“I played the jelly fish” – Reflections on Playback Theatre as a Method for Enhancing Group Cohesion with Adults with Learning Disabilities by Rose Thorn

Rose Thorn’s article was written as an essay for the Playback Theatre Leadership course held in Brazil in 2017. Illustrated by participants’ drawings and comments, the article describes in depth how this group of women and men with learning disabilities became involved in a long-term Playback Theatre project that eventually included performing. Rose is a dramatherapist and a Playback Theatre performer, conductor, and teacher in Wales.

“I played the jelly fish” – Reflections on Playback Theatre as a Method for Enhancing Group Cohesion with Adults with Learning Disabilities

by Rose Thorn




EWAN: I played the jelly fish. 




For eighteen months I have been teaching Playback Theatre (PT) to a group of eleven adults with learning disabilities who all attend the Hijinx West Academy We meet on Friday mornings in a small town in south-west Wales. I have been passionate about raising the profile of PT here in Wales with my own company, The Golden Thread which I co-founded in 2012 with five other arts therapists. As a dramatherapist I am aware of the social and emotional benefits of using drama and theatre with people with learning disabilities, including the potential for developing and enhancing:

  • Communication skills: actively listening to others, self-expression
  • Body awareness: proprioception, body language
  • Self-awareness: emotional intelligence, spontaneity and role development
  • Social skills: group trust, relationships, acknowledging difference (Chesner: 1995 & Crimmens: 2006)

In this reflection I will focus specifically on how this group of adults with learning disabilities have engaged with Playback Theatre. PT is a form of improvised theatre where a member of the audience shares their personal story; a short ‘here and now’ moment or a longer story. The conductor acts as a conduit between the audience and the performers and when the teller shares, the conductor says ‘Let’s watch!’ Then the performers and musician use physical and vocal expressiveness to spontaneously capture the essence of the story. After the enactment the performers acknowledge the teller with a look, symbolically returning the story to the teller. The conductor invites the teller to respond by sharing a personal reflection (sometimes a correction) of the enactment before they return to their chair.

Fox identifies three key areas of PT: ritual, social interaction and art (see diagram). I will explore each, in relation to this group.

(From: Fox, 1999: 127)

Victor Turner was an influential thinker about ritual theory and its links to contemporary western performance. Dennis (2007) describes his three phases of a ritual event:

  1. Separation / pre-liminal: participants leave behind their real-time and real-space dimensions of their daily lives, this in-between space of performance is a site of negotiation.
  2. The Liminal: this phase induces the potential for anti-structure and ambiguities, a space where past and future can merge, a bridge from personal to social or symbolic story sharing.
  3. Re-integration: the post-performance period.

This reflection will be based on the journey of my involvement with this group, with reference to Turner’s three phases of ritual. The students were invited to write or draw about their experiences of PT. Their words and drawings, used here with their permission, have shaped this article (see Appendix A). Their names have been changed to protect their identity. Other comments and observations come from the Hijinx support worker, Kate Williams, who shared her observations (see Appendix B) and from Debe Edden, the artistic director of Heartsparkle in Olympia, Washington. For 18 years they have been doing PT with the Thunders, young adults with a spectrum of experiences and abilities.

I have a particular interest in how the art of improvisation has been experienced by the students and how group communication and cohesion has developed within this PT ensemble. I will investigate how the sharing of personal stories has been for the students, reflected in their written comments and drawings. I will explore the political and social dimension of some of their personal stories. Throughout I will look at my roles and how I have had to adapt and learn new skills to meet the needs of the group. I will briefly look at a public performance where three performers from Hijinx joined three from The Golden Thread. In the conclusion I imagine the potential of future projects.


I am employed by Hijinx, a theatre company based in Wales which puts on ‘inclusive theatre’ shows with actors with and without learning disabilities. Hijinx also provides professional training courses for learning disabled actors in four Academies around Wales. They state:

Our aim is to create a pan-Wales community of talented learning disabled actors who have the ability to work professionally in theatre, TV, film and radio.

Our vision is to change the landscape of the arts in the UK, so that it becomes commonplace to see and hear performers with learning disabilities on our stages, screens and airwaves.                                                                                          (www.hijinx.org.uk)

They recently launched a casting agency for learning disabled actors to increase their exposure in the industry (www.hijinxactors.co.uk). This is ground-breaking because of the restrictions that people with learning disabilities often face in the wider society:

Most young people grow up with the expectation of being part of the workplace when they are older. It is often a different story for young people with learning disabilities. Many are denied the opportunity for paid employment and have to settle for a future in day care. Joe Powell the national director of All Wales People First* describes this as ‘being retired at 18’” and that is a real prospect for these young people.”(Good, 2014: 5)

(*AWPF is an organisation which runs self-advocacy groups for people with learning disabilities and campaigns for their rights.)

In the context of the barriers that are faced, Hijinx ensures individuals who have usually been written off as incapable of performing all but the most menial of tasks are offered a meaningful training and opportunity for future work.

SEREN shares her dream about going behind stage of a famous musical to meet the professional actors; they then invite her to join the cast and join them on tour.

The Hijinx students commit to two days of training weekly and have other tutors that teach dance, yoga body awareness, acting for camera and street theatre. A support worker is present at all the sessions.

Difference, Diversity and Dynamics within the group

In the Hijinx group there are three women and eight men aged between 19 and 44 years old (this doesn’t always relate to their developmental age). Students have mixed abilities and a range of impairments including Asperger, Downs, William’s syndrome and autism. Individuals’ communication and comprehension skills are diverse.

There is a marked split among gender lines; most of the men tend to have autism or Asperger syndrome, whereas the women (and a few of the men) tend to have Downs and William’s syndrome. Most of the men are verbal but have impaired social skills such as difficulties with social or emotional reciprocity, recognising non-verbal behaviours and regulating their interactions. The women are less verbal, have slower processing which affects their memory and comprehension but have flexible social skills. The women and men with Downs and Williams syndrome tend to be more physically embodied in their emotional expression. I have noticed how this split tends to fall into binary gender stereotypes.

