Whose Story Is It? Other People In Playback Stories

by Marlena Merrin Erdos


I’m a member of the “Living Stores” troupe in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. At a recent performance, we had a teller disclose highly personal details about her life partner — a man in the audience.  These were details that most people would want to keep confidential (e.g. mental health issues, childhood trauma specifics, etc).

Our conductor made a couple of very gentle efforts to get the teller to stick to her own story, but this teller was insistent. Personal information about her partner poured forth.

I could see that the partner seemed to enjoy being talked about — he had been a prior teller that night, so I knew who he was, as did the rest of the audience — but I was very uncomfortable at what was happening.

I had multiple friends in the audience that night. After the performance, they told me that they were horrified at what was revealed. My fellow troupe members were also troubled at what had happened.

While this was an extreme circumstance, my experience thus far in Playback (as an audience member, student, and now  troupe member) is that tellers reveal personal information about other people fairly often. The details just “slip out,” even if the teller is relatively “conductable,” and even if the teller is mostly sticking to their own story. Further, sometimes I’ve seen a conductor solicit personal details about a sibling, boss, etc.

This has bothered me at times, but I took no action. The extreme “outing” at the performance, however, got me to wondering, “how can my troupe could do better when it comes to the privacy of the loved ones, teammates, co-workers, etc. that tellers necessarily bring up during an intake?”

I sought out sources of specific guidance. I googled for articles on “privacy and Playback,” and found nothing to help us. I re-examined the advice-filled “A Playback Theatre Toolkit” from Anne and Christopher Ellinger, but it had no advice on this topic (!).

Had no one written about preserving the privacy of of “other people” — so-called “third parties” — in a teller’s story?

I asked the Ellingers — friends, teachers, and colleagues — if they knew of any material that could help my troupe. They didn’t.

Because I didn’t find outside guidance, I decided to try self-help! I work in the field of Internet privacy and security. Could the privacy principles that businesses are supposed to follow when interacting with users, shed light on “how  to do better” when it comes to the privacy of third parties?

The answer — it seemed to me — is “yes.”

I formulated some thoughts, and then engaged in the Ellingers in a discussion. Because I’ve only done a small amount of conducting, I especially was seeking their advice on how a conductor could handle a teller who was insisting on revealing personal information about someone else.

They gave me some wonderful suggestions — and provided some stories from their experience that I found highly informative. They also enlarged the discussion — which I thought would stick to “privacy” — to include the important topics of “audience discomfort” and “judgements about third parties.”

The upshot is that I decided to write an article to provide the guidance I sought but didn’t find. In composing the article, I used the style of the Ellingers’ “Toolkit.” It’s a highly directive style that allows a lot of information to be represented very compactly.

One of my big motivations for seeking guidance — and now seeking to provide guidance 🙂 — is that I believe strongly in the risk of harm to a third party through a teller’s disclosures and judgements.

This is my personal belief and also my professional experience as a worker in the field for multiple decades. Whatever our opinions are about what should be “OK” to talk about in today’s world (e.g. sexual orientation, HIV status, etc), revelations about another person can cause great damage.

It’s also my firm belief that a conductor can shape a teller’s story so that there is a lot less risk of harm to a third party, while still allowing the soul of the teller’s story to come forth in a way that allows for a rich Playback.

You may find some of what I suggest (and sometimes strongly suggest) to be counter to your intuition and experience. Depending on where you are from, you may also find some of it counter to your national culture.

I ask that you keep an open mind and heart.

(Please note that while I got input from the Ellingers and used the style of their “Toolkit,” all the opinions I state  and advice I offer are mine alone, with no endorsement from them.)


As a conductor, you will encounter tellers who start to reveal personal details about third parties — a family member, co-worker, friend, etc.

Perhaps a teller reveals that their brother is a drug addict, or that their boss is having an affair.

Sometimes these personal details are highly relevant to the teller’s story, but many times they aren’t.

Since disclosure of personal information (and/or judgements) about a third party risks harm to that person — and also can cause significant audience discomfort — it makes sense for a conductor to help shape the teller’s story to limit the amount and type of information revealed about other people.

I’ll first talk about disclosures and judgements and what to do to limit them; and then talk about further factors that can cause audience discomfort and how to mitigate them.

Limiting Third Party Disclosures & Judgements

A third party is put at risk of harm through both disclosures (e.g. “my boss is sleeping with the marketing director”) and judgements (e.g. “my boss is a selfish prick”).

I’ll note briefly that harm is possible to a third party whether or not they are present in the audience, or are known to other audience members.

 I’ll first talk about what to do about disclosures, and then judgements.

