Playback Theatre and Social Change (from Personal Stories in Public Spaces: Essays on Playback Theatre by Its Founders)

Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas

This post is a short excerpt from the new book Personal Stories in Public Spaces: Essays on Playback Theatre by Its Founders, co-authored by Jonathan Fox and myself. The book brings together previously published work as well as essays written for this volume. The excerpt below is from the co-written opening chapter, A Changing Landscape.

Playback Theatre and Social Change

By Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas

As a theatre movement, Playback has developed a strong though not universal focus on social change. What were the steps in this evolution?

As young adults we were firmly identified with progressive values—anti-war, anti-violence, feminist, critical of the capitalist order, strongly skeptical about mainstream politics. Although not at that time very attuned to environmental issues, we chose to live quite lightly on the earth, with few material possessions. We were staunch supporters of civil rights, though with a superficial awareness of the full complexities of racism—likewise our knowledge of the struggles of gay and lesbian people. (The term LGBTQ did not exist then.)

It was with this sociopolitical stance that we launched Playback Theatre in 1975. Like It’s All Grace, it was an all-white group of people in our 20s and 30s, varied in our class and educational backgrounds. With little explicit discussion, we expected that our theatre would in some way contribute to a more just and peaceful society. After all, key to the Playback vision was the profoundly egalitarian claim that everyone has a story and deserves a place to tell it, and to be heard with compassion and respect. But our sense of Playback as a force for change was vague, not much more than an orientation for the focus on artistic realization that was in the foreground.For the first few years, our attention was more on finding the rituals and aesthetic forms that would bring our vision to fruition, to render it a viable and powerful form of theatre, and to have it be recognized as such. We also strove to deepen our skills in hearing and responding to any story no matter how complex or sensitive. We experimented with many forms and structures for enacting stories, discarding most of them after a few rehearsals. A few took hold and remain basic to most Playback performing: fluid sculptures, pairs, and the five-part sequence of a Playback scene.

Over time, many of us (by now including practitioners beyond the original company) came to realize that the idealistic view upon which Playback was based—that everyone’s story had value—contained within it a call to social justice. Voices of the poor, of people of color, of immigrants, of women, of children—in fact, of all who do not belong to the traditional holders of power and visibility—have been actively suppressed for most of US history. Other cultures hold similar patterns. The long struggle for equity is a struggle to be heard: to tell one’s story and know that it has been comprehended and remembered; for cumulative voices to burst out of the silence and compel change. Our Playback stage was a place where the unheard voices could be heard, the untold stories told—if our awareness, historical knowledge, and interactive skills were robust enough.

There have been inflection points throughout Playback’s history, often at gatherings, that have jolted our community into awareness. At the international conference in Olympia, Washington, in 1995, DC Playback, a multiracial company from Washington DC presented a stark analysis of racism within the Playback world. Uncomfortable as it was, it launched many of us on the unending journey of learning and changing, of commitment to building an ethos that fully acknowledges the realities of privilege and injustice, and the imperative to do all we can to address them. Later gatherings—notably a regional conference in the northeast US in 2000—continued this process of education and discovery, not without stormy confrontations and tears. By no means everyone welcomed the uncompromising focus of the organizers. For us, Jo and Jonathan, it seemed salutary and necessary and we stood with the courageous people of color who insisted on making explicit the patterns of injustice that so often—out of white obliviousness or weariness and wariness on the part of those who are oppressed—go unacknowledged.

As civil rights leaders always remind us, the path to racial justice is long and maddeningly circuitous, impeded by the forces of inertia and amnesia. For example, at a more recent US gathering, an African-American woman told a story in which the central point about racism—clearly present though obliquely expressed in this lyrical story—was ignored in the enactment. Another Black woman spoke up, furious at the performing team and at the mostly white audience for not intervening. Passionate discussions ensued about the importance of addressing race and racism in Playback. It became clear that almost none of the 100 or so people present knew about the intense explorations that had taken place in our community years before and had led to significant changes we thought were indelible. They weren’t. It was a lesson in the need for constant attention and vigilance.

Slow as our progress might be, these ongoing disruptions to the majority-white, heterosexual, middle-class culture of Playback Theatre, and the committed follow-up on the part of those who embrace them, have prompted our stage to open itself more and more to stories that go beyond the inward-looking personal stories that had been our initial focus. Many in the Playback world began in a more concerted way to use Playback to address inequities, injustices, and major fault lines both within and between our societies: international conferences and even regional gatherings can include people from 30 or 40 countries, a microcosm of our troubled and unjust world order. Political divisions and oppressions come into focus, insensitivity and injustice are rightfully challenged. At the 1997 international conference in Perth, Australia, gay and lesbian playbackers shared stories in an open workshop-performance (non-gay participants were welcome to join “us perverts,” as one of the instigators said in her ironic Kiwi way). They emerged from their session to challenge the rest of the conference participants to “meet us halfway on the bridge.” The European regional gathering in Amsterdam in 2014 saw friction between Russians and Ukrainians, Palestinians and Israelis, and among Dutch participants bitterly divided about a beloved Christmas tradition now seen as racist.

Even with Playback’s resilient and capacious rituals, even with the listening skills that we bring, it is not easy to emerge from such moments with increased understanding as well as the inevitable bruises and frustration.

Personal Stories in Public Spaces: Essays on Playback Theatre by Its Founders, by Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas, is published by Tusitala Publishing and available from the publisher,, (print and ebook), and through bookstores.
ISBN 978-1-7342250-0-6
320 pages.



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