Montreal Workshop Report “Sustaining Company Life”

Sydney Playback Theatre received an invitation from the Playback Theatre International Conference organising committee to contribute a workshop for the 2015 Conference ”Where We’ve Come From and Where We’re Going: 40 years of Playback Theatre” . We immediately replied “yes”, and once the bubble of self congratulation and exhilaration had subsided, we were thrown into existentialist self reflection. Who are we? What is essential about our company? What could we contribute to the Conference from our experience as Playback practitioners? Responding to the theme of the conference, the answer we arrived at was that for us, the life of our company lies in the strength of our relationships and communication, both within company and in our performing.

As a company that has been continuously operating since 1980, perhaps the second oldest company in the world after Hudson River Playback, it seemed that our uniqueness lay in our longevity. We had had many episodes of crisis and near dissolution, times where the questionsn were asked “Why not wind up the company?”, “Do we have the energy to continue?”, “Will the company fracture and explode?”. And yet our company endured.

One of our members, Tony, once described relationships as being like a canoe journey. Sometimes the canoe glides through clear water, sometimes there are rapids and waterfalls, and sometimes there are large rocks barring the way and it is necessary to get out and carry the canoe to the next body of water. So it was with our company, and through our difficulties, somehow we always managed to find the resources to keep going.

One such crisis occurred a few years ago. It was the late 2000s. Our company has no money in the bank and no shows coming in. We are slowly dying. Why is this? We hold a crisis meeting and the answer becomes obvious. Another Playback company “Out of the Box” has started up in Sydney and THEY are taking OUR SHOWS! How DARE they! We strategize. We could simply tell them to stop. We could copyright the Playback name in Australia. We could divide the city with boundaries. Eventually after canvassing all other options we decide to talk to them. We hold a series of energetic and charged meetings with lots of tears, playback and high emotions and decide that Sydney is actually big enough for both of us. In the final meeting over glasses of wine, Joh, one of our members, tells us of her dream to hold an Australian Conference. Thus, out of the crisis, the 2010 Australian Conference “When Land Meets Sea” , coorganised and run by both companies, is born.

So what are the qualities that allow us to traverse the rapids, avoid the waterfalls and and lug our company over the rocks in the hard times? We called our workshop “Sustaining Company Life” and framed it to examine the beating heart of a Playback company. Using the experiences of both the company 35 years, and the current members, ranging back some 26 years, as a starting point, we identified four elements that we felt critical to sustaining the health of a company:

  • Open and robust communication
  • Leadership formal and informal
  • Valuing process (maintaining healthy relationships) equal with product (successful shows)
  • Willingness to engage with each other on a deeply emotional level

Rather than presenting our experience as a retrospective or a lecture, we wanted to share our reflections and hear from others what it is that keeps their company heart beating , so we framed the session around two questions to get people thinking:

“When do you feel the most alive in your company and what happens to get you there?”

“When have you experienced your company in crisis and what did the company do?”

So what Happened at our conference workshop?

Although there was limited warmup time, the participants had no difficulty connecting with these themes and we soon had a lively sharing of ideas. We divided the workshop into four groups with one of us supervising each group to record what was discussed. In our envisioning of the workshop we imagined an orderly collection of responses, but what actually happened was a series of personal stories and the four groups all ran along quite different themes one group focused on Feedback, one on Crises, one on Intracompany Relationships and one on Leadership Roles.

Due to the spontaneous narrative nature of the responses, they did not fit neatly into the categories we designed and and so we sorted and grouped them later on. The responses were not edited except for deleting duplications, and we also added items from our own company’s experience that we had generated prior to the workshop.

Whereas in our own Sydney preparation we had focused on communication, leadership, relationship and balance, the responses from the group were broader and touched on all aspects of company life. The responses to the question ”When do you feel the most alive in your Company/What did you do?” fitted into seven categories, with the Relationship category being the most prolific and split into those maintained inside the company and those maintained outside of the company. The responses to the question “When have you experienced your company in crisis/What did the company do?” divided into three categories. Here are our findings collated from a range of Playback leaders sharing their experiences.