Below I have named what I see as the majority and minority differences within this group:

Majority Minority
Men Women
Verbally competent: more forthcoming sharing their stories Less verbal: tend to hold back from sharing
Impairments: Autism and Asperger syndrome Impairments: Downs and Williams syndrome
Left brain dominant: logical, analytical, objective (traditionally masculine qualities) Right brain dominant: emotional, intuitive subjective (traditionally feminine qualities]
Head: cognitively share ideas & factual information Body: embodied feelings are shared
Independent: access public transport, go out at lunch time unsupervised Dependent: on parents to travel; supervised at lunch time
Living in towns Living rurally
Stories shared about activities, jobs, and hobbies, (i.e. war gaming, video games, music Disney films) Stories shared about family, friendships, home life

Support Worker KATE: Playback theatre highlights the differences within the group like the hierarchy and status dynamics amongst members. [However] in PT [enactments] all four people are on stage, they’re all equal, on the same level and their focus is to serve others.

Within the group those that appear ‘normal’ and less visibly impaired have a higher status amongst their peers. Although Geraint is one of the newest students and is very shy within the group he is admired by others.

STORY: Geraint’s first story was about working on his father’s farm; he spoke slowly and deliberately with a dry sense of humour. Somehow his smart fashionable appearance contrasted with his story which was about wearing an old coat and helping his father to move the sheep. Although he appears ‘empowered’, in the story he was ‘disempowered’ as he stood alone in the rain getting soaked. The element of surprise in the telling and the humorous enactment with someone playing one of the lost sheep stayed with several students:

DELYTH: Geraint is totally my favourite working on his farm was an interesting story

TIM: Geraint’s story about being soaked whilst looking after the sheep; very funny

GERAINT: What I did on Saturday after my first week here at Hijinx

Separation – in the beginning

On a concrete level, the rhythm and repetition of the PT ritual are effective for people with learning disabilities; they help to provide a feeling of safety and adequacy in a group that can suffer from profound feelings of inadequacy.

Establishing a ritual frame serves to announce that a certain set of rules are at play and releases participants to act beyond their constrained domestic roles and engage in other ways with themselves, with each other, and with the social environment. (Dennis 2007: 3)

I have watched as students have become freer to enter the ritualised frame as either teller or performer once familiar with the PT rituals. This is contrasted with the hesitancy when new students join the group:

BRYN: I didn’t know anybody, I found it strange. It was odd doing playback. I find it different, working with many people. Now it’s alright. I like sharing stories and listening.

The Value of Sharing Personal Stories

The PT training is combined with practice sessions where students share their own personal stories. By virtue of their difference people with learning disabilities often find themselves on the margins of society, so the need for connection where individuals are understood in relation to others is important.

ALUN: Sometimes I’ve told a story I want to tell I feel relieved. When others tell deep stories that they have shared, there’s understanding, which is a good feeling so people understand being you.

In the literature practitioners have spoken about how PT can increase people’s feelings of connection to each other and reduce feelings of isolation (Salas, 2000) and how shared stories create a normalising experience (Dennis, 2007). PT is also thought to have positive effects on the community by helping the audience hear, understand and respect the stories which differ from their own, whilst reflecting back and affirming the collective identity (Salas, 1993).

One of the strongest features of playback theatre is that it allows diverse voices to be heard in a context of empathy…Playback theatre honours people’s voice, be it joyful or ashamed, triumphant or oppressed. One of its purposes is to let this voice be heard, before witnesses, in all its richness and variety. (Fox, 1999: 119)

In PT the telling of personal stories is conducted mostly through verbal means. Delyth ,who is less verbal, admires those in the group who are physically and verbally able to ‘tell a good story’.

DELYTH: Marc’s and Geraint’s stories is very amazing teller for all his ideas.

I have found it challenging to ensure that the less-verbal students have space and time to formulate and vocalise their thoughts and feelings. People growing up with a learning disability often feel a sense of shame; some feel ashamed of the type of impairments they are struggling to cope with such as basic literacy skills, slow processing, attention difficulties, forgetfulness or organisational difficulties. For some, it is a great relief to be with others who also experience stigma. Internalised negative labels of stupidity and incompetence usually result in a poor self-esteem and lack of confidence. For Dafydd, who is quicker thinking, his challenge in the work is to stay focused with those that are slower than him. The process of active listening encourages a process of letting in the other:

DAFYDD: My challenges are listening to others stories.

In Chesner’s observations on why a teller may share, I can recognise all these impulses from students within the Hijinx group.

The urge to narrate a personal story is deep…The nature of the urge is multi-facetted…There is a desire to be heard and understood by others, to search for connection, acknowledgment or approval. There may be an element of the confessional, or a plea for help in coming to terms with something difficult. There may be the impulse to challenge the status quo to take account of difference. The impulse may be about inclusion or about affirming distance. In each case there is an implicit invitation to a response. (2002: 58)

Below are the students’ comments on sharing their personal stories:

SEREN: As long as I’m brave and let it out I’ll share. After I feel more positive because I’ve shared – light like a feather. Relieved to get stories out.

TIM: I enjoy the playback. I enjoy being connected and joining with others.

The most memorable stories for the students were from Dafydd, Tim and Alun, all of whom are verbally articulate. The others apparently see them as being ‘interesting tellers’, they are also more independent, have jobs, outside interests and an active social life. If we look at the stories that Alun shared, the key elements that made them memorable for the group were the elements of comedy and slapstick in the enactments. Students remembered who played who and what happened in the playback enactments.

ALUN: ‘The Rude Show’ when I watched a horrifying movie about a lobster at the theatre where I work; my horse ride when it spooked and jumped; the jelly fish at the beach when I went with my family:

“Now, that was rude!”

“I am scarred for life!”









The Difficulties in Voicing Personal Stories

Dennis (2007) describes how the ‘tension of participation’ is also a part of the PT process. Participant anxiety is particularly relevant for people with learning disabilities who may struggle with low self-esteem and poor social and communication skills.

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. (Dennis, 2007: 1)

I asked the students “What stops you sharing your personal stories?” The barriers to participation that they identified included the fear of exposing themselves:

ALED: Some feelings hurt me so I don’t tell them.

