Playback Theatre and Social Change: Functions, principles and Practices by Ben Rivers and Jiwon Chung

Ben Rivers
Jiwon Chung

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

April 2017

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. Continue reading “Playback Theatre and Social Change: Functions, principles and Practices by Ben Rivers and Jiwon Chung”

Garland of Flowers by Jonathan Fox

“Garland of Flowers” is Jonathan Fox’s recent account of working with a Playback project in Nepal, a country where he spent two formative years as a young man (referred to in his memoir Beyond Theatre.) Returning to Nepal in 2016 brought new understanding of how his long-ago experience there contributed in important ways to the formation of Playback Theatre.

Jonathan is the founder of Playback Theatre, the author of Acts of Service: Spontaneity, Commitment, Tradition in the Nonscripted Theatre, and the founder of the Centre for Playback Theatre, an international training organization. He holds a PhD (Honoris Causa) from the University of Kassel, Germany. 

Garland of flowers

By Jonathan Fox

February 2016: Exhausted after the 24-hour journey from New York, having survived the sudden storm as we approached the Kathmandu Valley, then finally disembarking into the gloom of an airport that had lost electricity, I staggered around in the darkness looking (in vain) for my suitcase, eventually wandering out into a shadowy hall to be met by a handful of beaming strangers bearing prayer scarves. Later, finally settled in a hotel room (with backup generator), I shocked myself by catching sight of my bleeding forehead in the bathroom mirror—when and how had I sustained this injury?—finally realizing that the red was not blood, but dye from a ceremonial welcome tika that I did not remember.

I awoke the next morning to sunlight and views of a bright colored stupa and rooftops with flowers. At breakfast when asked, “Coffee or tea, sir?” I answered proudly in Nepali. But when I tried to tell the waiter how I knew Nepal 48 years ago, my words failed. I sighed and said in English: “Peace Corps Volunteer.” Continue reading “Garland of Flowers by Jonathan Fox”

Crossing the Threshold by Rea Dennis

Welcome to PLAYBACK THEATRE REFLECTS, a new blog for thoughtful writing on Playback Theatre, both recent and from the past. The first post, “Crossing the Threshold” by the Australian Playback practitioner and researcher Rea Dennis, was originally presented at the symposium on Playback Theatre at Arizona State University in 2005 and later published in the Journal of Interactive Drama. Rea’s idea of the “tensions of participation” will be recognizable to anyone involved in Playback Theatre. And it has an echo right here, where you’re invited to participate in PLAYBACK THEATRE REFLECTS as a reader, subscriber, commenter and contributor. (see comment button on the left)

Next month: Jonathan Fox’s recent article about Playback Theatre in Nepal. Subscribe to receive an email when it’s published!


Tensions of Participation in Community-Based Playback Theatre Performance

Rea Dennis, Deakin University, Australia

First published in Journal of Interactive Drama, Vol. 2.1, January, 2007


Contained by a simple accessible ritual structure playback theatre offers a unique audience experience with the possibility of participation. The opportunity to participate introduces a challenge for some. This can be further compounded by the central place of personal storytelling. It is the repeated invitation to tell a story that drives the ritual momentum in the playback theatre performance. Audience members sit with the constant possibility of volunteering, while some are preoccupied with a persistent reluctance to tell. This ‘tension of participation’ could be considered the more potent tension underpinning audience members’ experiences in the playback theatre event – perhaps more than the dramatic tensions emerging from the performative acts of storytelling and enacting. Continue reading “Crossing the Threshold by Rea Dennis”