackland!” announced the Vice-Chamberlain, “It will cure the army of the mysterious Fighting- Itself illness.”
Mirror Monster, led by Johanna, appeared from behind a watchtower at the corner of the castle and stood in front of the castle wall. Johanna climbed a wooden tower that had been constructed in front of the battlements so that she could talk to both the audience and the Mirror Monster. It was very tall, and she felt dizzy every time she looked down.
“The Mirror Monster will only dance if you feed it stories from your heart,” she said to the audience, “who can share a feeling they have about the Fighting-Itself-Illness?” The soldiers and courtiers racked their brains. None of them had even heard of such a thing. The King looked concerned. Finally, one of the soldiers spoke.
“I have found a thought. Will that do?” she said.
“It is a start,” said Johanna, and she fed the thought to Mirror Monster. Mirror Monster danced a little dance. The soldiers and courtiers were puzzled. All they could see was a few glints of light from the mirrors.
“Where is the magic potion?” said the King.
“Where is the surprise?” said the Assistant-to-the-Vizier.
“Where are the rules and regulations?” said the Major-General, “can’t you get Mirror Monster to march up and down a bit?” and he tapped the top of the parapet with his swagger stick to emphasize his point.
“I ask for your patience. Reach down into your hearts and find a real story,” said Johanna, “Mirror Monster loves stories from the heart.”
There was self-conscious shuffling amongst the audience, and an uncomfortable silence that stretched out like a bowstring. After a while, some hands went up.
“I have another thought,” said one.
“I can remember one of the King’s sayings,” said another.
Johanna allowed the silence to continue.
Finally, one of the soldiers said, “I think I found a story in my heart.”
“Wonderful,” said Johanna, “Mirror Monster will be able to perform a special dance for you. Go on.”
“It’s a feeling I have, about all the fighting in the castle …” he started to say.
Everyone looked at him in disbelief. There were some shocked murmurs. The soldier froze. Suddenly his chainmail seemed very heavy. Beads of perspiration appeared on his brow. His eyes grew wide, and his mouth became dry.
“Oh no!” he said after a long pause, “It’s not a feeling. I think it’s actually just a thought after all.”
And so they fed Mirror Monster thought after thought. Some were small, some were big, and some were tangled up like grapevines. Mirror Monster danced. Even though it was only being given thoughts, it could feel the soldiers’ hearts through the brick wall, and so it danced harder and harder, and leaped as high as it possibly could. Some of the soldiers and courtiers could even see some glimpses of themselves in the mirrors, so high did the Mirror Monster jump and dance.
Suddenly there was a commotion. Two of the soldiers had started fighting each other.
“At last,” said Johanna to herself, “Mirror Monster can show them what it looks like to fight amongst themselves. This is perfect.”
But just as she was about to gesture to Mirror Monster to start a dance, the King stood up and threw off his hood. The two soldiers, the courtiers and the rest of the army all froze where they stood when they realised the King was in the audience. “Stop that at once!” he said angrily. “We don’t want to see that sort of thing in front of the Mirror Monster. I declare this meeting over.”
“But Your Majesty,” said Johanna, “if you allow Mirror Monster to dance for the two fighting soldiers, it may awaken their hearts.”
He turned to Johanna. “Rubbish! Where is the magic potion? Are you the apothecary? I was promised a magic potion!”
But Mirror Monster danced anyway, and behind the King a strange thing was happening. Some of the soldiers had started hugging each other. Not all of them. A great number still had angry looks on their faces, but more than a few had started embracing each other.
“Look, Your Majesty,” said Johanna, pointing at the happy soldiers, “something is happening!”
“Silence!” roared the King, “Where is the magic potion?” And he stormed off, down the battlement stairs. The Major-General, the Assistant-to-the- Vizier and the Vice-Chamberlain all followed.
“Hmmph!” said each of them as they walked past Johanna. “What a disappointment.”
Soon the castle wall was empty. Johanna and the Mirror Monster looked at each other.
“Thank you, Mirror Monster,” said Johanna. “You danced as hard as you could. But I suppose we must find a way for you to dance through brick walls. Every time we dance for a King, we are never allowed to set foot inside the castle.
Exploring the importance of Psychological Safety and Aesthetic Distance
Everyone looked at him in disbelief. There were some shocked murmurs. The soldier froze. Suddenly his chainmail seemed very heavy. Beads of perspiration appeared on his brow. His eyes grew wide, and his mouth became dry.
“Oh no!” he said after a long pause, “It’s not a feeling. I think it’s actually just a thought after all.”
This excerpt describes a pivotal moment in the show when a teller retracts a moment halfway through the telling. One of the soldiers finds “a story in my heart” in response to an invitation from Johanna, however he swallows his words when confronted by the reactions from the other soldiers as he quickly realises it is not safe to reveal himself to the gathering. This introduces the linked concepts of psychological safety and aesthetic distance in relation to the Playback Theatre performance.
Psychological safety in organisations was first described in the 1960s (Schein & Bennis 1965) and refined in the 1990s (Kahn 1990, Edmondson 2014). It is characterised by high levels of trust within the organisation and as a shared belief amongst individuals that they will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. Google’s People’s Analytics Unit has identified adequate psychological safety as the number one characteristic of successful high performing teams (Bergman & Schaeppi 2016). It has been noted that it is easier to achieve high levels of psychological safety at a team level rather than organisational level unless the organisation is small (Newman et al., 2017). This is because it depends on intimate interpersonal relationships and levels of trust which are difficult to achieve uniformly in a large organisation.
This has clear implications for Playback Theatre shows, which rely on the willingness of individuals to share vulnerable personal experiences with an audience. In the case of “CorpInc”, the audience included members of three teams, plus management personnel including the CEO, and employees in another city via a live video link. Reflecting on the CorpInc show, there was a low level of psychological safety within the audience, and the responses from the participants tended to be more reflective of emotional labour (“thought after thought”) rather than authentic experiences (“stories from the heart”) regarding the issue at hand. Emotional labour is a concept which is defined as the work of regulating feelings and expressions of emotion to fulfil occupational requirements in interactions with clients, co-workers and managers (Hochschild 2010) and is discussed in another section of our chapter.
The concept of aesthetic distance has been recognised for centuries. In ancient Greece, Aristotle warned against making theatre too realistic, using the term mimesis (to mimic) to describe theatre as a verisimilitude rather than a reality. In the 18th century Immanuel Kant introduced the idea of “disinterested delight”. Edward Bullough introduced “Psychical distancing as a factor in art and an aesthetic principle” (Bullough, 1912) and is recognised as the author of the modern conceptualisation and the term was coined by Thomas Scheff (T.Scheff, 1979). For the purposes of this analysis a useful definition is that it is the frame of reference that an artist creates using technical devices in and around the work of art to differentiate it psychologically from reality (Cupchik, 2002). Playback Theatre uses various devices to achieve this purpose, including spatial distancing, temporal distancing, and metaphorical distancing amongst others. This allows the audience to regulate their own capacity to safely identify with the staged action and access new knowledge and meaning.
The magnitude of the aesthetic distance is important. If the distance is too small, it risks the audience being overwhelmed by the action and disengaging as a defence mechanism. An example is the portrayal of sexual violence. If it is too realistic it will trigger a range of strong emotional and survival responses in the members of the audience. If it is too abstract or the metaphors are too vague, and the aesthetic distance is too great, the action will not resonate with the lived experiences of the audience and they will become restless, inattentive, and confused. Ideally the audience will be optimally distanced and able to view the performance from a psychological liminal space where the viewer can simultaneously engage with both the physical portrayal of the actors and their own lived/unconscious experience, enabling freedom of movement between the internal and the external. Einet Mashaal-Nitzan describes the issue of aesthetic distance as “core” in evaluating whether a Playback Theatre show is a success or a failure (Mashaal-Nitzen, 2012). She defines these viewing areas as sub-distance (too close), optimal distance (ideal) and over-distance (too great).
Because Playback Theatre is immediate, and is participatory theatre, there is minimal temporal distance between the recalled experience of the teller (who is both co-author and audience member) and the theatrical response by the performers. Attention to the other techniques of aesthetic distance is critical if optimal distance is to be achieved. An example recounted by Rea Dennis from a successful series of shows for Mercedes Benz in Brazil involves the performers replaying an experience about organising that very performance using the analogy of a “Voyage to the Golden Gates’’ with the Playback form of a “Narrative V“. This employed the techniques of metaphor and a stylised, semi-abstract form to create aesthetic distance, to which the audience responded enthusiastically (Dennis, 2010).
We suggest there can be an inverse dynamic relationship between psychological safety and aesthetic distance with respect to Playback Theatre. The greater the psychological safety the closer the aesthetic distance can become. The audience, as co-authors of the performance, can share more vulnerable experiences and the actors are able to portray these experiences with greater intensity. If either of these agents, or the conductor ventures into sub-distance there is a risk that the psychological safety may be violated and diminished. Then the audience may not volunteer their authentic experiences and the actors may not feel safe to take dramatic risks in portraying them. Venturing into sub-distance is what happened to the soldier and his “story in my heart” when he, as author and co-creator of performance, suddenly felt unsafe and retracted his experience. When this happens, the conductor must make an intervention to restore the psychological safety before the performance can continue at the same aesthetic distance, such as by acknowledgement of the subtext of the interaction, or the aesthetic distance will most likely be increased organically by the audience with respect to further offering of experiences.
In terms of organisational theatre and change, this dynamic relationship is critical to the success of the process. To enable participants to safely and creatively explore the issue at hand, Playback Theatre should be performed with optimal aesthetic distance. In our experience in organisational settings, this is intuitively signified when the audience responses move from superficial emotional labour to authentic emotional sharing. Ideally this can be achieved with a high level of psychological safety. Playback Theatre is consciously designed to engender psychological safety through its ritualistic form (Fox, 1994), but the issue that is commonly encountered with organisations is a pre-existing environment of low psychological safety. This may be due to a large audience from different teams, strong hierarchical structures, poor preparation of the audience for the show, or fear of punishment or humiliation from leaders and colleagues. These will all impact on the level of psychological safety. Some of these issues are best addressed at the entry and contracting stage. Negotiating smaller, more connected audiences, warming up the participants to the themes, onboarding the stakeholders so that the processes of the show are valued and are seen to be valued, can all improve the level of psychological safety. However, if the mood of the show reveals low levels of psychological safety, then the conductor and the actors have the option of working to increase the relative aesthetic distance to prevent the audience from doing this themselves by withholding their experiences. Techniques such as humour, metaphor and exploration of relationships and events within the theme but experienced outside of the immediate group have all been shown to be useful in our experience. We have also found it useful to employ scripted pieces and forms with inherently greater aesthetic distance, such as Machines and Landscapes. Other companies will undoubtedly have developed organisational forms of their own and there is scope for further exploration on this theme.
The relationship between Psychological Safety and Aesthetic Distance is dynamic and changes with the arc of the show. There is further discussion of this in another section of our chapter “Two Worlds Collide”. We, as Playback practitioners have always had an innate understanding of these concepts, but have found the inquiry process exceedingly valuable in crystallising them and aligning them with current theory and practice within the field of Organisational Development. It has sharpened our appreciation of the challenges involved in organisational Playback and enhanced our ability to negotiate the needs of the show with clients in the entry and contracting phase.
Bergmann, B., and Schaeppi, J. 2016. “A Data-driven Approach to Group Creativity.” Harvard Business Review 12: 43–62.
Bullough, E. 1912. “Psychical Distance as a Factor in Art and an Aesthetic Principle.” British Journal of Psychology 5, no. 2: 87–118.
Coumbe-Lilley, J. 2011. “Failed Contracting: Lessons Learned from False Starts with National, State and Local Sport Organizations.” Journal of Sport Psychology in Action 2, no. 3: 131–42.
Cupchik, G. C. 2002. “The Evolution of Psychical Distance as an Aesthetic Concept.” Culture & Psychology 8, no. 2: 155–87.
Dennis, R. 2010. “Intimacy at Work: Playback Theatre and Corporate CulturalChange in Mercedes Benz, Brazil.” Journal of Organisational Transformation & Social Change 7, no. 3: 301–19.
Dent-Brown, K. 1999. “The Six Part Story Method (6PSM) as an Aid in theAssessment of Personality Disorder.” Dramatherapy 21, no. 2: 10–14.
Edmondson, A. C., and Lei, Z. 2014. “Psychological Safety: The History, Renaissance, and Future of an Interpersonal Construct.” Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior 1, no. 1: 23–43.
Fox, J. 1994. Acts of Service: Spontaneity, Commitment, Tradition in the Nonscripted Theatre. New Paltz: Tusitala.
Hochschild, A. R. 2010. “The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling.” In The Production of Reality: Essays and Readings on Social Interaction, edited by J. O’Brien, 320–36. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Kahn, W. A. 1990. “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work.” Academy of Management Journal 33, no. 4: 692–724.
Lahad, M. 1992. “Storymaking in Assessment Method for Coping with Stress.” In Dramatherapy: Theory and Practice, vol. 2, edited by S. Jennings, 150–63. London: Routledge.
Mashaal-Nitzen, E. 2012. “The Aesthetic Experience or What Happened to the Audience at the Sheba Medical Centre.” Interplay XVII, no. 1.
Meagher, S., De Ruyter J., and Rixon A., “Two Worlds Collide.” In Facilitating withStories: Ethics, Reflective Practice and Philosophies, edited by Rixon, A., and Lloyd, C., 177-212. Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Newman, A., Donohue, R., and Eva, N. 2017. “Psychological Safety: A Systematic Review of the Literature.” Human Resource Management Review 27, no. 3: 521–35.
Rixon, A., and Lloyd, C. editors. 2022 “Facilitating withStories: Ethics, Reflective Practice and Philosophies.” Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Scheff, T. J. 1979. Catharsis in Healing, Ritual, and Drama. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Schein, E., and Bennis, W. G. 1965. Personal and Organizational Change through Group Methods: The Laboratory Approach. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
Vettraino, E., Linds, W., and Downie, H. 2019. “Embodied Reflexivity: Discerning Ethical Practice through the Six-Part Story Method.” Reflective Practice 20, no. 2: 218–33.
About the authors
Steve Meagher has been a Playback Theatre practitioner since 1994, primarily with Playback Theatre Sydney as an actor, conductor and director, and is a storyteller, writer and facilitator. He has carried a love of story with him since he was a young boy and continues to find surprise and delight in personal stories and the many ways that Playback Theatre offers in expressing them. He has performed and facilitated hundreds of Playback Theatre shows in Australia and Internationally. His passion is sharing the use of story as a transformative force.
Johanna de Ruyter
Johanna de Ruyter is a long-term member of Playback Theatre Sydney since 1991, and has fulfilled multiple roles in the company actor, conductor, client liaison, leader, collaborator, and designer. In her conducting, coaching and facilitation, she applies insights and practices to Playback Theatre from her many years engaged in collaborative performance creation in scripted/unscripted theatre and applied improvisation, as well as leadership training, team development, martial arts/yoga and embodiment principles and practices. Johanna is passionate about communication processes that change the quality of how we perceive, connect and communicate.
