The Shamanic Actor: Playback Theatre Acting as Shamanism

The Shamanic Actor is a fascinating discussion of parallels between acting in Playback Theatre and the spiritual tradition of shamanism, written by someone who is deeply versed in both. Simon’s article, originally written for the Playback Theatre Leadership course, appeared in the Russian-published, English-language anthology Playback Theatre Practice: Selected Articles (2015). It is republished here (with minor changes) by permission of the editor. To order the anthology, please email Elizaveta Zagryazhskaya at


Playback Theatre Acting as Shamanism

By Simon Floodgate



…it is true that we sometimes see Playback actors…who are remarkably effective in finding and playing the metaphor, as if they have an intuitive understanding of the necessity of metaphor.

I think these are the shamanistic actors: they ‘feel and know’ things and are able to communicate them to the audience in a riveting way… (Robb, 2002, p. 2)

Let me begin with a story.

It is November, 2001 and the day after I have split up with my then girlfriend (a significant fact, I believe). I am involved in a Playback Theatre workshop and performance in Devon, UK with the company in which I was then a member, Four Winds and Fire. The performance took place in the afternoon and one of the stories was from a young man about his difficulty to be creative in his life and his desire to turn to writing.

We had chosen to playback the story in Chorus. We were a company of only three with no musician and Chorus was a form we regularly rehearsed with and one that we felt intuitively drawn to in order to produce good Playback.

In the midst of the enactment a whole section of story emerged concerned with the teller going to Africa and the use of feet became a strong feature. The use of feet continued as a strong motif throughout the enactment. As we were performing I could hear his very vocal reaction as we performed this section. He was reacting to the fact that we were playing back, metaphorically, something that had actually occurred but which he had not consciously verbally expressed. It was clear that we had hit upon truth. Following the enactment and in closure, the young man explained how a trip to Africa and living barefoot with indigenous peoples had somehow been instrumental in helping him to turn to a career of writing.

At the end of the performance we were going around the circle of participants, witnessing each person’s response to the work before we ate food together. I sat in peace knowing that we had served this small community. As the participants talked about their feeling of having been fed by the work I, myself, sat quietly feeling fully nourished by the stories that they had so generously shared. This was in distinct contrast to the utterly low feeling I had arrived with following the break-up from the previous evening. I was feeling devastated, alone and extremely vulnerable. Only a few hours later I felt that I had done some of my best performance work in Playback and was feeling whole and at peace.

I tell this story for two specific reasons. Firstly, because of the significance of the emotional place I was in when I entered into this particular performance: one of intense vulnerability. Secondly, because of the appearance of part of the young man’s story which he had not told but that appeared during the enactment. This was a physical metaphor which came not expressly from the Teller or from the PT actors’ conscious minds. So a question arises as to where it did come from…

It is a Performer’s job to transport an audience to another dimension of experience, just as the shaman’s role is to act as a bridge between the worlds. (Saaille, 1997, p.23)

In this paper I intend to explore the connection between the role of the Shaman and that of the Playback actor. My contention is that the PT actor serves a similar function to that of the Shaman though this role, it could be argued, is divided between the conductor, the actor and the musician. My focus in this essay, however, is to argue that the Shaman is the natural ancestor of the Playback actor and that the actor in Playback Theatre is truly the shamanic actor. Continue reading “The Shamanic Actor: Playback Theatre Acting as Shamanism”

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

Standing Up: Playback Theatre and School Bullying by Jo Salas

This month it’s my turn to contribute a post. With kind permission from the editors, this article is excerpted and adapted from my chapter “Stories in the Moment: Playback Theatre for Building Community and Justice,” published in Acting Together: Performance and the Creative Transformation of Conflict, Vol 2, eds. Cohen, Varea and Walker, published by New Village Press in 2011. (I encourage readers to explore this remarkable anthology of writings on theatre that addresses conflict in many parts of the world.)

“Standing Up: Playback Theatre and School Bullying” describes and evaluates the approach pioneered by Hudson River Playback Theatre in upstate New York, now used by other PT companies as well.

(Link to Russian translation by Irina Khrustaleva: Джо-Салас-Плейбэк-театр-и-буллинг-в-школе-редакция-для-публикации)

Standing Up: Playback Theatre and School Bullying

by Jo Salas

Emma—not her real name–is a seventh grader, about 12 years old. She’s small for her age, slender, very smart, very artistic. She’s not part of the “popular” crowd in her class. Emma’s interests are different, she doesn’t make friends easily, she can be a bit sarcastic and prickly. For a long time, she’s been the target of daily, relentless, cruel bullying. She comes to school every day knowing that other kids are going to make fun of her, isolate her, and humiliate her. She feels powerless to stop it. She’s talked to her teachers and her parents. Her parents have talked to the principal. The principal has scolded the bullies. Nothing seems to help. Telling her story in a Playback Theatre performance, she says: “It feels like they’re tearing my heart out.” All she wants is for the other kids to leave her alone. She would also like it if a couple of the other girls would ask her about her artwork.

Emma has five more years of school. She doesn’t know how she’s going to survive.

What can we, both adults and young people, do to stop this kind of suffering? Continue reading “Standing Up: Playback Theatre and School Bullying by Jo Salas”