Limiting Third Party Disclosures

To help reduce the possibility of harm, the task for the conductor is to keep the amount of personal information about a third party that’s revealed to the “minimum necessary.”[1]

Here are two contrasting examples that help explicate this idea:

If a teller talks about a bad relationship with her sister, because the sister was the father’s favorite, then that the sister has a criminal record is probably not needed :-). Also, likely not needed is information about the sister’s medical history, love life, etc.

If a teller talks about a bad relationship with her sister, because the sister didn’t visit the teller in jail, and the teller was only involved in crime because of her sister, then the “crime” aspect of the sister’s life is necessary to the story. But again, details about the sister’s medical history, love life, etc. aren’t relevant

It can be tricky to know early in the intake what is “necessary,” but redirecting the teller who seems to be “outing” a third party back their own story is likely a good choice in most circumstances.

You can do this redirection by focussing on the teller’s feelings. For example, If a teller says “My sister spent ten years in grad school and still didn’t finish her PhD! Further….” You can gently but firmly interrupt and say, “It sounds like you have strong feelings about your sister. Tell us more about your feelings.”

If the teller then continues, “She was my parents’ favorite even though she screwed up over and over, and she even…” You can say, “Let’s have a pause. It sounds like this must have been hard on you. Tell us about that.”

Most of the time, a couple of redirections back to feelings will get the teller on track to tell their own story, rather than disclosing further personal details about the third party.

If need be, you can be more direct, while still being gentle: “We really want to hear about you and your feelings, and not details about other people.”

If a teller still continues to talk about the third party, you can cue the actors to do Fluids (or Corridors, or other short form) and bring the intake to a swift close, To be graceful about it, you can say, “This is a bigger story than we have time for. We are going to focus on the important feelings you’ve told us about.”

If the teller is very worked up, you can say, “It sounds like you have a lot to get off your chest. One of our actors can talk to you in detail after the show. For now, we are going to focus on you and your core feelings” — and then cue the actors to do a short form, and bring the intake to a close.


Let’s go back to our “I was in jail because of my sister” example. Even here, by focussing on the teller’s feelings and own experience, rather than the third party, you can get to a very rich story while limiting how much potentially damaging information is disclosed about the third party.


Limiting Third Party Judgements

The actions you as a conductor can take with teller bringing up judgements (e.g. “My mother is a bitch”) are the same as what you would do for disclosures, i.e. redirect the teller back to their feelings.

There’s another consideration with judgements however: It can seem that judgements about “anonymous” third parties are innocuous — for example, a teller mentioning interacting with “ a crazy homeless person’ as part of talking about a difficult day — but these seemingly harmless mentions can reinforce negative stereotypes.

What You Can Do

If you need to ask a question that brings in the third party, don’t repeat the judgement. Rather use a neutral term if at all possible. For example, “It sounds like you felt frightened when you walked by that person.”

If the teller repeats the judgement, “The crazy person…” you can (if you choose to) gently turn aside the judgement as you redirect the teller back to their own thoughts and feelings. For example, “We can’t know what was going on in that person’s mind, but we can definitely talk about what was happening in yours.”

Another Suggestion Relating To Disclosures & Judgements

Ask the teller for a pseudonyms rather than a third party’s real name. It doesn’t typically add to the story to have the actual names of third parties.

But What If Personal Information Is Unavoidable?

Tellers will necessarily tell stories that involve identifiable people (e.g. a parent), and also disclose information about third parties (whether or not they are immediately identifiable). What we can do as conductors is take pains to limit unnecessary disclosures. We are trying to balance the teller’s right to tell their story, with the third party’s right to keep their own story private.

We can’t be perfect but we can “do better” (and often “much better”) by exercising care than we would otherwise.

But No One Will Know!

One typical reaction from a teller is “No one will know who this person is. It doesn’t matter what I reveal.” In today’s highly connected world, this just isn’t true. Privacy experts talk about putting together non-identifiable pieces of information into a “profile” that does in fact identify the person. This process is called “aggregation of data.” This is a fancy technical phrase for something that normal people do all of the time. That is, they draw conclusions from separate pieces of information that they learn over time.

Suggestion: If a teller brings up, “But no one knows who this person is!” you can still say, “We are still much more interested in you.”

“We Can’t Control Tellers Outside Of The Performance; Why Bother Inside”?

A reaction that some conductors may have is “Why bother? A teller might be outing other people far and wide regardless of Playback.”

That’s possible, but it’s also possible that in letting their guard down enough to tell their story, a teller may also be letting down some “discretion” barriers they generally have in place. In the heat of the moment, a teller may reveal information about a third party that they later will regret having disclosed.

