This article offers an important reflection on Playback Theatre in a world where authoritarian intolerance is becoming common, threatening to silence the stories of ordinary citizens. Larry Ng’s insights are both inspiring and pragmatic. The techniques and ethical principles he describes potentially allow us not only to continue sharing Playback Theatre in situations of political repression but also to navigate unsafe conditions that may arise anywhere.
Being a Fully Ethical Conductor When It is NOT Safe to Share
Being a conductor in Playback Theatre is enjoyable and meaningful, especially when you feel that you are approaching the heart of the story during the interview and assisting the formation of red threads of the dialogue among stories throughout the performance. It is like the joy and satisfaction of being a gardener, facilitating the growth of something precious and amazing, and making connections for the formation of harmony out of a richness of diversity. But Playback conducting is also an exhausting and extremely challenging job, especially when the performance happens in a setting where the audience may not feel safe enough to share.
Ideally, this should not be the case for Playback Theatre, because we Playbackers 1) trust the spontaneity of the audience as potential storytellers; 2) expect ourselves to be able to create a space safe enough to share; 3) treasure their spontaneous decision to share; and 4) assume that the audience has chosen to be present. However, the latter two conditions may not be always present. Only the first two are totally under our control.
In the real world, there are situations in which audience members may not feel safe to share freely, regardless of how much effort the performing team makes and how well they work. There are also many situations where a cautious and responsible enough conductor should not assume that the situation is in fact safe, just because the teller feels so.
There are also tricky situations in which an audience, or at least part of an audience, are not there because they’ve chosen to come: the Playback team is hired or invited by another party with more institutional power. In such a case, even when the performance has been arranged out of good will, the actual show will still be tricky and sticky due to the asymmetric power relationship between the organizers and the audience.
From my practical experiences in the last decade, I can think of three kinds of such challenging situations, the reality of which is often either overlooked, underestimated or avoided by Playbackers. Reflection upon such situations can benefit not only the conductor but also all Playbackers: such reflection can make us face the reality during the process.
I will share in this article some of the discoveries that have been helpful to me as a conductor in unsafe conditions, namely, the possibilities and skills for conducting around the unspeakable or the unmentionable “X”, and conducting through metaphor.
Playback Theatre under certain social-politically sensitive conditions
The first kind of such situation is Playback performance in a social-politically sensitive context. Because Playback Theatre generally emphasizes community, interpersonal relationship, dialogue and inclusiveness; and probably because many Playback practices did not develop in highly politicalized social contexts with a strong influence from the regime, Playbackers and Playback Theatre tend to be apolitical and overcharged with a sense of warmth and peacefulness. Therefore, the “normal” way to do Playback Theatre would appear unprepared to face existing social-political influences in context, especially when such influences come from the current regime itself.
One such Playback performance in a social-politically sensitive scenario that I experienced was an outdoor performance in the frontline of protest related to a social movement. The purpose of the performance was to provide a platform for the public to process their experiences and emotions. Under the spirit of sharing, a performance of this kind does not aim at advocacy directly, but more at social dialogue in which not only people supporting the social movement are welcome, but also people with different political opinions or personal experiences. Ideally, they have a chance of conversation in which they can exchange perspectives and feelings.
My experience of this kind of outdoor performance was around ten years ago, 2014, in Hong Kong, during the intense period that many people now call the “Umbrella Movement”. The audience was a mixture of those who were interested or curious and members of the general public who knew nothing about what we were doing. Although it was a time when people in Hong Kong still believed that we had so-called “freedom of speech” as it is understood internationally—the belief that we can express opinions about politics and society freely without any political-legal consequences–it was still hard for audience members to actually share. This was because we performed in an open space on the street with pedestrians moving around, and the atmosphere at the frontline site of the Occupy protest was generally tense. People joining the social movement there were cautious about the possibility that police or gangsters, hired to make chaos in the crowd, might appear at any time.
It was precious to have a social dialogue like this in a time when people had little chance to process their feelings and experiences about the ongoing social movement.
With luck and blessing, despite these difficulties, it was finally a satisfying experience. Deep stories about how the social situation impacted personal lives and family relationships were shared, and a small part of the audience that stayed from the beginning to the end came closer to each other and formed a stronger bonding. Many of them continued their exchanges after the performance. Just considering such a result, it looked alright. It was precious to have a social dialogue like this in a time when people had little chance to process their feelings and experiences about the ongoing social movement.
