Narrative Reticulation – Jonathan Fox

On Narrative Reticulation

By Jonathan Fox

For the past two years or so I have been developing a new theory to explain how playback theatre works. It is very exciting to feel that major new understanding is possible. But it is taking time to work it out. And there are big parts that are still unclear. For instance, what are the “nodes” exactly, and what do they describe? They are not just skill sets. The current name of the theory is Narrative Reticulation. Reticulation comes from the root for “net” and is intended to mean connecting channels that promote dynamic interaction. Here is a short introduction.

The core of the idea is that playback theatre stimulates communication through the medium of embodied stories. If the playback theatre event goes well, the audience feels both more connected and wiser (that is, meaning has been conveyed), and the catalysts are us, the performers.

To stimulate the flow of stories, we use combinations of seven interlocking nodes:

We need to know how to promote Collaboration, the core of the playback theatre process (without the offer of a story from the audience, there is no PT).

Expressive skills include Spontaneity, the moment-to-moment flexibility needed to make appropriate responses onstage;

Embodiment, the physicalization of the story through movement and voice—the acting; and

Story sense, which enables us to give any teller’s narrative an understandable form on the stage.

Milieu refers to the conditions we face in the field—the nature of the performing space and the group we are working with. This often involves skills at adaptation, even negotiation. To create a positive climate for PT also requires considerable skill at working with community partners. In addition the concept of milieu includes a sense that in playback theatre space is important: the location, whether for performance or workshop, can promote an aesthetic and healing experience.

Atmosphere suggests the importance of knowing how to build trust. We also want to promote inclusiveness (without which there cannot be true collaboration). Atmosphere also means creating a heightened mood, so that something liminal will take place. This is a traditional function of theatre. Atmosphere also refers to the reach for transcendence, that sense of oneness that we experience when PT goes very well.

I put under the heading of Guidance a number of functions, including: guiding the audience to understand the structure (or ritual); choosing tellers; helping the teller’s story to emerge; the consideration of any therapeutic issues; and ethics—balancing respect with fairness, making sure the PT forum is not used to perpetuate prejudice. Many of these tasks are the special responsibility of the conductor, but not exclusively.

When we are skilled in activating all the nodes and know how to balance them, we will trigger the flow, creating a deep experience through the exchange of manifestly important stories. If we are not able to catalyze the flow of stories, then the playback event will likely be low-energy and shallow.

The theory is much broader than the name “theatre” would suggest. Its emphasis on shared narrative experience can be seen as a counterpoint to the prevailing social preference for abstract reason and technical knowledge. The theatre part is important to provide the excitement, the ritual, and the art, but I believe there are other ways to achieve narrative reticulation besides theatre.

What are some of the implications?

In the unplanned unfolding of a playback theatre performance or workshop we are constantly making decisions about which aspect to emphasize. I believe playback theatre is a very good training ground for nimble decision-making.

We can argue that narrative reticulation is as important for human development as science. It can help deal with certain long-standing problems confronting our social institutions. Since in modern life narrative reticulation is frequently devalued and ignored, the theory may help us to market our work to the broader population.

We can use the theory to organize a curriculum structure for playback theatre training and create rubrics for assessing competence.

There is a lot more I can say. But for now, let me just end with a definition: Narrative Reticulation refers to a flow of narrative communication, verbal and embodied, that promotes meaning and connection in groups. I hope to expand these ideas in the months to come.

© Jonathan Fox 2015