Using Playback in a fraught sociopolitical context compels practitioners to navigate choices that are both moral and dramaturgical. Norbert Ross’s article illuminates the heart of this challenge in a very current situation: the abuse of power by border agents in the US.
The Spirit of the Order: Playback Theatre Against the Normalization of Evil
by Norbert Ross, Ph.D.
What might have gone on in the heads of the immigration officials when they told Sofia, one of our narrators from Venezuela, that her 18-year-old son had been deported to Mexico? She and her two sons had crossed the border into Texas where they immediately turned themselves in to the authorities, asking for asylum. The family was separated, with Sofia and her younger son sent first to San Diego and finally to Tijuana, Mexico, to await the decision on their asylum case. While in San Diego, officials informed her that her older son, processed separately as an adult, had been deported to Matamoros, some 1600 miles away on the other side of Mexico.
Worried about her son, Sofia received help from volunteers, who, as part of a network of refugee shelters, searched for her son along the Texan border – an area known for being extremely dangerous – while Sofia feared the worst. After 10 long days, she finally received a phone call. It was her missing son. She had been deliberately lied to, and he was in fact in custody at an immigration processing center in the US, awaiting the decision on his asylum application. He had never been deported.
How does one enact this kind of cruelty? How are we to comprehend this kind of behavior?
This became a very real question this past summer, when we, a playback ensemble from El Salvador, conducted a series of playback theatre events among (mostly) Central American refugees living in shelters just south of the US border in Tijuana, Mexico. The shelters were established mainly in response to the trail of thousands of Central American refugees, fleeing their home countries seeking a better and safer life in the US. Many of these refugees never crossed the US border, while others were returned to places like Tijuana to await the final decision on their asylum cases.
Mexico has no system in place to support this stream of people. Instead, civil society has established a network of support by way of refugee centers providing food and shelter, as well as some legal and emotional support for these displaced people.
As a theatre group from El Salvador, we decided to provide our share of support with what we knew best – playback theatre – while at the same time learning more about the lives of some of these families and their fate on their trek north.
The home of our theatre ensemble is Morazán, an economically poor, rural department of El Salvador bordering Honduras. More specifically, our ensemble was established in the community Segundo Montes, as part of the Salvadorian NGO ACTUEMOS!
The community of Segundo Montes was founded toward the end of the 12-year long civil war (roughly from 1980-1992), when Salvadorian war refugees returned from the refugee camps in Honduras. While most of the actors were born after the war, one actually experienced living in a refugee camp as a young child. Another actor had been deported from the US just a few years ago. I myself had been deported from Mexico some years back during social unrest in the early 1990s. I had lived there for several years, and the event uprooted my life entirely.
In addition, during our playback events, we listened to many stories related to living as refugees or migrants. Of course, living and working in El Salvador we were painfully aware of the situations that force people to migrate. Different forms of violence, from pandillas (gangs), to police brutality, and more often than not gender violence inspired by toxic masculinity – usually going unpunished. Economic issues, especially as they come with the lack of basic services, too, are to be seen as among the main reasons to migrate. Said differently, people don’t just leave El Salvador, and other Central American countries, for a more comfortable life: they leave to survive. Yet stories brought to us via neighbors and friends, or through the media also made it clear that the trek north was not a simple solution, further confirmed by the humanitarian crisis that has developed along the US southern border.
With the exception of me – a white male of German origin – the members of the ensemble shared much of the refugees’ background, and we all knew people who had travelled north or who had families living in the USA. Partly because of this proximity we felt the need to learn more about the people migrating and to actively listen to their stories through playback theatre.
Playback theatre is a form of improvisational theatre that intentionally breaks the boundaries between audience and actors. In fact, audience members become the main protagonists of the performances, as it is their stories, told on stage, that the actors bring to life. Tellers not only share their stories, but also cast the members of the ensemble for the different roles they want to see represented in their story. Not everyone mentioned gets cast, so there is some creative liberty for actors to jump into roles as it seems fit or needed.