Nevertheless, this may have been a “lucky”, temporary, and hence especially precious occasion. The situation became even more complicated in the following years and the scenario is totally different nowadays. Since the National Security Law was passed and activated on 1st July 2020 in Hong Kong (i.e., six years after the “Umbrella Movement”), our “freedom of speech” was “redefined” and “reinterpreted” officially in Hong Kong. Outdoor Playback Theatre related to any social-political theme became highly risky, almost impossible, for most of the people.
We Playbackers must be reflective and cautious about whether it is still suitable for us to perform, considering the possible consequences; and how to do it if we do choose to go ahead. If done casually, this kind of outdoor public performance will become “unethical” and “irresponsible” because it can put not only the performers but also the audience or even their relatives and friends at risk if they share their stories in an open, public arena. Any personal exposure in public settings can be unpredictably dangerous for a person and those in relation to this person. Even indoor Playback Theatre raises controversial issues of ethics and safety for similar reasons. As a reality, it would be problematic in Hong Kong now even making indoor Playback performances in NGOs related to social welfare, or in their venues, because the social welfare field is a target area where this new law is enforced.
Sadly, cases like this, or in even more extreme conditions, are not new in human history. There are many other places in today’s world in which Playback Theatre would encounter similar conditions. Thus, maybeit is really time for Playbackers to seriously reflect about both the ethical and technical issues of conducting and performing “personal stories” publicly (indoor or outdoor) under constraining social-political circumstances in which public discussion of public affairs becomes sensitive; and under any regime that takes a genuinely free “freedom of speech” as a threatening enemy.
To help us think about such situations, simply remember the historical periods of Nazism or Communist East Germany when secret police and “unofficial informants” were prevalent. Would sharing “personal” stories in “public” have been safe, and should we naively encourage the public to share their personal stories openly in such contexts?
Since the birth of Playback Theatre, for almost five decades, many Playbackers, or the “mainstream” of Playback Theatre, have had the “luck” and “luxury” to explore this beautiful practice in social contexts that are closer to the ideal conditions for Playback Theatre, without any need to be highly sensitive and cautious about the social-political risk. In such contexts a “good enough” Playback Theatre show is possible so long as Playbackers create a safe space for the audiences to share. But now, with the whole world getting crazier in the last couple of years, we have been forced to become aware of underestimated issues of Playback Theatre in the face of the social-political reality.
Are there other ways out if we still treasure our right to share personal stories in a community context? If we do not want to give it up totally, even if a regime that strives for a kind of totalitarian domination may utilize these opportunities for checking and controlling people?
For a Playback conductor, conducting in social-politically sensitive circumstances raises both ethical and technical questions. Technically, how can we invite stories from the public when the social-political atmosphere is unsafe, penetrating even corners in daily life? Ethically, how can we protect our tellers, especially during the interview? They may be willing to share, but perhaps not fully cautious about the potential risks of sharing, not just for themselves but also for their relatives and friends. Are there techniques and skills that can make sharing possible and safer, despite such concerns and limitations?
As both crisis and chance, it is time for Playback Theatre and Playbackers to undergo an evolution to become more social-politically sensitive.
Playback Theatre in workplaces
Political regime is not the only source of pressure that can make Playback performance challenging and risky, especially conducting. I want to discuss two kinds of challenging situations that often happen in relatively “peaceful” and democratic societies.
One such kind of setting is a performance within a retreat or training day of an organization, where the audience consists of colleagues of similar rank or from different ranks (implying that the seniors/bosses may be present). Self-exposure in any degree in workplace settings can be risky. This type of Playback Theatre application is quite common: some Playback companies find it a good way to gain income that can sustain their companies and the livelihood of the performers. However, practitioners may not be aware of the ethical (or ethical-technical) cautions required in such cases.
The sharing of both personal stories and stories about work may bring unexpected negative effects to the tellers or those who work with the tellers. In addition, it is often not the choice of the people in such settings to join the Playback Theatre performance, as it is embedded in their staff trainings. They come because it is the order of their boss, or the event is arranged by the human resource department of the corporation and it is part of their duties to attend.
In such cases, it is technically not easy to invite stories from the audience. Stories that are offered may tend to be superficial. Ethically, the conductor has also a responsibility to protect the teller by skillfully reminding him/her (in an explicit or indirect manner) about the nature of this setting in order to increase the teller’s awareness about what to share and how to share, without killing the teller’s impulse.
