Playback Theatre on the Couch

Playback Theatre on the Couch

The Therapeutic Sides of Playback Theatre

and Intervention Tools Through Short Forms

November 2019

By Nir Raz, Shoshi Keisari and Ronen Kowalski


Playback Theatre is a form of improvisational theatre that focused on the personal story and its encounter with the community. Although Playback Theatre has been defined as a community-based theatre, the literature indicates its healing potential. Psychotherapeutic Playback Theatre is an approach that places the Playback Theatre ritual at the center of the group process. In recent years, we have witnessed the establishment of groups that focus on Playback Theatre in a therapeutic setting, but the literature on the subject is still lacking in theoretical and applied models.

Social Change through Playback Theatre

The theatrical creation achieved through improvisation, in response to the personal story, illustrates the story’s turning points, and analyzes the characters’ conflicts and relationships (Fox, 1999). In this way, it expresses the story’s different aspects in an aesthetic manner. The theatrical creation reflects the story, thus creating recognition and validity in relation to the teller’s story. It also expands the story, revealing new perspectives and meanings. In addition, a process takes place, in which a flood of silent voices from the story are unleashed – in the form of dialogue that awakens the individual (the teller) and the community (the group) and allows change to occur.

Fox’s and Salas ambition was to create a form of theatre that would provide a stage for social change and hope, in which the audience would not be a mere passive observer, but the core of the theatrical creation. Their goal was to create an encounter between people and their stories. This encounter expands the personal story through the other, using the vehicle of theatrical improvisation, which reflects the story’s essence.

Fox was greatly influenced by the ideas of Paulo Freire (1970), who relates to the process of a change in consciousness: the transition – from being a passive object influenced by history, to a subject, located at the heart of social-political history, who interprets and criticizes history, thus recreating the collective social consciousness (Boal, 2000). Playback Theatre is a stream of theatre which breaks the boundaries separating the roles of the observer and the actor, and outlines a process in which the observer’s status is transformed – from being passive to being active on the stage (Dauber, 1999). In addition, Playback Theatre was also inspired by the principles of psychodrama, which Fox first encountered as a student of Moreno, the father of psychodrama. Nevertheless, Playback Theatre is defined by its founders as a theatrical approach which is not therapeutic in nature (Fox, 2007b).

Therapeutic Potential in the Group Processes

Although Playback Theatre is fundamentally defined as a non-therapeutic approach, the literature in the field shows hidden therapeutic potential in the group processes at the core of the Playback ritual. These processes initiate an encounter with personal stories within a creative group process (Fox, 1999; Salas, 2009). For example, it was found that people coping with mental illness, who participated in a Playback Theatre course, reported on increased levels of self-esteem, self-awareness, enjoyment and calmness, and an enhanced ability to feel affinity and empathy towards the other group members (Moran & Alon, 2011). Group therapy in old age via Playback Theatre has been found to be effective in advancing different aspects of mental welfare (Keisari & Palgi, 2017). In addition, engaging in Playback Theatre in old age has been shown to change the ways people perceive their life story, increase participants’ self-expression, establish meaningful roles in life, and increase community involvement (Kesiari, Yaniv, Palgi & Gesser-Edelsburg, 2018). Placing the personal story at the center of the group creative process made Playback Theatre an accepted therapeutic group process, studied by drama therapists, psychodrama therapists, and group conductors (Barak, 2013; Chesner, 2002; Landy, 2006). Playback Theatre is also currently studied in leading art therapy programs. These trends all led to the founding of the Psychotherapeutic Playback Theatre Institute (Kowalsky, Raz & Keisari, 2019; Kowalsky, Keisari & Raz, 2019).

