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.)
Russian translation by Irina Krustaleva
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!
13 thoughts on “Playback Theatre and Social Change: Functions, Principles and Practices by Ben Rivers and Jiwon Chung”
I have now written a full response to Jiwon and it’s published on my blog. You can find it here:
Please comment – thank you
I noted that you have tagged my response to Ben’s work in Palestine ‘in passing’: https://briantasker.wordpress.com/2016/04/13/has-playback-theatre-reached-a-crossroads/
You wrote: “I mention, in passing, as an example, the pigeonholing of Ben’s work in Palestine into the [psycho-therapeutic] Karpman “drama triangle” by a playback practitioner. This misrecognizes and reduces years of high risk, high stakes, political and cultural work, done with care, conscientiousness, and heart to a simplistic psychological miniature, to be dealt with and discharged through a western-appropriated pseudo-Zen “mindfulness”. This encapsulates the irreflexive, reductive quality of the psychotherapeutic paradigm (and now its meditative derivatives) in a nutshell.”
If you are going to refer to me then please be honest and provide a reference so anyone interested can make their own mind up rather than just have my response reductively dismissed by you. I’m quite happy to be named. Further, my points about the one-sidedness, how risk is managed and what provision there is for Palestinian voices that dissent from the established view in what must an emotionally-charged context remain unanswered.
Dear Ben and Jiwon,
thanks for your article, and for the additional text in the responses to the comments above. I am at the closing stage of completing my essay for playback leadership training – a survey on practitioners’ thoughts about safety, danger and playback theatre. The ideas and guidance you set out in your article chime strongly with the concerns and suggestions and other rich material I have received from 20 or so colleagues around the world on this topic. Whilst a variety of potential ‘dangers’ were described, it is my observation that issues around social justice, around using playback in communities where there is prejudice or oppression, seem to present the biggest challenges to practitioners in terms of ensuring ‘safe’ practice, especially if safety is taken to mean hearing respectfully all voices, even the intolerant ones. Your response to Jori’s questions, (questions which many playbackers will echo I think), clearly indicates your support for a playback practice where conductor and actors and musician are prepared to make judgements from a position of social justice, rather than tolerating an ‘ethical dusk–where all cats are gray, where dogs and wolves are indistinguishable’
This issue, and finding our way through it and past it, is of great importance to the future development of playback theatre in my view. It is already prompting heartfelt debate and sometimes being divisive. For myself as a conductor, I’d like to think I’d be able to call out injustice and prejudice where it occurs; but I also know I possess an eager inner appeaser, a dancing diplomat who is likely to take over my words and actions the minute conflict or controversy raises its head.
But the bit that I was actually going to comment on (!) was the following sentence, the only one that really jarred with me in your whole piece:
‘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.’
My concern here is that many people consider mental health systems to be little more than state funded institutions of control, where difference is colonised and minorities over represented. Even if that sounds a little extreme (and I speak as a mental health professional) I’m concerned that the language of mental health systems and staff is often so focused on pathology, and so intent on translating people’s stories into symptoms and case notes, that it is a poor fit with playback theatre, with its focus on honouring personal story as it is told by the teller. This is particularly the case at the moment, where in the UK the march of neo-liberalism has seen the development of what some are calling psychological fundamentalism, which basically results in an ever increasing emphasis on the concept of individual resilience ie individual responsibility for well being, and an ever decreasing recognition of the impact on mental health of structural causes such as social deprivation, economic recession and poverty, housing problems and debt.
I apologise, this has turned into a rant. I didn’t mean to go on at such length. It’s just that the phrase in question jumped out at me in the context of an article promoting the use of playback as a means of achieving social change; it feels contradictory. My suggestion would be that instead of saying ‘trained mental health workers’ you consider saying ‘trained community workers, family members, friends or peer workers are present’. In some instances of course this might mean mental health workers – but at least it broadens it out a bit!
Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts. Jiwon and myself are both in agreement with the point you have made. As you suggest, post-performance support can be offered by a wide range of people, not just ‘trained mental health workers’.
We also agree that mainstream mental health services are often characterised by an apolitical paradigm that undermines and ignores the impact of structural causes on mental health and wellbeing.
We value your suggestions and will integrate them into an updated version of our article (to be used for future circulation).
Thank you, Steve, for your comments. Your critique is right on target, and we both take it to heart.
Many years ago, I participated in a series of Playback performances in post-Katrina New Orleans organized by Jonathan Fox and Pamela Freedman. There are enough observations, insights, and questions, political and process-wise to fill a book, in particular, the racialized dimensions of the devastation, and the strengths, challenges of PT under such conditions. What was clear was the importance of planning, preparation, organizing, and follow up. Among the many acts of care and attention with which Jonathan and Pamela had planned, was to have mental health professionals present in the house, especially when we performed in poorer, afflicted communities. This contrasted with my other experiences in a company where traumatic stories were often elicited in performance, but if tellers and audience members were retraumatized, they were abandoned to their own devices as they left the space and dispersed back into the cold night.