The Mythological Path of the Playbacker
By Roman Kandibur & Marat Mairovich
In this two part article, we consider Playback Theater as a type of oral tradition. In the first part we focus on the formation of myths from personal stories during a playback performance. In the second part we conduct a comparative analysis between the concepts of Narrative Reticulation (Jonathan Fox) and the Functions of Mythology (Joseph Campbell). Our exploration is presented as a conversation, a dialogue between the two authors, about the benefits of developing mythological awareness among playback practitioners. This is how this text was born. Editing was undertaken, but hopefully some of our banter and self-irony, along with our more serious thoughts, are preserved. Many of the concepts we discuss have been tested in practice, in the most dramatic circumstances, against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We did not know that our ideas would be tested in this way. But it happened. We hope that this text will prompt your own understanding of Playback Theater and mythology. Enjoy your trip!
Introduction – Theory and Practice
By the time you read this, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been going on for over a year. And the Ukrainian community of playbackers used and confirmed much of what was written in our article. Several things helped us continue to use Playback in the conditions of a full-scale invasion:
- Identity and history: The shock of the first days was felt by the Ukrainian playbackers because of the loss of relations and support. Before the war, we were barely acquainted people with a common interest called Playback Theater. But since the beginning of the war, the community chat has become a powerful tool to support us. Stories about struggle, volunteering, refugees -became part of the community. It united us and made us closer to each other.
- Serving others: Our cosmogony, our Center of the World began to revolve around the idea that we, as playbackers, can be useful now. We played for people in bomb shelters, refugee shelters, for volunteers. And it wasn’t always a playback performance. Sometimes it was workshops, sometimes just songs, sometimes games.
- The hero’s path: It took place during our activities, and for the entire community. We heard the call, crossed the threshold, died and were reborn, and came back to life as others. This trip changed not only us, but also the spaces we were in contact with.
- Allies and assistants: As in many fairy tales and myths, when the hero has problems, aid comes from fairy-tale helpers. The world community of playbackers came to us. The Humanitarian foundation of the Ukrainian School of Playback Theater, which was filled by playbackers from all over the world, was an important material support for many Ukrainian playbackers. This support had an almost sacred meaning. It was important not only because of money, but as a sign that we are cared for and supported. And it gave hope and strength to move forward in the most difficult times of this war.
- Online community projects: The new space that opened in response to the COVID pandemic, was useful for us. Ukrainian Playbackers used ideas from the article below such as the ‘Supervision Club’, which helped leaders take care of their teams. ‘One-and-a-half rooms’ concentrated on supporting Ukrainian Playbackers, and gave a voice to various professionals, expanding our communications, and allowing community figures to be heard. The ‘Story Collectors’, is a project that documents the war stories of Ukrainian Playbackers. The idea of myth making enabled us to create supportive spaces online. You will find them all in this article.
Part one. Let’s chat about myth
М – Marat Mairovich
R – Roman Kandibur
- Narrative of the narrative
R: Modern philosophical and scientific thought, postmodernism, for example, talk about narrative (storytelling) as the main manifestation of a person in the world. Everything else is a consequence of the storytelling. It turns out that even science is also narrative in nature.
M: Even the very approach to understanding reality and existence is by its nature narrative.
R: No matter what we do, we still tell stories. Even now, when I tell you this, it is also a story. And even our actions imply narrative. Imagine: a man is packing the pipe. He had done this action hundreds of times before. This is already a habit. But it is based on the story of how to smoke a pipe, which his grandfather told him, and all the stories about how a person first tried tobacco smoke.
M: In general, when we open our mouths, stories are born, even when we are in contemplation, we get a story.
R: Playback Theater is the only thing in modern society now that implies oral tradition. In fact, we refer back to the experience of humanity when all narratives were oral.
M: You’re right. Stories were oral for a reason. They were passed on so that the personal narrative becomes part of the collective experience. In Playback Theater it is there, as well as the transfer of individual and social experience. And they interact.
R: Yes. And it is impossible to convey with the help of a book. The oral tradition developed 70,000 years ago, and writing appeared about 5,000 years ago, during the agrarian revolution. Harari (2011) writes that the first writing was about how much and where grain was stored. It was not originally invented to convey stories.
M: Like Harari, you and I are now creating a story from this. If it is better to tell the narrative orally, rather than write it down, why are we writing all this?
R: Well, we write as if we were talking. We deceived everyone.
R: Then there is a question. We, the playbackers, are reviving the oral tradition, but at the same time, it turns out that we, like all the people, began to perceive stories indirectly, because we created another level of abstraction in the form of text, which formalizes and structures what is happening, as narrative structures our experience. This is no longer from person to person, but rather a person – a text -a person.
M: It seems to me that anyway there will be some adaptation of the narrative here. One adaptation is textual, the other is oral adaptation from generation to generation. In any case we are dealing with a narrative. Contemporary culture creates and conveys stories through text. And before, the adaptation of narratives was gradual, from generation to generation, through oral tradition. It makes me think about what Playback Theater is, and why it is suitable now.
R: Come on, come on!
M: Usually myths are created and adapted from generation to generation – in the oral tradition. We’re talking about mythology and the adaptation of narrative in contemporary art. Now everything in the world is shrinking and accelerating. And so, the adaptation of the narrative turns out to be the moment of ‘compressing’ the narrative on the stage. History, a segment of real life, is compressed and adapted to the necessary questions and answers of the modern world. And we, the playbackers, working with the stories, adapt them to the ‘Here and Now’ of our audience. We also ‘compress’ them because we reproduce them right there in place. Right? Maybe you see some other adaptation of the narrative? Has anything else changed since ancient times?
R: It seems to me that the character has changed. We are now living in the era of humanism. Right? Human rights, market economy, liberal democracy. One way or another, this is all clear to almost every homo sapiens on earth. Well, that’s what Harari says. In ancient times stories by the fire were told about gods, ancestors, animals, while man was just a small part of the big picture of the world. Now, the myth of the gods is not relevant. The myth about ourselves is more relevant to us.
M: Ok, I accept. Although if we are talking about Hellenism, then there are already undivine elements of the myth.
R: Yes. But Odysseus is a demigod. They are all a little bit not human … They are heroes! Well, this is a Greek epos.
M: I agree, gods influence events, but they are not about gods. Well, mostly about them.
R: Therefore, answering your question, Playback Theater is very relevant to the modern world. We rely on the ancient experience of myth-making, directing it to the modern humanistic narrative.
M: Well, yes, way to go! Accepted.
- The power of myth
M: I know that myths are divided into two types: the first is about the creation of the world (cosmogonic myth), and the second is about the awareness of the world.
R: Do I understand correctly that the first one is “The world was created in 6 days, and on the 7th there was a party”, and the second is about what?
M: The second type is about initiation, transformation and life cycle transitions. For example, a boy becomes a man.
R: And these myths unfold through Campbell’s functions: a description of the world, its laws and rules, the path of transformation and healing, a miracle (Campbell, 2004).
M: The power of myth is not only in ritual, but also in the size of the tribe connected to it. The myth is especially strong when many people are connected to it through the same ritual. For example, the Jewish holiday of Passover, when they read the Passover Haggadah (the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt – הגדה): the same text for many generations, they eat the same food, and sing the same songs. Even a person who does not believe in God quite often experiences sentimental feelings and a feeling of “connectedness” to his people, ancestors. The same can be found in all cultures: Christmas, Shivaratri, etc. But, on the other hand, if during the same Easter dinner, grandfather tells a story from his life, then (in my opinion) it will be less powerful than the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
R: It all depends on what you use to measure the amount of power.
M: In my opinion, the power of influence of a myth is the number of people affected by this myth and their ability to participate in the rituals associated with it. Strength for me depends on the people and generations connected to the myth and on the frequency of repetition of rituals.
R: And what if grandfather’s story influenced the life of his grandson so much that, even being told once, it completely organized his whole future life?
M: Then we have different measurement criteria. But both are relevant, especially for Playback Theater.
R: I think they are relevant for art in general. A shaman in an African tribe and a performer at the crossroads of Avenue Street in New York are doing the same thing – they revive the myth through ritual. Richard Schechner (2004) wrote about this in his fundamental work on performance studies.
M: Yes, they (shamans/performers) create the ritual space. And the story of the grandfather was told in the ritual space “Seder Pesach”, which is also the point of unification of the individual and social influence of the myth. Then the influence of such a platform as, for example, Zoom, can have a very large impact, as a space of mythology, because we can create great and powerful myths that are not controlled by geographical and cultural boundaries.
R: And in this sense, the strength of Playback Theater and myth, is very relevant. After all, we live in a time of postmodernism, when the main action is narrative and messages.
- Playback Theater as an act of myth-making
M: Personally, I have this need – to tell a story at a Playback Theater performance. Why? It seems to me that we have a dialogue in our life all the time: subconscious – conscious. In the process of telling a story, and in the process of watching how it is played back, the story is “packaged”, some subconscious things emerge.
R: Well, yes. We (playbackers) “package” the narrative into a specific form that allows us to understand the hidden meanings of the story. The same story can be packaged differently. And the meanings may be different.
M: Yes, different meanings. And sometimes people tell traumatic stories multiple times. They share them at the performances of different companies, at rehearsals, repeating and checking various types of “packages“. Just to let others play with the story like children play in the sandbox. They seem to say – this is my story, I feel bad with it, I cannot understand its meanings, because it hurts. And then, watching it come to life on the stage, he begins to realize some layers that he himself could not reach.
R: That is, it happens thanks to the packaging / shape?
M: Yes. If we work according to the laws of mythology, the packaging itself becomes transcendentally deep. Because a myth is a story that works for everyone, and it is something that can be passed on from generation to generation, its influence extends to the whole society. At the same time, the myth is always relevant at the individual level, it clings to personal layers, answers basic questions. What works here is that the form helps the content to manifest. The myth teaches us to “correctly” comprehend a personal story.
R: Yes, and here’s what I thought. In playback, we often literally play stories; we reproduce the text without creating aesthetics. And if we perceive a story as a myth, and generally think about it as a myth, then we will go into the depths of the story.
M: Yes, we will be freer, and we will see wider and deeper.
R: Remember, at the festival in Odessa you said that the story itself is not a myth, but the story told in Playback Theater is a myth? So, the very process of performance creates a myth.
M: Well, yes, like in Campbell’s approach.
R: Yes, in the book Pathways to Bliss (Campbell, 1949) he describes the four functions of myth: Cosmogony, Laws of Morality, Path of Transformation and Miracle. Playback fits all of these features. The story describes the space of action, the place of action, describes the laws and rules that live in this story, has a personal impact on the transformation (self-impact) of not only the storyteller, but also all those present. Stories told in the playback performance give rise to the red thread of this performance, and their connectedness gives the feeling of a miracle.
M: Campbell also says that today art carries out the function of creating and disseminating mythology. That is, modern shamans and priests are artists, actors and directors. And I believe that one of the main playback functions is myth-making. Playback works with personal stories, turning them into mythical ones, that is, stories that are relevant not only to one person, but to the entire community, so that others can find their own questions and answers related to this myth.
R: For example, a personal story about breaking up with a girl turns into a Lost Love myth. The story told in the space of the Playback Theater performance ritual is a myth. Oral tradition in the flesh.
M: Yes. And in this way, we, like our ancestors, transmit knowledge about this world.
- Miracle and story
M: It seems to me that a miracle happens when a story is told and suddenly it comes to life on stage.
R: Campbell says that in every myth there is this sense of magic, of a miracle. And our thesis is that any story told in Playback Theater becomes a myth. Let’s say the storyteller shares: “I drank a delicious cup of coffee in the morning” – there seems to be nothing magical about it. But in fact, there is. When we reproduce this story on stage – in a song, or a dance, or any other figurative form, then the effect of miraculousness will just appear.
M: Well, yes. Miracle in playback is the transformation of the mundane into the magical. Another element of myth-making is that many people are involved in its creation. Here the actors are the conductors of the magic, and the audience witnesses the miracle.
R: Spectators thereby become participants in the action. Not only for the storyteller does it become magic, but the miracle manifests itself for everyone, for the entire community.
M: Yeah. First, the appearance of the storyteller on the stage and the story itself. Then the transformation of the story into a myth. And perhaps the spontaneity and improvisation of the actors on stage is the condition for the appearance of a miracle?
R: Spontaneity is magic in Playback Theater. Why is spontaneity magic? Because a miracle in itself is a life in uncertainty, beyond logic, beyond cause-and-effect relationships. It’s when we feel some kind of connection between events A and B, however our logic, our apparatus of reason cannot draw this line, this line is only in the sensory sphere.
M: Yes! We are looking for connections. Not logical connections, but, as you said, precisely at the sensory level, at the level of experiences and impulses. Or maybe something that connects strangely, but doesn’t feel like a miracle? For me, a miracle is also fascination, the perception of the divine, a miracle is something that delights, terrifies, evokes strong feelings.
R: In life we can reduce the intensity of experiences. The instinct of self-preservation works in the head. The mind tries to maintain the familiar perception of the world. But on stage, playback enhances the experience. It comes to life and turns out to be a real magic. Viewers often say, “How do you do this? This is really some kind of magic!”
M: Exactly. The playbacker operates on a territory where everything is magical. This is the space of the collective unconscious.
R: The viewer does not see a logical connection; he does not understand how we do it. Accordingly, he has a sensory response, and magic happens for him. So, this IS magic.
- What the spectator sees on the stage
R: When the viewer listens to the storyteller, he has two processes. Rational and sensual. I identify with both the story and the storyteller. The viewer perceives stories from their identities: gender, age, occupation, etc. And the second is sensual, he empathizes, and can share these feelings. While listening to the story, the viewer creates an internal architecture, a building in his head called “I understood the story”.
M: And when an actor plays a story on stage, this building can collapse. Surprise!
R: Yes, surprise. We want to be surprised. Often, we hear from the teller: “Oh, the performers saw something else in this story, something more that I didn’t pay attention to.”
M: Good. And the second thing?
R: Second, there is the main element of the story, which must necessarily manifest itself on the stage. That is, in playback, the viewer simultaneously wants two opposite things from the actors: to be surprised and to be shown the essence of the story.
M: The viewer craves for Miracle/Spontaneity and …
R: Yes. The viewer has just heard the story, he understood something about it, but when the actors, for example, start singing it, this is ‘wow’ for the viewer. On the other hand, if the actors do not reproduce the essence of the story, the viewer will be disappointed. That is, the Ego of the hero changes, but at the same time the Soul remains unchanged.
M: Yes. Singing is aesthetics. And through aesthetics we can get to the Miracle.
R: Yes, the practical task of aesthetics is to destroy the circumstances, the plot. For example, the story is about an office worker who is trying to submit an accounting report, and the actors can play it through the myth about Don Quixote and his struggle with windmills. Such an aesthetic filter brings pleasure to the viewer, because it surprises. This, by the way, is the essence of humor. Humor is about an unexpected decision that is not in everyday perception.
M: By the way, the game is built on the same principle. Some rules of the game are created, which are broken at some point. This is often the essence of humor.
R: Yes. We want to go beyond the cognitive perception of the world. As you said, we want a Miracle. Thus, there are two parts in story: the holy, sacred part – this is the heart of story – and the everyday world. On the altar stage the actors sacrifice a routine and remake it, preserving the essence, and then return the same story, only now completely sacred. And it is at this point that story finally becomes tribal and turns into a myth.
M: I agree, the essence of the story is preserved. At the same time, at the intuitive/archetypal level, the actors create an element of miracle/spontaneity. And for a miracle to happen, you need to create a sacred space.
- Sacred geometry of a performance
R: Stories unfold in a specific space. And if it were a different space, there would be different stories. In Odessa, one performance in winter, a storm began, a blizzard, everything was covered with snow, and only three spectators came. At the same time, the actors thought that no one would come at all. And now this is already a big story – the circumstances, this blizzard and storm, united all the participants in the performance and influenced its atmosphere/cosmogony.
