Using the lens of John Dewey’s philosophy, Audun Mollan Kristoffersen’s article shines a light on something that Playback Theatre practitioners are familiar with in practice and training: the circle, a physical embodiment of Playback Theatre’s commitment to inclusiveness and equality.
Keep the circle
By Audun Mollan Kristoffersen
“Keep the circle.”
“Is this a circle?”
“This looks like the shape of an egg.”
These quotes are from my teachers Jonathan Fox, Veronica Needa and Aviva Apel-Rosenthal at a Playback Theatre Leadership workshop in Hungary in 2013. The ritual of starting and ending in a circle is well known for us who do Playback Theatre. It is easy to think, “Why stress so much to get the circle round, isn’t this egg shape good enough?” or “Could we just start with the exercise instead of working on getting this circle right!” I have probably had those thoughts myself at some point. In this article I will look at why getting the circle right is important in Playback Theatre, and what this could tell about its essential character. The question I am investigating here is this: Can the circle as symbol say something essential about Playback Theatre, through the optics of John Dewey’s theoretical experience perspective and through the term inclusion?
In Playback Theatre ritual is one of the pillars that the work is built on (Fox, 1999). In Playback Theatre workshops or rehearsals we often use the ritual of meeting and ending in a circle. Many of the exercises also have a circle as the starting point, so one could say it is embedded in the learning of Playback Theatre from the start. Here in this article, I will focus more on the circle as a symbol. Therefore I need to define what I see the circle as here.
When children are playing actively different shapes come up spontaneously. The first one is a circle (Slade, 2001) showing how deeply rooted the circle is in us as human beings. A historical interpretation of a circle as a symbol is that it represents the wholeness of life and harmony, or the self’s pursuit to become one with the other (Granbacka, 2013). It is this meaning that the symbol of the circle will have in this article: wholeness of life, harmony and the unity of different selves. However, to investigate the research question related to the symbol of the circle I need a broader optic, theoretical “glasses” that could help me to reflect on how this tells something essential about Playback Theatre.
To find this optic I need to travel more than 350 km north from New Paltz, where Jo Salas and Jonathan Fox live, specifically to Burlington in Vermont where the philosopher John Dewey was born in 1859. His place of birth influenced the philosophy that he later developed. Vermont was the first state in the US to take a stand against slavery in 1775, and local democracy through community halls has had a significant role (Nørstebø, 1953).
John Dewey is one of the best known pedagogical pragmatists. Pragmatism is a philosophical approach that claims that the connections between theory and action are crucial both for the theory’s truth and the validity of the action (Egidius, 1998). Philosophy is seen not as an aim in itself but to be used to build better societies. Within the pragmatism frame, Dewey worked as an active citizen, lecturer and writer from 1882 to his death in 1952. He is well known within the pedagogical field, but his philosophical contributions are broad. Dewey wrote about psychology, ethics, experience, transformation and democracy, to mention some (Eikseth, 2008). A shift in his focus occurred when in 1934 he wrote Art as Experience. Dewey was over 70 years old and had made massive contributions around how to create better societies and how to create democracy as a form of living. In 1934 he then placed art and emotion in the centre of his philosophical horizon (Rasmussen, 2001; Rasmussen & Kristoffersen, 2011). With this, he also expanded his theoretical frame on experience. I will explain why this is interesting from a Playback Theatre perspective.
John Dewey’s “circle” as philosophy and practice
To fulfill philosophy’s aim of creating better societies, Dewey claims, one has to open up to experience. In his usage, an “experience” is not an everyday happening. It requires a quality of transformation. This quality is arises from different parts of being human, and it transforms the experience into something new. “Situations or moments that don’t lead to mental or cultural changes, are not experience” (Hohr, 2016, p. 98, in Audun Mollan Kristoffersen’s translation). An illustration:
I was at Hannah Fox`s workshop “The Articulated body” in Belfast in 2008. It was a period when I had difficulties with integrating all the different parts of my life. It was a strong experience. On the plane back to Trondheim I wrote in my notes: “Playback is not just a thing I do, it is what I do”. It changed how I looked at my practice in Playback Theatre. It went from being a hobby to a core part of my identity. It was an experience.
