Playback Theatre – Education for Tomorrow

In this paper Daniel Feldhendler shares the work he recently pre- sented at the International conference on Drama Education in Paris. He tells the story of the conference and shares his vast expe- rience, skills and knowledge of story-based methods within educa- tion for over 35 years at Goethe-University (Frankfurt/Main, Ger- many). His method, entitled Enacting Life, combines Playback Theatre, with Psychodrama, Action Methods, Theatre and Life Stories for Education. His paper relates playback to these other approaches and documents the wide ranging interest in narrative methods.

8th IDEA – World Conference

The last IDEA Conference entitled: From one world to another: arts education for tomorrow took place in Paris, July, 8th – 13th 2013.

IDEA (International Drama/Theatre and Education Association) is an important worldwide organization that was founded in 1992. Its members are culturally diverse drama, theatre and education practitioners, artists, pedagogues and teachers, from around 90 countries who are united in their commitment to making drama / theater and education accessible, significant and present everywhere. Many national drama/ theater associations are members of IDEA, as well as individual artists and practi- tioners.

The 8th IDEA Conference hosted 1230 participants, representing 50 countries from across 5 continents. The presidency was entrusted to Catherine Tasca, a senator and the former French Minister of Culture who had set up, among other projects, a national network of school classes with artistic and cultural projects back in 2001. In the Declaration of Intent of Chairwoman, Catherine Tasca, I noted following significant information:

The world conferences on arts education organized by UNESCO in 2006 in Lisbon and in 2010 in Seoul highlighted that educational policies throughout the world need to ensure that arts and culture are given high status. However, we still see quite a considerable gap between these declarations of intent and their implementation in schools and various educational struc- tures and settings What the eighth IDEA world congress on Drama / Theatre and Education proposes is to reflect and to act, so that words and actions may converge and find their meeting point. Although many countries may differ in their views on arts education, either because they work towards distinct ends, or because of the diversity of systems in each country, they all share identical and essential questions we intend to tackle. (…) This context ofglobal crisis and consid- erable evolution forces us to invent new educational methods and new shared stories, through which values such as solidarity, creativity, a culture of community rather than domination, and empathy will become the resources and the treasures ofthe women and men oftomorrow. An art ofpresence and speech, a hybrid art which invites all other forms ofart, a collective art, an art of rituals and symbolization: drama offers one of the most powerful ways to achieve these goals and to improve both our knowledge ofthe world and self-knowledge.

Joëlle Aden, Head of the Scientific Committee stated:
This meeting is first and foremost an opportunity of sharing the questions, concerns and progress of the thinking of an international community of artists, teachers, researchers and institutions, all of which are convinced that arts education is among the modes of access to knowledge of oneself, of others and of the world, one which complements other forms of knowledge and is no less important. We have chosen to highlight some of the challenges that our societies must meet at the dawn of this century:
The neuroscience revolution will have the place of honour in this congress. Far from reducing us to our biological dimension, “the neurosciences are beginning to understand what theatre has always known”, as Peter Brook tells us in the introduction to Mirrors in the brain by Giacomo Rizzolatti and Corrado Sinigaglia. (…) We also wish to highlight the linguistic interbreeding and cultural hybridizations that play a crucial role in artistic encounters. Our languages both connect and separate us. Transcended by artistic languages, they remind us that we must accept the existence of the undecipherable in our life stories, that mutual understanding also involves things perceptible but invisible and inaudible, and that, as stressed by Paul Ricoeur, art is “a mutual reinterpretation, a never-completed work of translation of one culture into another”. Finally, we cannot omit discussing the digital revolution which is transforming all the levels of our relationships. It multiplies our identities, confers on us a virtual gift of ubiquity, places an un- heard-of sum of knowledge within reach of a click; it redraws our symbolic spaces, but simultaneously cuts us off from the emotion of face-to-face meeting and of perceptible and direct interaction with others, thus opening the door to derealisation and delusion. We must, more than ever, „put gardens, theatre and encounters in our schools“, as the neuropsychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik reminds us.

Thematic program of IDEA Conference

The very rich program had 5 main points of interests (more Information Online):

Theme 1: Has Arts Education become a global issue?
Theme 2: How can Drama / Theatre and Education practices become transformative learning processes?

Theme 3: An embodied approach: establishing a dialogue between neuroscience and arts education Theme 4: Languages in Drama / Theatre and Education: highlighting diversity or blending cultures? Theme 5: Creating and writing for and with young audiences: place and recognition.

The organizers presented the whole focus of Theme 2 on transformative learning processes with following statement:
All around the world, educators, artists and researchers are accompanying unprecedented social transformations. How can artistic practices explore the depths of intimate experience without yielding to the sterility of objectivism? How can such practices be used to build universal symbolic values at the same time respecting cultural differences?