M: I agree. And here the squaring of the circle turns up. Campbell mentions this in “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” (Campbell, 1949). The squaring of the circle is a kind of symbol of the transition from earthly to heavenly. And this appeals to me with playback and with a myth. So, a holy place, for example, a church, a building in the form of a square, denoting the four cardinal points, and in the middle of this building there is a round altar. And this is the place where the hero meditates, realizes himself in the Universe, his destiny.
R: Then it turns out that the essence of the ritual is the unification of a square and a circle, Earth and Heaven. What is impossible to do in an ordinary state of consciousness, but only in a ritual trance.
M: Yes, and let’s think about the playback process through this sacred geometry. The performance of Playback Theater is a sacred event, and it should take place in a sacred space. That is, we are building some kind of temple for sacred rites. And this is important. Jonathan Fox is talking about this, albeit in a different language.
R: The simple phrase “building up the stage” has a deep meaning and requires a lot of attention. Because what we do every time is we erect a temple and an altar and consecrate them. Playback architects.
M: That’s right. So how does it work? The room in which we play is usually square, and people, playbackers and spectators, very often sit in an oval.
R: Where is our playback circle? I don’t always have people sitting in a semicircle. Usually, the seats for the spectators are parallel to the stage.
M: Well, we definitely have a circle when we close the space with the audience. On one side there is the storyteller, the conductor, then the actors sit in a semicircle, even if the rows are parallel rather than in a semicircle. (See Figure 1.)
R: And inside there is the emptiness of the stage, this is the altar, the center of the temple, to which we all go, where the hero’s meditation takes place.
M: Yes. The spectator comes to the temple, and when he becomes the storyteller, he puts the story on the altar-stage, and then the actors meditate on this story, turning it into a myth.
R: Very powerful. I want to return to this moment of preparing the space for the performance – building a temple. Our spaces, where we conduct performances, are square. This is the manifested world in which we perform a physical action – we set up chairs, set up lights, set up music.
M: Yes. And there is also a circle, our “altar”. And here the question is, how do we sanctify it?
R: In my theater, there is a ritual when, just before going on stage, we stand in a circle and count to 21 so that only one playbacker speaks aloud at a time. And if we screw it, then we start counting from the beginning. This is how we tune in and create the initial seed of holiness-trance, with which we consecrate the scene when we open the performance.
M: Yes. All the playback groups I’ve worked with have a similar ritual. One way or another, before the performance, all of them stand in a circle! But I do not agree that we ourselves consecrate the scene – the storyteller does this, telling us a story. When the playback ritual occurs.
M: For me, the sacred temple and the squaring of the circle happens during the performance. The temple and the altar are just a building and an object, and only ritual and action, and a properly prepared atmosphere gives a lot of immersion. But I agree that preparation itself can also be called sacred. Okay, can you divide the concepts into Consecration (preparation) and Sacred action (performance itself)?
R: In my practice, it is important for me to define the value of preparation, this is “building the scene”, since in my opinion, the quality of attention of the playbackers to preparation is super important. “Good enough” Playback Theater is when the actors build a temple and consecrate it with their efforts and attention, their inner ritual, and then open up the space for the entire tribe. And the square of the circle during the performance, the altar of the temple, is open not only to the priest-actors, but also to the storyteller …
M: Exactly. This reminds me of “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” (Campbell, 1949) the part where the hero finds himself in “The Womb of the Whale.” He is swallowed up by some kind of power, a certain Whale, a cave, a garbage compartment on a star ship. The same thing happens during a performance in Playback Theater. The storyteller, who is leading the ritual, moves from his usual environment, the audience, to the stage. He separates from the tribe, rises on the stage and is “absorbed” by it, that is, our altar/Whale; and then the Whale (the stage) spits him out, and he comes out different.
R: Yes, on stage, on the storyteller’s chair, like in the belly of a whale, a person finds himself isolated from ordinary society and everyday life. This is a very important experience. People have forgotten how to live in isolation, weightlessness, inactivity, peace. The myths that they have consumed in recent decades were about active doing. For example Batman, Superman, Cat woman, Frodo, Anna and Elsa. Playback Theater teaches us not only to be active, but also to be passive.
M: I agree! After all, Buddha actively studied with many famous teachers for a long time, but he never found enlightenment. And, just sitting under Bo’s tree, he isolated himself and said, “until I reach enlightenment, I won’t get up from here.” And here I have a strong connection with the story of Jonathan Fox and his isolation in Nepal.
- Sacred rules
R: Sacred rules are about the fact that the laws of morality and ethics came not from human relations, but from the divine. Moses received the tablets on Mount Sinai (Semitic myth), Vyasa wrote Mahabharata (Hindu myth), Odin taught people runes (Scandinavian myth). Relationships between people and morality are not a human invention, but divine laws that came from above.
M: Interesting. I haven’t thought about it yet. And does this have anything to do with Narrative Reticulation? (Fox, 2019)
R: Actually, the laws and regulations are the Ritual, which is voiced by the conductor. That is Guiding. The conductor talks about the playback rules: we raise our hand, we listen carefully to the story, we play it. The conductor, in this place, becomes some kind of actual conductor of the sacred rule. It was not people who came to the performance and agreed on the rules by which everything would happen. Someone came and said ‘this is how it goes’ from Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas; they are like the Prophets of the Supreme Being.
M: The Ritual plays the role of a moral code, which in our case was brought by Jonathan and Jo?
R: Well, they brought it from humanistic concepts that arise from Christian-Jewish morality. Plus, Jonathan’s reclusion in Nepal also falls on this idea.
M: Why is the Ritual important and what is its power?
R: The Ritual separates the individual profane (ordinary) space from the individual sacred (sacred). And similarly, the social profane – from the social sacred. But where is this border between social and individual myth?
M: And where, according to this border, is Playback Theater? For example, in the year of the pandemic, Jonathan started the Listening Hour (Fox, 2020) project (in the Russian-speaking environment you can find the name “Circle of Stories”), and he just listens to stories. Is this enough for a myth?
R: Listening Hour has its own ritual. There is a Guide, there are rules that organize the storytelling, and there is a creative act of the Guide at the end, when he collects all the stories (red thread) – called a “reprise”. Perhaps the very act of telling and listening creates the atmosphere and flow of the stories, thereby creating a myth.
M: Does the therapist create mythology in an individual session? How are we playbackers different from a psychotherapist? After all, it seems to us that it is precisely and especially playback that creates the myth in which the entire tribe is healed.
R: Psychotherapy also works with myths. After all, there is an idea in society about who psychotherapists are. It is with this view that the client comes into the session. As one of the representatives of this profession, I know that within a session there is even a shamanic experience, just like in playback.
M: The question is not in the idea of psychotherapy, but in what happens inside the process. And this is an individual experience. It reminds me of individual myths about how a child goes through his initialization and turns into an adult. Always, at the beginning and, especially, at the end, there is a connection to the tribe.
R: Well then, psychotherapy is a myth about isolation, where a transformation takes place in a small closed sacred space, after which the Hero returns to the world. And in playback …
M: … A social myth is created in which the entire tribe is involved, and in which there is a connection to both individual and universal human experience.
R: Yes. Playback Theater is in the middle, between big social myths and individual myths, this is our strength, the Power of Myth and Ritual!!!
- Ritual, cyclicity, game
M: If we say that myth is ritual, then one of its properties is repetitiveness and cyclicity. In this case, the improvisation itself can be of ritual character. That is, cyclical. We can come up with structures on the fly, creating some rules with which you can work on stage.
R: Improvisation is ritualized. We have a bunch of rules. Always say “yes”. Tuning in… and so on.
M: I mean how we play on stage. For example, a game is a rule/structure that appears right here and now. The actor begins to act somehow, and there are two options for the reaction of his partners. They either support, following this rule, or they act exactly the opposite.
R: That is, the Game, as a structure created during the game, is born on the altar/stage, and thus becomes a ritual. For me, what you say about repeatability is very important. Myths and rituals are characterized by repetition, this is an integral part of the tradition. No matter how many times we play a wedding, the ritual will be the same. Different people, different places, but the wedding is the same. For Pesach, for instance, twelve courses and so on.
M: No-no-no, I understand where you are taking me. You say that for all myths there is a form of ritual, and I say that within the myth there are elements of Game. For example, the famous tale about Tsar Saltan: he turned into a fly, flew, bit, returned. Then he turned into a mosquito. All the time he turns into something and bites. This is the element of constant repetition.
R: And so it happens in many tales and legends. For example, Cinderella has three tasks. And by the way, in J. Campbell’s monomyth (Campbell, Moyers & Flowers, 1988) – this happens before the battle with the dragon, here is such a cyclical nature.
M: Before, during and after.
R: And usually there are unbearable tasks that cannot be completed. This is not possible in everyday reality. But in a fairy tale (myth), the hero copes with this, relying on magical abilities. This creation of something on the stage, happens through some repetitive actions. These patterns carry energy, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the aesthetics brought by the actor. Perhaps this aesthetics is not in the story itself. But thanks to the combination of this repetition, support and so on, we can build some Cosmogony on the stage, some architectural work. The architecture is invisible, but it is present, and everyone is witnessing this building.
M: Plus. The structure is architectural in nature. We can, by word or action, create structure through cyclical, repetitive, and ritualistic. Just like architects and builders build a building floor by floor.
R: Then it turns out that at some point we need to destroy this building.
M: Yes. Break the Game, that is, change the already established rules. But, breaking Game, you do not ignore it, you base on it. Look, if this is a structure, then you can look at it as a kind of shell, a prison that holds the hero until he can break it and thereby change his world. And the fact that we are spinning in a circle in life, it is cyclical, as we cannot get out of it. The Wheel of Samsara. And to get out of it, we, as a Hero, must die, but we die in this action. We die and are reborn as others. We change ourself with the help of heaven. Perhaps our earthly cycle and circle limits us. We thereby reach a new level of ourselves, opening up new opportunities.
R: Yes. And here we are helped by the laws that Joseph Campbell formulated for us in “The Four Functions of Myth” (Campbell, 2004) and Jonathan Fox in “Narrative Reticulation.” (Fox, 2019) This connection will help us to consciously approach the sacred architecture that we build in game and Playback Theater in general.
- Afterword to Part 1
R: The story that is told and played back in Playback Theater becomes a myth.
M: To comprehend a story from the point of view of a myth is to dive deep. We connect not only to a specific story/storyteller/audience, but also to a common human experience.
R: Playbackers prepare the space for the performance – they build a temple and an altar, connecting the square and the circle, the Earth and the Sky.
M: Myths are cyclical, like the existence itself. Then game is a microcosm that repeats the macrocosm of life.
R: Playbackers are conductors of sacred rules. We teach these laws to spectators.
M: Miracles occur in our life all the time, but it is the temple / stage that allows us to realize / feel them in full.
R: Dear reader, that was the first part of our journey. Shall we go ahead?
Part 2. Playback through the myth-making prism
- Junction points between Functions of a Myth and Narrative Reticulation
R: I’m interested in understanding the general mechanism of Campbell’s myth and making a comparative analysis with Fox’s Narrative Reticulation.
M: Narrative reticulation. Why do we need this theory, if in practice we are already doing everything that it says? I understand that Fox means that we should improve the quality of our actions through awareness. And he creates a theory that helps to structure experience and look at the world through this prism. We may be doing the same with myth-making. That is, if we know the Functions of Myth (FM) and Narrative Reticulation (NR), then there can be direct practical benefits from a comparative analysis of these theories. And through this analysis, we can improve the quality of our creativity. Right?
R: I agree, and it is important that in the moment of theorizing, our thoughts about the Functions of Myth and the theory of Narrative Reticulation intersect and mutually complement each other. For me, this is like confirmation of both theories.
M: I agree. It seems to me that in this way the theory of NR receives an anthropological theoretical foundation. After all, when a theory meets other scientific theories (argues or agrees, elaborates on them), it becomes more grounded.
R: Let’s put everything in a table.
M: Sure. So, we present to your attention a table of concepts from NR and FM. Here, it is only important to say that we do not quote the authors, but voice our own understanding, and we bring attention to the articles and books in the bibliography for a more complete study of all aspects of these theories.
M: Let’s do it stage by stage, let’s talk about the Atmosphere and Cosmogony. For me, the Atmosphere is something primary. Of course, it will change in the process too, but its main function is manifested before the beginning, and what we, as performers, can influence, can actually create. Performance is based on a foundation; this is cosmogony. What was done “Before.”
R: Yes. And the important moment of the Atmosphere and Cosmogony is time. As a category of everything existent, as the points of beginning and end.
M: So, what can be done before the “manifestation of the world”? We can prepare space, light. And here I want to remind you about squaring the circle.
R: Yes. After all, the temple is a model or reflection of the universe. The space of performance in essence reflects all those stories and states which we can bring into it. That is why it is worth looking at the space-time of the performance through the eyes of a demiurge architect.
M: How the ends of the world are connected the dome of heaven. So, the awareness of the atmosphere/cosmogony should be all encompassing. Like the myth, it is worth creating a sense of transition through all our chakras (from the base/animal to the sublime divine/heavenly).
R: Therefore, we need to realize, legalize and use the elements of space-time. For example, where is the entrance to the performance space, or how the light falls, or how to put chairs for the audience, or how to send a Zoom meeting link to the spectators. All this is sacred geometry, the walls of our temple.
M: Great. Now let’s talk about Guiding/Laws of Morality.
R: I have a feeling that both Guiding and the Laws of Morality are the glue that prevents this circus from falling apart. These are the principles of structure formation.
M: I agree. Guiding has to be ethical and fair. The main figure of the guiding is the conductor. And he brings in moral rules and goodness. He rounds the ends of the audience/community to the center, that is, he takes care of everyone. He dictates the rules of ethical and empathic treatment of storytellers and opinions of different parts of the audience/society.
R: And then who is a conductor through the prism of Joseph Campbell’s Functions of Mythology?
M: God! United and fair!! And also, a Guide giving the right advice (from the point of view of the Path of the Hero).
R: I completely agree with the Guide, but not with God.
R: Let’s agree that the Conductor is the Prophet.
M: Well, okay. After all, the Prophet, he is a part of God, His voice (the Voice of God).
R: Still, what is the practical application of Guiding/Morality?
M: Not to forget about the outcast. God loves everyone, and therefore everyone should be heard. It cannot be otherwise, else a community will not be created.
R: Thanks to laws/rituals, we do not question our innocence or legitimacy every time. Here’s a metaphor: we take on the “burden of the commandments” of the playbacker, entering a special performative state of service. The perception of Guiding at the level of feelings “makes the river flow, the banks direct the water, and the river does not turn into a swamp.” Therefore, it is not only about knowing the rules and rituals and telling the audience about them, but also about taking them as a vow, as a spiritual practice, and feeling them.
M: Yes, well said!!
R: Oh my, and yet what can we say about Story and Way of, God forbid, Transformations?
M: What do you want Roma, it’s the same thing, well, almost. In essence, in both there is a certain chronology, certain pattern of their unfolding.
R: And this is wonderful, I especially like what you said about chronology, it seems to me that this is the very practical side of the correspondence between story and transformation. Will you repeat?
M: The story has its own laws, and they cannot be violated, even if the narration is not linear, it is still logical.