GERAINT: Not confident enough to tell; I mostly like to keep to my self (not very trusting)

They also expressed the fear of being judged or feeling different:

TIM: The fact that I may feel uncertain about what others may say after I tell a story. Nervous feelings. I may not say anything personal or confidential or private unless I felt trust and respect from this group because although I’ve been in the group for a while it’s taken a long time to trust them.

Some students quietly develop reasons not to tell, for example Ewan doesn’t think that he has anything interesting to share:

EWAN: It’s because I don’t get out much I think. I go out walking with my dog and stay in watching videos and play games. So I don’t feel like I have much to share.

The students’ access to opportunities is a socio-economic factor, linked with whose parents can finance activities for their children. As a Conductor I need to be mindful about facilitating the ‘ordinary’ stories as well as the ‘extra-ordinary’. Ewan is quietly spoken and very anxious. Although he doesn’t share his stories he participates in the PT enactments and this has helped him to connect with his peer’s stories.


EWAN: Seren’s story about being nervous and excited. I played that.           

EWAN: Geraint’s jelly fish story was funny. I played the jelly fish.

The jelly fish moment, (where I took the title for this article) was particularly enjoyed by the group as Ewan’s movements were surprisingly playful for us and him. The group’s positive feedback and encouragement stayed with him:

EWAN: Everyone here gives me that confidence

Initially Catrin rarely shared her stories, becoming very self-conscious when her peers looked at her. I would patiently elicit stories that began very concrete and seemingly disconnected from any emotion.

Catrin told me that her dad was recovering from an operation; she repeated the information in a monosyllabic way. When I asked her how she felt, she frowned. I replied that I would be worried and she burst out “Yes I am worried, Rose”. My sense is that Catrin has been learning how to use an emotional language and trusting that taking her time is ok. When asked “What PT stories do you remember sharing with the group?” she drew the two times that she had experienced difficult emotions, sadness and fear.




CATRIN: When my dog Jesse die

She comes in regularly now and announces when she has a story to share with the group.

CATRIN: I like sharing stories; I think about my stories at home. I like it; I look forward to it.

STORY: With animation, Catrin repeats that her mother is away visiting relatives and she has a photo of her uncle in her bag. I ask if she is missing her mother, she becomes frustrated and struggles to find her words. With patience it emerges that her uncle is a famous celebrity. She is delighted to tell us, laughing loudly at our surprise!

Delyth at age nineteen is the youngest student in the group. She is less verbal and when I started working with her she began to bring in paper with her stories carefully written out. Perhaps this felt a safer way for her to share with the group and not take so long explaining. The writing was a mixture of fact and fiction about parental arguments at home and being disciplined, which appeared to capture her feelings of teenage angst. She also wrote stories about her relationship with her dog, how she was training him. This seemed to capture her need to assert her power. Like Catrin she has become more confident in ‘finding her voice’ and taking her time to express herself.

Support Worker KATE: I see them learning to tell their story. For some they are learning to say more and others are learning to say less, less detail. This self-censorship (I mean it in a positive way) is like reining it in.

Some of the students have begun to regulate their sharing, to hold back and allow others to tell so that they do not dominate the space. The students on the autistic and Asperger spectrum share in great detail about their interests so I simplify and ‘translate’ into an easier language so that everyone understands.

The Liminal – from personal to social learning 

During this second phase, the teller’s story becomes theatre, the literal becomes ‘non-literal’ or, as Turner said, ‘betwixt and between’. The PT enactment moves away from normal rational-intellectual responses and enters a dream-like state, a trance where other interpretations are possible: ‘…the symbolic in playback leads to both a heightening of the subjective and a step away from the particular of the teller’s story’ (Rowe 2007: 86).

The audience will have already heard the teller share their story so the performers have freedom to play metaphorically and symbolically with time, location and relationships. ‘[A]cting in playback theatre is characterized by a tension between the act of representation of the teller’s narrative and the performer’s ‘encounter’ with each other and with the symbolic’ (Rowe, 2007: 88).

The ambivalence in Turner’s ‘transition / liminal’ phase was not easily tolerated by some of the students; it is well documented that symbolic and metaphoric thinking can be difficult for some people with learning disabilities. So instead of the third phase of ‘integration’ at the end of an enactment there was often indignation.

STORY: Dafydd enthusiastically shares his love of the Eurovision Song Contest, an annual competition where nations sing their song and each country contributes to the voting. In the Fluid Sculpt one of the students makes a mistake with one of the countries. ‘I didn’t say that, she got it wrong,’ he says angrily. The performers look upset. In my role as conductor I voice my confusion about all the Eurovision details; Dafydd calms a little and acknowledges that he has become an expert in this field. I remind him (again) that theatre is different from ‘real life’.

DAFYDD’s Eurovision scoresheets

Support Worker KATE: I notice that there can be fear about losing control over how it has been understood and then played back especially for those on the autistic/Asperger syndrome.

I have had to carefully facilitate student’s criticism so that the performers are not shamed especially those that have misunderstood or made a mistake because of their impairment. This intolerance has softened over time. The student’s performing experience has enabled them to embody and experiment with the non-literal and ambiguity so that they can relate to it somatically rather than attempting to understand it cognitively.

Theatre involves an invitation to the audience to suspend disbelief, to participate in a portrayed world whose reality is not of the same order as offstage reality, but has the capacity to affect us profoundly. (Chesner 2002: 51)

Encouraging playfulness is integral to enable transformation, in a society that rewards people for being ‘clever’ and left brain dominant.

Themes Emerging from the Shadow

MARC: I remember performances about car trouble, falling off horses, experiences at work, going on holiday, days out, new family members, sibling rivalries, hobbies.

Over our time together many stories have been shared from the everyday to major life events. Sharing stories provides support and validation for the students, especially exploring rites of passage that may have been missed in their development as people with learning disabilities such as marking the transition from child to adult. Emerging themes have included friendships and socialising, dating and relationships, sexuality and family, having children, finding meaningful work, talking about their bereavements. Experiences of being bullied at school, feeling alienated within the workplace and frustrations about their need to be independent have also emerged.