Workshop Findings as put forward during our Workshop

Section 1: Strategies for Keeping Company Alive

Vision, Mission and Meaning Making

  • Having an aligned moral purpose/commonality of purpose
  • Creating/Revisiting company vision and mission statements regularly
  • Retreats with Company
  • Annual Reflection Rehearsal
  • Focussed preparation for a show
  • Brainstorming hot topics

Mechanical (Nuts and Bolts) Roles

  • Clarity and openness around financial arrangements
  • Strong management team with clear roles
  • Letting the company make decisions (as opposed to interminable discussion)
  • Sharing demanding roles (administration, publicity, venue management)
  • Outsourcing administration/publicity roles

Group Nurturing

  • Regular attendance at rehearsal
  • Creating ceremonies for each other (e.g. around birthdays)
  • Massage and singing in rehearsal
  • Performing playback for each other’s stories
  • Shared meals in rehearsals

Maintaining Company Relationships

  • Authentic,open, direct and robust communication
  • Allowing space to raise issues
  • Take time to honour communications process
  • Dealing with issues when they arise
  • Clarity and openness of group process (e.g. “for an auditionee to be accepted , the company must unanimously agree”)
  • Starting rehearsal in a circle with a chair empty in the centre for 5 minutes to allow anyone who needs to say something to sit in it and speak)
  • Speaking to the stone (using an object to allow difficult emotions to be expressed)
  • Finding commonalities in group roles
  • Responsibility and timing with feedback (how soon, how much, which technique)
  • Checking in (how I am) and checking out (how are you)
  • Reserve one day of yearly retreat for 1:1 interactions
  • Clear the record (regular relationship check in)

Creating Relationships Outside Company Roles

  • Social occasions/parties
  • Retreats with Company
  • Meeting outside rehearsal
  • Attending each other’s artistic events

Creating the Story/Artistic Development

  • Schedule regular shows
  • Focussed and extensive preparation for a show
  • Reinvest income into artistic development
  • Engage outside theatre trainers
  • Encourage group members to do outside theatrical training

Mentorship and Cross Fertilisation of Ideas

  • Making regional connections
  • Open invitation for other company members to attend rehearsals
  • Organising/Attending Conferences
  • Teleconferences
  • Facebook Groups
  • Holding regional “Jam” days (a day of doing PB together)
  • Reaching out to other companies
  • Having buddies for new members
  • Having buddies for new companies
  • Training with the Centre for Playback
  • Arranging visits from Wise Elders
  • Community engagement/Reaching out


  • Recruiting youth
  • Auditions
  • Holding PB Training workshops
  • Artistic and other skill development
  • Rotating/Pairing Artistic Director Role to prevent burnout/staleness

Section 2: Strategies for Crises


  • Dealing with crises as they arise instead of putting them off
  • Conflict arising outside brought to group
  • Allowing safe space for conflict to enter
  • Recognising a crisis
  • Transparency


  • Reach out to Community for advice
  • Doing Playback around the crisis
  • Facilitation inside/outside company
  • Psychodrama
  • Group process without protagonist present
  • Sharing responsibility within group
  • Pray as a group
  • Miniwiz business meetings to reach a decision


  • Asking people to leave is OK
  • Taking tough decisions
  • Making a decision rather than deferring a decision
  • Undergoing any process rather than waiting to have the “right” process
  • Not sticking your head in the sand

Analysis of Findings

Having reviewed the responses of our workshop participants, it is apparent that the elements of a functioning PB group extended beyond our original proposition which was that leadership, process, open and robust communication, and a willingness to engage on an emotional level were the keys to sustaining company life. Whilst we believe that these are integral to maintaining the “beating heart of a company”, if one looks at the seven categories created for Keeping Companies Alive, we can see that as well the elements in our original proposition, a working company has a number of other clearly definable needs which need to be met to ensure company health and longevity.