R: And you can realize this with your mind, but more often with your own intuition. The playbacker learns to feel the hidden tempo-rhythm in history, to find the Heart of History – its true essence.
M: Yes. The story consists of ‘cubes-events’. The way the cubes are arranged, the transitions from one cube to another, and their overall totality is Story. Platform-Essence-Epilogue or Start-Mid-End. This logic of arranging cubes-events is exactly what guides us in the process of the story and builds the structure.
R: If we look at the logic of the change of events, the speed of their alternation (tempo-rhythm/chronotope), their intensity, then thanks to all the above we will be able to see the Heart of the Story. But, since there are often a lot of data, this is not even about “seeing”, but rather it’s about “feeling”. The heart of the Story opens rather through intuition.
M: Okay, now Miracle! And Spontaneity.
R: It turns out that Miracle is a kind of clarity or aesthetics that manifests itself from an ocean of possibilities. Thus, by adjusting the quality of contact between all participants in the performance, we create an ‘altar’ on which the hidden is manifested.
M: And the miracle is that it is impossible to cognize it with consciousness. Impossible to structure.
R: Yes, this is a kind of sensory experience that passes through our bodies and minds and is embodied on the stage. That is, the magic is not in the uncertainty itself, but in the fact that we combine our material nature (body, voice, consciousness) with the energy that came from the “Flow” (Csikszentmihályi, 1990).
M: Well, good. So, we’re done discussing the table. Important note. All these elements are not absolutely related and identical. They seem to be talking to each other. And sometimes they can be combined in a different way. For example, Jonathan Fox’s Story may well intertwine with Campbell’s Path of Transformation, as we suggested in the article, but also with Campbell’s Miracle.
I suggest finalizing this part. The most important practical application of our concept is healing. Campbell writes that by restoring the flow of symbols (myth), we connect the conscious and unconscious that are in a narrative dialogue, which is actually an integrity.
M: Yes! And it’s wonderful.
R: This is the conciliatory power of the Playback Theatre
M: And the myth.
R: And then it turns out that this stream of symbols is suspiciously like the Red Thread, what do you think?
M: YES! And also to the Path of the Hero.
|Narrative Reticulation/Function of Mythology||Short description of Narrative Reticulation||Short description of Functions of a Myth|
M: This is what surrounds the performance in the physical space (weather, buildings, interior) and in the cultural space (information environment and mentality) “here and now”.
R: And also, this is the time of the performance (time of day, day of the week, season of the year, holidays or special dates). It affects both spectators and actors.
R: This is the manifested world and its structure, the myth of the appearance and destruction of this world. Past-Present-Future.
M: The place of a person in the Oikumene, the structure of the world. The logic of the emergence of “I”.
R: The level of pure energies, primary elements. Primary ambivalences such as Chaos-Order, Fate-Chance, Good-Evil, Heaven-Earth.
|Guiding/ Moral laws and regulations|
R: For me, this is primarily a Ritual and the distribution of power and responsibility.
M: I wouldn’t say power, it’s rather control! And first of all, conscious control.
R: Guiding is landmarks that guide us towards a certain state (tribal rallying, healing, “every story counts”).
|The laws of morality and ethics |
M: How to organize chaos and protect yourself by helping the tribe.
R: The essence of the laws between people – laid in heaven (“tablets of the covenant“)
M: social distribution: King / merchant / commoner.
R: The sacredness of the social structure.
|Story/ Personal transformation path||Story |
R: Narrative, verbalized experience. Story is a logical sequence of events.
M: Story is like nested dolls / Matryoshka, it can be multi-level.
R: It covers both personal stories of and the story of a place, community, state, humanity.
M: In playback it is the Red Thread and four levels of a story.
Personal transformation path
R: This is a sequence of initiations that help a person come into the world, from a child to come of age, then become an adult, accept old age, and prepare for the Dark Gate.
M: The cycle of life of nature (spring-summer-autumn-winter) and that of a person.
R: It is the death and resurrection of the Ego, the balance between spirit and personality.
M: and between the senses and the mind…
R: That is, body and mind.
M: In general, all that we can express with the phrase the Path of a Hero
M: It is Here and Now, connecting to the senses, reacting to the atmosphere, story and guiding.
R: Connectedness. Existential dialogue between I and You, impulses that are born from contact. It is also about the actions of the actors, about the “birth” of stories in the audience and about the spontaneous interventions of the conductor.
M: An unknown event that evokes admiration.
R: I would even say that blows your mind. Living in a territory of uncertainty.
M: Divine, Unconscious event – Discontinuity.
R: Connection with all that exists, extra-linguistic experience.
M: Indescribable, noradrenaline and endorphin (shake, but do not stir). God peeps out from behind a cloud.
- Path of a Storyteller
R: The performance is the integral Path of the Hero. The storyteller/hero hears the call, he answers it and raises his hand to tell the story. The conductor comes to him as an assistant and invites him to cross the threshold. And then the storyteller crosses the Threshold, the stage boundary. What’s going on next? Death. For the transformation to take place, he must die. How does he die? He disappears because as a person he ceases to exist in the focus of attention of the playback ritual: on the stage he is embodied by the actor.
M: AKIR? Don’t be greedy, tell the whole world about your term.
R: AKIR is the abbreviation we use at the Ukrainian School of Playback Theater. The initial letters for the Russian phrase for “Актер Который Играет Рассказчика” (“The Actor Who Plays the Storyteller”) – AKIR.
M: Good term. Everyone who has read it – use it!
R: Let’s continue. The storyteller disappears/dies, and his counterpart, AKIR, lives on the stage.
M: It is a process of transformation. Death and rebirth. This is how the myth manifests itself.
R: Yes, and the criterion of the Path of the Hero is that the journey changes not only the hero himself, but the whole world around him. Campbell talks about it.
M: Awesome. Our hero’s path and mythology are intertwined. Because the myth changes all the people in the audience, since they are either witnesses or participants in the creation of this myth. That is, we have a process in which all are involved. Some are more active; some are less active.
R: And all spectators can equally be heroes.
M: Yes, and of course there are spectators who choose not to tell the story. They are thrashed or they simply did not join the performance process, and they are not ready to hear the Call and become a Hero. In this case, they become secondary characters of this myth-making. Witnesses.
R: There is also a projection mechanism. If the spectator has not told the story, then they can identify with the storyteller. Many people experience this feeling: “What to tell, what to tell?” And then someone comes out and tells. And then in his head: “Oh, this is my story!”
M: Well, yes, being a hero is not easy. It’s like a princess who threw away the frog’s skin. That is, the path that the spectator would also like to go, but he was afraid and did not let himself go there.
R: Well, here’s a question to the conductor. To what extent was he a quality assistant and guide through the Threshold?
M: Perhaps the question is not only for the conductor, the question for the spectator, is he ready to become a hero at this stage of his life? And then the question is, who do we have then as the Dragon for the storyteller?
R: It seems to me that the audience itself is the Dragon. The judgement of the audience.
M: Cool, yes.
R: Go out and tell something in front of this whole audience, it’s scary. And it turns out that the eyes of all these people, their attention – this is the Challenge, the Dragon, the fight against it. It is located inside the head of the storyteller. That is, it is clear that no one beats up the storyteller. This is the inner fear of evaluation, the fear of rejection. What he copes with when he goes on stage.
M: This is an inner and outer critic. Our life processes can be stalled by criticism. The storyteller does not physically fight for his place on stage. If he had to go through the audience, physically making his way … I don’t know, it’s my logic that works this way.
R: Well here … Well, what is the Dragon doing?
M: Guardian of treasures.
R: Yes. The dragon checks whether the hero is worthy or not. This is one of the checks. It he is going to cope or not. Well, it seems to me that this whole process, the need to get up and go out, is a check and a test.
M: It seems to me that leaving the audience is not a Dragon after all. The whole process of the emergence of the storyteller is the Path of the Hero:
• First, the conductor acts as an external Call – “Who has a story?”
• The spectator raises his hand in response to the Call.
• He goes to the Path, passing through the audience, rejecting himself from the usual life, crossing the Threshold, and finding himself in the distant kingdom – on the stage.
• The conductor turns into an assistant-sage.
R: Exactly! Then I realized who the Dragon is! The hero-storyteller fights with the Dragon – a chthonic creature – with his emotions and images of the past, critic, chaos of the unconscious, turning it into a structure. Feelings, events and images become a narrative, a story.
M: And then when his story is played on stage, two things happen:
• The symbolic death of the hero – he disappears from the focus of attention – everyone is looking at the stage.
• The acquisition of the Elixir – sacred knowledge that transforms both the storyteller and the entire tribe (audience). That is, thanks to the actors’ play, the storyteller gains a new vision of his story.
R: Yes. And then the Hero returns home with the Elixir, i.e.:
• The storyteller becomes part of the audience/tribe again.
M: This is the Path of the Hero, which the storyteller goes through.
R: And this is only one part of the process, because the Hero is not only the storyteller himself, but also all the participants in the performance.
M: Yes, because the whole audience seems to delegate the storyteller to come out, because he is a representative of the audience.
R: For example, the Red Thread phenomenon is a story told by an entire tribe. This means the Path of the Hero, which we walked together during the performance, and our common myth that was born in the process.
(A story made up of all the stories told in the performance. The Red Thread appears during the performance. It can be linear and follow the Aristotelian arch. It can be interrupted. One of the reasons for the creation of NR is an attempt to answer the question of why the Red Thread appears. There can be several Red Threads, depending on who is looking at the performance and how.
An example from the performance by “Neighbors” Playback Theatre, when the stories were like this:
1) To share your inspiration
2) To go on vacation to Zanzibar and hear the roar while walking in the jungle. It was … a scooter.
3) To be constantly on the move. Losing a home and rebuilding everything again. And so on in a circle. “Lord, why!?”
4) To get angry with an emotional employee, and then be in her place.
5) To say goodbye to a good job for your dream job.
In my opinion, the Path of the Hero is clear in this performance. He goes the path of transformation, hearing the Call and sharing his inspiration with the world, but finds himself in a dark forest, where he is frightened, and the charm disappears. Then he loses everything he has. Death and Rebirth: The Hero gets angry and turns into his Shadow. And the Hero realizes his destiny, and he has enough strength to go his own way.)
M: Yes! This is a good interpretation. And then there is the very theme of the performance, chosen and announced by the team. And also, how the actors reveal this topic through personal stories in the introduction and the conductor through Guiding.
R: And what happens to the Playback Theater company in the process of company life is also, in a sense, the Path of the Hero and transformation.
M: Yes, you are right, and for every participant in this performance who brought something from home with him.
R: I agree. It’s hard to believe that I’m saying this, but in my opinion, it’s time for us to summarize.
M: Well, let’s finish it?
- Mythological awareness of a playbacker
R: I become alive when the myth unfolds among the participants in the performance, in this space, with these stories, when I say “Yes” to the reality that happens here and now. There is a new energy, a new perception of the world, connections within the community become more significant and valuable.
M: Good. But what if for you, just like for me, playback is already an old and very familiar story?
R: Yes, and this is a big trap for us playbackers. Because it’s not an old story. Here’s an example. Not so long ago I came to teach Playback Theater at the festival of spiritual practices in Lithuania. I came as, you know, such a cool and well-known coach, I just gave a training in Odessa. And I hit reality hard with all my narcissistic face. A huge festival with a zillion people, but only one person comes to my master class.
M: Wow! Why?
R: Because I acted from my old experience, from the fact that I know everything and can do everything.
M: Is it somehow connected?
R: It is. Because when I started to throw away my masks and look at what is really happening here, I was able to develop a different narrative, a different text, with the help of which I began to invite people to my master class: so that they would come. That is, I have combined the global Playback Theater myth and the local history of the festival. And it all worked when both myths (I-Playback-Theater and I-festival) were in consensus.
M: To quote Campbell: “Yes, myths offer models of life, but models must be acceptable for the time in which you live and for that place. And our time is measured by the speed, so what was acceptable fifty years ago is unacceptable today. What was previously considered a virtue has now become a vice. And much of what was previously considered a vice has now become a need … As a result, we have what is called a mechanically imposed mystical experience“. (Campbell, Moyers & Flowers, 1988)
Possibly, Roma, you brought with you a mechanical mystical experience from the previous training. Right?
M: Now listen to what good old Campbell says. “The old tradition can be preserved only under one condition, if it is updated in accordance with the circumstances that have arisen.” (Campbell, Moyers & Flowers, 1988)
R: That is, in our case, Playback Theater is busy updating old myths. Well, adapting them to modern realities?
M: Yes. At the same time, nothing really changes. Campbell says: “The basic motives of the myth are the same. They were always the same. If you want to find your own mythology, then first of all you have to decide which society you belong to. Any mythology arises in a certain society in a limited space. Then mythologies collide, relationships are established between them, they merge, and as a result, a more complex mythology is formed ”. And as a special treat he adds: “There is a mythology that connects you with nature and the natural world, of which you are a part, and there is a purely sociological mythology that connects you with a certain society. You are not just a living person, but also a member of a certain group … Usually a socially oriented system is inherent in nomads who moved from place to place, the purpose of which is to determine the place of each person in this group. And nature-oriented mythology is the prerogative of farmers.” (Campbell, Moyers & Flowers,1988) Here. That’s it.
R: Cool, Campbell knows everything about me.
M: And therefore, it is important to connect and be aware of local and global myths.
R: Mythological awareness.
M: Yes. And if you answer the question why it is needed, then here is my answer. Mythological awareness not only helps to create a pleasant Atmosphere for spectators and actors, we also create a whole world – Cosmogony. If this is remembered, then we will be focused on the Squaring of the Circle, on the sacralization of the room and the immersion of people who will perform sacred rites in it.
We will not only be Spontaneous, which is very beneficial for health and soul. We will seek the Miracle, both for ourselves and for the others.
We not only work with Stories, but we also walk the Path of Transformation together with all the participants in the performance.
We not only use Guiding to better construct a performance, we adopt the Law and Code of Ethics as a kind of code of conduct. Just like people who received tablets (runes, scrolls, knots) from God.
R: You just formulated the playbacker’s myth-making manifesto! Cool!
So, we got to the conclusions. From this moment we decide to merge into a single voice (Kandibur + Mairovich = KaMa (Hindu deity of love)
We hope that everything that has been said before will inspire you to walk our path. And when you step on this path, it will become your own, because the world is great, and the world of myths is even larger, and the thread of Ariadne is in the heart of each of us. So you won’t be able to repeat it, but, perhaps, some of our tips will help you if you do playback or learn myths.
The most important thing is the towel; without it, the hitchhiker has nothing to do in the galaxy. But seriously, here are our major milestones/guide stones:
- Myth-making is the gateway to the creative flow. When you begin to comprehend Playback Theater and the stories told in it through this prism, you will be able to connect to the common human experience (at least we succeeded). And it is immensely deep. Therefore, your vision of stories will become deeper and wider.
- The Squaring of the Circle – in myth-making, the playback space is the temple, and the stage is the altar. Here stories are told and played, and thus myths are born. You can realize this through physical space – a square building, a round stage, but this also applies to the construction of any playback space. This realization will help you and your company (as we believe) prepare the temple and altar. The smoother the circle, the deeper the atmosphere and synergy within.
- Ritual – the founders of playback also speak about ritual. And it acquires a new and important meaning if you look at it through myth-making. After all, our entire past is permeated with ritual, and it is not just a procedure for actions. Form gives meaning to everything.
