Playback Theatre with Young People in a Psychiatric Centre

In a response to our special issue on Playback Theatre and Trauma, Kathleen Olivier’s essay considers her own experiences working with young people in a psychiatric ward. A passionate with performer and therapist, she sets out a therapeutic frame- work so that she might reflect on the experiences of the young people.

The setting
When I proposed to use playback theater as the therapeutic tool in the psychiatric clinic where I work I had to reflect on the specifics that this approach could offer. Things such as:

  • empathy through listening deeply and replaying a character
  • expression and assertiveness to make the role vibrant on stage
  • finding new and more flexible ways to be in relation for the story

I also believed that it would offer a place to receive the hard stories that needed to be told and transformed, to make such stories so more receivable, such as the kinds of traumatic stories young people might have witnessed and/or have been direct victims. After 6 years of running this group on a weekly basis, we have met so many kids and heard and seen so many stories. The ways in which each child uses the frame we offer to rework their story is different for each one. I take the opportunity of this article to reflect on observations we made of kids who participated in the group and to share some of impact that this therapeutic tool had on them.

The therapeutic frame
Playback Theatre was introduced into the therapuetic context of a pre-teen group for kids who have behavioral is- sues. The group meets weekly for one hour and 15 minutes. There is a time for check-in, for working on expressing and listening to our emotional state through various ways including: metaphor, bodily and verbally. Then the session focusses on increasing the young people’s knowledge of their own abilities and limits on stage (physical, being watched by others, distance, trust, imagination, and with group games), similar to the warm-up part in a dramatheapy session. On many occassions this ’warm-up’ phase has taken the entire session as the kids need to work on the basics. Time is then devoted to playback stories where kids spontaneously come with one story or in repsonse to an introduced theme (stories of anger, of sadness, of trust…). We take the time to have each child connect to the theme, then for each child to share their story before they decide which story will be enacted. The narrator then chooses the actor that he feels will fit for the character in his story. A rule has been established that the kids shall, as much as they can, agree to give themselves as a player to support their mate. It is rare that a child is resistant to taking a role.

In play, we mostly use techniques of stopping the action for the kids to say aloud what the character might be thinking in a moment, or to emphasise an emotional or physical tension (contradictions or times when the change could hap- pen are easier to see). Then we finish on a ‘picture’ that is given back to the narrator who then gets to share his fee- lings before we go onto listen to the experiences of others (including those children obervering). At the end we use a closing ritual—an imaginary ‘cauldron’. We take the cauldron from the ceiling and fill it with words and actions, recal- ling moments and emotions that happened during the session. We mix it and at times kids can take something from it they want to ‘take home’. We then hide the caldron with all our memories, as a safe container for our group. At the end we all ‘wash’ our bodies of the dramatic dust we are covered with so that we can get ready to go back to ‘real life’.

The Kid’s Stories
Sally, the girl who couldn’t play. Sally was around 10 when she entered the group. She had arrived at the clinic after her mother had moved from Paris escaping her husband and the father of four who had repeatedly abused her ver- bally and physically. Sally was the oldest daughter and had taken a lot of responsibility: being scared for her mother’s life she had been direct witness of the violence by her dad, and had not known what she could do. Her relationship with her mum was so confused. They were always arguing because Sally wanted to play her mother’s role at home. She was perfect at doing housework but did not know how to play as she was always stuck to her mum. She had a hard time learning at school and had tantrums that she could not control that were triggered by the slightest contradictions.

Sally had had individual therapy with me. She struggled to express anything personal yet she could say how painful it was for her to be confronted by the impossibility she found to be creative. She could only organise toys one next to the other but could not propose any scene. At times she would express strange memories full of bodily sensations. I remember one day when she created the ‘arm of her father’ in clay, expressing that she was scared he would be doing somthing bad. Sally had grown up in this environment and she had not being able to differentiate enough and recognise her own emotions and needs. In the playback theater therapeutic group, she immediately expressed more than when she was in one to one therapy.

She could rely on the emotions and stories of other kids to try to recognise something of herself. Not being under direct attention also helped her. She could tell personal stories that she didn’t have to play directly, rather the stories could be enacted by others. Indeed, each session she was wanting time to tell a story. Interstingly enough she was mostly telling stories of quite emotional events where something dangerous was happening to another member of the family, her sis- ter, her little baby brother, her cousin or even her mother and then telling how this person had been taken care of. She was very often absent from the drama of the story but was present as a witnes(which we made a point to represent on the stage). The child who had been representing Sally in the play would then express how she felt while being that wit- ness: feelings of jealousy, feeling forgotten or afraid. Her stories were at times hard to believe but she believed they were real and that was our rule: a child had the right to tell a story that they belived was true. Some of the stories seemed like nice stories, of parties and weddings where she had a positive role and the pleasure she showed watching them could be enough of an argument to say that is was therapeutic. Also she could sometimes be taking some action and voice by being given a role by another child, which was quite difficult for her but that she accepted as a rule for equality. For this girl who had not had the chance to develop recognition of her own sensations and emotions, being overwhelmed by emotions of fear in relation to her mum or even to her father, the playback gave her enough ditance to experience some other ways of feeling.

