Writing About Playback Theatre – Jo Salas

Jo Salas

“We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style … but as we move along, you’d do well to remember that we are also talking about magic.” –Stephen King, On Writing.

Playback Theatre is 40 years old this year. Our newsletter has a new name, a new editor, and a new look. It is timely to have a look at how, and how well, we are writing about Playback Theatre. Over the years, good writing has deepened our own understanding of our work and brought it to the attention of people outside our community. But some writing has done little more than report approvingly on the writer’s own project, saying, in effect: “Look at what we did! Isn’t it wonderful!”

At the recent European Gathering in Amsterdam, 20 writers from eight or nine countries joined me in thoughtfully exploring the topic of writing. We looked at some questions: why write about Playback Theatre? Who are we writing for? What are we writing, and how? And can we do it better? If you are someone who has an interest in writing about Playback Theatre, this discussion might help you move forward.

First of all, why do we write about Playback Theatre?
–to describe, document, and evaluate the process or a particular project;
–to amplify stories told by otherwise unheard voices;
–to inform Playback colleagues about a project or new discovery;
–to inform people outside the Playback community about our work;
–to develop our own understanding of what we are doing;
–to convince others of Playback Theatre’s value and effectiveness;
–to teach others how to do Playback.
Of course any piece of writing is likely to have several interwoven purposes. What’s important, as we embark on a writing project, is to have some clarity about what those primary intentions are.

As someone who’s been writing about Playback for almost all of its 40 years, I can see, looking back, that in the beginning I had only a vague sense of why I was writing. I was impelled by the awareness that this new thing we were doing was both remarkable and ephemeral. If we didn’t write down an account of a show, those beautiful stories and profound interactions were likely to be forgotten. I didn’t know if anyone would ever read what I was writing. But I didn’t want the stories to be lost—both the stories told by our tellers, and the often-notable stories of the events themselves.

A few years later I began to use writing as a means of exploring and comprehending Playback’s process, theory, and impact. I also wrote pragmatically about our techniques and rituals, to support practitioners and learners of Playback Theatre. And, as the director of a company, I had to write grant proposals, project reports, press releases, and so on. This scope of writing will be familiar to other Playback writers.

Who are we writing for? Who are our audiences?
–our fellow Playback Theatre practitioners;
–potential Playback practitioners;
–practitioners in related fields (theatre, other arts, creative arts therapies, education, social services, training, etc);
–general public;
–decision-makers in organizations which might hire or fund Playback.

Again, the intended audience for our writing may include more than one category. The readership of the IPTN journal (and Interplay previously) is primarily Playback practitioners. Writing with these readers in mind is different from, for example, writing for schoolteachers who may never have heard of Playback before reading your article. (However, it’s good to keep in mind that anyone, not just Playbackers, might encounter the IPTN Journal. We want to engage those readers too, with cogent, well-edited articles.)

One of the aspects of writing that can change with different audiences is voice—the tone and style of the writing. It must always be authentic to you, the writer. But it is flexible. A casual, friendly voice with contractions (“you’ll” instead of “you will”) and exclamation points might work very well in a publication for youth, and not so well in a grant proposal. 

We all use different registers in our spoken conversations, automatically choosing language and tone that will communicate best with the person we are speaking to at that moment. Finding the right voice as a writer is a similar process.

Writing grammatically is important: grammar exists to make writing clear. The goal is clarity, not grammatical correctness itself. And it is perfectly possible, at least in English (it’s harder in some other languages) to avoid sexism in your writing, by using plurals or by alternating gender when you write about hypothetical characters.

Likewise, you can make a point of using language that is sensitive and respectful to population groups you refer to—which may require finding out how people in those groups want to be named.

What are we writing?
This is an infinite list! But here are some examples:
–articles of any length about Playback-related issues, questions, discoveries, projects, or techniques;
–personal experiences;
–transcribed Playback stories;
–academic essays, theses, and dissertations;
–Playback Theatre Leadership essays;
–blog posts;
–press releases;
–project reports and evaluations;
–grant proposals.

Each example has its own parameters and requirements, some more demanding than others. Not everyone is going to write a book or a PhD dissertation. But many who might not think of themselves as writers might be inspired by a stimulating experience to share it with others in a short article or blog post. And many of us face practical writing tasks in the course of our Playback administrative work.

Where is it published?
Possible publication venues:
–IPTN Journal;
–non-Playback professional publications;
–academic journals;
–general interest magazines;
–independent, mainstream, or university book publishers.

Reaching most of these venues requires some research, and often communication—it makes sense to approach an editor with your idea so that you can work with their guidelines as you develop it.

Unpublished work can also make a contribution to our body of knowledge—Leadership essays, for example.

How, and how well, are we writing?
This is a big topic. We need to think about questions such as:
–observation and thought, and how they are embodied in structure;
–critical thinking;
–using stories told in shows, rehearsals, and workshops;
–ethical issues including transparency;
–quotes and citations;
–aesthetic considerations;
–feedback from others. 