- Game – myths, ballads and fairy tales are cyclical, just like existence itself is cyclical. They are cyclical at both the macro and micro levels. If you use Game as an element of improvisation on stage, it will create a platform for stories to come to life.
- Narrative Reticulation and the Functions of Mythology – For the two of us, one of the most important discoveries in this conversation is the phenomenological similarity between Fox’s Narrative Reticulation Theory and Campbell’s Functions of Mythology. Firstly, it’s fun (both laugh), and secondly, it gives Playback Theater substantiation on a human level and helps a deeper understanding of its aspects.
- The Path of the Hero – we all go through the path of transformation, caused by our choice or circumstances. All participants in the performance pass the Monomyth individually and all together as one tribe. If we remember this, then we will be able to comprehend each ritual action as a stage of the Hero’s Path.
- Healing and Teaching the Community — The act of service is at the very center of playbacker’s moral code. Therefore, entering the stage, the playbacker turns, as it were, into a clergyman (shaman, priest, druid), continuing the oral tradition of mankind. And just like our colleagues from the distant past, we bring the Myth to life to heal and unite the community. Our service is especially needed where there is pain, be it a natural disaster, war, or the struggle of minorities for their rights. Our service unfolds in all places where in response to the question “Who has a story?” someone will raise their hand…
Campbell, J. J. (1949) The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York, Pantheon
Campbell, J. J., Moyers, B., Flowers B.S., (ed.) (1988) The Power of Myth. New-York, Doubleday
Campbell, J. J. (2004) Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation. Novato, CA, New World Library, pp 6-10
Csikszentmihályi, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row
Fox, J. (2019) The Theory of Narrative Reticulation: A Brief Description, New Paltz, NY., Tusitala Publishing
Fox, J. (2020) Listening Hour //www.listeninghour.org/
Harari, Y. N. (2011) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Israel, Dvir Publishing House Ltd.
Schechner, R. (2004) Performance Theory. Routledge.
Our original conversations were recorded in Russian. They were transcribed by Marina Zhuravskaya and translated by Maria Isakova.
About the authors
Marat Mairovich is a musician and conductor from Jaffa, Israel. He has 26 years of experience in Playback Theater. Marat leads many Playback Theater groups in Israel: for the visually impaired, and for immigrants. He performs and trains in many countries including South Korea, Bulgaria, Turkey, Germany, Latvia, Ukraine, Russia, Belarus. During the Russian invasion of Ukraine he collaborated with Andrew Utenkov to hold ‘One and Half rooms at war’ – a weekly club on Zoom for Ukrainians (which they will continue to do till the end of this war). Marat professionally plays violin, piano, synthesizers, and guitar.
Roman Kandibur is founder of the Playback Theater company “Neighbors” in Dnipro city, a certified Playback Theater Trainer (with the Centre for Playback Theater USA), and head of the board of the Ukrainian School of Playback Theater. Roman is co-founder of the Ethnodrive movement, a conductor of drum circles, a practicing psychotherapist, anthropologist and author. He performs, facilitates and conducts numerous projects, workshops and educational programs in Ukraine, Europe, China, and Israel.
Exploring Light for Playback Theatre
By R.B. Mickie Marie
In the fall of 2022, Mickie Marie, Associate Professor of Theatre and Lighting Designer at Ball State University Department of Theatre and Dance consulted with Spotlight Players, the local Playback Theatre troupe in Muncie, Idiana, to incorporate lighting elements into their repertoire. Over several rehearsals, the troupe learned fundamental aspects of lighting design, such as intensity, movement, visibility, and mood, and were able to integrate that knowledge into existing playback forms. The troupe finished the project with two invited rehearsals to solicit audience feedback on the work they had done. The process has been summarized in this article.
My aspirations for this exploratory project were to create a lighting design methodology for Playback Theatre performances; to develop a system incorporating lighting design techniques to support the playback forms with the community troupe Spotlight Players located in Muncie, Indiana (USA). Initially, I would create a system by which I would use specific lighting techniques to enhance specific short forms. For example, low-angle side lighting may be used during a short form (such as fluids) or use traditional front light during long form story. When I design lights for a traditional theatre performance, the story is contained within the script, and I analyze the story and apply my design aesthetic to the overall concept of the production. My goal is to enhance and support the story being told on stage. Lighting for Playback Theatre, the goal remains the same, but since the story is improvised, the lighting must be as flexible in its execution as the actors themselves.
The thought was to apply a lighting design aesthetic onto the troupe’s performance, but the more I learned about playback’s methodology, and engaged with Spotlight Players, it became clear my original approach needed to be modified. Instead, I focused on ways to integrate lighting into existing forms, and possibly create new forms that were lighting-centric, to further enhance the core purpose of Playback Theatre: validating an audience member’s story. My approach shifted from me creating a methodology to giving the actors the tools to create a methodology for themselves. I started by giving all the members of the troupe some fundamental lighting knowledge, such as what we can control within lighting, and then let them create techniques that used that knowledge to enhance the story being told. Much the way a playback actor uses a scarf, or a prop, or a musical instrument, they can also use a flashlight, or clip light, or a table lamp. This approach felt more in line with the spirit of Playback Theatre, where many performances exist in found spaces, with no traditional theatre technology available. It also places the power of design within the hands of the troupe and gives light an equal footing with music and props (Figure 1). Additionally, this approach does not require anyone in the troupe to have extensive training in lighting design techniques, nor does it require them to find someone who is trained to be a part of their process. Instead, it allows the troupe to use light to create the environment in the moment, based on how they feel the moment needs to look. Over the course of this project, I met with Spotlight Players (the local Playback Theatre Troupe) for seven rehearsals and explored fundamental aspects of lighting and playback. For the final two rehearsals we invited some audience members to observe the work and offer feedback on what they saw. In this article, I have summarized much of the knowledge and techniques we explored throughout the rehearsal process in the Fall of 2022.
As I planned the early stages of the project, I wanted to make it as accessible as possible to as many different playback troupes as I could. My goal now was to document the process we went through so that others could build on what we had done without needing extensive knowledge of lighting design or technology. My first parameter I placed on myself was that I would only use lighting devices that were easily obtained from local hardware stores. I didn’t want the technology to be controllable using computers or lighting consoles. I wanted the technology to be accessible to a variety of people regardless of their comfort with technology. All of our fixtures were purchased at the local hardware store, but with the advances in LED technology, we were able to get some remote-control color changing lights to add a bit of spectacle.
The other parameter I set for myself was that I wanted to ensure all the devices were able to be controlled by various members of the troupe in the moment and were not reliant on one member to sit at a “control console” to operate the lights. The majority of the devices we used were flashlights, clip lights, and decorative lights that could easily be moved around and reset during the setup phase of a form. (Figure 1) With these parameters in place, the troupe and I began to explore light.
The Fundamentals of Light
In our first rehearsal, I broke down the very basic fundamentals of lighting design which are the controllable qualities of light and the functions of stage lighting. I used Richard Dunham’s text Stage Lighting: The Fundamentals (Dunham, 2019) as a reference point for all the information given to the troupe. When discussing the controllable qualities of light, I generally refer to these as the “what” of lighting. What am I doing with this light? What am I changing or manipulating? The qualities of light according to Dunham are: Intensity, Angle, Movement, and Color. When applying the qualities of light, we ask “what is that light doing?”, but we do not ask “why?” the light has been designed that way. I consider the functions of stage lighting to be the “why?”. The more prominent functions according to Dunham are Visibility, Focus, Modeling, and Mood.
Qualities of Light
The first controllable quality we discussed was intensity, which refers to how bright the light is. In a live environment (one in which the audience is seeing the performance with their own eyes as opposed to on a screen), the intensity is relative to the rest of the environment. A flashlight will appear very bright in a pitch-black room compared to outside in the bright sunlight. We discussed how moving a flashlight closer to your face will make the light appear brighter on your face and moving it further away will decrease the brightness. We played with changing intensity just by adjusting the proximity of the light to the subject (Figure 2).
We then discussed angle of light which refers to where the light is coming from relative to the actor and the audience. Is the light directly above the actor or is it below the face of the actor? Is the light coming from the left side of the actor or maybe directly behind them creating a halo effect? Movement was the third quality we discussed and that refers to the physical movement of the light in the space or on the actor as well as the change in intensity such as dimming. In our early explorations with flashlights, movement was one quality that was very prominent for the actors because the very act of turning the flashlight on and off is part of the quality of movement. The troupe also explored the idea of shaking the light to simulate fear and moving the light above them to simulate flickering lights. The last quality we discussed was color, which in this case refers both to saturated colors like blue and red, but also to tones of neutral white light such as warm white or cool white. We discussed how color is also relative and a cool white light might look very warm in comparison to a deep blue environment.
The Functions of Stage Lighting
The first (and in my opinion, the most important) function of light is visibility. Can I adequately see the things I’m supposed to see? Visibility ties in directly to intensity. If something is not visible, it is highly likely we need to change the intensity of some lights to achieve that visibility. The reason I consider this one the most important is because if we cannot adequately see the thing we are supposed to look at, then we become distracted by that inability to clearly see the subject. The second function we discussed was focus. Simply put, focus refers to the attention of the audience. Are they looking at the things they are supposed to look at? Focus is also tied to intensity and frequently the brightest thing on stage will command the most attention of the audience. A really good way to draw focus to something in particular is to make that thing brighter when we want the audience to look at it. We can either increase the light on the subject to make it brighter, or we can decrease the light on everything else to make it brighter by comparison. Modeling was the third function of lighting we discussed. In this case, modeling refers to how three-dimensional objects appear in space. Do they have lots of shadows and highlights or do they appear flat and two dimensional? Modeling is most closely tied to angle of light, as the angle of the light has the most impact on shadows and highlights of a subject. Many examples of light in real-life have at least one bright source, such as the sun, with at least one other dimmer source to create some fill light on the subject. If you are outside in the middle of the day, and it is a clear day, the sun would be the bright source and the sky itself would be filling in some shadows. The last function we discussed was mood. In this case, mood refers to whether the lighting supports the overall feeling or emotion of whatever is happening on stage. Color can play a large part in the mood of a composition, but angle and intensity can also impact the mood. All of the qualities must work together to create a particular mood, and mood is frequently one of the more difficult functions to achieve simply based on how many variables of lighting make up a stage composition. In Dunham’s text, he elaborates on a few other functions such as establishing a scene, composition, style, rhythm, and staging the story. For the purposes of this project and for simplicity with the troupe, I emphasized the four functions of visibility, focus, modeling, and mood as the main ones to focus on.
After discussing these ideas with the troupe, the rest of the first rehearsal was spent with each member of the troupe experimenting with a flashlight on themselves. Many of the experiments that evolved from that rehearsal explored direction and movement, and how the actor could dynamically shift the direction of the light to emphasize a point they were trying to make. Modeling and mood were frequently discussed as they tried to achieve particular emotions or evoke certain feelings. We also looked at a couple different light bulbs that were purchased from the local hardware store that had different colors of white light. We discussed how the varying shades of white can evoke certain feelings such as how warm white and cool white light can make someone feel differently. I then asked the troupe to pay attention to their surroundings over the next week before we met again and to see if they could identify different qualities of light and how they may have impacted certain things like visibility, focus, modeling, and mood.
Exploration of Light
As the troupe continued to meet and consider the integration of lighting into their forms, the exploration we did in that first rehearsal formed the basis of the warm up that happened at each rehearsal, and ultimately would evolve into the audience warm up we performed at our two invited rehearsals. The conductor of the troupe would provide a prompt for the troupe, and they would spend a minute or two exploring with their own flashlight before playing that prompt back to the troupe. Some of the earliest prompts were more of titles that the actor would recite back to the troupe, after deciding on an emotion, or movement to convey their feelings, such as “I found ten dollars”, or “I got a bad grade on my test”. Some of the exploration that evolved from these prompts included using the flashlight to represent the ten dollars as it shined on the face of the actor, or using the flashlight to imitate a cell phone as the actor pretended to text their friend that they got a bad grade on the test. In these cases, the flashlight was not only a source of light for the actor, but also became a representation of important information, as well as imitated everyday objects. In later rehearsals, we prompted the actors with an emotion only, and let them decide how to use the flashlight to help convey that emotion. Having the actors understand some of the fundamentals of lighting such as angle and intensity became integral in their understanding of how the light was playing on themselves. One evolution of this exercise saw the actors moving the lights frantically around to simulate energized intensity, or light themselves from different angles to convey subtle emotional shifts. One of the key ideas that evolved from this exercise was that a flashlight can be used to represent something, it can be used as a traditional light source to direct the audience’s attention, and it can also be used simply as a prop flashlight.
The exercises then evolved from having one actor use the flashlight on themselves, to partnered work in which one actor would shine the flashlight on the other. The parameter for this exercise was that they were not allowed to discuss their intentions with their partner, but rather were trying to listen and react to what the actor of the pair was doing. We then evolved that exercise to be a trio, one actor and two people with flashlights. These early explorations added varying levels of complexity to the warm ups and forced the troupe to develop a vocabulary and method for these different parts. When the troupe was in pairs or trios, the people with the flashlights who were more supportive of the actor were referred to as “auxiliaries”. When working as pairs or trios, one of the recurring complexities of these exercises was how to start and end the moment. Does the actor begin, and the auxiliaries follow? How do the auxiliaries know when the actor is finished with the moment? What do the auxiliaries do when the moment is over? All these questions occurred numerous times, and eventually the troupe evolved a methodology and a consistent “language” for the lighting. The evolution of this particular methodology saw the auxiliaries get into place first, then when the actor saw they were set, the actor would step into the space to begin the scene. The auxiliaries would use their flashlights to either light the actor in a traditional sense, or sometimes they would use the light more representationally. The actor would progress through their scene, and when they were done, there would be a moment of stillness. At the moment of stillness, the auxiliaries would know the scene was ending and would also still themselves. Then, on the lead of the actor, everyone would shift to a neutral body position and place their hand on their heart to acknowledge the teller of the story. This language formed the basis for how the troupe began and ended several different forms while integrating lighting.
Integrating Color and Scarves
After three rehearsals of exploration with just flashlights, we started to incorporate area lights, scarves, and color-changing lights. I used another section of Dunham’s text to elaborate on the psychological effects of color. We discussed the difference between warm light (which has more red, yellow, or orange in the mix) and cool light (which has more blue, green, or lavender in the mix). Dunham describes how warmer light tends to evoke feelings of excitement or energy, while cooler light tends to evoke feelings of peacefulness or tranquility. We then talked about a few of the more prominent colors and what kinds of emotions they might evoke. Many of these colors have both a positive and negative association, depending on context:
- Red – Passion, energy, excitement, lust, aggression, evil.
- Pink – Femininity, sexuality, pleasing on skin tones.
- Yellow – optimism, confidence, frustration, anger.
- Orange – Warmth, passion, safety, fun, assurance.
- Green – Balance, harmony, tranquility, boredom, stagnation, illness.
- Blue – Calmness, serenity, reflection, distance.