Through Dewey, one could understand that meaning in life unfolds through transformative experience and the expression of that experience. To make that possible one has to grow and to seek growing (Dewey, 2008). To create an experience, one has to meet the obstacles or challenges one encounters in the environment and work with them, just as an artist does when they create art. The artist creates and encounters (or undergoes, in Dewey’s term) the material again and again, until one day the piece of art unfolds itself. It has found its expression, an experience. In Art as Experience (1934) Dewey speaks of emotions as “the glue” that makes all the prior moments come together, that connects them in a continuing line of moments to find its form. This “glue” is created by something that Dewey calls aesthetic quality. The more emotion there is in the process, the more aesthetic quality the experience will have. This quality is created by the “doing” and to the “undergoing” (1934, p.52).
A personal experience of this:
I was in Playback Theatre Leadership in Germany 2009. I told a story about a conflict I was experiencing. Jonathan responded, “You may be right in all that you say about the situation, but you have to relate, Audun.” The “relate” comment struck me because it was true. My story was something that had happened to me, but I had not taken an active role to engage with it. I had not been undergoing the situation. I was hiding in a passive position. There was no transformation. It was not an experience. After sharing this experience at Leadership and through Jonathan’s comment, I started to engage with that conflict, and that changed my approach to what happened.
By relating to the emotions that can come up when one fully encounters or “undergoes” something the aesthetic quality leads to what Dewey calls the continuity principle, moments that are connected. This is in sharp contrast to how Dewey has been understood through the quote “Learning by doing” (Kristoffersen, 2010). You do not learn by just doing. It is through the relationship between the self and its surroundings in a continuing process that one learns, develops and unfolds–or makes an experience, as Dewey calls it. The way one creates experience is, therefore, a transformation where old material comes together in a new form. How we make experiences in our lives is thus made in the same way as an artist makes art or aesthetic experience. The only difference is in the material one uses.
An aesthetic experience can be crowded into a moment only in that sense that a climax of prior long enduring processes may arrive in an outstanding movement which so sweeps everything else into that all else is forgotten (Dewey, 1934 p. 58).
Since experience is built on the material of previous experience and sweeps it into something new, an experience is, therefore, a transformation that gives meaning to the struggle one has had along the way, as long as one comes through it. Consequently, in Dewey’s view, to make experiences is the most significant form for growing a human being could have because one experience is built on all other experiences (Hohr, 2016). Experience is created within a context, and it unfolds itself within a context. Since experience is built up in relation between the self and the environment, it is not just individualistic. It concerns the self in the world, but also affects the world the self finds itself in. It is a circular process.
We can sense an experience when it happens: it hits the whole body. It carries meaning, creates a harmony, a feeling of wholeness, and unity between people (Hohr, 2009; Hohr, 2013; Hohr, 2016). One example.
It happened in a performance recently with my group Teater Momentum here in Trondheim the 20th of December 2018. It was during an event that has been going on in Trondheim for the last six years on the darkest day of the year when the sun turns:”solsnu.” In the middle of the Playback Theatre performance, a mobile phone rang in the audience
From my place as an actor on the stage, I saw a man go out to take the call. After we finished playing back the story we were in the middle of, the man came back again. He walked towards the conductor and asked: “Could I tell a story? It is related to the phone call I just got.”
The man told that his brother, who was seventy-nine years old, was out with some colleagues at a restaurant five days before. Food got stuck in his brother’s throat, and he was without air for fifteen minutes. He had been at the hospital in a coma since. “I just got a phone call from the hospital,” the man said. “My brother is going to die tomorrow because his life cannot be saved”. That was the story, and we chose our most abstract form, “Poet, dancer or musician” to play it back. I felt heavy when I got up to take the poet’s place and hadn’t any clue on how I was going to express his feeling poetically. Together with my Playback team, we started to create something, and I felt an emotional flow take over from my initial uncertainty. After we had played it back, there was silence among the audience, but the man came up hugging us. He left before the performance was over. The day after I looked up his number and sent him a message checking in with him. An hour later he replied. He thanked me for the message, and wrote: “My brother died an hour ago.” After acting in his story about his brother the day before, it seems that I had sent a message at the same moment that his brother went “out of time.” Later I learned through others that the teller was grateful for the playback that evening. The performance became like its theme in a way, an encounter when it is darkest. For me, and I am sure for some others as well, it felt strong. I would consider it an aesthetic experience.