This is why follow up support is important to consider: we cannot assume that enactment will have an positive outcome. To borrow an analogy from “homeopathic” medicine: if the right potency and pattern of energetic mirroring (“similimum”) is not found, then it’s possible to do harm rather than heal.
We should, as you note, however, have been careful to phrase the sentence to be open to a much wider range of support services. Ben and I both agree on the importance of such support. Where we probably part ways is on the specific value of psychotherapy. We have had a running debate on the problems of Western/North American psychotherapy, as an institution, practice, and ideology for years. I tend perhaps a little closer towards your views–I see as problematic its instrumentality in palliating and depoliticizing structural violence by its emphasis on individual dynamics or pathology, its emphasis on “symbolic resolution” in “healing”, and its failure to understand its insertion, complicity, and facilitation of the wider injustices of a vast system of structural violence.
I mention, in passing, as an example, the pigeonholing of Ben’s work in Palestine into the [psycho-therapeutic] Karpman “drama triangle” by a playback practitioner. This misrecognizes and reduces years of high risk, high stakes, political and cultural work, done with care, conscientiousness, and heart to a simplistic psychological miniature, to be dealt with and discharged through a western-appropriated pseudo-Zen “mindfulness”. This encapsulates the irreflexive, reductive quality of the psychotherapeutic paradigm (and now its meditative derivatives) in a nutshell.
In future iterations, I would probably add this, or something similar:
“Where highly traumatic stories are likely to arise, organizers may consider having in-house support ready to offer post-performance follow-up and care as needed.
This could involve trained community workers, peer counselors, traditional healers, family, friends, (even) mental health professionals, or or others experienced in dealing with trauma, vicarious trauma, and moral injury.”
“Skilled conducting, enactment, witnessing, ritualization, can increase the chances of building the foundations for healing, however, practitioners should always exercise an ethic and duty of care towards tellers, audience, and the community. “Closure” should not be assumed as an outcome of a performance. In fact, “a spectrum of [continuing] care” and “opening” should be operative ideas.”
“Practitioners should also be mindful of the individualizing, psychologizing, pathologizing, palliating, and depoliticizing orientations of many styles of psychotherapy. Both in performance and follow up, practitioners should take care not isolate or abstract individual “healing” away from community or structural justice. The personal, is, as ever, deeply political.”
Dear Ben and Jiwon,
Thanks to both of you for your responses to my comments. I’m sorry I didn’t respond before, but I hadn’t realised you’d got back to me (I see now there is a box to tick for notifications). I’m struck by the idea that we shouldn’t assume closure as the outcome of a performance; especially as most of my own performance experiences have been of the one off, hit and run variety. I’m inclined to be wary of assuming that playback performances require follow up in a way that doesn’t happen when we’ve seen a harrowing play or film or tv drama; but I accept that there are contexts where this should be considered as a matter of good and ethical practice.
I’m also aware of the critique of Ben’s work that you refer to (Jiwon) and your analysis of it helps me to define and understand better some of my own reflections.
I look forward to the final giteration of your article. Thanks again, Steve.
Very to the point. It will be a useful guideline for us, I believe.
Thank you Jonathan.
Jori, thank you for your generous, thoughtful, and rich feedback.
When Ben and I drafted our document, we wrote it with a sparse and skeletal quality. We did this deliberately, because we wanted it to be a starting point or a platform for discussion, not the last word or the final prescription. So thank you for initiating the process of fleshing this out with your thoughtful comments and questions.
The question you raise is a familiar one that we ourselves gave much thought to.
Ben and I discussed the specific wording of the statement “The conductor should express their clear refusal to go along with/clear rejection of oppressive worldviews”. Originally, Ben had suggested, “The conductor should…indicate their non-complicity with oppressive worldviews.” I suggested a stronger, more active statement than “non-complicity”, which to me had an undertone of passivity, disengagement, even “hand-washing”. If someone offers an offensive story or worldview, it felt like that it would not simply be enough to indicate “not being complicit”, but to engage and model a principled, ethical stance of opposition.
This circles back to our point that the conductor has a privileged position of power, and we argue that it is important that that this power and influence be wielded in a conscious, deliberate, principled (but skillful) engagement—including opposition–rather than simply one of non-assistance or disengaged laissez-faire.
Ben had also stated that:
Personally, I feel that a grossly insulting or deliberately provocative story should not be ‘honored’ by an enactment… However, I also wonder if the refusal to hear certain stories would send a message that inhibits dialogue (through critical commentary from the actors or subsequent stories).