Becoming crazy to deal with unknown traumatic stories. Jason was a 11 years old boy who had been in psychiatric hospital for years and seemed more able to be in relationship to other kids when letting go some of his psychotic symp- toms. He told a story about his grandfather killing his grandmother but this had not been told to him. He had grave be- havioral issues at home and school and was very self-centered, often telling of the great achievements he had had which were not part of our shared reality. He had very good cognitive skills and could succeed as a student but his rela- tionships were so bad that he was frequently excluded from school. In the playback theater group he seemed very ea- ger to come and tell stories that represented how he would have liked life to be – his trips around the world, of him win- ning different races or of being the strongest among his mates. The other kids at first willingly represent his stories al- though they said it was hard for them to believe them. He so needed to be the center of the attention and was be reactive— every look or comment prompted anger. He was called ‘the fool’ – we worked hard at helping him respect others’ limits.
What was interesting in the playback context was how he could be attentive to the othes’ stories and represent other characters with accurate details and sensitivity. On stage he could adapt his character closely to others. He was aware of this however and he asked applause for his performances. The realities of his life – that he was supposed not to know – must have been so impossible to withstand that he had to disconnect. It was only in the imagined reality that we observed him settle a little. Having his own story played back by others was very difficult for him as if no one could real- ly connect to his particular reality. He was always trying to correct others, trying to gain some control over his life and to also communicate with others. Telling stories was a means for him to give some sense to the insanity in his life. The question remains how could we have transferred his stage abilities to his everyday context and help him create a frame that could reassure him enough to get along with others around him?
A possibility to be safe. This last story is about Tom, a 9 year old, who had been abused. His own father had raped him and attempted repeatedly to kill him keeping his head in water while his brother and sister had to count the time. He would also tell how he saved his mother’s life with the help of his brother when his dad tried to strangle her. His mother finally escaped with the kids and they crossed the amazonian forest during some months of scary survival conditions. He was now repeatedly reproducing fights with mates at school and described himself as being ‘a fighter’. He cons- tantly felt too hot and the smallest trigger was enough for him to feel he had to defend himself. In the playback theater group, he discovered other kids had also undergone difficult life events and he could experiment with new roles. There were fighting roles but also roles where he had to take care or be taken care of where proposed to him and he ac- cepted these with some excitment and pleasure. He told stories of having been molested by his father but he also heard stories where the father would be strong enough to protect or be strong in front of son’s misbehaviour.

Since the group was reporting many agressive stories we decided to work on creating safe spaces. We did this in the warm up part of the session but also by proposing that they tell stories on trust. This is when Tom decided to tell some other members about the rape. This dispay of trust was followed by a story about having fallen in water and his big sis- ter coming to save him. Here we observed how Tom used the space of playback theater to dare to tell some of what had happened to him and to create a connection between these events and his need to always be ready to defend himself. During this time, he was able to also experience new ways of interacting with others and to portray positive roles.

The therapeutic effects of playback theater on kids that have gone through traumatic events
While the effect of trauma on children has be to create dissociative symptoms so as to survive, when they come to create a scene in a story, all aspects of life get connected again. Around a basic structure of respect, some words are repeated and others are proposed by the actors to complete what may not have been said (because of memory loss or lack of word to express the emotional event); other words come to create links between parts of the story that may have at first appeared without connection. Also, the actors can propose sensory and emotional aspects of the story that had not been directly described. This can help the narrator get connected to emotions that he had disconnected from during the event (fear, anger) and can also help them to withstand the traumatic effect of the story because of all the other emotions that are proposed (care, love, laughter, tears). The narrator-spectator can process while being pro- tected by his special situation near the conductor and also in the safe context of the playback theater session. Final- ly, metaphors are used which provides a creative and artistic means to work on difficult issues in a indirect way and therefore easier to stand. Metaphors also offer a way to create connections between different aspects of the story in a form that gives meanings where before it was meaningless.

As for the kids who get chosen as actors, it is an incredible opportunity to get to express emotions that may be con- nected to their own stories (actors don’t get chosen for no reason, something is recognised- which the kids actually easily say : « I chose you for that character because I believe you can do it well »). It is amazing to observe that these kids who have a hard time showing empathy in their everyday life become so eager at listening deeply to the stories and enacting with as much respect as they can. It never happened that a child became foolish at an other child’s story even when they felt it may have not been really true or when it was loaded with difficult emotions. It is also for those who have undergone trauma a way to experience other maneers to react to situations (desensitize). Those kids get to work on recognising, differenciating, naming their emotions which might be more difficult to do for oneself (We ask to « stop on action » to clarify what the character may be thinking). Doing it for the artistic process and serving the narrator, the actor-kids are actually working hard on creating connections between words, emotions, images, sensations, and actions. They are fully experiencing the present moment, building connections between past events and what they are going through and therefore allowing possibility for future.

We didn’t think of the use of playback theater for traumatic issues at first, but spontaneously when we said it was a place where the kids could tell their stories so as not to feel lonely anymore and be able to work through them, colleagues adressed us younsters that had undergone quite dramatic real life stories. Indeed, the form of playback theater offers that a real story is told while doing as if it was « only anybody’s story » allowing a safe distance bet- ween the owner of the story and the character that enacts on stage. The traumatic story becomes an object that is differenciated form the person, it is a « story that has happened » but that can be handled by others who show they can understand some of it since they can play it. Maybe the esthetic frame of theater was also needed by the healers so that the secondary effects of the stories would be contained in the artistic setting. The beginning and ending ri- tuals seem helpful to differenciate the real and imaginary scene but also to introduce the story to the community and transform traumatic destructive potentials in possible creative ressources for the young and ourselves to learn from.

Kathleen OLIVIER——is a french dramatherapist, clinical psychologist expert in neuropsychology and writer. She is working in a psychiatric institution where families and kids are offered psychological support. She discovered Playback theater when she was a student in Montreal and has been directing and playing in her playback troup Histoires de Voirs in Perpignan- south of France – for the past 7 years. Facebook Histoires de Voir ; www.créathé