In order to protect the teller’s story, audience members do not participate in the enactments and no revisions/discussions of the stories take place on stage – as for example in Theatre of the Oppressed (Boal 1979). Compared to the latter, the goal of playback theatre is not to rehearse and discuss reality in search for alternative pathways and outcomes (see Freire’s Education of the Oppressed (1970/2018), nor is the aim to evaluate or analyze the stories told. Instead, playback aims at valuing people’s stories through attentive listening, while affording a space of reflection to both the narrator and the audience. In a successful event, a community of compassionate listeners is created through the audience’s story-telling, and by talking to one another – indirectly through their stories and directly in post-event social gatherings (Fox 1986; Salas 1993; Fox & Dauber 1999). For the latter we often brought coffee, hot chocolate and tamales.
For the actors, playback theatre is challenging on several levels. While a theme for a performance might be set or, as in our case, suggested by the circumstances, the emerging stories are not known beforehand. We had prepared ourselves through readings and discussions for possible stories, and of course, the actors shared a common background with audience and the tellers. Still, tellers were not guided in what stories they would tell.
Our proximity to the audience and being familiar with their lives back home also meant that the emerging stories became all the more unsettling for us. However, we tried to convert the unsettling experience into a productive space for personal learning and understanding.
Existing differences were clear, too. For us, traveling to Tijuana by plane was a privilege, and very different from refugees traveling the nearly 3000 miles by foot, car, bus, or train. Our difficulties of securing the money and the Mexican visas were nothing compared to the problems of our tellers, some of whom had to flee their countries with only what they could carry – and even these few belongings were often stolen by the “federales” (the Mexican federal police) on their trip north. Ours was a journey of hope and learning, unlike the Salvadorian woman who fled her violent husband, who not only beat her to the point of having a premature birth, but who also kidnapped her daughter afterwards. Once she got her daughter back, she knew they had to leave her country, where women and children are still not protected from the violence of husbands and fathers.
Of course, we did prepare for stories such as these. After all, such stories are common knowledge if one bothers to look and listen even in the most cursory way. As mentioned, one member of our theatre ensemble had travelled to the US, and experienced firsthand what it means for a Salvadorian youth to be held in a detention cell, interviewed and doubted by case officers, and finally sent back home.
However, our work was not about unearthing newsworthy stories of refugees for a wider audience. Instead, playback serves the audience – and specifically the tellers – by listening to their stories, and bringing them to life on stage.
Playback shows usually have three basic rules:
- Stories must be true
- Stories must be about the teller
- Neither the audience nor the actors / conductor are allowed to evaluate or comment on the stories told.
The second rule is, of course, inspired by Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed (1970). In a sense it forms the core of playback’s mission – to help create the consciousness that everyone has a story worthy of being told and listened to. In fact, each of us has many such stories.
However, with the focus on the teller’s story, other characters usually remain underdeveloped in the narration and the resulting enactment. Lacking an omniscient playwright, much information is simply not available. For example, Doña Sofia didn’t know anything about the individuals who told her that her son had been deported. She didn’t know their names, ranks, or anything about their lives. In fact, until her son’s phone call ten days later (when she was already in Tijuana), Doña Sofia didn’t even know that these officials were lying to her. Hence, although she was unable to access information about these border agents, their role was nevertheless extremely important for the story to be developed on stage. In a way, it constituted part of the story’s climax.
But then, how to portray the cruel border agents?
As a playback ensemble we had decided early on that, in order to protect storytellers and to avoid distracting from the actual stories, we wouldn’t portrait any violent actions on stage. After all, rarely is the enactment of direct violence important for a story to be fulfilled. However, in this case the important question for us was not one of whether or how to display the actions of a border official, but how to understand such violent behaviors, and whether and how to explain and represent it on stage. To be clear, understanding and explaining must not be confused with agreeing or excusing. Yet in order to understand Sofia’s ordeal, mustn’t one also understand the perpetrator’s motives and why certain types of violence occurred or were not contained by the border agency, for example?
This, of course, makes enacting the story a much more complex event. The focus of the story still had to remain on Sofia: her travels north, how her family had been separated by border control policies, and how a seemingly simple lie by a border agent had turned her life upside down. Sofia did not cast an actor to represent the border agent. Understandably, her story focused on her family and the emotional torture, the fear she and her younger son had gone through during these ten long days. Yet to enact her story the actors felt the need to bring a border agent on stage, opening not only the questions of why the family was separated but also (and maybe more importantly) why some border agents actively lied to Sofia. Said differently, in order to represent Sofia’s story, we needed to somehow represent the perpetrating force that threw Sofia’s life into disarray.