Support Worker KATE: The stories about identity and sexuality have surprised me; I never knew that this was so important for them. Some of the students are more confident and take risks to share their stories (Tim & Alun) there’s a sense of relief in the whole group. That outspoken thing where everyone’s tittering around the edge of things and then someone says something and it gets rid of the stigma around these issues.

Over time I have noticed how students make pro-active choices to regulate their own safety within the PT structures.

STORY: Ewan’s grandfather died and he chose not to share this with the group. To practice speaking and thinking metaphorically, I brought in a selection of picture postcards. I asked each student to choose one that reflected how they felt (or that they liked). They then described it to the performers who played it back as a Fluid Sculpt. Ewan described his picture: ‘a woman in black sits alone, staring out of the window’. He was visibly moved as the enactment captured his sadness.

In PT ‘deep’ stories are those which are concerned with the major themes of the life cycle such as birth, initiations, marriage, death, the ongoing spiritual quest, the very stuff of ritual. These stories often connect deeply with other group members. Salas (1993) reminds us that the power of improvisation is in taking risks to reveal and share more of ourselves including what Jung calls ‘the shadow’ side (Jung, 1959).

When you take down the barriers to playfulness and spontaneity, you also let in dark and unruly energies that most of us try hard to keep hidden from others and even ourselves. (Salas, 1993: 50)

These are the uncomfortable parts of ourselves which may be denied, split off, or frozen because they frighten us or we fear breaking social norms or taboos. Aled described his challenges in PT:

ALED: Discussing topics like death and my father; dealing with emotions from stories

In November when Remembrance Day is marked, there has been group discussion about war and death; students want to talk about people in their families who have died. It has been really important to contain their need by focusing on their personal stories. Hoesch warns that it is essential that these existential themes are contained within the PT rituals and come from individual’s personal stories. Otherwise the group can become overwhelmed.

The spreading out of the feelings into the group is unavoidable if stories have a collective aspect and are not connected with a personal history. This can break the frame in which playback is working. (Hoesch, 1999: 59)

This has become very relevant as the group has recently been exploring the sensitive issues of death, puberty and sexuality. Despite laws, policies and guidance it is clear that people with learning disabilities continue to face barriers to building and developing relationships, including romantic or sexual relationships. The 2016 National Development Team for Inclusion (NDTi) report highlighted a multitude of barriers for people with learning disabilities who are often seen as ‘vulnerable’. Professionals or parents of people with learning disabilities are often

negotiating the balance between protecting their children or service users from abuse or exploitation and enabling relationships with a resulting tendency towards overprotection causing a barrier to the development of relationships. (Harflett & Turner, 2016: 9)

STORY: Dafydd is one of the older students. He is extrovert and often voices ‘the unsaid’. He tells us that when he hit puberty and his “Mr Johnson” (a euphemism for penis) grew hairy he became increasingly worried. He had to learn about his changing body from the internet. The men were very energised and enjoyed playing this back.

Hoesch reminds us that: ‘The response to a story usually comes in the form of another story. The dialogue between stories can be subtle and within playback theatre is called “The Red Thread”.’

DAFYDD: “hitting puberty”

STORY: Aled then tells us that when he told his mother that he was a virgin, she laughed at him, which upset him. He often shares stories that explore his identity as a man: being with his step-father and doing ‘manly’ things like going to pubs, getting drunk and talking to “the ladies”. Aled enjoys the company of the men:

ALED: I like telling my stories, listening to Gearint, Dafydd and Alun’s stories because they are positive

Playback stories create community even when there is conflict (Hoesch). Although Aled and Dafydd often clash, they are able to connect through their stories; when Aled told us about his difficult relationship with his birth father, Dafydd replied, ‘That’s really interesting, I really understand him’.

People with learning disabilities tend to be de-sexualised, de-individualised and infantilised. This means that normal sexual behaviour is perceived as problematic. A gender blind approach is adopted by services with a tendency for women’s sexuality and those who are LGBT to be ignored.

STORY: Seren talks about being an aunty; both her sisters have had babies in our time together. She appears happy and excited; however, I sense that this isn’t the whole story. When I ask her if she wants a baby she says, “Actually, Rose, I feel jealous. I don’t know who to tell.” She eventually admits that she would like to have a family. There is a seriousness and quietness in the room.

It has been difficult balancing the need for some students to voice their experiences when other students are developmentally and emotionally younger. For example Delyth is easily offended if anyone swears or talks about sexuality which she thinks is “rude” and Tim is keen and ready to share with his peers.

DELYTH: I’m sorry I have make sure not use bad language, remember that.

TIM: I remember talking about relationships and how to deal with them

STORY: Tim talks about a long exchange of texts that he has had with “a friend”, in an attempt to arrange a date. He tells us that he has been exploring his sexuality; his ‘friend’ is in fact a man and he has been wondering if he is bisexual.

The four performers do Four Solos: Alun moves from one side of the stage to the other expressing his interest in both women and men; Aled enacts being on the phone frustrated with what he calls the ‘rollercoaster ride of emotions’. Seren is seated on the floor. ‘I want to be loved’ she says simply and longingly, looking at the audience. And then Delyth who is lying on the floor puts her leg up in the air and shakes it, saying, ‘Come on then’. Delyth looks at Seren who breaks the rule of the form to interact with her.

This interpersonal level is often expressed more vividly in improvisation than in direct conventional communication within the group, which may be quite stereotyped. The apparent disguise of the imaginary world paradoxically permits a more truthful expression of the here and now dynamics of the group. (Chesner, 1995: 139)

Tim watches the enactment of the two women having a romantic picnic. We all laugh with joy at Delyth’s shaking leg; the mix of her naivety and the obvious sexualised undertones somehow releases the group’s repressed feelings of sexual desire! Interestingly my choice of PT form is radically changed. I had chosen the form Four Solos (also known as Four Part story) in which the actors are not supposed to interact with each other. In hindsight Tim’s story isn’t about his desire to be ‘solo’ but to connect with another and be loved!