Linking it to what I have been writing about Dewey, the experience hit my body, I had a feeling of wholeness, and after I sent the message the day after I felt a profound unity when I received a reply from the teller. In other words, it felt like the definition of the symbol of the circle. Just like the Playback Theatre experiences I shared, one experience opened into another one. For me, it relates to the symbol of a circle. Dewey’s theory on experience can be understood as creating bigger and bigger circles around oneself in the world. Just like the concentric circles that are created when one throws a stone in the water, the second circle, or experience, could not exist without the first, One experience lays a platform for a new one, a transformation of what has happened before.
Atmosphere of inclusion
And now I have to travel back the 350 km from Dewey and Burlington to New Paltz from where the concentric circles of Playback Theatre waves have spread around the globe. I was so lucky to take that route in July 2015, after being at the international Playback Theatre conference in Montreal, visiting John Dewey’s memorial at Burlington University and then back to New Paltz that had been the base for my trip. On the route back I was filled with my experiences, but also with questions about the atmosphere of inclusion and when it might break. From his desk in New Paltz, Jonathan Fox has been developing a theory on Playback called Narrative Reticulation. I first heard Jonathan talk about it at Leadership in 2013, but have also heard him speak about it in Amsterdam in 2014 and Montreal in 2015. In Jonathan’s latest draft he defines Narrative Reticulation as this:
The word ‘reticulation’ comes from biology and is used to describe the veins of a leaf, for example. In this context the name describes the interconnected personal stories told by a community group in a manner that evokes both meaning, and connection. (Fox, 2017, p. 2)
In other words, it is a Playback theory on how to understand when one breaks or creates the narrative flow in a particular context. I will not go into depth on the theory because Jonathan will do that himself, but I will focus on one aspect of it, the atmosphere of inclusion.
…it is part of the task of the playback theatre team to promote an atmosphere of inclusion. Because our societies tend to favour one group over another, to create an inclusive community for our work often means taking on very difficult challenge of bucking prevailing custom. We need always to use tact, but we do not want ever to fall into the trap of recognizing the personhood of some people over others (Fox, 2017. p. 7)
There are many various definitions of inclusion, from school contexts and societies to more action-based theories. Two Norwegian scientists have developed a theory on how to promote inclusion. They suggest there have to be four areas that work together if inclusion is to be created.
1) Democratization: everyone must have the opportunity to be heard.
2) Participation: space has to be created in a way so people can participate actively.
3) Benefit: the persons that are attending have to feel that they benefit from what is happening, because benefit creates meaning (Bachmann og Haug, 2006; Haug, 2004).
4) Community: the community that is built on the three other areas will create a felt community, not just a community built on narrow interests or community defined as just people together (Kristoffersen, 2010).
This theory fits very well together with a new Norwegian theory on bullying and exclusion. This theory says that bullying or exclusion is “actions from adults or children that prevent the experience of belonging, of beinga significant person in the community, and the possibility to contribute” (Lund, Helgeland & Kovac, 2017 p. 14, in Audun Mollan Kristoffersen’s translation).
Both these theories relate to the symbol of a circle, as I see it. Everyone must have the opportunity of being part of the circle, and a special atmosphere is needed in order to create that. When that atmosphere is not present, a sense of inclusion cannot be created.
So what might these the theories about inclusion and exclusion, as well as Dewey’s theory on experience and the symbol of circles, tell us about Playback Theatre?