But how? As mentioned, in playback theatre we do not have the luxury of knowing every detail, especially not when it comes to supporting characters. Neither did Sofia know them or their motives. With no written play, the ensemble becomes a team of instantaneous playwrights, endowing characters with motives and emotions. So how are we to represent the excess of violence by these officials? How are we to depict individuals of whom we know nothing except their willingness to exert cruelty beyond the point of duty?
While the role might be small, how we characterize this piece of the story is crucial. In order to really understand Sofia’s ordeal, we need to understand and talk about what exactly caused her pain, and why. How did the border agents relate to her, what might they have felt while lying to her, and why did they do so? These points are essential in establishing not only the characters, but also the relations between them on stage.
This is one instance where our work becomes highly political – even if only subtly so. Answering these questions, representing them on stage, the emerging scene provides somewhat of an analysis or theory of Sofia’s encounter with the US border. Whether we portray the border agents that lied to Sofia as deranged individuals, people that might have been having a bad day, or whether we describe their behavior as the outcome of a larger system at work makes a huge difference in terms of our understanding and the understanding we ask the audience to take on. What explanation we accept and foreground, depends, of course, on our ideological commitment and understanding of how the world works. In the words of Freire (1970) it is in these scenes that we “decode” existential situations.
Back then to the question at hand: how does one understand and enact this kind of cruelty?
Other than the lying, Doña Sofia didn’t ascribe any other cruelty or aggressive behavior to the border agents. To her, they seemed to simply have been doing their job, an observation that undermines any explanation depicting the acts as committed by “deranged individuals having a bad day.”
Hannah Arendt (1963) is often invoked when it comes to explaining the cruelty enacted by US border agents. Reporting on and analyzing the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a former Nazi, who claimed to have “simply” followed orders and the law, Arendt describes him as an ordinary, bland bureaucrat, neither perverted nor sadistic. In a sense, he was terrifyingly normal, acting without any motive other than his career, leading to Arendt’s famous assertion of the “banality of evil.” He was most definitely not the deranged sadist as the prosecution painted him to be. Instead, according to Arendt, Eichmann never understood what he was doing as wrong. This, she explains, was due to a lack of empathy, an inability to take the perspective of another person.
In Arendt’s view Eichmann was not inherently evil, but merely shallow and clueless, a “joiner” in search of a purpose, not an ideologue. Max Weber’s bureaucrats come to mind. Individuals leading compartmentalized lives – dutifully obeying orders to kill and torture while remaining “good family men (and women)” outside work. It is this notion of a motiveless, thoughtless bureaucratic man that Arendt had in mind when describing the banality of evil, how seemingly thoughtless and “banal” acts amount to a non-trivial, non-banal outcome – evil.
It is easy to visualize the inhumanity of immigration laws. In fact, that is what bureaucracy is for, providing a technological, i.e. inhumane (non-social) solution for personal dilemmas. Through the anonymity of the law, responses are technically administered, and hence responsibility remains invisible or even lacking. Eichmann’s statement to have simply followed orders falls into this category.
As actors then, we could simply deny humanity and individual life to border agents, exploring and depicting the cruelty of “the machine.” However, while it might be tempting to represent the border agents as a lifeless machine, such imagery leaves out the question of its human parts, taking away the individual responsibility of the people that constitute the machinery.
Bureaucrats who are “simply following the law” might explain separating Sofia from her 18-year old son. It might even explain the freezing temperatures in la hielera, “the ice-chest,” as asylum seekers name the immigration holding facilities. But can bureaucracy explain the gratuitous cruelty of lying to Sofia about her son, or the insults and abuses refugees experience in detention facilities? How are we to bring to life border agents who destroy water containers left in the desert for refugees, knowing that these containers might make the difference between life and death of a human being?
Others have come to call Arendt’s concept a cliché, yet these critics tend to point to individual monsters as culprits of evil acts, something Arendt refused to invoke for Eichmann. The monster or troubled person narrative provides an immediate relief for wider society, by relegating evil to individual failures (stressors in a person’s life etc.). This kind of disturbed behavior, where the monster is an abnormal individual, is also easy to depict on stage. But does this explanation really capture what is happening on our borders, or are we simply continuing to excuse society’s failure to act by depicting structural problems as individual failures? More importantly, does it do justice to our tellers’ experiences?