Re-integration – what I am learning

To the students I am a Hijinx drama ‘tutor’ teaching improvisation, physical theatre and performance skills. But my role is multi-faceted: I am a PT trainer holding the rituals and PT conductor, eliciting stories from the students. In this process of writing I have entered a liminal space of both participant and observer of the students and myself!

The process of becoming a playback company is complex. It involves learning the skills and forms of the method, its philosophy, culture, and spirit, as well as developing as an ensemble at artistic and interpersonal levels. (Chesner, 2002: 60)

My fundamental task is to nurture a culture of playfulness and acceptance where learning to take risks and making mistakes is the norm. I want to create a respectful and emotionally safe environment for the sharing and honouring of everyone’s personal stories.

Fear of failure is one of the major reasons why a group or an individual student will refuse to participate and this puts the onus on the facilitator to see where that fear can be alleviated by the teaching of skills and the creation of a culture of encouragement. (Crimmens: 2006: 158)

With this group I have to acknowledge individuals’ fears, nurture self-esteem and strengthen the students’ ability to tolerate the unknown, which is core to improvisation.

Adapting Playback Theatre Forms

The language of PT is rich and varied, it can include verbal narration or dialogue, songs or non-verbal sounds or music, embodied gestures or dance movements, spatial relationships or the chairs or coloured cloth as props. This diversity of expressive skills is important in a mixed-ability group.

…many playback companies work hard on staging, dynamics, use of metaphor, improvisation, and mastery of the basic playback theatre dramatic forms in order to fulfil their artistic task of creating form for the meaning in a teller’s story. But art is not enough. Playback is also an interactive social event… providing the right physical environment, giving those present a chance to be heard, and creating an atmosphere of respect. (Fox, 1999: 125)

Support Worker KATE: Sometimes PT can be exposing of an individual’s capabilities or struggles with flexibility and confidence i.e. in Four Solos where they are on their own; whereas in Fluid Sculpts and Chorus they have to work together as a group.

As Kate highlights, PT improvisation is dependent on the expressive skills of the students and not all the students can enter into the realm of imagination: some students’ perception remains concrete and in the ‘here and now’ (Chesner: 1995). The repetitive structures of Fluid Sculpts and Chorus help students like Catrin and Delyth to begin to tolerate the ‘unknown’ by being with others.

Working in metaphor is a tricky one as this might be something that folks who are very concrete might grapple with. What we do to get at metaphor is to cast actors to be inanimate objects so that the quality of the object is expressed in a less literal way. We experiment with making stories less literal.(Edden, personal communication, 23-12-16)

I have found that Four Solos (see table below) helps students to play imaginatively and not be so literal. Each performer is given a specific part to be: a) the teller’s actor, b) an object, c) a metaphor, d) another person in the story. They practice listening with their eyes, ears and heart; noticing how the teller told their story, their body language, words used and mood. Some of the students are able to connect the teller’s personal story to the social dimension, such as when we have had stories about dating in the twenty-first century using social media.

STORY: Marc listens to his peer talking enthusiastically about his new ‘iPhone 6’ device. In the Four Solos Marc visibly enjoys playing with what he hears; he draws the letter ‘i’ and number ‘six’ using his whole body to do so and ‘curving’ his voice with the movement. In that moment Marc’s usual physical rigidity and staccato voice is transformed to capture the excitement and delight of the teller.

At times I have had to be more directive in my conducting style to match students’ abilities with the PT forms. PT encourages students to explore the limits of their risk-taking and it is my responsibility to acknowledge and respond to their individual needs. Heartsparkle and The Thunder’s conductor says:

As a conductor, I adapt to the needs of the actors on stage. If folks need more guidance and reminding, then I do that. I will remind people of the ritual of the form if that seems right (and needed) and just include it naturally in the conducting. I am not afraid to offer guidance as needed in a gentle, respectful way. (Edden, personal communication, 23-12-16)

The table below summarises the skills that the students benefit from in the PT ensemble.

PT Forms Communication and Social skills that are practiced
Fluid Sculpts Listening for many aspects of the teller’s experience; embodying empathy; altering one’s volume so that everyone is heard; changing one’s position so that everyone is seen; using their bodies expressively
Transitional Fluids Tolerating and exploring change and transitions (all of the above)
Chorus Working together and responding quickly to other performers; altering volume and body position in relation to others; aware of other’s physical needs; saying yes to offers; being able to follow and lead
4 Solos

(also known as Four Part Story)

Listening to different aspects of the teller’s experience; encouraging ‘non-literal’ imaginative, metaphoric and emotional responses to another; being flexible to change roles
3 Voices Exploring the expressive qualities of their voices; increasing their vocal range with rhythm, volume, song; playing with words
Interruptions Exploring their own relationships to set themes; having confidence to share their own experience
Story Working together in an ensemble; spatial awareness; giving focus to others; taking the focus; practicing listening skills; taking risks; if cast in role, staying in that role; embodying empathy literally being in someone else’s shoes; organising information into a coherent, communicative form

When asked “What skills have you learnt from Playback?” the students said:

MARC: Physical theatre, play, using cloth, being in the moment learning to be less literal.

TIM: Connecting with others; building friendships; taking chances and seeing what happens. I enjoy the group work; listening to other people’s stories; building confidence to perform in front of people

ALED: Acting tips on stage; saying yes; always be acting

ALUN: Working together; team work; concentrating; listening

EWAN: Confidence definitely, creative skills because it comes from my head – improvisation.

GERAINT: Being confident to use the space; Improvisation

SEREN: Being in a group; listening skills; taking risks; more focused

Group Cohesion – horizontal relationships

PT helps to create shared memories and experiences for the group when socialising can be difficult for many individuals. Their interaction during the session contrasts with what happens during the lunch break where the group is fractured; a few students sit on their own, the men and women sit separately and social conversation is often limited Some of the men sit together and talk about social media and gaming. There can be too many overwhelming variables especially for those on the Asperger’s spectrum and autistic spectrum. Some students limit sensory overload by wearing headphones, or plug themselves into music to self soothe their anxiety or play card games.