Psychotherapeutic Playback Theatre

Psychotherapeutic Playback Theatre exists within the framework of a closed ongoing group with a therapeutic contract, in which the group’s participants enact one another’s personal stories. Each group participant may be a teller, a player or an spectator in the theatrical creation which arises in response to the story. In contrast to classic Playback Theatre, geared towards one-time performances in front of an audience, in Psychotherapeutic Playback Theatre, the closed group is perceived as a social microcosm, which translates the personal/group story into theatrical language. This language represents the form of speaking which takes place among the voices in the participants’ internal world (Kowalsky et al., 2019a; Kowalsky et al., 2019b, 2019). Players’ positioning on the stage and the combination of movement and music create a theatrical aesthetic, which takes the observer to the space of dramatic reality (Pendzik, 2006; 2008). This is a space in which it is possible to shift back and forth between reality and imagination; the past, the present and the future; and to express internal voices, feelings and thoughts. As a transitional space, the dramatic reality makes it possible to look at the teller’s subjective experience in a direct manner.

The role of Psychotherapeutic Playback Theatre group participants is to echo and expand the stories that come up within the group through dramatic playacting. The story is raised by the teller, and the other participants respond to it by creating a theatrical improvisation. Still other participants take on the role of witnesses/spectators to the process – the audience.

Psychotherapeutic Playback Theatre places one of the group members’ personal stories at the center of the process. The personal experience brought by the individual story becomes a collective experience, in which all of the group members are actively involved.

Moreover, the space of dramatic reality (Pendzik, 2006) (the stage) – the space in which the players (group members) interpret the story, and which relies on improvisation and the encounter with the personal contents – represents a flexible approach to using dramatic tools within the therapeutic space.

The essence of the process is based on each group participant working through the encounter with the other, as both the teller and a player in the theatrical creation. Each participant shares his or her story with the others and, at the same time, also enacts the others’ stories. The therapeutic effect is significant – not only for the teller, but also for the playing participants who encounter the story and its related themes. This process breaks down the division between the self and the other. “Playing” another’s story creates a direct encounter among group members, which accelerates the group process and builds deep connections among group members. The personal story is presented to the group, creating a collective experience. The other participants experience this encounter and it becomes part of the shared group experience. The theatrical creation, in response to the story, reflects it and echoes contents that arise from within it. In this way, a “mirror reaction” occurs within the group, as defined by Foulkes (1990).

Mirroring the different aspects of the story via the theatrical creation expresses the elements the group members have in common. The mirroring process can also echo meanings, strengthen emotional foundations, validate the story, and create recognition and value regarding the themes that arise from it. At the same time, the theatrical creation expresses an exchange of mental and emotional contents, as defined by Foulkes (1964). This action stresses the differences among the participants, and the resulting growth of the individual in consequence (Zinkin, 1993). The other participants encounter the story, play with it, and offer interpretations of the story.

This makes it possible for the story to take on new dimensions, allowing new and varied perspectives to emerge. This is the stage in which the story expands as a result of the different perspectives involved. The participants exchange contents, similar to the way in which children interact with their peers – each one gives the other something new from his or her own inner world – this in exchange for that. Thus, the mirroring of the story in the theatrical creation captures both that which is common and similar among the participants, as well as processes related to exchanging contents based on their differences, thereby fulfilling the hidden potential for growth inherent in these differences.

In Psychotherapeutic Playback Theatre after the story is Play(ed)-back a sharing circle takes place; the group players and participants are invited, as an audience, to discuss the personal stories, feelings and thoughts that came up during the process. The sharing circle concludes by “giving the story back” to the teller, who relates the feelings s/he experienced during the process. The conductor’s role at this stage is to gather up the contents – the themes brought to life by the story, the contents manifested by the theatrical creative process and discussed in the sharing circle – and connect them to the group process. In this way, the process of sharing the story, and the theatrical creation created in response to it, invite participants to look at the group dynamic and the group’s current stage of development, as illustrated by the descriptions of the elements that repeatedly arose during the later stages of the process.

Thus, the theatrical creation serves to mirror the story, to interpret and echo the contents raised by the story. The goal is to create a theatrical picture that captures the teller’s experience and enables its expansion, along with new discoveries and insights.

One of our Intervention tools in Psychotherapeutic Playback Theatre is Short Forms which facilitates the creation of a theatrical picture that can expand and represent the storyteller’s inner world.