Either way, we can seek as conductors to do “the better thing” by trying to limit non-necessary personal information about third parties within the context of Playback.

Limiting Unnecessary Audience Discomfort

When you guide the teller into talking about themselves rather than revealing unnecessary personal information about third parties, you help the audience feel more comfortable overall. Audience members can stay focussed (or at least more focussed) on the teller and the Playback rather than on questions like “Did the third party consent to having their information outed?”

There are some other factors that affect audience comfort.

Is the third party present in the audience?

If the person being spoken about is in the audience, audience members may feel very uncomfortable. While it is up to each conductor to decide what to do, it’s my belief that it’s best to avoid stories that involve a person in the audience.

Here are some aspects that inform what may seem to be a “far out” stance:

●     “Positive” stories can quickly take a turn to the negative. For example, “My wife Sally was really supportive and helpful — until she betrayed me.”

●     Tellers who want to talk about a person in the audience (with that person as a main character) may have an agenda other than (or in addition to) processing their own experience. A teller with an agenda may resist your attempts to avoid judgements and unnecessary disclosures.

●     It’s actually quite tricky to get meaningful consent from an audience member. See below.

Handling a story about an audience member

If a teller begins to speak about a person who might be in the audience, speaking (say) about their spouse, their sibling, or a close friend, you can gently interrupt, saying ““Let’s pause for a moment. Is your spouse/sibling/friend in the room?”

If the answer is “yes,” and if you wish to proceed, you can try to find a way to see if the person in the room is OK with being “told” about. See the section below on “Obtaining Meaningful Consent.”

If you don’t wish to proceed or can’t get meaningful consent, you can ask the teller, “Is there a story you could share that doesn’t involve your spouse/sibling/friend?”

If the teller doesn’t have another story, you can ask the teller to step down. While this may be awkward, it’s potentially not nearly as awkward as the story they may tell involving the audience member.

Example: Consider a teller who says “When I ask my husband for help, I often leave the conversation feeling even worse than I did when we started to talk.” There are no personal details about the husband in the story, but yet it’s “awkward.” Consider further a teller who says something more like, “I love my husband, but he can be a real asshole.” (I feel awkward even writing this example!)

Obtaining meaningful consent

It’s very important that you get consent from the audience member, but obtaining “consent that counts” is a delicate matter. Openly asking a person in the audience “Is this OK?” is actually not constructive. It puts the person on the spot. Consent under these circumstance just can’t be considered “freely given.”

What to do: Sometime, you as the conductor may be able to discreetly check for a non-verbal “yes” or “no,” (via say a head shake). If the person indicates “yes,” then ask the person verbally to get an explicit ‘yes.” This lets the audience know that there’s been consent. If you haven’t gotten an affirmative sign of consent, you must consider the answer to be “no.” In this case, your ethical course of action is to ask the teller to tell a different story — and ask them to step down if they have no other story to offer (IMO).

Here are some additional factors relating to audience discomfort:

Is the third party known to audience members, even if not present? This may be a very uncomfortable situation for audience members who know the third party. In this case, you as the conductor should be extra diligent with respect to keeping the disclosures to a minimum.

Third party is known, but the personal information is already known. In this case, a conductor can be more relaxed about disclosures about the third party, but it’s still better to keep the focus on the teller and their story.

Summary Of Suggestions & Recommendations

●     Interrupt a teller who is outing another person sooner rather than later. Limit the amount of personal information a teller discloses about a third party by turning the story back to the teller’s feelings.

●     Turn the focus away from judgements and back to the teller. Don’t repeat the judgement (“crazy person”). If you need to refer to the third party; use a neutral phrase.

●     Encourage the teller to use pseudonyms for third parties.

●     Consider avoiding a story about an audience member — even if the teller says the story is positive. If you do wish to proceed, make sure to get meaningful consent. If you can’t get consent, move on to a different story, and a different teller if need be.


I gratefully acknowledge important inputs to this article from Anne Ellinger and Christopher Ellinger of True Story Theater (Arlington, Massachusetts, USA). In particular, Anne raised up the topic of “audience discomfort,” and Christopher raised up “judgements.” A discussion I had with Anne and Christopher also helped shape the suggestions I offer conductors — though anything stated in the article reflects my opinion alone.

About Marlena: I’m a member of the “Living Stories” troupe in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. When not doing Playback or writing musicals, I consult in Internet security and privacy. You can reach me at


[1] The phrase “minimum necessary” is from legal standards in the US and EU about collection of personal information. A highly related phrase is “collection limitation.”