During the practice, there is a clear ritual of roles. My proactive conductor role means that I mediate and bridge their differences, interpreting their diverse communication styles to ensure connection and cohesion. They also have a clear role as either a listening performer, the teller or an audience member. This is different from what Rowe describes:

The fact that companies base their rehearsals around their own stories means that a significant amount of trust and intimacy is possible within the companies; it is often the case that company members will have told stories in rehearsal of many of the personal and professional triumphs and disasters that mark adult life. (Rowe, 2007: 136)

However, when we evaluated the playback work, writing and drawing pictures, there was a real joy and excitement in remembering each other’s stories and who had played what. There was a deep sense of shared histories but this does not flow easily in a social context.

Support Worker KATE: Working as a team, with no lead role is really important for this group because in the other classes they have more solos. For example in ‘Acting for Camera’ the students perform more as individuals. In PT there is no star and it doesn’t encourage egos, so I notice that everyone ‘steps up’ because they have a chance. In traditional theatre, people get picked as a ‘lead’ but in PT everyone gets a chance to be seen or chosen. Everyone is reliant on everyone else and this helps with group cohesion.

Egocentricity is a normal part of child development but this can become stuck and reinforced in some environments with people with learning disabilities. I have noticed a prominence of what Crimmens (2006: 72) describes as ‘vertical relationships’ where students seek to relate to authority figures (i.e: tutors, support workers, parents) rather than their own peers by seeking 1:1 time with Hijinx staff. Often they express their distress, worry or doubts somatically, which can be difficult for other students. PT culture encourages ‘horizontal relationships’ where students learn to communicate with their peers. Interpersonal learning is encouraged.

The relative safety and trust within the playback ensemble can provide the opportunity for performers to develop the necessary sensitivity to each other’s differences and to each other’s stories. The feedback has become less critical and includes students encouraging each other and affirming what people do well. Many are finding their voice and practicing being themselves! ‘It is the ensemble which provides the conditions for risk-taking in performance and which allows a kind of safety net if the performer loses his way’. (Rowe, 28)

The Art of Improvisation

The ability to act responsively to situations: it necessitates a degree of self-confidence, emotional control, and adaptive capability. Therefore, the individual’s level of spontaneity in role playing can be used as a general measure of the individual’s mental functioning. (Johnson, 1981: 16)

Like Johnson, I believe that improvisation promotes well-being by stimulating self-expression, self-creation and one’s imagination. Making ‘mistakes’ is part of the learning process and can develop one’s ability to respond to the unexpected.

EWAN: I am learning to stay more focused, not saying ‘no’ all the time and holding myself back. It’s because I’ve never done anything like that before so I’m taking risks.

However, as discussed earlier, improvisation can surprise us by revealing ‘the shadow’, elements which emerge spontaneously through movement, voice tone, verbal expressions, breathing patterns and mood. ‘Improvisation can challenge predictable and settled versions of personal and cultural narratives and loosen established cognitive schemas.’ (Rowe, 2007: 28)

By inviting a degree of risk taking within a group I also have a responsibility to facilitate what arises and work with this as skilfully as I am able to, so that individuals are not offended or shamed.

To play is to open ourselves up to spontaneity and the possibility that we may expose some of the many potential identities beneath the social personae we construct for everyday interaction. The attraction is that this might be a liberating experience, but the danger is of embarrassment and shame.(Chesner, 2002: 51)

STORY: At the ‘Friends and Family Sharing’, Seren’s sister talks about her pregnancy. In the enactment, Seren plays her sister and Dafydd is the doctor who holds her legs open (as if she is giving birth) and shouts “Push!”. Seren is visibly embarrassed and the audience laugh in the awkwardness of the moment. I cannot rescue her on stage or stop Dafydd .

In a later practice we reflect about this in the group, what to do when we are surprised in an improvisation. The students are given personal challenges; Seren has been encouraged to take her space or move rather than freeze when surprised and Dafydd has been practicing changing the volume and intensity of his acting so he learns to work gently with physical contact with some of the students.

DAFYDD: “Having a baby”


SEREN: My most embarrassing story





The ‘not-knowing’ of improvisation is an important quality in the playback performer, which can produce lively and truthful performances. But these are difficult skills to nurture in a group when students have high anxiety and go into a panic or fight/flight/freeze response when they feel scared.

DELYTH: I am quiet; I need to do a lot of focus in playback. Sometimes I enjoy it. Performing because I was totally afraid about I don’t understand. I was confused by all the ideas. I don’t want to stand still all the time.

Delyth explains that she prefers to focus on her dance. There the rehearsal process helps her to minimise making mistakes and give her a sense of achievement. The degree of risk in PT improvising is sometimes too great for her to manage her anger when she doesn’t understand and her disappointment when she makes a mistake. Her experience after a PT session can be ‘unpleasant, not sure, happyish, petrified, upset, sadness, misunderstanding that’s when I am often newish about something.’

 Support Worker KATE: Students have learnt social interaction skills, massive on social interaction, sometimes it has been a slow progress for individuals. Flexibility – students adapting to situations. Emotion – dealing with the emotional disappointment of being a performer or teller when it goes differently or the unexpected happens. It can really affect individuals and then their upset can affect the group. There’s something about how they learn to contain their emotional disappointments.

Other students’ challenges in PT include:

ALUN: Sometimes in playback, I get stuck, it’s not nerves, it’s when I’ve got an idea in my head and someone else does it and then I have to find a different one to express. When there’s stories that I don’t understand that someone tells I think ‘how can I do this in playback?’

GERAINT: Improvisation; relating to some stories; having to listen closely

TIM: Trying to say ‘yes’ to myself and accepting that I need to try things I might not be comfortable with at first; learning new things and skills; listening

[N]o one is perfect and “mistakes” are to be learned from and no one is to be shamed for not knowing or understanding. There may be things that someone will just not “get” so we support as best we can and know there is beauty and art and humanity in that for all of us and the audience. It is a delicate dance but a lovely one. (Edden, personal communication, 23-12-16)

From Internal to External Performances

The value of performing with an audience has been an important step for the students to build confidence in their PT skills and in raising their self-esteem, to simply feel good about themselves.