The next twenty years are going to be the scene of major social and societal transformations: global geographic and symbolic redistribution redraws the world map and gives rise to unexplored territories.

As part of Theme 2, Playback Theatre was represented and included in a special session on the last day of main conference, to a small but very international and interested audience. As first speaker, my presentation entitled Enacting Life was an overview on Playback Theatre, establishing backgrounds with Psychodrama and Theatre of the Oppressed and opening to new fields: Playback Theatre, Life Stories and Biography Research. Then 4 Col- leagues from Hong Kong presented Playback Theatre applied with Drama in their different specific fields: Dora Wong and May Yu from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Matchy Choi and Melanie Chung from Merits Minds. Their presentation focused on many themes such as Community projects, mentorship program, intergenerational and multicultural settings, corporate training, client centered approach, enacting for identity, healing aspects, Play- back Theatre and Drama as potentialities for Change in Hong Kong Society (See IDEA homepage).
Enacting Life: Playback Theatre, Life History and biographical Research
Enacting Life means an integration of Playback Theatre, Psychodrama, Action Methods, Theatre and Life Stories applied to Education. After reviewing 35 years of own practice and action-research at Goethe-University (Frankfurt/ Main, Germany) and in European projects, my presentation at IDEA gave a focus on my current approach, the cre- ation of a privileged space for Life Stories in Action. Playback Theatre as an oral form of story telling has similarities with Life Story Approaches and it bears potentialities for reflexivity in action and participatory action re- search especially in social and education fields: in the interdisciplinary study of lifelong learning processes defined as a biographical approach to life history. Life history has been given many meanings in several scientific fields. It can refer to a variety of methods used for conducting qualitative narrative interviews. Biographical research has advanced from the periphery to the centre of scientific adult education from the ‘biographic turn’ since the 1970s – which refers back to the Chicago School of sociology of the 1920s – to new educational debate about life paths, biography and lifelong learning. Some approaches to lifelong learning are conceptually close to the idea of reflexivity, which has become a central preoccupation of mainstream social science. The consciousness of one’s own biography and developing reflexivity as an act of historicity (concept of ‘biographicity’) is considered by some sociolo- gists to be “a survival necessity in a more individualised, perpetually changing, paradoxical risk inducing culture”. Using biographical and life history approaches in the study of adult and lifelong learning opens up new perspec- tives in the development of Europe in a globalised world.

2008, at the University of Kassel, after the ceremony conferring an honorary doctorate to Jonathan Fox, Heinrich Dauber organized a Symposium Gathering Voices. The purpose of my lecture there was to revisit the practice and theory of Playback Theatre in relation to biographical and life history approaches and to establish dialogue be- tween these fields.

A series of meaningful questions were emerging:

  • What kinds of connections are to establish between Playback Theatre and academic fields?
  • What kinds of connections exist between Playback Theatre and biographical research?
  • What are biographical and life history approaches?
  • What could biographical research learn from the practice and theory of Playback Theatre?
  • What could Playback Theatre learn from the practice and theory of biographical research?
  • What kind of knowledge, research and practice do our societies need in a globalised world?

2008, my lecture gave some answers, pointing out new fields and connections (See references Gathering Voices).

2011 at the summer Academy at University of Coimbra (Portugal), was organized an intensive residential program entitled: Lives and history: a comprehensive course on biographies and society. The CES Research Group on Humanities, Migrations and Peace Studies had its inaugural Summer Course on Biographies and Society (See // ces/indexen.php). The purpose of this course was to offer a comprehen- sive study of human experiences of the social world drawing from a com- bined theoretical axis of analysis, an anthropological understanding of lives and history and an experiential approach. During this summer Acad- emy, I conducted a workshop to present and deepen the potentialities of the Playback Theatre approach for action-research on the field of life his- tories: Theatre for Social Change: Enacting Life – Encountering the Other.

Playback Theatre as an approach to personal stories contains the potentialities for a “theatre for social dialogue and social change” in a world in upheaval (See IPTN Conference 2011: // For bridging different academic worlds, I proposed Key Words and interdisciplinary Red Threads as a way to connect Playback Theatre, Life History and biographical Research.

Following Red Threads – Essentials:

Oral Tradition, Story Telling, telling personal stories and personal experience. Life History and Biography as Narrative.
Story Telling and Enactment as mediation though symbolic interaction.
Art as holistic Knowledge and as place of multiple mediation.
Identity building through narratives.
To develop Narrative Identity.
Dialectic of Narrativity and Inter-Subjectivity process.
To Discover One Self as An Other and see Oneself as Another.
Act of Self Reflection.
To be Actor for others as a reflexive Act.
To be and become Actor and Protagonist as Subject of one’s own story/history.