Sofia didn’t perceive these border agents as evil at the time of the lie (this changed, once she knew that they indeed were lying). Also, her story is not an exception. In fact, we heard similar stories over and over again. It soon became clear that to present the cruelties enacted by border guards (or other law enforcement officers) as the acts of abnormal monsters, would ignore the structural nature of these acts and the frequency with which they occur. Many exceptions form a pattern.
Eichmann himself might help us understand the mindset of these agents. According to him, he was not simply following orders, but actually tried to follow “the spirit of the orders.” This led him to anticipate orders and to do things he was never directly told to do. Of course, having subordinates who think and act like Eichmann keeps the agency clean. One can easily imagine public relations officers telling the press that lying to Sofia did not represent the agency’s policy, but constituted individual transgressions (the monster explanation). But are these behaviors, however frequent, simply deviations from the norm? Or are they extensions of policies that separate small children from their parents, that have people live in tents in the summer heat of Tijuana?
Around the time of our visit, the US president suggested shooting refugees in the legs to slow them down (BBC 2019), and we all have heard about the racist and threatening comments made by border agents in closed Facebook groups (Kanno-Youngs, 2019). Ought we not to regard these comments and discussions as the spirit of the order that agents might choose to follow? To be clear, the “spirit of the order” does not simply emerge from the president’s comment. In the case of border agents, Trump simply captured much of the raison d’être of border control, voicing what has been urged by many before him. After all, the roots of US border agencies lie in white supremacists’ fears for “their land” and “their race” (Grandin, 2019).
We have come a long way from Sofia’s story to discussing border agents and Hannah Arendt. As the German theatre critic Bertolt Brecht taught us, theatre is not reality and should not strive to become an illusion thereof. Instead, it should provide a space for reflection. In playback theatre, we allow people to reflect on their own stories without actors or audience evaluating and analyzing their behavior. While this is important in relation to the teller, who in turn gets to watch her life enacted on stage, other parts do need interpretation and analysis. What exactly do we need to bring to life? These questions point at the responsibilities we carry not only as actors, but as fellow humans. Don’t we owe it to Doña Sofia to “decode” what it means to be a border agent lying to a refugee mother – just because he or she can? Aren’t we in desperate need to explore the why of their actions, if we want our scenes to make sense, and, more importantly, if we want to prevent these and other cruelties from continuing? How are we to guarantee the “never again” of the Holocaust, if we cannot understand the seemingly banal actions of US border agents? Following Hannah Arendt, one way out of the conundrum is to strip the border agents of their exceptionalism. For them, Sofia and her children are apparently not persons but refugees, aliens, numbers, and probably worse. They should have been “shot in the legs.” Lying to them was simply part of the spirit of the order to protect “our homeland.”
Of course, this line of thought harbors a dangerous potentiality, as it means that no special monstrosity is needed to be cruel and violent. Everyone has that potential, hence the banality of evil Arendt evoked. This is a dangerous truth, yet, it also harbors a place to work from. Cruelty could happen anywhere, but does not happen everywhere, Hannah Arendt tells us, insisting that moral choice remains even under totalitarianism. Moral choices have political consequences even when the chooser is politically powerless.
To be sure, US border agents do not live under a system of terror, and not all border agents arbitrarily lie to refugees. Hence, we might want to focus on the ones that do not simply follow orders or, worse, amplify the spirit of the orders. Most people will comply but some people will not, says Arendt. Having compassion for the people that do not comply takes away Eichmann’s claim of innocence. It refuses to allow border agents to normalize “simply following orders,” however cruel. Arendt’s friend Mary McCarthy made this point when she insisted that Eichmann, according to Arendt’s own description, lacked an important human quality: the capacity for thought, consciousness – conscience. McCarthy goes on to ask whether lacking these human qualities (and one might add empathy to the list) doesn’t make Eichmann a monster (Brightman 1996).