SEREN: It’s nice to make big performances; Feel free; Saying ‘yes’ to yourself; knowing your surroundings

Support Worker KATE: They love performing! Being on the stage, actually acting, with an audience, they love it. And they also learn to be an audience in PT, actually listening to other people’s stories

So far Hijinx Playback have performed at the end of year ‘Friends and Family Sharing’ and at a local dance festival on the main stage. An audience was just what they needed; their imaginative creativity and focus were good. However, some played for laughs and others became frightened and withdrew.

When we secured two paid commissioned performances I wanted to form an integrated PT company where three performers from Hijinx joined three from The Golden Thread. My thinking was that GT performers could work with the shadow aspects or anything that got missed or misunderstood. We performed at the 2016 Learning Disability Wales Conference which focused on the themes of ‘Belonging’; many people in the audience also had learning disabilities; and also the 2017 ‘We’ve Got Talent’ Conference which was about positive action, equality and diversity in the work place.

Both performances were well received. We prepared for both events by focusing the practices on the conference themes. At the ‘We’ve Got Talent’ conference tellers shared complex stories which were sensitively played back, including a Muslim woman who experienced constant prejudice; speaking out against transphobia and losing one’s voice when challenging prejudice; frustration about organisations that don’t make work places more accessible; being ‘singled out’ because of wearing glasses.

At this commissioned performance Dafydd is cast as the teller’s actor. The teller has just shared his story about being sixteen and being actively discriminated against because of having a visual impairment. Whilst all his friends got their first job at McDonald’s he didn’t. The teller is flamboyant and avoids talking about his difficult feelings. Instead he describes his younger self with ‘floppy hair’.

STORY: Dafydd chooses an ostrich feather neck scarf and when the action starts becomes an overtly camp sixteen year old. Although the teller has not disclosed his sexuality (he may have been gay) this is not central to the story, but Dafydd chooses to emphasise this. The teller’s friends are laughing loudly in the front row. As the conductor I am wondering: will the teller be offended? Will he think that Dafydd is being homophobic? Is he reinforcing a gay stereotype?

There are inevitable cultural and ideological influences on all acting; this may be especially the case for improvised acting where, under pressure to do ‘something’, the dangers of slipping into cliché and stereotype are so present. (Rowe 2005: 4)

One of the GT performers has been cast as the teller’s friend who got the McDonald’s job. The other GT performer is not cast. During the interview, she shouts ‘Freeze’. Everyone stops as she voices the interviewing manager’s internal prejudice thoughts. Now Dafydd’s camp and humorous interpretation is contrasted with the discrimination that the teller experienced as a young man. The seriousness of the story is clarified. The other GT performer portrays delight in her new job at McDonald’s but also anger that her friend has been discriminated against. The shadow elements of anger, sadness and injustice are expressed and made visible.

Audience laughter can be instant gratification for the PT performer especially when you aren’t always accepted or appreciated in mainstream society. I have noticed that the students can play for laughs and avoid the shadow elements or heart of the story. Johnson (1981) says, ‘Don’t go onstage to be funny. Make relationships’. As a PT trainer this is work in progress.


It is a radical act when the usual dynamic of minority and majority is reversed; power structures are directly challenged. I am reminded that when we were looking at names for the theatre company, the students wanted to call themselves ‘The Radicals’:

…believing or expressing the belief that there should be great or extreme social or political change; relating to the most important parts of something or someone; complete or extreme; a person who supports great social and political change.” (http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/radical)

I hope to organise more PT performances where non-disabled audiences share their stories to Hijinx learning disabled performers. I have been inspired by the PT work of Debe Edden where Heartsparkle collaborated with the Thunders to develop the Compassionate Action Project which they perform around schools. One of the teachers commented on their integrated company: ‘I also found it liberating to see those who are often thought of as ‘dis-abled’ utilise abilities that most people don’t have. It really informed my understanding of what differently-abled is.’ (IPTN, 14 Oct 2016)

Fung discusses performances by Chosen Power, another PT company of learning disabled performers. Like Edden, she questions the aesthetics of ‘good playback’:

How often would we find ourselves honestly sharing our feelings and stories with people with intellectual differences in the same way we do with our friends with the same ‘intellect’… Sometimes one can hardly catch their words. But their performances touch the audience in the most organically beautiful way when the voice of each teller is made heard by members of Chosen Power. (Fung, 2005: 13)

This work has challenged and enriched my playback practice. I have had to reflect on my roles as both a PT trainer and PT conductor and make essential changes to my practice so that the students feel safe and supported in the ensemble.

Originally I had thought that I could develop some of the themes from the students’ personal stories and devise a piece of theatre based on them. I thought that this would ensure that students could go through a rehearsal process and feel ‘safer’ in showing their work and minimising making mistakes.

However, the process of writing this, and collating the students’ evaluation and feedback, has led me to realise that the heart and power of the work is the improvisation. Although improvisation has been challenging for many of the students it is also core to the work and inspires the liminal phase of creativity where individuals surprise themselves, spontaneously learning something new about themselves or each other. I look forward to developing the playback theatre work with Hijinx and creating playback performance opportunities in the community, maybe collaborating with The Golden Thread where inclusion and difference are a dynamic and creative force that inspires others, as it has me.


Adderley, D. (2004) ‘Why do Tellers Tell? ‘ www.playbacktheatre.org

Arping, M & Feldhendler D. (1999) ‘Practical Aspects from the Life of a Playback Theatre Ensemble in Gathering Voices:  Essays on Playback Theatre.  Fox, J & Dauber, H (Eds.) Tusitala Publishing, USA.

Chesner, A. (1995) Dramatherapy for People with Learning Disabilities. Jessica Kingsley, London.

Chesner, A. (2002) ‘Playback Theatre and Group Communication’ in Creative Advances in Groupwork, A. Chesner & H. Hahn, Eds. Jessica Kingsley, London.

Crimmens, P. (2006) Drama Therapy and Storymaking in Special Education. Jessica Kingsley, London

Dennis, R. (2007) ‘Crossing the Threshold; Tensions of Participation in Community-Based Playback Theatre Performance’ in Journal of Interactive Drama Vol. 2.1, January, 2007, 56. Also published on Playback Theatre Reflects. 