Interventions through Short Forms

Short Forms in Playback Theatre

Short Forms are defined as forms that provide an aesthetic framework, a container that serves as an envelope for the theatrical creation. These forms are pre-determined, and are familiar to both the group participants and the conductor. Using these forms, the participants can mold the story’s contents into a theatrical improvisation with a familiar structure. There are many and varied types of Short Forms, including Chorus, the Duet, Statues, and Cross, a form for working with conflict, among others. For participants who have never previously worked with any kind of theatrical playacting, or with Playback Theatre, in particular, these forms can help develop the actors’ ability to improvise and “play”, by defining the form of the improvisation and the role of each participant. The theatrical creation process is carried out by breaking the story up into elements – each element receives a theatrical representation – and then reconstructing the story through the creative integration of all of the elements using pre-determined Short Forms.

The work process regarding Short Forms in group work is carried out as follows: the group members listen to one of the participant’s stories. In the first stage, actors are asked to connect to the emotions they feel in response to the story – their encounter with their own inner world, life experience, and similar experiences they underwent – both in and outside of the group. The second stage focuses on identifying thoughts, feelings and subjects raised by the story, and translating them into theatrical language or a theatrical improvisation, using the form that was chosen by the conductor or the group members.

Functions of Short Forms in Psychotherapeutic Playback Theatre

Short Forms in a closed group session in Psychotherapeutic Playback Theatre help the conductor to selectively emphasize or initiate behaviors that fit the group’s current developmental stage. As described by Anthony and Foulkes (1965), one of the conductor’s most important roles is helping the group recognize and consolidate its resources. Playback Theatre’s structured Short Formsmake it possible to deal with and deepen the developmental tasks required in each stage. Although these forms are pre-determined, they can also be modular, like building blocks, that can be moved around. They can be used to create other, additional forms, on an as-needed basis, and may also be used to stress and strengthen internal voices on stage, in accordance with the group process and the group’s current developmental stage. Thus, the conductor can help the group cope with its developmental tasks, and move forward thegroup process.

The Short Forms used in Psychotherapeutic Playback Theatre guide the group process in several ways. The enactmentthrough the Short Forms express parts of the story, along with thoughts, feelings, internal voices, points of view of additional characters, movement, music and images. Deconstructing the plot into separate elements, and reconstructing it anew using structured forms, makes it possible to clarify and reorganize the emotional life expressed in the story. This process allows the conductor and group members to reconstruct the personal or group story. The actions of deconstructing and reconstructing the combination of voices that come up in the story, and then organizing it into an aesthetic theatrical pre-determined form, causes the contents to change form, creating a container for the story. As a result, the story expands and takes on new dimensions; new points of view come to light, and the teller’s story receives recognition and validation.

Short Forms in and of themselves represent a type of active therapeutic intervention via theatrical actions. For example, when a gapis identified in the teller’s internal world, it is possible to propose ways in which to cope with this lack by using theatrical tools. Short Forms enable focusing,the strengthening of one’s inner voice, reorganization of one’s narrative and relationships, the integration of internal voices which have undergone a split, and more.

Finally, the function of Short Forms is to connect group members to a broader social context, and clear a space with which to deal with the group’s collective sub-conscious. The contents arising from the theatrical creation serve as fertile ground for sowing change within the group. The theatrical creation establishes the group’s strengths in a tangible way, often also exposing the sub-conscious elements existing within the group space. This makes it possible for the group, with the conductor’s guidance, to examine and deal with these contents in a direct manner.


In conclusion, many groups focus on Psychotherapy using Playback Theatre, as a leading approach for the group process, but the literature on the subject is still relatively scant. This article attempts to respond to an existing need to define this therapeutic process, while showing howShort Forms can advance personal growth together with group processes by coping with the different developmental tasks. Hence, choosing a Short form is one of the tools available to the conductor for intervening in the group process and pushing it forward. In our next article titled “The Inner World of Playback Short Forms” we will present through theory and case studies recommendations for how to implement specific Short Forms used in Playback Theatre. The Short Form, which arises in response to the personal story, makes it possible to investigate the group process and the self that comes into contact with others in the group. This process has additional aspects that will be addressed in future research.


פלייבק. חיפה: מרכז אמילי סגול לטיפול באומנויות, אוניברסיטת חיפה.

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