Based on the authors’ extensive experience in the US, India, and the Middle East, this concise article proposes a set of well-reasoned principles and guidelines that support the effective, ethical use of Playback Theatre for social change. Ben Rivers is Co-Director of the Arab School of Playback Theatre in Lebanon. Jiwon Chung is a practitioner of Playback Theatre and Theatre of the Oppressed in Berkeley, California. (See full bios following the article.)
Playback Theatre and Social Change: Functions, principles and Practices
by Ben Rivers and Jiwon Chung
Playback Theatre can contribute towards social justice by giving a human face to the issues and demands that define a movement. The enactment of personal stories brings out the truth, dignity and detail of a cause, re-grounding political struggle within our shared humanity.
In this article, we will propose several functions that Playback can serve within social movements. We will also look at some guiding principles and techniques that can support our work as Playback activists.
Functions of Playback
Through Playback Theatre, silenced voices and counter-testimonies are heard and amplified. This helps to raise awareness about the realities of injustice and oppression.
At the same time, oppressed populations are able to define their own sense of self through accounts that celebrate the richness, complexity, and dignity of their lives. This in turn helps to challenge the stereotypes and other forms of misrepresentation that frequently define mainstream discourse.
Playback can help to build, rebuild, or strengthen solidarity and shared struggle. Oppressed groups and their allies can use Playback to celebrate triumphs and successes, and for the transmission of important skills, strategies, values and histories within or between communities and social movements.
The Playback process contains restorative and therapeutic aspects that can help with the promotion of community health and wellbeing. In some cases, Playback can also help to address any trauma that might arise from the experience of violence and oppression.
Playback, when used within social movements, is characterized by a desire to uplift and amplify the voice of the oppressed. However, practitioners should be mindful of the pitfalls and contradictions in ‘performing/telling’ a story for another. A profound humility and curiosity is essential and should ground all preparation, performance and action.
The stage is a place of heightened attention and focus. Those who inhabit it (the conductor and actors) are thus elevated to a position of higher status. This power and status must be harnessed and directed in service of the unheard, unseen, silenced teller or story.
The Playback practitioner should ensure that oppressive dynamics are not replicated within or outside of the performance space. This means modelling values and behaviours that are principled, inclusive, respectful and counter-oppressive.
Playback aims to honour each teller, and provide space for multiple viewpoints to be heard. On the other hand, Playback practitioners hold an obligation to express their clear rejection of oppressive worldviews.
Anti-oppressive practice requires an informed, critical worldview together with a critique of the ways in which we are entrained into accepting and normalizing oppressive ideologies. As practitioners, we must therefore assume responsibility for addressing our own internalized oppression and complicity with hegemonic discourse.
We must train to identify and bracket our own personal biases, prejudices, and psychological projections especially where these reflect a privileged status.
As practitioners, we should listen for the complexity of a story including its psychological, social, cultural, historical and political dimensions.
We should allow the critical and the rational to coexist with the emotional; practitioners should not subsume everything into the affective or aesthetic frame.
On the other hand, artistry is essential: the aesthetic and embodied dimensions of Playback help to amplify impact and resonance, providing an advantage over storytelling approaches that are mainly verbal. Importantly though, artistry should serve, not overpower the story: the story is what matters.
Practitioners should understand the potential for retraumatization in unskillful enactments. We should also know how to respond to traumatic reactions if they do arise.
Importantly, we must remember that Playback Theatre is not a panacea. Instead, it can be considered as one small aspect of a larger, coordinated approach to social change.
Playback activists can promote good practice in four realms of activity:
- Event planning
- Team preparation
The planning, implementation and evaluation of an intervention should occur in ways that ensure input and participation from community members and other relevant partners.
Organizers should build meaningful alliances with artists, academics, activists, journalists, policy makers, change agents, elected officials, etc. In doing so, organizers should ask, ‘How can our skills be used to augment and complement other efforts towards social and political change?’
In addition to one-off performances, organizers can consider workshop formats and long-term engagement as options for facilitating deeper impact within a particular group, community or campaign.
Post-performance discussion and action planning can be included within the format of an event.
Where highly traumatic stories are likely to arise, organizers may consider ensuring that trained mental health workers are present to offer post-performance support and follow-up as needed.
Awareness of opportune timing, and the historical moment, should inform all aspects of organizing.
Prior to a targeted performance or special project, we should engage in intensive (and where possible, immersive) research regarding the social, historical, cultural and political factors that impact the relevant community or population. This includes gaining familiarity with the type of stories that might arise. We can also rehearse events and scenarios that are likely to be shared. In addition, we can use rehearsals for sharing our own stories and responses to the topic of an upcoming project or performance.
As always, we should question and address our own internalized oppression or complicity with hegemonic discourse. This may occur via specialized trainings, personal study/reflection, or with other troupe members during rehearsals.
If the teller is describing an oppressive situation, the conductor should help the teller to describe and articulate the details and impact of this experience. At the same time, the conductor should listen for and enquire about examples of agency and resilience (including values, actions and alliances).