As in Dewey’s theory, Playback Theatre builds on experiences. Telling a story in Playback Theatre and getting it played back could be considered as undergoing your own story. You often get in contact with your own emotions when seeing your story played back. Dewey’s understanding of transformation, continuity principle and aesthetic experience can also be understood through a Playback Theatre performance. The more connected the moments in performance are from one moment to another, the more range of emotions there will be in a performance. The more this continuity principle is fulfilled, the stronger the transformation will be. This is like the “red thread” of folk wisdom (Fox, 1999, p.128). The “red thread” together with the form and ritual sweeps the process together into what we can understand as Dewey’s term aesthetic experience. “…As the ritual unfolds, and the people get caught up in it, feelings rise, with inevitable consequence that a fully undertaken playback event will be strongly emotional” (Fox, 1999, p.123). The more connectedness and continuity a performance has, the more aesthetic quality it will be filled with. Through Dewey we can argue that a Playback Theatre performance is a form of living democracy, and it has a democratic impact on the society itself. It is the quality of relating in a performance that makes that democratic impact: relating between people, relating as “doing and undergoing,” and relating one moment to the next in a continuing line. However, how can we assess the democratic impact or atmosphere of inclusion a Playback Theatre event contains?
Here it is useful to use the two theories on inclusion and exclusion. The more a community is built on democratization, participation and personal benefit in the form of meaning, the more a felt community it will be. Alternatively, if people are prevented from feeling like a significant part of the community, from an experience of belonging, and fromthe opportunity to contribute, then elements of exclusion will be built into an event.
I am reflecting on this as I sit in the car traveling from Burlington towards New Paltz after being at the international PT gathering in Montreal, filled both with aesthetic experiences and a strong atmosphere of inclusion, and also some experiences filled with the opposite. Sometimes I felt I was being held in an atmosphere of a “circle,” and sometimes I felt on the outside of a “circle,” or that the atmosphere of the “circle” broke.
It is here that the symbol of circle can tell us something. Building on these theories above, “keep the circle” tells something essential about our Playback Theatre practice. In a circle, everyone has equal space, everyone is seen, and everyone helps to create the circle. To be created by everyone three elements must be present:
1. I as an individual (me) have to relate to my neighbours (the others) on each side of me.
2. Together I (me) and the two others on my side of me create an us.
3. But to be able to create a circle I (me) and the two others (us) must relate to all the different “us”’s that form the circle. It is by relating as a group that we can create a big we, a round circle.
This is why an “egg-shaped” circle will never be good enough if we are going to create an atmosphere of inclusion. Because in an egg-shaped circle not everyone has equal space and not everyone can see everyone else. This means three essential things as I see it:
- It is a complicated process to build a circle because all these components have to be together in one piece; (1) Me, (2) Us, (3) We.
- It is easy to break a circle, it just needs (1) me that in a little moment is unconscious towards (2) us and (3) we. We are in our own lives and it is easy to drop out and become unconscious for a moment. (It could be important to ask oneself “When do I break the circle?” because even if I don’t notice it, it could be me.)
- The last aspect is that a circle is as round as everyone makes it. Based on the theories on inclusion that I have mentioned, the same counts for inclusion. So just as in a circle, inclusion is co-created: everyone is responsible.
In this text, I have traveled from the Leadership workshop in Hungary in 2013, to Burlington in Vermont, to the Playback Theatre world conference in Montreal in 2015, to New Paltz and back to my home in Trondheim, Norway, where I sit and write this article based on my experiences. It has taken me five years to write this after I wrote the first lines: “Keep the circle!” “Is this a circle?” “This looks like the shape of an egg.” On my journey, I have become more and more sure that keeping the circle, literally and symbolically, is not just a thing we do along the way. It is a core element in what we do if we want to create communities. So keep the circle! Because the more round the circle is, the more democracy as a way of living is created. So, keep the circle, keep it!
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Audun Mollan Kristoffersen has a Masters in Education (specialising in Drama) from Trondheim University in Norway focusing on inclusion and aesthetics. Right now he is a PhD candidate on the same topic and a special needs teacher at a Primary School where he applies different approaches to learning. He graduated from the Centre for Playback Theatre in 2009.
Audun started with PT in 2001 and is currently the artistic director of Teater Momentum in Trondheim. The company has focused on PT research and education. He has also been a part of a research project in Trondheim (Space Me project) that explored different entrances to learning between the arts and sciences. Playback Theatre was one of the methodologies that was implemented during this project with the aim of students interrogating their personal relationship to learning. Besides Teater Momentum in Trondheim, Audun is also connected to Skandinavisk Playbackteater Studio where he sits on the board.