When thinking of color, in a traditional process, I would order gel filters to put into the lights to change the colors. For this project and the self-imposed limitations, we decided to use scarves to change the colors of lights. We had two clip lights with warm white LED light bulbs, and we draped the scarf over the light to simulate a gel filter and change the color of the light. This was an interesting process of exploration because we had a number of scarves in different colors, but also in different levels of translucency. Additionally, several of the scarves were multicolored, which added a different wrinkle into this exploration. When using the scarves that were more sheer, the color of the light was changed in a more subtle way, mimicking more neutral warm/cool white light. When using the thicker scarves, the color of the light was changed more dramatically, but also reduced the brightness of the light, so the troupe was able to play with color as well as intensity during this exercise. During our first invited rehearsal, one of the audience members commented how the more sheer scarves seemed more effective because it changed the color in a way that was noticeable but did not diminish the light and make it too dark. One note regarding safety: we constantly checked the temperature of both the lights and the scarves to ensure they were never getting too hot. Since we were using LED lights, the bulbs never got hot enough so we couldn’t touch them with our bare hands, even after being on for two hours. It is very important to understand that this may not work for all lights because of how hot some light bulbs can get.
Evolution of Basic Short Forms
Throughout the rehearsal process of this project, the exploration of the flashlights became a prominent component for the troupe. There were several existing Playback Theatre forms that we explored and experimented with using the flashlights and the scarves. Of these different forms, we chose three that we felt were sufficiently rehearsed to be able to play for an audience. For our first rehearsal with an invited audience, we started with the audience warm-up, moved into Pairs, then Narrative V, then Fluids.
When setting up the room, we had two wooden coat trees that had all the scarves hanging on them. Mounted on top of the coat trees were the two clip lights providing some area light to the stage area. (Figure 3) Draped on the back wall behind the actors was a string of color changing LED’s with the remote control sitting near the actors. We also had a string of Christmas lights laid out on the floor to act as front of the stage boundary.
For our first invited rehearsal, we ran through each form a couple times to give the audience some different perspectives. For the second invited rehearsal, we performed all the forms under a neutral “work-light” environment and did not use any flashlights or clip lights. Then we did the forms again, incorporating the lighting elements we had been exploring. The second rehearsal was designed to give the audience a view of the forms with and without the added lighting so they could see and compare the two styles.
Audience Warm Up
As each performance began, the conductor asked the audience some general questions about how they were feeling as the year was coming to an end. Several of the answers were things like “excited”, “nervous”, “anxious”, “hopeful”. Each time a feeling was shared, the conductor would indicate an actor in the troupe who would play that feeling back. Under the “worklight” setup, they did not use flashlights, but under the other setups, they did use a flashlight and maybe a scarf. This audience warm-up mimicked the warm-ups we did in the early explorations and helped to warm up the actors, the conductor, and the audience.
After the audience warm-up, we continued in the spirit of using emotions as the basis for the forms as we moved into Pairs. During one of the rehearsals, one audience member was in town visiting her daughter, but her home was far away. She described how she felt lots of love being in town with her daughter, but she was much more comfortable at home. The troupe used the form to show the two different feelings of “love” and “comfort”. During the early exploration with flashlights and scarves, the troupe determined that this form was much more effective without the flashlights, as they felt the flashlights were more of a hindrance in this case. For each emotion described, one pair chose a scarf to change the color of the clip light to represent that emotion but did not use flashlights within the form. We also adapted the form a bit, and had each pair playing back the same emotion, rather than playing the different emotions, so that the color chosen on one side of the stage would represent the same emotion for both members of the pair. In this instance, the stage left pair chose a pink scarf and draped it over the clip light on stage left, and then they both played back “love”. The stage right pair chose an orange scarf to change the color of the light and played back “comfort”. (Figure 4)
This adaptation was highly effective because the color became the central lighting element that enhanced the emotion, and the pair was able to play into the color by shifting their proximity to the light. In another rehearsal, one audience described feelings of “excitement” but also “nervousness” about the new school year starting. In this moment, the actors chose an orange scarf to represent excitement, and a blue scarf to represent nervousness. The audience feedback of this was generally positive with several audience responses indicating they liked the use of the scarves to show the contrast of the emotions. As the troupe continues to explore lighting in the spring semester, they will continue to explore and discover which scarves are most effective in changing the color of the light.
From Pairs we asked the audience to tell us a story about “one door closing and another opening”. One audience member described a situation in which she heard a noise under her porch. She went to investigate and found a kitten. The troupe used Narrative V to play this story back and the only adaptation we made to this form was that the troupe was able to use flashlights within the form if they felt it made sense. One actor used the flashlight to mimic a headlamp, while another used it as a flashlight pretending to look under the porch. The third actor batted the flashlight around on the ground pretending to be a kitten. This method of using the flashlight became a favorite of the troupe as it was highly effective seeing all the flashlights used in the same way, but then each time the actors rotated, they were able to come up with unique ways to use the flashlights and build off what the other had done before them. Another audience member told a story about growing in their relationship with their significant other and titled it “Unexpected Growth.” The troupe used the flashlight in a variety of ways to indicate growth. One actor shined the light on the ground and moved it up and down to literally make the circle of light grow. Another hid the light and slowly uncovered it to “grow” the illumination. Numerous symbolic and representational uses of the flashlights were discovered during Narrative V in the rehearsals.
The last form we explored for the audience was Fluids. This form was jokingly referred to as our “free-for-all” form because we didn’t put any limitations or parameters on the actors. If they wanted to use a flashlight, they could, but were not required to. They could change the color of the background lights, they could drape a scarf to change the color of the area lights, they could do whatever felt right in the moment. In one rehearsal, an audience member told a story of how they write out clues for a scavenger hunt for their kids for Christmas. One actor used the flashlight to represent the kid searching for the clues, while another changed the background lights to red to represent Christmas time. One actor chose not to use a flashlight at all and an audience member commented that the variety was really effective with the different uses of the scarves and lights.
This project was an excellent first step for the troupe in regard to true integration of light into the forms. In just a few short weeks, they were able to absorb a tremendous amount of lighting information and were able to integrate and execute lighting fundamentals, while also retaining the spirit of the forms themselves. When I asked the troupe how they felt about the work they did, one of them responded: “…lighting seemed a natural progression to utilizing props, cloths, and music as theatrical elements in storytelling. Light helped us create mood and enhance the space we performed in. It had the capacity to transform the environment and therefore stimulate our imagination to envision different scenarios for the stories we told.” (Veronica Santoyo, Faculty member Ball State University, Department of Theatre and Dance).
As a final wrap up with the troupe, I asked if they would like to continue exploring with light as they meet in the future. They were all adamant about continuing with that exploration, so I will consult with them as long as they want my assistance. My hope is that other troupes will see the value of incorporating lighting into their repertoire and that this article can be a resource for others to use as they begin to explore the artistic medium of light.
Dunham, Richard (2019) Stage Lighting: The Fundamentals (2e). New York, NY. Routledge
About the author
R. B. “Mickie” Marie is an Associate Professor of Theatre for Ball State University. Since 2009, Mickie has been designing professionally for various companies in the Midwest and the east coast, including several nationally recognized theatres in the Chicago area. Some recent credits include Always: Patsy Cline, The Addams Family, All Shook up, and Sylvia with Williams Street Rep and Dead Man Walking with the Piven Theatre Workshop. He is passionate about design and is always looking for ways that light can be incorporated into art in ways that haven’t been explored.
Practitioner Updates and Resources
New Agreement Between the Centre for Playback Theatre and Affiliated Schools
By Deb Scott
In this brief article Deb Scott describes the development of a new response by the Centre for Playback Theatre, to the contract it shares with the 16 Affiliated Schools of Playback Theatre. This new Agreement will take the place of the traditional contract that has been in use since the early 2000s.
Setting the scene
This is the story of how this new Agreement was crafted by the Affiliated Schools Committee (Bea Somogyi, Élisabeth Couture, Shirly Legum, and Deb Scott) with input from the CPT Board and Schools personnel.
As of this moment in time, there are 16 Affiliated Schools of Playback Theatre. They are all listed in table below, with a general timeline of their original affiliation:
|2001-2006||Scuola Italiana di Playback Theatre, |
Central European (now Hungarian) SPT,
Playback Theater Netzwerk/Playbacktheaterschule (German Speaking countries),
SPT United Kingdom
|2007-2012||SPT Hong Kong,|
Russian Central SPT,
Skandinavisk Playbackteater Studio
|2013-2018||Arab SPT, |
Drama for Life SPT (South Africa),
Escuela Iberica de Teatro Playback,
|2019 –||Greek SPT, |
École Affilié de Théatre Playback de Langue Francaise,
New York SPT
The need for change
The world changes. Playbackers have always had a finger up in the air, noting how the direction of the wind is shifting. We are in place to hear how our communities experience life—as it is, or as it might be. On stage and in our lives, we practice saying “Yes” to the next moment, and move into a new space, with new demands and insights.
The original Affiliate Schools contract had begun to feel to many of us that it did not fully represent the desired relationship between the CPT and the Schools. On occasion, over the years, different Schools had asked that parts of the contract be reworded, to better describe their idea of affiliation. The language was full of legal terms that felt alienating.
In thinking about a new approach, we were inspired by the metaphor of the mycelium. The mycelium is the complex, sometimes invisible, network that mushrooms send out for great distances under the ground. These mycelia connect whole ecosystems, exchanging life giving nutrients, information and energy through resilient pathways. The network is a sharing economy: what benefits the mushrooms in turn benefits the trees, and other rooting plants. We understand that our playback community similarly thrives when the pathways of communication, resources and wisdom are freely shared.
Foundations of the New Agreement
The vital contributions from both the CPT and the Schools were our starting point. The Centre offers a consistent structure, a deep history of the theory and guidance on the practice of playback, and the capacity to coordinate global exchanges. The Schools are in touch with their local initiatives, with innovations and discoveries of a living art form, and with new generations of playbackers coming up. Meeting future changes and challenges together will happen through our strong and intentional collaborations.
An enhanced, mutually beneficial exchange between the CPT and its various programs is at the heart of our proposed new Agreement. We see all the partner programs (Affiliated Schools, Accredited Trainers of PT, Leadership and the volunteer committees that keep the work of the CPT moving) essential in this exchange, each offering insight, creative problem solving, respect and enthusiasm for the work we believe in. This is not a new concept, of course. But as we worked on the Agreement, we wanted to call attention to this collaboration, and in the case of the Affiliated Schools, spell it out clearly in our revisions—our Re-Visions.
This is not a new concept, of course. But as we worked on the Agreement, we wanted to call attention to this collaboration, and in the case of the Affiliated Schools, spell it out clearly in our revisions-our Re-Visions.
Each Affiliate School has autonomy within the relationship with the CPT. No School is exactly like the next, and accessibility to local students, in a familiar social context, and teaching in the students’ mother tongue, is valued. And, in the Agreement, strong communication between Schools, and with the CPT, is encouraged.
Another change to the traditional contract: We propose a new financial relationship between CPT and SPTs. Schools are asked to pay an annual membership fee, at a level they choose; if this is not possible, they are invited to design a project or initiative that will benefit the community in place of the fee. And the CPT will be financially transparent to the Affiliates, sharing general income and expenses. Also, the CPT will share an estimation of the volunteer hours that are “paid into” the Centre, to keep it operational. The organizational design is horizontal, like the network of mycelium, with the CPT and each SPT offering the other energy and resources.
We are not changing the three-year renewal cycle carried over from the old contract. However the new financial/service exchange is a pilot program, and will be reviewed after a year, to be sure it meets everyone’s needs. In the course of this first year, if a School projects it will not be in a position to cover the membership payment by the end of the year, they are asked to propose a plan for their service project or initiative early in the contract year.
Review and reflection
As we worked on the new Agreement, we also began to think about our Committee. We are expanding our membership and our capacity to serve the network. And we realized it would be good to take time every year reflecting on our work together. Is there balance in our process? What new initiatives are appearing? What continues to work well? How do we best serve the needs of the wider community?Are we caring for the relationships at the heart of our work? And realistically what do we have the capacity to attempt? Regular times for reflection seem a good place to keep us active and grounded.
The world landscape changes, and our playback community grows, encountering challenges and finding new ways to support the sharing economy. Through these pandemic years, through unrest and war, we see the playback community’s networks of support and connection are already in place, creative, resourceful, loving. May we continue to tend these networks and deepen our work together…. and like the forest, grow and thrive.
The New Agreement is still being finalised at the time of going to print.
 In addition, there is the Japan School of Playback Theatre, which has the designated status of a sister School.
About the author
Deb Scott worked in more or less traditional theater in NYC for twenty years before encountering Playback Theatre in 1995. It was love at first sight. She co-directed Asheville Playback Theatre from 1997-2015, and continues to offer playback to the community in monthly workshops. She
Conferences, Performances and Events
New Scots Creative Arts Residency: Beautiful People with Beautiful Stories taking Beautiful Risks
By Karen McClain Kiefer
This article by Karen McClain Kiefer summarises her experience of facilitating Playback Theatre workshops as part of an event for artists who are refugees now living in Scotland (New Scots). Karen introduces the overall programme and its participants and describes the demands (and potential risks) of being engaged to provide “optional workshops” to a group that has no previous experience of playback. The importance of trusting the process, however tricky that can sometimes be, and the resulting sense of joyful achievement and connectivity, will be familiar to many trainers and practitioners.
Oleksandra is a watercolour artist. She fled Ukraine last year with her teenage daughter, Anna, a dancer, and they found refuge in Scotland after driving 4000 km across Europe. They are two of the ten participants Steve Nash and I were fortunate to work with in February during a week long workshop in Central Scotland funded through the Scottish Refugee Council (SRC). This was the first residential component of a year-long programme to enable refugee artists to pursue their creative ambitions and build community here. The programme includes residential multi-disciplinary workshops, mentoring, and a culminating showcase exhibition in October. Intentionally forward-looking, the SRC refers to this as a “New Scots” programme – preferring this moniker over “refugee” – to foster a sense of belonging in their new home environment, however permanent or temporary.
We came together as people with different backgrounds, art forms, and lengths of residency in Scotland (or the wider UK) in a beautiful place just west of Perth, UK called the Bield, an arts and spirituality retreat centre that nurtures creativity through engagement with nature and the arts. An old Scottish word, “Bield” is rich and resonant in meaning, from shelter and refuge to welcome and strength – a perfect setting for an SRC programme. The project originated through the Bield by Liz Crichton, their Art Facilitator, who serves as the project’s Programme Manager.
Liz and I are arts-focused colleagues who have collaborated on numerous exhibitions and projects (at the Bield and in other unconventional venues) and we both especially delight in exploring culturally-relevant and timely issues through the integration of multidisciplinary artforms – her focus being primarily visual and installation art and mine primarily incorporating Playback Theatre along with installation art.
Given that a primary aim of the SRC’s arts and culture work is “creating new stories to tell about ourselves” (About Our Arts and Culture Work, 2023), playback was a natural fit for the programme among other, predominantly visual, artforms. Steve and I were there to help everyone tell their stories and experience the artform of Playback Theatre. During this first residential week in February, participants were offered a visual art workshop, materials and art space to work on their own projects, and two afternoon Playback workshops.
To build trust and a cohesive programme style, Steve and I co- coordinated with Liz the flow of the week and facilitated some of the large group icebreakers and activities. From the first evening’s bonfire, it was clear how important and meaningful bringing these artists together in a relaxed and creative environment is. And we were able to integrate another art form – music – within the overall experience, thanks to Steve, invited artist and arts facilitator Alina, and the myriad of percussion instruments we brought. Most of the group, including Alina, were from Ukraine, and one artist was from Syria, and another from Iran. Steve and Liz are both from the UK and I have been a resident here from the US for the past six years. Around the fire, our different cultures emerged freely and we enjoyed learning more about each other through them. The stories shared through music helped to break the ice for later sharing.