These considerations seem to be key in understanding and enacting the border agents that lied to Sofia. They are a good starting point to counter any normalization of cruelty and violence we encounter. “The banality of evil” refers to the fact that evil can be enacted through a series of seemingly banal acts. It does not refer to evil itself as banal. As a good bureaucrat, Eichmann separated his actions – driven by orders – from the outcome of the actions or their effects. In other words, he lacked consciousness and empathy for others. While McCarthy might be right that this lack of basic human qualities makes him a monster, I would add that this type of monster is unfortunately rather commonplace. In fact, administrating without empathy is the hallmark of a neoliberal bureaucratic world.
In other words, yes, the lying border agents were monsters, they lacked empathy and conscience, while performing seemingly banal acts. They weren’t deranged individuals having a bad day and clearly no fault can be found in Sofia and her family. The border agents didn’t know more about Sofia than she knew about them – and they clearly didn’t care. They probably do not even remember her, or their lies, and if it hadn’t been for Sofia telling her story, neither would we.
What did we learn from all this? As a theatre ensemble we realized that as responsible playback (or improv in general) actors we need more than simple acting skills. We need to know the context within which the stories emerge. We need to pay attention not only to the main story line – here Sofia’s ordeal – but also to explore details such as the motivations of border agents. It is here that our acting collides with our ideological commitments and understandings of the world. It is here that we offer additional spaces of reflection. It is here that we take a stance. Hannah Arendt ended her book directing herself at Eichmann:
“And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations – as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world – we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you.” (Arendt 1963)
As improv performers, we (sometimes) hold control of the stage. For that brief moment in time the stage is the universe. We pick and choose what to focus on, what to bring to life and what not. As an ensemble, we chose to not have Sofia share the stage with these border agents. We did enact them, yet tried to do it in a way that made them flat humans, humans who lack the main mark of humanity, empathy. While this made them monsters, we did not want to make them special in any sense. While they were enacted on stage as human-like, we avoided attributing any sense of story or emotion to them. That way we tried to illuminate their lack of conscience and empathy, dismantling the banality of evil for what it was, a form of monstrosity that often goes unknown.
Refusing to invest the border agents with life contrasted with the spontaneous acts of a 10-year-old girl from the audience. She simply entered the stage to support the tellers by hugging them while they were telling their stories. This simple gesture of empathy and support contrasted wonderfully with the lifeless actions of the border agents, offering hope and solution in a moment of despair. This action also reaffirmed our conviction of the role of playback theatre as an act of active and empathic listening and a form to create community.
 Sofia is a pseudonym.
Bibliography and References
Arendt, H. (1963) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York. New York: Viking Press.
BBC (2019). Donald Trump ‘suggested shooting migrants in the legs’. Oct. 2nd. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-49901878
Boal, A. (1985). Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Theatre Communications Group.
Brightman, C. (Ed.) (1996). Between Friends: The correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975. San Diego, CA: Harvest Books.
Fox, J. (1986). Acts of Service: Spontaneity, Commitment, Tradition in the Nonscripted Theatre. New Paltz, NY: Tusitala.
Fox, J. & Dauber, H. (eds.) (1999). Gathering Voices: Essays on Playback Theatre. New Paltz, NY: Tusitala.
Freire, P. (1970/2018). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.
Grandin, G. (2019). “The Border Patrol Has Been a Cult of Brutality Since 1924.” The Intercept, Jan. 12th. https://theintercept.com/2019/01/12/border-patrol-history/
Kanno-Youngs, Z. (2019). “62 Border Agents Belonged to Offensive Facebook Group, Investigation Finds.” New York Times, July 15. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/15/us/politics/border-patrol-facebook-group.html
Salas, J. (1993, 2013). Improvising Real Life: Personal Story in Playback Theatre, 20th Anniversary Edition. New Paltz, NY: Tusitala.
Norbert Ross is an Anthropologist at Vanderbilt University. For the last three years he has worked on topics related to children and violence in El Salvador. As part of his work, he co-founded the NGO ACTUEMOS! to combat different forms of violence through the arts (and specifically theatre). He trained in playback theatre at the Centre for Playback Theatre in New Paltz and established ACTUEMOS! PLAYBACK, a playback performance group with young Salvadorian actors. ACTUEMOS! PLAYBACK has conducted many shows in El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico. Norbert Ross also teaches a course on theatre and social change at Vanderbilt University.