My response was:
Under the best of circumstances, we should give full space to all stories: the critical enactment and the organic dialogue that results is the best foil and antidote to racism, intolerance, ignorance, and stupidity. But sometimes circumstances are not always the best, and sometimes abusive tellers (or worse, “plants”) will seek to disrupt a performance while using your principles [of free speech; of discourse ethics] against you. So it’s useful to keep all options available.
These options, include, opposing or refusing to enact a story, or visibly rejecting the viewpoint in some fashion. Sometimes, a strong refusal is sometimes necessary, and groups and conductors should give themselves permission to engage in that as necessary. This is a “nuclear option” and that it should be used very judiciously, since usually it’s better to offer a “learning moment/opportunity” through the reflection and distancing of enactment rather than to cut short (and thus remove the potential for genuine insight, learning, or transformation).
Also, beneath and behind individual stories, there is often an “Ur-story” or foundational narrative that forms the template, frame, and horizon against which these individual stories are told. If the object of a performance is to show, challenge, or counter this frame, and a teller insists on reaffirming it, then it might be useful for the conductor not to enact this story, as it is a story that simply reinforces or simply repeats the dominant narrative that the performance is trying to break with.
That said, there are various moments and situations where different strategies and tactics should be used, at different points in a performance or workshop.
For example, if someone shares a story that is out of line, offensive, inappropriate, early in the performance, it may still be important not to reject the story, if only to model receptivity and openness to a range of views. This can be counterbalanced by other tellers sharing a counterpoint, which can be actively solicited.
If the actors have done their preparation and research diligently, they should also be able to work from within the enactment to counterbalance or bring perspective to the story.
If the story is particularly off-kilter, it may be useful bridge to another story by eliciting fluid sculpture responses from the audience after the enactment.
If someone shares a story at midpoint of a performance, it might be possible to do either an enactment (with the provisos noted above), or to simply enact it as a fluid sculptures (or other short form) while eliciting or encouraging other perspectives. I believe it’s also permissible (on occasion) while conducting to offer context, challenge, commentary, direction during the telling or as the story is handed over to the actors.
(This type of conducting has some resonance with the fluid “joker/difficultator” roles in Theater of the Oppressed rather than a neutral, high status, “shamanic” conductor or officiator role).
If you are nearing the end of a show, and someone tells a grossly disrespectful or misguided story (and there will be little time for a counter-narrative); then the best place for this story may in the dustbin of rejected, inappropriate stories. Different types and degrees of rejection (strong, gentle, humorous) can apply. Rather than derail the arc or the tone of the performance, the story can be refused, and it’s possible to do this with grace, skill, and integrity.
Some practitioners (purists?) might argue that the red thread will have its own logic and coherence, and that it’s inadvisable for the conductor to make decisions that overdetermine the meaning, lessons, or experience of a performance for participants.
I think more recent thinking in PT would also seem to support a more active touch with the node of “Guidance” in Narrative Reticulation. I believe this where the hand of the conductor is empowered to guide more actively, especially regarding ethical concerns.
Here’s an example to consider:
Deportation stories are being shared, and people are telling stories of raids, and encounters with officialdom of friends, family, loved ones, and self that are abusive and frightening, disorienting, intimidating. One person (a lawyer) shares a story of being deceived into not accompanying their client—on false assurances by an official. The client, once separated, is immediately deported. Others echo this story.
A person pipes up, and states that the officials they know are people with integrity. From their experience working with them, he states that they are good people doing their best, and that they would not, and do not misrepresent the truth in dealings with people. He shares his experiences, and states his firm disagreement with others who would sow mistrust in institutions and the people who work for them.
This, the last story of the workshop, might undercut the previous message, in particular, the importance of exercising critical thinking and skeptical judgement in dealings with officialdom in this moment of heightened actions against immigrants. It reaffirms how the institution would like to present themselves as, as “an honest broker” doing the best it can to serve the people and follow the law. It might offer false comfort to people who might be at risk or disarm those who need to exercise caution in action or ally-ship.
Is this a story that should be refused? The conductor needs to exercise discernment: the context, the teller, the timing, the energy/mood/atmosphere, “the historic moment” (and its high stakes), should all be part of the consideration.
There are other areas where an active guidance, up to and including refusing a story might be appropriate. For example, on climate change, where stories of climate disruption are being shared, and one person asserts that climate change is not true. Stories about police encounters might be another example.
You state that have been working in the “gray area”. I salute and support you in your work. This is the area most important for us to explore, engage with, and discern, where good intentions, misinformation, fear, anxiety, received prejudices and narratives, and the comfort of habitual thinking are tangled and baked into stories that define our world view and identity.
Building bridges, and reducing, allaying fear is critical in making steps to changing viewpoints. Accepting each human as a person, assuming good intentions, caring, respecting, and loving them, but also challenging their misconceptions is critical; PT can be essential in this process.