Discovering Individual and Collective History between Self and Society. Telling Life Stories as History Telling.
Emergence of a Third Dimension.
Life Stories and Histories as mirror of societies (micro-macrocosm).
Oral History, “Biographicity”, a path to Historicity and Collective Memory. To develop a Culture of Remembrance, Collective and Multiple Intelligence. Social Actor and Citizen Actor as Empowerment.
Building bridges of understanding through social and cross cultural Encounter.
To develop Diversity and Participation, Reciprocity and Reflexivity in Lifelong Learning Processes for Demo- cratic Education.
Experiencing Learning and Reflexive Participatory Action-Research.
To promote transitive Dialog for an Active Democracy in a World of Globalization.
To share and care Values and Ethics of Mindfulness and Acceptance in a fragmented world. Radical social Encounter through mutual Acknowledgment as creative response to Alienation.
Culture of Emergencies for a Social Ecology of Life (See J. Fox, Acts of Service, 1994).

ESREA – Life History and Biography Network
The last Conference of ESREA Life History and Biography Network took place at University of Magdeburg, Germa- ny (March 2014) entitled Before, Beside and After (Beyond) the Biographical Narrative with focus on professional lives, family and identity, facing loss, narratives of creativity and art. My presentation Enacting Life as social media- tion was part of new emergences in this field of action-research (See references). The ESREA Life History and Biography Network (European Society for Research on the Education of Adults) has provided the basis for diverse and influential publications, as well as for major collaborative research projects and many other forms of collabora- tion. ESREA, according to its own online description “promotes and disseminates theoretical and empirical re- search on the education of adults and adult learning in Europe through research networks, conferences and publi- cations”.

ESREA consists of 7 networks, with the Life History and Biographical Research Network being founded in 1991 (// ESREA is connected with many other international networks such as ASIHVIF, Inter- national Association of Life History and Biography Network in French speaking areas (Association internationale des histoires de vie en formation et de recherche biographique en éducation).

Prominent co-founders and re- searchers of ASIHVIF (// founded 1991: Gaston Pineau (University of Tours, France), Pierre Dominicé (University of Geneva, Switzerland) and Guy de Villers (University of Louvain, Belgium). The first interna- tional conference took place in 1986 at the University of Tours. Gaston Pineau also organised in 2007 the second world conference of French-speaking networks on Biography Research (with more than 420 participants and 116 lectures on Biography Research). The third international Conference took place 2011 in Lille (France). As member of this French speaking Association, I introduced Playback Theatre since 1998 through lectures, workshops and publications for events and international Conferences of this network.

Opening to History
Playback Theatre is related to many other humanistic approaches. Jonathan Fox stated in the recent Interplay (Vol. XVIII No.2, 2013, p.29) about the connection between Playback Theatre and Psychodrama: “Psychodrama informed and influenced playback theatre in its early development. (…) In some regions many pt practitioners are also trained in psychodrama (including myself)”. Playback Theatre was first introduced 1986 by Annette Henne (Schaffhausen, CH) in German speaking psychodrama networks. Since 1988, Jonathan Fox trained first genera- tions of German speaking pt practitioners (Switzerland, Germany, and Austria). German speaking Playback Thea- tre Network (PTN e.V.) was founded 2005 in Frankfurt (Germany). Summer 2014, PTN e.V. will have its 10th anni- versary of PT-School, affiliated with Centre for Playback Theatre N.Y.

October 2014, Playback Theatre (with Spiegelbuehne Frankfurt, founded 1993) will be present at next Conference of DFP (German Association for Psychodrama): Commemoration of 20 years DFP-Association & 125th Anniversary of J.L. Moreno (1989 – 1974), Conference Title: Who shall survive? This symbolic title was also title of Moreno’s publication (1934)! (//
2015 announces the commemoration of 40 years of Moreno-Institute in Germany. Next IPTN Conference 2015 in Montreal (Canada) will be a milestone in the History of 40 years of Playback Theatre.

Daniel Feldhendler:
Senior lecturer, Goethe-University, Frankfurt, Germany (1976-2014), associate professor in academic networks. Co-founder and Board member of German speaking Playback Theatre Network in Frankfurt (Playback-Theater-Netzwerk e.V.) and Affiliated School of Playback Theatre with CPT NY. Co-founder with Marlies Arping of Spiegelbuehne Frankfurt. Board member of Asihvif, Paris (Association Internatio- nale des Histoires de Vie en Formation).