What we have encountered in these “New Scots” are incredibly talented artists seeking new lives, community, and new opportunities for creative expression. They are beautiful people with beautiful dreams who have been forced to take very difficult, life-interrupting journeys requiring great risk and courage. And for many, like Oleksandra, this is reflected in their artwork.
“I couldn’t paint flowers“
As a displaced artist (now, a New Scot) mourning her homeland, Oleksandra’s creative expression is more important than ever, and she notices how it has changed since the invasion. In this time of turmoil, Oleksandra has turned from painting botanicals to a subject more precious to her – her daughter Anna:
“My passion is watercolors. [B]efore the full invasion [of] Ukraine I painted flowers, held watercolor workshops for adults, experimented with watercolor. When I came to Scotland, I tried to paint the same as before the war, but instead I got completely different works. I started with graffiti and charcoal, and then watercolors were added, because I felt the need for color. The theme of the works also changed – since I didn’t have joyful emotions to share […] with people, I couldn’t paint flowers. I lost everything I loved because of the war, but the most precious thing I have is my child, whom I brought here in search of safety. And she was my basis, my inspiration and my model for artworks.“
One of the most inspiring aspects I found in Oleksandra’s character and among the other participants was their resiliency in taking risks and improvising amid the turmoil into which their lives had been suddenly thrust. These artists have been displaced not only from their homes, but from their studios, their supplies, their models and other forms of inspiration, their venues, and from creative spaces. Many are living in hotel rooms. Yet, they are finding a way for creative expression. Their art is finding a way too, and we were thrilled to be able to see some of it in progress during the week. The depth beneath the haunting beauty of their work silently spoke of navigating difficult territory on an inner journey as much as their harrowing physical one.
Olga, a graphic designer, shared a collage she did during one of the workshops in which she depicted layers of shadowy and grey images covering a bright yellow one, her favourite colour. She constructed it in such a way that she can peel back some of the shapes and images to reveal something brighter underneath. By the end of the week, she indicated that she had already been able to peel some of it back because she has begun to feel more hopeful.
Every participant revealed parts of themselves and their stories throughout the week – through their art, through informal evenings of music and games, and through conversation.
And then there was playback.
None of the participants knew about Playback Theatre, and because all the activities were optional, we were uncertain how many, if any, would show up to our two brief workshops. And so the plan to have some sort of performance on the last evening was also held necessarily fluid – Steve and I discussed Plans A through E to try to anticipate whatever we could think of, including the option of a Duet style performance with just him and me if it came to that. Steve insightfully mused that most playback workshops are planned for people who have chosen to be there, and so there are certain expectations trainers can have that makes planning easier. Put more plainly, he summarised the experience as: “Beautiful people, beautiful place, funny gig“. But just as the New Scots artists have had to improvise on their journeys and in their artforms, so did we – we did not know how many would come and our Playback workshops competed with precious time in the art room with the coveted materials there.
As it happened, six out of ten participants attended the first workshop and five were present at the second. . .but not all the same people. So there was some re-working of our already fluid agenda required, and a very focused second session on the two forms we would use for a performance that evening. Our flexibility and thinking-on-our-feet were met with a delightful willingness by the five present to take risks. And the 90-minutes within which we had to work were both productive and extremely enjoyable. We were struck by the willingness of the participants to share of themselves, tell their stories, and demonstrate their deep listening by beautifully portraying others’ stories via playback. We discovered in the moments of that second workshop that as important as flexible facilitation skills are for having a successful outcome for participants, the courage and perseverance of the participants are vital for the facilitators. As I think back on it now, it was as though we all helped each other across uncertain territory to a mutually desired finish line – feeling ready to perform the stories that wanted to be heard among the whole group. They did it. We did it.
That evening – the evening of the Playback performance – was our last evening together for this residency. All were in attendance, including Liz and the owners of the Bield, in the comfy lounge-turned theatre, and there was a poignancy mixed with playfulness in the room. We heard stories representing both of those energetic elements, and during the first half of the performance our new New Scots Playback actors beautifully and artistically portrayed the moments and the stories back for the group, accompanied by Steve, our musician. For the second half, Anna’s dancing talents were highlighted in a “Poetry in Motion” Playback form in which Steve began with music and singing; Anna joined in with dance movements, wearing on her head her art piece from the week: a wreath which she crafted from natural elements around the property; and I moved from conductor to poet. Finally, Steve and I did end up doing a “Duets” form, a back-and-forth between singing bard and poet. Immense gratitude filled the room from all present throughout the performance and afterwards – gratitude for each other, for being able to be together in the ways we had been.
One of the most tender moments of the evening came from our group’s Syrian artist. Throughout the week and during the performance, he discovered how much angst he had about his family members back in Syria, suffering amid the huge earthquake that had just devastated that region and the continuing aftershocks. He was able to find some words to express the fear he had been carrying, not knowing when the next one might hit, or if the next phone call from his family might bring tragic news. His vulnerability moved the group and opened a deeper level of sharing.
Liz commented on the importance of playback in this New Scots programme, especially in helping artists confront their inner journeys and as a tool for them to process their experiences and facilitate reflective insights. Particularly moved by the Syrian artist’s sharing, she observed:
”Playback opened up a space that enabled people to share things that they may not have shared with anyone before, certainly not new acquaintances. The power of him sharing in that forum was tremendous. Now that he has given voice to it, he is able to own it, and work with it.“
She will be accompanying the artists over the next several months on Zoom to see how they are getting on and to help provide resources to enable their art-making. Steve and I and our Mosaic Playback colleagues may get the privilege to see some of them on Zoom over the summer as well, to stay connected and to share a different kind of playback forum. And we are thrilled that our full Mosaic company is planning to join the group again on site at the Bield during their final residency in October for the culminating art exhibition – to hear more stories and perform with and for them.
A Beautiful Spark
Near the end of our first evening together at the bonfire, the group was fascinated by the dancing fire, in which we could each see so many elements of beauty and inspiration – different colours, different intensity, different shapes. In the darkness, there were many sparks of light.
The next morning when I ventured past the remnants of the fire and of our time together from that previous evening, I noticed something.
Something glowing. . .
This was a powerful metaphor for the group as well – their spark remained glowing all week.
As New Scots artists and playback practitioners, we faced real moments in our shared process together, and we looked behind and beneath them. Sometimes we discovered an ember of hope.
‘About Our Arts and Culture Work,’ Scottish Refugee Council (blog), accessed March 9, 2023 //scottishrefugeecouncil.org.uk/working-for-change/arts-culture/about-our-arts-and-culture-work/.
About the author
Karen has enjoyed working with corporate and community charitable organisations, facilitating personal, professional and spiritual development programmes over the past two decades. She is currently completing her PhD at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, in which she explores various contexts of ‘empty space’ with emphasis on playback and improvisational theatre and the challenges we face in encountering the unknown. Karen is a community theatre co-founder, director, improvisor, a certified Advanced Playback Theatre Practitioner, and a member of Playback Edinburgh, Mosaic Playback and True Heart Theatre.
International Event Playback Theatre Camp 10th Anniversary Event
By Raz Balian, Joke Rood & Steve Nash
This is a review of the 10th International Playback Camp in Turkey in 2022, compiled from personal accounts from three of the participants: Raz Balian offers his perspective as a relative newcomer to playback; whilst Joke Rood shares her thoughts as a “seasoned campaigner“. IPTN Journal co-editor and camp regular Steve Nash summarises work that was done at this event, looking at ways that organisers can help everyone to feel safe, especially those from minoritised groups – despite the challenging social and political dynamics and conflicts that can and do impact on our gatherings.
Account from Raz Balian, Australia:
To mark the 10-year anniversary of the Playback Theatre Camp taking place, the incredible management and staff of Tiyatro Medresesi (see Figure 1) warmly opened their arms and four walls to cater for 61 attendees who came from far flung corners of the globe: a total of nineteen countries. (See Figure 2)
Of course, this resulted in a significant melting pot of various cultures and personalities mingling and integrating for the week-long event. Moreover, all individuals regardless of age and Playback Theatre experience levels came together in unison where deep and meaningful, if not powerful and emotionally charged, stories were shared, acts were carried out, and healthy relationships were harnessed.
When an event of this magnitude takes place there are always grey areas at play and sometimes not every person feels as included as everyone else. One participant departed early, leaving a heartfelt letter to the Camp’s “Orga“, management team. This letter had the potential to cause significant upheaval within the camp; however, the Orga team handled it with sensitivity and respect and as a community we did some constructive work on the issues and feelings that were raised. Again, to utter words already mentioned in this piece, this particular exercise was indeed deep and meaningful, if not powerful and emotionally charged.
Special praise is to be heaped on the Orga team which consisted of Anastasia Vorobyeva, Olga Sanachina, Nina Garbuzova and Olga Koltzova. Their tireless efforts, added on with cheery enthusiasm and the determination, to make this camp the best it possibly could be was no mean feat. As this was the 10th anniversary, they pulled out all the stops to make the event as extravagant and momentous as they possibly could. This is additionally considering that due to the worldwide pandemic there was no camp in 2020 and only a small event in 2021, in Ukraine. They were always available to listen to every participant and make each person’s experience as positive, joyous, and inclusive as they could. On a personal note, as this was my initial occasion of attending, I could see, from an “outsider’s lens”, how hard they were working both behind the scenes and on the coalface. In relation to the latter, debriefing the entire cohort of participants every morning as well as prescribing and overseeing the activities everybody undertook at all other times was carried out by them. On my end, I would personally like to thank them for this again.
As I just noted how it was the first camp I attended, I was not alone in this space. There was a mix of newbies as well as seasoned campaigners. In fact, various dynamics were at play. There was a father who attended with his two children, who stated in a Playback exercise on the final day of the camp that he attended to forge a healthier bond with his children. The father said, with great pride, that the healthier bond within the family had indeed materialised. This was by feeding off other people’s ideas and positive energy, a common theme echoed by other participants within the camp.
Now that a family story has been disclosed, let me shift my attention to the secret friend story. Of course, orchestrated by the Orga team, at the beginning of the camp each participant was randomly drawn a secret friend. On a regular basis across the seven days, it was requested that whichever person you were drawn you had to “pamper” and provide care for them in a secretive manner. Practical examples included getting another person to provide a hug to your secret friend. Another, for you to make tea and coffee and get somebody to deliver it to your friend. In essence, the rule of this exercise was for your secret friend to not know it is you who is “sharing the love” to them. I was spoilt by the beautiful human who drew my name for this activity: hugs by others on average twice per day every day, pleasing notices to read left behind in my accommodation room, and the list goes on. I think vanilla ice cream was provided once as well… Anyway, during the final evening of the camp, it was instructed that we approach our secret friend and spill the beans of who it was. As one could imagine, laughs, tears, shocked faces, hugs and stories were shared amongst respective pairs.
The underlining tone set by Anastasia for this camp was, “Only Care can change the future”. Care was provided across the various exercises and activities undertaken. These ranged from the countries’ speed-dating evening, performances from the international trainers’ team, and by a combined team of playbackers from Russia, Ukraine, and the occupied territories of Ukraine (Donetsk & Lugansk), the immersive white costume performance evening (organised predominantly via Zoom prior to the camp – see figures 3 and 4), and the various workshops conducted by the trainers. I would be remiss to not mention the trainers as valuable time and energy were put in by them to make their workshops as effective as possible. Thank you to them. In addition, thank you to the camp volunteers for being always on hand to ensure the smooth day to day flow of proceedings. Equally, many thanks to the Tiyatro Medresesi management and staff. They were additionally of tremendous help across the entire time of the camp taking place. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were prepared on a daily basis by them for us all to enjoy.
In closing, every morning the entire group of us would sing the camp song. The first two words were, “Come together”. Indeed, we all came together where profound healing, nurturing and care came to light and shone across the entire week. May long this continue.
Account from Joke Rood, The Netherlands:
As one of the “seasoned campaigners” that Raz mentions in his description of the Playback Camp in Turkey, I’d like to add some words. All of his nice words are more than true and recognizable as a newcomer in playback. We all may remember the thrills we had (and have) in telling stories, playing them back in the most respectful and creative way. Playback Theater as a gift to ourselves and the world!
But … what we face nowadays is that we must deal with difficulties, like politics, and very different opinions about what’s right and wrong. We have big elephants in the room! “Every story is worth sharing” is not always true (anymore?); and feeling safe is not always the case, even not in our holy moly community. We have secret friends as a nice ritual, as Raz mentioned, but do we also have secret enemies without telling? No gifts, no singing, no words?
In the camp there was a great collaboration between the Russian and Ukrainian participants: in the moment, they overcame (and much more than that) the “enemy” question. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen in another conflict that arose. A member of our Arabic Playback Theater community left the camp because she did not feel safe – no need to go into details here. We might all know the delicacy of this. The leaders of the Camp had a hard time with this issue, and they did a great job handling it at that.
Long story short …
Maybe our goal in future is to find out, (not if) but how … we in our Playback Theater community are capable of being (non)aware and honest to each other about secret friends … and enemies – and how to deal with them?
We have great tools, that’s for sure. So, I’m sure we can! We only have to have the guts to face that there is more we can bear and be aware of sometimes. To face and name the elephant is a step towards this goal. Let’s watch.
Epilogue from Steve Nash, UK:
I want to say more about the work that the Orga Team did to try and make the Camp a safe space, despite the painful realities of the external world. One example was that before the gathering, the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was considered, and efforts were made to try and make those affected feel welcomed. But another distressing issue arose in the here and now, and out of respect for the person who was not able to stay, and care for those who remained, a community intervention was put in place.
This took the form of a World Café session. Different topics were suggested by participants for consideration at different tables. At one table, Jutta Heppekausen facilitated a conversation about issues of inclusion, and the political and power dynamics that can exist at international playback events. There was a focus on trying to come up with practical steps that might make everyone, especially playbackers from minoritised groups, feel safer and better supported in the future. In the notes below I have summarised these ideas (including those that might not be so easy to implement).
Before the event:
- Reach out to actively create more diversity – and not just amongst participants but also:
- Organising team
- Trainers’ team
- Use registration forms for individuals to identify concerns or fears that they might want to share.
- Organisers and trainers to be more proactive about identifying potential issues and conflicts and doing preparatory work about to how to respond.
- Transparency about the makeup of the trainer team as early as possible.
- Let participants know, as early as possible, who will be at the event.
At the start of the event:
- Social mapping that emphasises countries and nationalities can reinforce existing and historical differences and conflicts. Consider different categories for connection, for example “who likes?”, or zodiac signs, or other ways for people see and share what they have in common.
- Be open about the fact that some participants may be in large cultural or national groups – but others do not have this support. Encourage participants to be sensitive to their needs.
- Reach out for ideas from the participants about how to create safety for everyone who is present.
During the event:
- Enable free choice or movement between workshops/home groups.
- Make separate, safe, spaces possible – e.g. for those in minoritised groups (perhaps time limited, as a step to hopeful encounters later on).
- Be sensitive to power dynamics that can be created when trainers and organisers take the teller’s chair.
- Offer an “awareness team” (perhaps with external experts) offering consultancy or supervision.
- Provide well promoted access to therapeutic support – could be a dedicated room with staff presence – could be peer to peer.
- Create more opportunities in the Playback Theatre community (and at events) to look at theory and practice of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion work (looking at labelling, stereotypes, racism, gender, class and body issues etc).
- CPT to consider reviewing our Ethics statement.
This is a very initial piece of work, and it is included here in the hope that it will be of interest to others, and perhaps stimulate further development of the ideas that are suggested.