However, I want to lift up again that we have to make sure we balance the affective and the critical, the subjective and the objective, the pathos and the logos. It’s not difficult in PT (especially companies that are psychodramatically inclined or trained) to create an emotional soup that removes the sharp outlines of critical fact, shades every nuance as subjectively equivalent, renders all viewpoints as understandable and equal perspectives; and in this ethical dusk–where all cats are gray, where dogs and wolves are indistinguishable–engender a false empathy that creates a superficial bonding or reconciliation, that will not stand the cold scrutiny of daylight or address the injustices that remain untouched and unchallenged.
I believe this is wrong.
Lastly, you state:
But we are not always ready to look in the mirror, we need to know that the person showing our image is on our side.
I want to suggest—as Nietzsche suggested–that we use the mirror not simply to look, but also to touch. What can be touched then, are not the objects inside the mirror, but the mirror itself, and to reflect upon these limits.
The objects, are not there, but in the heart of the teller, and these may need to be contacted, shaped, challenged, and changed, not merely reflected, the better to end the narcissistic entrancement of our own stories, voices, images.
Again, I come back to the idea of engaged dialogue in all its possibilities: this is how we learn. The act of learning, of educating and being educated, in its mutuality and richness, is endless. We embrace that with humility, awe, and respect. It’s a small avenue of hope in this dark time.
thank you for your deep and thoughful answer! I agree with everything you said and learnt much from it, you certainly addressed my worries. 🙂 What you wrote as an answer could be an article of its own right.
When thinking about Playback Theatre as a tool for change, it is important to think about what happens after the performance, not just during the performance. And if during the performance people feel that they are accepted as part of the audience, part of the whole experience, they might be able to face each other and discuss in a more healthy manner after the performance.
Thank you very much for putting much time and effort into your answer!
Dear Ben and Jiwon, thank you for your inspiring article and for your many years of deep engagement with this work. Learning about the systems of power, privilege and oppression can be a lifelong journey for those of us whose social identities grant us unearned privilege. For me, my training in and longtime engagement with playback theatre has given me varied opportunities to reflect and deepen my understanding of existing systems and helped me expand my awareness of how to identify these dynamics as they unfold in daily life. I am ever grateful to be part of the global playback theatre community as we continue over the decades to grapple with these questions and how they intersect with, as you say, ‘the historical moment’ we are in. Your principles and core practices deeply resonate with me in my experience of working with Hudson River Playback Theatre over the past 23 years and also teaching and performing playback around the world. I am particularly struck by the importance of preparing a team to engage in this work, and the dedication and discipline it takes to thoroughly take on these topics and examine our own participation in/benefit from the oppressive systems we are trying to address. As Jo Salas says in the introduction to this blog, we playback folks are people of action–and yet this practice requires us to study, reflect, analyze, and only then (more in an action mode) engage on these issues as a collective. And all this in preparation, the value of which cannot be overemphasized. Again, many thanks to both of you and to Jo for this publication!
Thank you for sharing these thoughts. I am a great admirer of Hudson River Playback Theatre and the great work you do in service of social and environmental justice.
Dear Ben and Jiwon,
a very thoughtful text about ethic principles in playback for social change. I agree with the importance of being aware of one’s own values as well as the transparency.
One thing I have been thinking about quite much is how to make change in people that think differently possible, and how to build bridges between people that come from very different viewpoints.
I am wondering about people who tell stories from oppressive viewpoints. To clarify, I am talking about the gray area – normal people with little political power but with much fear and anxiety towards e.g. immigrants and people coming from LGBT community. People are more open to change if they first feel safe and accepted. If their view is at once portrayed as immoral and all the power structures and unethical aspects made visible, it is a strong rejection for the storyteller. A strong rejection might lead to the storyteller closing up, feeling shamed by the playback group, wanting to leave and not wanting to see what they could learn from the portrayal of their story. It might lead to even more division and hatred between groups of people. That worries me.
I do agree that we should not support such ethics these kind of storytellers represent in any way. I am just wondering if they are more open to dialogue after getting an experience of being heard, seen and accepted. I’m not meaning accepting the point of view, but accepting the person with a point of view that is unethical.
This is a question I still research in my own work as we have a project with my playback group Acts where we want to enhance political dialogue. We want to hear stories from people who do not see the world as we do, too. To open them to playback. To open them to stories of people who come from another perspective. And have those stories portrayed in the same performance. Which hopefully leads to more empathy, more understanding and more dialogue.
Very seldom people are bad or unethical on purpose. Very often we are blind to our actions. But we are not always ready to look in the mirror, we need to know that the person showing our image is on our side.
Just some thoughts inspired by your awesome work. Thank you for a wonderful text!