Edden, D. (2016) ‘Our 25 Year Journey of Hope and Compassion.’ In Interplay, Journal of the International Playback Theatre Network, http://www.iptn.info/?a=doc&id=433

Fox, J. (1999) ‘A Ritual For Our Time’. In Gathering Voices: Essays on Playback Theatre’, Fox, J & Dauber, H (Eds). Tusitala Publishing, USA

Fung, E. & Tam J. (2005) A Story to Tell – Advocacy with Playback Theatre’ at www.playbacktheatre.org

Good, T. (2014) ‘Greater Expectations: The positive impact of Supported Employment’, in Llais 111, Summer 14, pages 3-6

Harflett, N. & Turner, S. (2016) ‘Supporting people with learning disabilities to develop sexual and romantic relationships’, National Development Team for Inclusion (NDTi), June 2016

Hoesch, F (1999) ‘The Red Thread: Storytelling as a Healing Process’ in Gathering Voices: Essays on Playback Theatre. Fox, J & Dauber, H (Eds) Tusitala Publishing, USA

Johnson, K. (1981) Impro – Improvisation and the Theatre. Methuen, London

Rowe, N. (2005) ‘Playing the Other: The ethical limitations of playback performing’. Presented at Symposium on Playback Theatre, Arizona State University. www.playbacktheatre.org

Rowe, N. (2007) Playing the Other: Dramatizing Personal Narratives in Playback Theatre. Jessica Kingsley, London

Salas, J. (1993) Improvising Real Life:  Personal Story in Playback Theatre. Tusitala Publishing, USA

Salas, J. (1999) ‘What is ‘Good’ Playback Theatre?‘ in Gathering Voices: Essays on Playback Theatre. Fox, J & Dauber, H (Eds) Tusitala Publishing, USA

Turner, V. (1990) ‘Are there universals of performance in myth, ritual, and drama?’ in By means of performance: Intercultural studies of theatre and ritual, R. Schechner & W. Appel (Eds.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.8-18



Thank you to:

All eleven students at Hijinx Academy West in Carmarthen, Wales.

Kate Williams and Luisa Painter – the Hijinx Academy West support workers and the Hijinx staff based at ‘head office’ in Cardiff

Veronica Needa – who put me in touch with Playback practitioners around the world working with adults with learning disabilities.

Debe Edden – for our email discussions about Heartsparkle and The Thunders.

Jane Hoy – for your encouraging and direct advice with editing and suggesting the title!

Marie Lewis – for your loving patience and support; whilst I was stuck in the computer writing this!


Appendix A:

PLAYBACK THEATRE at Hijinx West Academy – Students Feedback

I would appreciate your feedback on your experience of Playback theatre as both Tellers and Performers. (I will anonymise everything)

1 What PT stories do you remember sharing with the group?

2 What PT performances do you remember being played back?

3 What stops you sharing your personal stories?

4 What skills have you learnt from Playback? (please tick)

  • Theatre skills – using the stage / spatial awareness /
  • Communication skills – listening, talking, getting to know others, empathy
  • Improvisation skills
  • Social skills – working with other people

5 What do you enjoy about PT?

(Performing – improvisation / Telling your stories / Listening to other’s stories)

6 What are your challenges in PT?

(Performing – improvisation / Telling your stories / Listening to other’s stories)

7 After a playback practice how do you feel?


Appendix B:

PLAYBACK THEATRE at Hijinx West Academy – Hijinx Support Worker’s Feedback

I would appreciate any feedback on how you feel that playback has impacted on the students – individually and as part of the group process and identity. Below are some prompting questions, you can mention individuals I will anonymise everything.

  1. How do you think the PT ensemble (as both performers and tellers) has impacted on the group process (i.e. dynamics, minority & majority experiences, gender, mixed abilities)?
  2. Which Playback Theatre (PT) story enactments are particularly memorable for you?
  3. What barriers do you think stop students sharing their personal stories in PT?
  4. What skills do you think individual students have learnt from PT?
  5. What do you think the students enjoy about PT?
  6.  What do you think challenges the students in PT?

Rose Thorn currently works as a Dramatherapist with women who have experienced complex trauma from abuse. She has facilitated numerous women-only therapeutic groups and projects including ‘CupCake’ a year-long weekly activity group for women survivors of domestic abuse and has just completed coordinating the making of a film ‘Stolen Voices’ with this group of survivors. She worked on a two-year project ‘Yma a Nawr’ / ‘Here and Now’ with people with dementia creating sensory images and objects to stimulate stories.

A graduate of the Centre for Playback Theatre, Rose has been a committed Playback Theatre performer and conductor for over 15 years; she developed her craft with Bristol Playback Theatre, was a co-founder of Breathing Fire-Bristol Black Women’s company and joins Queer Playback Theatre when needed. She is an active member of The Golden Thread and has been working with the students at Hijinx West Academy for two years. She has delivered Playback Theatre training to numerous forming or experienced playback groups.

She teaches hatha yoga in the community and helps to run a vegetarian guest house in west Wales with her partner.



© 2017 Rose Thorn. All rights reserved



2 thoughts on ““I played the jelly fish” – Reflections on Playback Theatre as a Method for Enhancing Group Cohesion with Adults with Learning Disabilities by Rose Thorn”

  1. Hi Rose,
    I enjoyed reading your article. What made me want to write a comment was what you said about horizontal and vertical relationships and how playback supported the development of vertical relationships. I knew immediately what you meant but had not heard it described in such a succinct way before. When I was part of a regular playback group in a medium security prison some years ago, that was the feedback the men gave, that the relationships formed through the group gave them someone they trusted to relate to when support staff weren’t easily available. For a group of clients with head injuries, working together on their stories formed a cohesive social group rather than a collection of people who felt dumped together. I was interested in your discussion of working with kids with ASD and their challenges in letting their stories be performed with poetic interpretations. Its good to think about that process, and how that could become an open moment for them, and for the players.

    So, thank a lot for sharing your writing about your work.
    Warm regards
    Robyn Bett

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