About the authors
Raz is a social worker from Australia. He commenced participating in Playback Theatre towards the end of 2021, and sees the benefit of applying its various forms to the workplace as well as the outer world. These transferrable skills have been applied in other performing art realms he is involved in. Raz is always curious to “learn and train further”.
Joke is co-founder of Wordt Vervolgd Playbacktheater group, existing almost 30 years, and an Accredited Trainer from the Centre for Playback Theatre. She has taught Playback Theater in Holland, India, Belgium, Nepal, Finland, Germany, Ukraine, Cuba, and she was organizer of EPTG in Amsterdam in 2014. Joke has led homegroups and workshops in several gatherings. Joke has now moved to Spain. From there she organized Zoom PBT with the international group ACT, which performed during COVID time.
Steve has worked in mental health services in the North of England since 1980, in a variety of settings and roles. He has been active in Playback Theatre since 1991 when he became a founder member of Playback Theatre York. He has offered numerous workshops on playback and music, and has been part of the trainers’ team at the International Playback Camp on many occasions. He became co- editor of the Journal of the International Playback Theatre Network in 2021.
An Introduction to Psychotherapeutic Playback Theater: Hall of Mirrors on Stage. By Ronen Kowalsky, Nir Raz, Shoshi Keisari
Reviewed by Diane Adderley
Published January 31, 2022 by Routledge, ISBN 9780367766290, 216 Pages
This book is a heroic endeavour. To present, largely by way of the written word (though there are some beautifully evocative illustrations by Anna Ponomariova), a field of work which is deep, intense and highly charged, requires a great deal of analytical and facilitative skill from the conductor/group therapist, as well as huge energy and commitment. The practitioners hold the multi-tasks of bringing to the fore the links between group members’ stories, the resonances which emerge in the enactments for both performers and tellers, and the gradual development of confidence in the clients’ artistic expressivity to reflect the many levels present in each story offered. All this is, of course, in the service of connecting that emerging spontaneity and creativity with the various needs for personal change to be enacted beyond the confines of the therapy group, in the outside world.
I related most to the latter chapters which dealt with the specific use of the Playback Theatre model itself and particularly to the needs of various levels of structuring. Playback forms may be highly structured and not individually exposing for the beginner in an early stage therapy group, particularly considering the vulnerability of such participants. As the group’s formation deepens, the conductor moves the participants on to forms which are also highly structured but perhaps involve participants in some small quantity of “solo” work, the conductor calibrating carefully which forms to call depending on their knowledge of the group and its individuals. Thirdly comes the use of open improvisational forms with very little pre-determined structure, the most high-risk forms, in terms of fears of judgement and exposure, but perhaps the most potent in terms of participants taking their courage in both hands as they learn the value of expressing themselves in everyday life.
I found myself struggling in the early chapters, where the emphasis I felt was more on the analytical aspects of the work, to maintain connection, focus and concentration. I seemed to have to read every paragraph at least twice, not being versed in the language of analysis (though on second reading, the descriptions are clear if complex). I learned a great deal about group analysis, for which I am grateful. Much of it I had intuited in my experience of Playback Theatre over the years as to the “therapeutic” nature of this unique form of theatrical performance. I had always felt that playback is “therapeutic” i.e. can certainly have a healing or even cathartic effect for the teller, performers and observers, but had always taken on the view that PT is not, in itself, “therapy” – i.e. with the specific purpose of individual change and development. I had always seen the purpose, as Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas have said, as social communication, connection and learning, transforming “an audience of strangers into an audience of neighbours”.
Clearly the work delineated here IS therapy – so why, I wonder, the shyness about calling it “Psychotherapeutic Playback Theatre” as opposed to “Group Psychotherapy using Playback Theatre methods”, for instance. Might there be some concerns about the response from the analytic community to such an assertion? Clearly, the writers treat the work with great respect as “therapy“, as do the participants and quite rightly so.
For me as an activist in learning style (Moreno: “Don’t tell me, SHOW me“), this book was quite a tough read, and I became much more engaged in the latter chapters which spend more time on the specific uses and adaptations of both the well-known playback forms and those developed in this work itself. Don’t get me wrong – it’s all well worth reading but took considerable effort and energy for me. If I had not been working towards a review, I doubt I would have managed to read the whole, but I’m glad I did. If you are interested in moving to a more specifically “therapy” form of Playback Theatre, I would certainly encourage you to take on the task.
For me, a more useful way of communicating the work might have been to include some form of visual to accompany the book, perhaps in the style of Jinnie Jeffries’ series of videos of actual psychodramas some years ago, made with a group of willing participants. Given that playback is such an all-encompassing creative form – art, music, dance, song, movement etc. – the written word alone is a very limited device for accurate communication. I’d like to have seen how the conductor would draw out the connections each member of the group made to the story they had watched/performed in. Since the pandemic, many playback companies have developed ways of performing online which could give group analysts without experience of such work a clearer idea of what playback theatre is, with the proviso of noting that Psychotherapeutic Playback Theatre is a development of this. Failing that, perhaps presenting an account of a session as the opening chapter might have caught my interest and engagement more easily from the beginning, warmed me up more to wanting to delve into what was happening.
The book consists of an Introduction plus 10 chapters which, without listing them all, delve deeply into such concepts as:
- A picture from the photo album of the mind
- Theatrical mirroring
- Expansion of the self through the other
- Playground to stage
- The psychological importance of containers
- Dramatic resonance in group work with personal story
and much more besides. There is a comprehensive bibliography, largely of analytical texts from a wide range of sources, though also including some playback texts (obviously), dramatherapy and psychodrama literature. Throughout the book there are numerous references for further reading if the reader is so inclined. Clearly the writers, between them have vast experience and wide-ranging knowledge of their fields. It’s very impressive.
A regular piece of feedback at playback performances is that it’s “magic – how do you do that?”. I only recall one mention of this word, towards the end of the book, in a comment from a participant. Perhaps that is what I’m missing – the sense of magic, of the joy experienced in the moment of artistry, that in a purely verbal account, focused on the analytical, is hard to convey. There are certainly hints throughout that participants find the work highly rewarding – a little more “trumpet-blowing” would not go amiss for me.
I’m also interested that the writers refer to the “red thread” of connection between stories. There is, perhaps, something a little outdated in the use of this metaphor, which Jonathan Fox has now moved away from, preferring instead “narrative reticulation” – reticulation being the term for the kind of patterns of veining on, for example, a leaf. He used a five-starred sycamore leaf in a presentation of this idea at a Playback Theatre conference some years ago, to indicate not one thread, but a multiplicity of mini-veins associated with a number of main veins which all connect at the apex, the point where the leaf connects to its stem – the beginning of a performance. I imagine this is more the kind of connecting matrix that the conductor/group therapist of Psychotherapeutic Playback Theatre is aiming to elucidate. It certainly is less linear than the “red thread” metaphor.
In conclusion, this book is indeed a heroic endeavour and I needed some of that quality to make my way through it, but I am glad that I did. I learned a lot about the analytical approach and would certainly encourage any practitioners who want to move into this field to use it as a key text. It’s much more than an Introduction and I applaud the authors for their diligence and hard work in producing it.
About the author
Diane Adderley (she/her) is a psychodramatist, senior sociodrama trainer and Accredited Playback Theatre Trainer, and currently the honorary president of the British Psychodrama Association (BPA). She co-founded Playback Theatre Manchester in 1992, now in its 32nd year and going strong and is part of the training team for the UK School of Playback Theatre. She has contributed as co-editor, chapter and article writer to many publications on sociodrama and is on the editorial team for Tele tronic, the newsletter of the BPA. Diane has a private therapy practice in north Manchester, UK and delivers online sociodrama workshops as a guest faculty member for Tele’Drama International, on such topics as ageing, climate crisis and the pandemic. She is also currently co-leading a support and sociodrama training group for Ukrainian psychodramatists.
Playback Theatre Around The Globe – Pocket Stories to Learn from. By Anastasia (Nastya) Vorobyeva
Reviewed by Cornelia (Conny) Hartmann
This book is a love story between Nastya and Playback Theatre. And while reading it you may fall in love, too. It’s the very personal and honest story about both of them meeting many years ago for the first time and being together since then, travelling around the world.
It’s a book for experienced playbackers and newcomers as well. For the beginners to tell them what Playback Theatre is, how it works, about its basics and what it possibly can be, about its power, about cultural and social awareness and what difference it could make in the world. For long term-playbackers to remind them of exactly the same. The book shares basics, in the best sense: the foundation of Playback Theatre and what it means, if we take it seriously.
I started playbacking twenty-five years ago and joined “Blickwechsel” in Freiburg, Germany for about twelve years. And I liked it. But then I discovered my very vivid love for dance and I decided to quit Playback Theatre and focus on dance. Mareike, since years leader of “Blickwechsel”, persuaded me three years ago to join the International Playback Theatre camp. She fished me with telling me that Nastya (the organizer of the Camp) and her group Vozdukh are combining Playback Theatre and dance. And that I must take a look on that.
Once in the camp I discovered the magic of Playback Theatre again, and I met Nastya, believing so firmly in the power of Playback Theatre to make a difference, to change the world a tiny bit into a better place, “not solving problems but helping to understand them”. Not only, I came back to playback but also back to my group. Thanks to Nastya.
I find the same persuading power in this book.
It is simple and complex at the same time. Written in plain English and talking about very complex stuff: feelings, conflicts, longings, home, differences, hope, pain, war, suppression, love, guilt, shame, forgiveness, needs… All about being human and leading one’s real simple daily life: as simple as complex.
In the Introduction, Nastya tells about her childhood and her time as a teenager, struggling with limiting narratives, prejudices and violence against queer people in the Russian society. She talks about fighting for her real self, discovering and exploring it and finally choosing her own path despite all this; last but not least through Playback Theatre and playbackers she met.
“There are no broken hearts“, she says. “When our heart cracks open, we can see wider and dig deeper into the empathy we need more than ever.“
How can we train and cultivate this empathy and awareness through playback and at the same time train and cultivate it for playback and performances?
The chapters of the book are dedicated to several questions in Playback Theatre and are to be read as some kind of guidelines. They are fed by a lot of stories, Nastya put in her pockets while travelling around the globe, working with playback, meeting so many different people from different backgrounds, cultures and histories. Playback Theatre taught her a lot about life, she writes, but actually I think Nastya allows also life to teach her a lot about playback.
The themes in the chapters are not to be understood as guidelines in the sense of recipes, more in the sense of questioning our attitudes, to the teller, to the stories, to the audience, to the social dimension. So, chapter by chapter she shares her experiences with us.
How to go beyond dualistic thinking, not thinking of others in us and them, accepting our own and others’ truths at the same time. How this can be the start of a healing process. How a story emerges while we are cultivating the here and now. How important it is to be aware of the tellers’ identity and the social context in which a story is told. How important the training of social awareness and the understanding of intersectionality is to make this happen.
How Playback Theatre, in being aware of social dimensions and human rights is extremely political. ‘From knowing comes care and from care comes change!’
How we can take care that the silent voices in the audience, the unspoken perspectives, are heard. How we can give space to stories about trauma and not let the audience or the teller drown in it.
How we sometimes have to admit the limits of Playback Theatre’s ability to face the nightmares of war, and how despite this they kept trying to work with separate groups of Russian and Ukrainian people because it was the only way not to provoke more trauma, pain and conflict.
Some months after I read Nastya’s book I joined the German Playback Theatre gathering. There the question came up, how can playback in Germany become younger and more diverse. We talked, discussed and playbacked around it. With Nastya’s book in my pocket I think: becoming more diverse in playback means leaving our comfort zone, being really decided and curious to know and learn. It’s not about “finding diverse people”. It’s more about being willing to change our attitudes, to allow being shaken by others. To open up for the reality of those minorities which I am not a part of. To be willing to change our habits, speech, thinking and actions. Not because it is ‘politically correct’. But because we can be sure that this makes our community a better and safer place for everybody, where no one has to ignore discrimination to be able to be part of it.
Nastya shares very honestly failures and mistakes while trying this. But she dedicates her book to her firm belief in the power of Playback Theatre and in the trust that we can make it, if we really, really listen and honestly try to understand our fellow humans.
This book is a treasure box of pocket stories you can carry with you. It’s a heartening book full of courage and hope, of knowledge and visions and of tenderness.
(The book is available from the author at email@example.com)
About the author
Cornelia (Conny) Hartmann is a member of the playback group “Blickwechsel” in Freiburg/ Germany. She is a dancer, educated at TIP Freiburg (School for Contemporary Dance, Improvisation and Performance). To be able to follow both of her passions, she is exploring and teaching how to combine dance and physical movement with playback. To earn her living she works as a social worker in a school for not privileged kids. And she also loves that.
Signpost: recent books and articles about Playback Theatre
Books (and chapters in books) about Playback Theatre
A Stage for Everyone: Leading, Directing and Instructing Playback Theatre Groups; Einat Mashaal Nitzan, Independently Published, 2022 (English)
Two Worlds Collide: Exploring the use of PT in Organisations; a chapter by Stephen Meagher and Johanna de Ruyter, in ‘Facilitating with Stories: Ethics, Reflective Practice and Philosophies’; edited by Andrew Rixon and Cathryn Lloyd, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2022 (English)
Tell me, let’s see! A guide to story theater and narrative pedagogy; Päivi Rahmel, Metropolia University of Applied Sciences Publications, OIVA series 23, 2021 (Finnish)
50 Group Exercises in a Circle: Activities for Group Leaders, Therapists and Trainers (50 Exercises Trilogy); Nir Raz, Independently Published, 2021 (English)
(See also 50 Group Exercises in Pairs; and 50 Group Exercises in Threes and Fours; by the same author)
Enacting Testimony, Trauma Stories in Playback Theatre; a chapter by Jo Salas, in Trauma in the Creative and Embodied Therapies: When Words Are Not Enough; edited by Anna Chesner and sissy lykou, Routledge, 2020 (English)
Belonging in Playback Theatre: The Greek “Playback Ψ” Theatre Company; Lambros Yotis (Author, Editor), Independently Published, 2020 (English)
Playback Theatre Journal Articles
- The use of the BASIC Ph model as an additional listening tool for Playback Theater performers and conductors: An exploratory study, Hila Haban Ashkenazi, Atar Dahan,Susana Pendzik, The Arts in Psychotherapy, Volume 83, 102019 April 2023
- Use of Playback Theatre with Assistive Technology for Inclusion and Community Building for People with Disabilities, Uma Shankar Veeravalli, Radhika Jain, International Journal of Management and Applied Science (IJMAS) , pp. 98-100, Volume-8, Issue-9, 23rd December 2022
- Social role development in Playback Theater groups in light of the Mackenzie and Livesley Model, Oshrat Mizrahi Shapira, Naphtaly Shem-Tov, Shoshi Keisari, The Arts in Psychotherapy, Volume 80, 101942, September 2022
- Playback Theatre, social justice and empathy: A diffractive review, Kathy Barolsky, Applied Theatre Research, Volume 9, Issue 2, p. 117 – 132, 1st November 2021
- Playback Theatre: Group, stories, and stage as elements of change, António-José Gonzalez, Tiago Xavier, Nuno Amarante, Rita Barros, Beatriz Amaral, Miriam Bernardino, Margarida Lima, The Arts in Psychotherapy, Volume 81, 101968, November 2022
News Reports and Website Posts about Playback Theatre