Where is Playback Theatre Going? A Mindful Pause – Brian Tasker

When I began my Playback Theatre journey in 2003 an individual undertook core training and was then in a position to start a local group. The person who had done the core training would then do their best to disseminate the information and skills they had learned to the others, thereby becoming a de facto trainer by default of holding the information.  Another version might be that a group of people, known to each other, would do the core training and then start a peer-led group.   I have been in both situations and in the first I led the group and the second a different person would volunteer / be elected to lead a practice session each time. 

More knowledge would be accrued as further training was attended by one or more group members. That information could then be brought back by individuals and shared with the others contributing to the group’s development.  People who had been doing it for longer could be invited to come and teach, sharing their skills and experience.  In that way, Playback Theatre had a grassroots feel in the way that it developed. 

Playback Theatre has now become more professionalised with the advent of the accreditation of trainers and a Code of Ethics.  The Centre for Playback Theatre states that:

“The Centre acknowledges–and supports–the reality that training by

people who are not qualified (or not yet qualified) to be accredited will

continue. But the accreditation program creates benchmarks of highly

competent training for those who seek training on this level. We expect

that having these benchmarks will also encourage more people to obtain

thorough training in order to one day qualify for accreditation.” 

There seems to be a veiled implication that one day all training will emanate from, and be regulated by, the CPT giving rise to emerging issues of power, control and hierarchy alongside the risk of creating an elite and losing the grassroots quality of Playback Theatre in the process. 

Of course, bad practice is a problem in Playback Theatre although the true extent of it cannot really be known which may contribute to the anxiety it provokes, especially around training.   It seems that bad practice is likely to happen when individuals get separated and go off and do their own thing. This can be countered by more networking and mentoring and the IPTN, as a unifying factor, is ideally placed to take the lead on this. The more that we do Playback for each other the more we can learn from each other – a form of peer regulation.   Playback Theatre is improvised theatre and as such is something of an on-going experiment in the art of empathy, compassionate listening and the challenge of respectfully and artistically performing someone’s personal story.  By its nature it is not perfect. 

I support the on-going development of Playback Theatre as an ethical practice and contributed to the dialogue on ethics instigated by then Interplay editor Nick Rowe in 2005/6. In my article Playback Theatre: An Ethical Challenge,[1] I concluded with the thought that,

If playback theatre is to become firmly grounded ethically, then the 

probable answer is that it should become increasingly professional. 

That doesn’t diminish the concept of the citizen actor, just asks that 

the concept be taken seriously by everyone who wants to be involved…  

My experience in Playback Theatre has been that, if you accept the offer to play someone else’s story then the ethical dimension is included, similarly if someone offers their story, the ethical dimension is to listen.  I have been fortunate to tell many stories in Playback Theatre and the occasions where the response was lacking in integrity and sensitivity have been very few and far between.

As Playback Theatre develops, it does follow that accreditation would be a natural next step. I am not against that in principle, it is just that I am against the diminishing of other pathways in favour of it.  Playback Theatre is in transition and its an open question as to how everyone can be included in that in a skilful and mindful way to avoid the risk of fragmentation. I am interested in how the trust in the original grassroots culture could be underpinned by encouraging a formal ethical approach in general rather than being reserved just for accredited trainers.  The Code of Ethics could be introduced at the earliest stage of training as a discussion tool to make it part of the overall PT culture from the outset.

The Code of Ethics as set out by the CPT, which accredited trainers sign up to, is a mixture of a code of practice, expectations, value statements and ethical standards and under Inclusiveness states that, “We are open to any story and also ready to engage with ethical complexities within a story.”  One central tenet, given under the heading of Human Rights, states:

“We promote the human rights of all those present and not present. 

When necessary we take appropriate action to address prejudice that

may be expressed consciously and unconsciously by a teller or workshop


It is the phrase ‘those present and not present’ that particularly resonates: that our awareness should extend far beyond the story being told, even beyond the archetypal as it brings a spiritual element into play that unites us as human beings in our suffering, in our search for truth, meaning and connection and in our joy.

On one level that tenet is aspirational and on another (the latter part) feels divisive as the responsibility to address prejudice belongs to us all and not just the accredited trainer. We invited the story (any story) and if we do not like it when it is told, then it is our problem and not the teller’s.  It is up to us to find a non-shaming, creative response. It is not just about what we do, to, for, or with others but also for ourselves so this tenet could be expanded to invite a reflective practice that looks at the possibility of our own prejudice, bias, blind spots and emotional over-involvement and takes responsibility for that once we are aware.  It is in that sense, that the tenet is useful; relating honestly to our own shortcomings opens us to the possibility of being compassionate to the shortcomings of others as equals rather than the notion of looking down from a position of authority.

The concepts of mindfulness and acceptance with their roots in Buddhist meditation have become popular over the last few years.  Mindfulness, put simply, is based on the idea of observing the breath as it comes and goes, as an anchor, observing sensations in the body and taking a step back from thoughts.  This can give rise to calming perspective and an acceptance of things as they are.   It can be used to help with pain management, depression and compulsions, for example. For many years now I have been teaching mindfulness to people in early recovery from substance misuse as a form of relapse prevention and increased self-awareness.  Observing the mind gives us the opportunity to make clearer choices as we allow the momentum of thoughts to pause.    One particular aspect that I emphasise when teaching mindfulness is that of the witness, the ‘mind’s eye’ which is linked to the conscience or shame – an internal observer and possible moderator. The mind becomes theatre.

The practice of mindfulness could be applied to the PT Code of Ethics as observation.  As we observe the Code of Ethics it becomes fallible and living rather than a set of rules or expectations and allows our relationship with it to become fluid and adaptable.   In a way, the Code of Ethics becomes our teller with its own ever-changing story as we pass through each other, listening and responding similarly and uniquely differently each time, to meet our challenges creatively.  As Playbackers we are always returning each time to the ‘void’, to the beginning, to the space that we create for the next story to feel invited to be told from all sides.

Brian Tasker is an IPTN registered Practitioner and PT Leadership Graduate (2008). He is also a counsellor with senior BACP accreditation with a background in Hospice work, mental health and substance misuse.

[1] Interplay, Vol. XI, No 1, October 2006