Most companies will have a degree of functionality in all of these categories. Some younger companies may not be so active in all ”Keeping Alive” categories (e.g. Renewal/Reaching Out/Creating Relationships Outside Company Roles) or may not have reached a company crisis point yet, however at some points in the life of a company it will be necessary to be active in all of these areas to ensure its survival.

The Practical use of these two lists

  • As a resource list for review rehearsals, retreats, company visioning and to assist in healthy functioning of company life
  • As a diagnostic tool for company malaise or non resolving crises. Sometimes the nature of issue that is troubling the group or the next direction in which to head is readily apparent, and other times not so. Sometimes the company needs to focus on vision ortraining and sometimes it needs to nurture itself with its own stories. In a large collaborative group there are often enough voices speaking to identify group needs; in smaller groups or those with a more authoritative leadership model this may not be so
  • Recognising and supporting members who are performing the roles that keep these categories functioning. Some are formalised the Administrator, the Artistic Director, but some are not so obvious or migrate organically around the group the Housekeeper (usually the last out of the door at rehearsal), the Networker, the Firestarter (always at the centre of a group conflict), the Safe Hands (holding and guiding a conflict or process) the Dreamer, the Naive Questioner, the Knowledge Keeper
  • As a practical resource for uncovering, precipitating and resolving conflicts and crises. For example putting an empty chair in the centre of the group as an invitation for the unspoken to be spoken may be the thing needed to start a process, or honouring a Firestarter after a conflict (often they are the ones most burned) may encourage another to take on that role next time and speak their discomfort.


As is often the case with such existential enquiries, the question that we were asking was illuminated and crystallised throughout the duration of the process. On revisiting our starting premise for the workshop, “Sustaining Company Life”, it is apparent that three of the elements we identified as crucial to our longevity as a company have values (Open and robust communication/Valuing process equal with product/Willingness to engage with each other on a deeply emotional level) rather than just being strategies. The other element (Leadership formal and informal) we had not assigned a value to. We would retrospectively characterise this fourth element as open (decisions explained/negotiated with group), fluid (able to be shared and transferred to other group members) and congruent (with the other values of group).

Sydney Playback Theatre has sustained itself for the past 35 years wherein the membership and leadership of the group was turned over many times. In the current group, we have had a core of members who have remained in the company for 20+ years. In order to achieve this longevity it was necessary for us to have congruent values as a group, and strategies to support these values. In the case of Sydney Playback Theatre, some of the strength and commitment to the elements we identified arose from an alignment with the Psychodrama Community. In the early stages of our company’s existence many of the company members were either practising or studying psychodrama and issues and conflicts were explored and resolved using
psychodramatic techniques. While we no longer use formal psychodrama techniques today, the directness and robustness in communication and the expectation that issues and emotions be brought forth persists in the “collective company memory” to this day and has contributed to our ability to process conflict.

The questions we asked of the participants (“When do you feel the most alive in your company and what happens to get you there?”/“When have you experienced your company in crisis and what did the company do?”) led to the creation of a list of strategies used to support the values that these groups held for themselves, rather than investigating the values themselves. The first question a company must ask itself is “What are our values and why?”.

When we analyse the values that Sydney PBT identified as a whole, we can see that they bear a striking resonance with the values required to sustain a successful Playback performance regarding the elements of communication, leadership, process and emotional engagement. For a company to establish itself, survive and prosper, withstanding the many challenges that company life throws up, the company must embody the same values that are inherent in the form of Playback that they are practising and support them. If these are congruent, the company will be attractive to its members and have the chance of longevity, if they are dissonant, the company will struggle.

In our brief workshop with a small selection of company leaders, we have gleaned a number of valuable strategies, some neatly elucidated and some less well formed. This is by no means a comprehensive or definitive list and we would expect many additions and modifications. The joy of Playback is the sharing of human experience and this workshop has been a small contribution to insight into the wild and engaging beast that is Playback Company Life.

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