The conductor can use prior knowledge of a social issue to introduce important contextual details and analysis at various points during the event.
The conductor should ensure that dynamics of privilege are not replicated within the Playback event itself. (For example, if only men have told stories, the conductor may invite a woman to be the next teller.)
Conductors should be mindful of how the Playback form, without scrutiny, can lend its power towards the extroverted, the confident, the privileged, the educated, the articulate, the entitled: the dominant majority and its hegemonic ideology. The conductor therefore needs to listen to, and sense the space acutely – gravitating towards the quiet, whispered, silenced truths in the room.
The conductor should express their clear refusal to go along with oppressive worldviews. In extreme cases, the conductor may refuse to continue with abusive tellers, or stories that are grossly insulting or deliberately provocative.
The conductor can consider explicitly eliciting a story that ‘gives us another perspective’ in the wake of an oppressive or one-sided story.
In some situations, the conductor may invite the teller to share a ‘repair story’ or counterfactual scenario (meaning one that is contrary to the established facts). This would normally occur after the original account has been shared. Such stories enable the teller to envision or explore a course of action that was not possible at the time.
Spacious, expectant silence can be used while eliciting a story. The quality of a conductor’s listening can be a political statement in itself.
Oppressive dynamics that appear within a story can be concretized through shape, gesture, tempo, etc. This ‘visualizing’ of relations helps to stimulate new perspectives and/or greater clarity regarding the status quo.
Objectified or denigrated characters can be humanized through representations that are sympathetic to their position within the oppressive dynamic.
During the enactment, a ‘Narrator’ role can raise questions or contribute important background information relating to the socio-political context.
Cinematic techniques can be borrowed to provide perspective and commentary. For example:
- Panning/zooming out: Expanding the ‘camera’ out, so that we can see the larger context;
- Zooming in: Focusing, or slowing down elements of the story to emphasize, highlight or lift up the significant (political) commentary.
- Freezing: Freeze the scene, step out and give short commentary.
- Collage: Creating a short, synoptic cascade or chorus of commentaries and viewpoints that give more context.
The skilled use of language, acting styles, staging and dramaturgical choices can stimulate or amplify critical thinking (see Brecht’s ‘alienation effect’). This requires the capacity to enter fully and empathically into role, while simultaneously maintaining the ability to view the role in context and at a distance.
The judicious enactment of a story as a recognizable genre of performance can lift up the social and political dimensions of a story. For example, the reframing of a frustrating bureaucratic encounter as a horror film lifts up and critiques the arbitrariness, powerlessness, unpredictability, irrationality of a supposedly rational system. Familiar tropes from film, theatre, or literary genres juxtaposed onto a personal story can make visible both elements of the story and the genre, increasing critical understanding and perspective, while highlighting the familiarity or universality of the story.
Humor and satire can be used as powerful political tools.
The use of metaphor can allow for the holding of complexity and universality. Attention to detail allows for specificity and locality. Both are important in political and social contexts.
Over the past few decades, the use of Playback within social movements has begun to grow. It is now used to augment efforts against poverty, racial discrimination, gender-based violence, homophobia, militarism, environmental degradation and climate change.
This short paper has presented a set of ideas, principles and practices that can support the ethical and strategic use of Playback as we continue to move forward.
Rivers, B. (2015). Educate, agitate and organize! Playback Theatre and its role in social movements. International Playback Theatre Journal, 1:1, pp. 19-37.
Brecht, Bertolt. “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting”. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Ed. & Trans. John Willett. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964. pp 91-99
About the authors
Ben Rivers was born in the UK and raised in Australia. He specializes in the use of psychodrama and playback theatre for community mobilization and collective trauma response. He has taught and practiced in Asia, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and North America, working extensively with communities impacted by violence, trauma and adversity. He is Co-Director of the Arab School of Playback Theatre (Adonis, Lebanon) and the Executive Director of Dawar for Arts and Development (Cairo, Egypt). He holds a Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology with a concentration in Drama Therapy from the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), USA and a PhD in Peace Studies from the University of New England, Australia. His articles have been published in professional journals around the world. He is a Registered Drama Therapist with the North American Drama Therapy Association and an Accredited Playback Theatre Trainer through the Centre for Playback Theatre, New York. He is currently based in Egypt.
Jiwon Chung is a professional actor and director. He is a key theorist and exponent of Theater of the Oppressed and its integration with somatics, martial arts, applied theater, pedagogy, and media activism. He has teaches internationally and is currently Visiting Associate Professor at the Starr King School at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, and has served as the president of the National Organization for Theater of the Oppressed. Jiwon also teaches at the Berkeley Repertory School of Theatre. He has worked intensively in the areas of conflict transformation, environmental justice, gang violence, police violence, racism, homelessness, war trauma, torture, genocide, global militarism, and other issues of systemic and structural violence and injustice. Jiwon’s approach to individual, interpersonal and institutional change is informed by his background as a war veteran, martial artist, and four decades of Vipassana meditation.
From the curator:
What do you think about these points? Does your experience with using Playback in social change contexts resonate with Ben and Jiwon’s perceptions? Please comment!