Safety, Danger, and Playback Theatre: A survey

Safety, Danger, and Playback Theatre: A survey

Essay for Leadership Course, June 2017

Steve Nash

‘No great art has ever been made without the artist having known danger’

Rainer Maria Rilke

“We can actually hurt or even insult someone … let us also acknowledge our shortcomings. Often our personal fear and our ignorance will sabotage our playback work. We will make big mistakes. It is not unusual. In fact it will happen every time’

Jonathan Fox[1]


Some years back, I co-wrote an article called ‘Safety, Danger and Playback Theatre’ (Nash, Rowe 2000). It was written as a response to a series of questions and criticisms raised by therapist colleagues who had seen performances by Playback Theatre York.

Their main concern was their perception that the playback form invites vulnerability, but lacks adequate therapeutic boundaries, and is therefore unsafe, and potentially dangerous. In our response we argued that self expression and self discovery are rooted as much in the creative process as the therapeutic, and we questioned the implication that personal story and emotional disclosure only legitimately belong in the consulting room, where there tends to be a very specialised understanding of containment and safety.  We also explained that Playback Theatre does recognise the importance of providing containment, for the audience, tellers and performers alike. It does this by providing a carefully crafted structure that includes a) the trust that is embodied and conveyed by the performers’ ensemble; b) the consciously and conspicuously repeated ritual elements of the performance itself; and c) the critical role of the conductor in steering and holding the overall process.

When I began thinking about writing an essay as part of my leadership study, a friend suggested that I revisit the topic of safety and danger. He also suggested that the most interesting issues of safety and danger for contemporary Playback Theatre practice are less about psychotherapeutic concerns, and more about risks connected to its increasing use with vulnerable communities and oppressed groups, for example those who experience discrimination, intolerance, social injustice, military conflict, and trauma. I recalled an incident at the Playback Camp in Serbia in 2016, when deep rooted historical tensions meant that participants from one country did not feel safe to be seen in photographs on social media with participants from a neighbouring country. Simply being at this playback event was dangerous for them. I thought also about the brief but intense eruptions of conflict between playbackers holding different political views that have occurred at recent international conferences, a dynamic that Jonathan Fox has addressed in an open letter to the International Playback Theatre Network (Fox, 2016).  Initial conversations with other playback practitioners confirmed that there is considerable interest in thinking again about the twin topics of safety and danger, and how they relate to the application of Playback Theatre in different contexts.

Click below to download the full essay as a PDF.

Download nash_full.pdf

[1] Fox J (2011)  Closing reflections and responses (re Frankfurt Conference)  Interplay Vol XVI No. 2, November 2011