It is my hope that as a community we can support a higher standard of writing in our field, which will in turn support the recognition and growth of Playback Theatre in the wider world, to the ultimate benefit of all the people who want and need to tell their stories.

The first consideration is the content of what we are writing. It is no longer enough to provide a superficial description of an event or a project. We need to deepen and expand our observation. We need to ask critical questions. We need to report and reflect on the complexity of what happened, and describe the unsuccessful or unfulfilled moments as well as the glorious ones. If we conclude that the performance or project was a success, we need to explain what led us to that conclusion. Was it simply the team’s perception of a happy audience? If so, can you describe how the participants indicated their appreciation? Did you interview audience members, or provide a follow-up survey, or ask the organizers to comment?

If we want to write, we need to read! We need to read what thoughtful people have said within and beyond the Playback field. We need to know (and acknowledge) if someone before us has written on the same topic that we’re now exploring.

In scholarly writing and research these are basic concepts: the necessity for scrupulous, honest observation and reporting; transparency about evaluation; using careful thought that builds on earlier careful thought; and organizing material so that the structure supports the meaning. I’m not an academic but I’ve benefited from writing for academically edited publications with editors who challenged me to make my writing more rigorous and accountable. I think that Playback Theatre writing can usefully borrow these standards of rigor, without making our discourse academic in tone.

Playback writing often includes stories that are told in our performances, rehearsals, and workshops. The stories themselves are a tremendous resource for us. But using them raises questions. How, exactly, do we retell them? Do we use the teller’s actual language (possible only if we’ve recorded the show)? If not, we need to make it clear to readers that we are paraphrasing the teller’s words. Do we include the conductor’s questions? Do we edit, and how much? Many tellers begin their stories somewhere in the middle, with important details emerging later in the telling—a sequence which might not work on the page.

And a pressing question: do we need to get permission from a teller to retell her or his story? I think we should, if we can. (It’s one of my regrets as a writer that 20-plus years ago it did not occur to me to seek permissions from the people whose stories I retold in Improvising Real Life—at least those whom I could have contacted.) In cases where it’s not possible to find a teller to ask for permission, it seems ethically acceptable to retell stories that were told in a public setting, as long as they are told with accuracy and considerateness. (Ask yourself how the teller would feel if they read your rendition of their story.) Of course real names should never be used, unless there is a compelling reason to do so and the teller gives explicit permission.

In today’s world real people’s stories are often commodified in talk shows, tabloids, reality shows, online—retold not for reasons of humanity but for shock value and commercial gain. Playback Theatre is distinguished from this trend by our fundamental respect for the story and for the teller. This respect is evident in our performances and needs to be evident in our writing as well. Gaining permission is one gesture of respect.

As we know from every Playback story we’ve heard or told, it matters who is telling it. The story of Little Red Riding Hood is a different story depending on who is the teller, Little Red Riding Hood, her grandma, or the wolf. Or the woodcutter, or a tree in the forest. Similarly, we owe it to our readers to be transparent about the perspective from which we are writing, particularly if writing about a Playback project. Was the writer acting, conducting, telling, or watching?

Any writing is enriched by using quotations, whether from literature, other writing about Playback Theatre (published or not), or elsewhere. Some contexts have specific requirements for citing a reference or quotation. In more informal settings, it’s still important to give credit to the original writer and make it possible for the reader to locate the quote in its original context. And it goes without saying (but I’ll say it) that the quotation should be 100% accurate in wording and punctuation.

When we write about Playback Theatre, we are writing about an art form, and our writing should be congruent with it. In other words, good Playback Theatre is aesthetically satisfying, and our writing should also be aesthetically satisfying. This does not mean being poetic, or dense with metaphor and simile. It means being graceful, clear, and accessible, with well-chosen words and attention to rhythm. (It helps a lot to read one’s writing aloud!) Academic-style writing is notorious for being full of clumsy invented words and Latinate locutions, as though this very clunkiness endows it with legitimacy. But the best academic writing is elegant and direct. It is not easy to do—but it is possible.

All writing benefits from critical feedback. Once you’ve completed a piece of writing, it is immensely helpful to get some reflections from trusted and thoughtful readers. You can accept their suggestions or not. But they are very likely to notice things that you’re not seeing—a confusing sentence, a way to improve the overall organization, something important that’s missing.

So, are you inspired to write something? Wonderful! Here is a possible strategy that you could use:

·      Clarify your intention—to describe and evaluate a project, or present a new idea about performance, etc.
·      Decide who your audience will be—fellow Playbackers, professional colleagues, the general public, or others.
·      How will you reach that audience? Would it be helpful to send a query to a specific publication before doing the writing?
·      Gather the factual information you will need.
·      Experiment with voice to find a style and tone that works for you and for your intended readers.
·      Create a structure for your article—it might change as you go along, but it will help you get into it. And decide about length—are you aiming for 800 words? 3000 words?
·      Write!
·      If time permits, put your finished pages in a drawer for a month, then look at them again and revise.
·      Ask one or two trusted readers to read and comment. Incorporate suggestions that resonate with you.
·      Proofread with fanatical care.
·      Send it off to the editor!