At the same time, the Playback team and especially the conductor need to remember that they have also an ethical and professional responsibility to fulfill the contract with the organization that has hired them to do the job for its benefit, or for the expected functions from its perspective. The conductor here is in the middle of tension because he/she has a double and possibly contradictory ethical responsibility both to tellers (mostly employees) and to the corporation.
We conductors sometimes think of ourselves as skillful “story-hunters.” But what is more important is how the people, including both teller and audience, are benefited meaningfully by the sharing of stories (while also respecting the purpose of the client organization). A responsible conductor does not put the teller at risk just because the conductor wants to prove his/her success by getting a story. The conductor is “professional” in such a way that he/she should have a higher awareness about safety than the teller, so that the teller can really rely on the conductor’s conducting. “Professional” here means first of all “ethical” and then “ethically skillful” (skillful enough to serve ethical purposes), instead of merely “skillful,” I believe.
Playback Theatre in school settings
Another type of challenging setting in which an audience may not feel safe and may not come to the performance voluntarily is a school setting, especially secondary schools with teenagers as audience. Once again, these are very common, so that Playbackers often find themselves performing in such settings.
Self-exposure is complicated for teenagers. They love and hate visibility at the same time. In group scenarios in the presence of peers, they have high anxiety about how their peers see them. They fear judgment and prejudice. Therefore, school performances are very hard to conduct. In addition, quite often, the schools here in Hong Kong usually request Playbackers to perform for large audiences; it is common to have 80 to 160 audience members, because of managerial thinking about “cost-effectiveness” and “impact factors” as required by funding and distributing resources.
Not only is it very hard for teenagers to share in such a large group of peers, but also the external environment is often problematic. Very often the sight lines of the audience are terrible, with no differentiation of level in the auditorium. This makes the audience easily detached or distracted from the show and brings additional difficulties for doing Playback Theatre.
…the organizers in their institutional roles often insist their own norms, with their own administrative calculations and agenda.
This raises also a question about why Playbackers agree to such problematic conditions and whether they have tried their best to negotiate with the school to fight for an environment with more reasonable conditions. Nevertheless, there are also occasions in which Playbackers face a dilemma between not wanting to compromise and grasping a rare chance to promote Playback Theatre and provide services to certain populations in need. Meanwhile the organizers in their institutional roles often insist their own norms, with their own administrative calculations and agenda.
Besides the difficulties in school settings, another challenge unrelated to the environment is the cultural fact that teenagers in this country (probably similar in different Asian areas) are generally not used to expressing their feelings. A majority of them lack the “emotional literacy” to articulate their inner lives and internal reactions to different life situations and to the world. This is a challenge especially for the conductor, but it is not a bad one because this makes Playback Theatre even more meaningful if we can open a space for them to move beyond their usual coping mode and establish an atmosphere in which they can feel safe enough to share.
In response to all these factors, there are a few things I especially pay attention to when I conduct teenagers, besides the basic tasks of conducting:
I have to fully utilize my skills to assist them to articulate not only the story but also the feelings at different moments; metaphors are usually very helpful in this aspect.
I have to help them to catch those “moments” which they themselves might easily overlook, ignore or even devalue. I invite them to focus and get into those moments, so that they don’t rush through them, telling the story like news reporting.
I have to listen with an embodied emotional attunement, so as to help the teenagers to “feel” their feelings concretely as they are mirrored back by me. In Psychodrama’s terms, I have to “double” for them, especially physically, while I conduct their sharing. (A personal note: I learnt a lot about this skill/quality/possibility from Veronica Needa, whom I respect very much from the bottom of my heart as a Playback conductor, and who passed away at the time of this writing. It is a great loss for Playback community…) Such embodied attunement can also make teens feel “permission” to feel on the unconscious level. It is important for them to feel they are being listened to concretely and physically.
I have to explicitly honor aspects of the story, or even the story itself which the adolescents consider as “trivial” or “nothing special”. I need to listen to their unspoken moods and have a sharp eye to see the “meanings” and “values” therein. I need to find different ways to articulate them, so that the teenagers can see what they might have missed on the conscious level when they told the story. As a conductor, I have to value their stories more than they did at first.
I have to show clearly and explicitly my respect to them as an equal human being, because in school settings here, “students” are seen as subordinate beings with lower status. I need to make an additional effort to balance the pre-existing unbalance.
Nevertheless, having done all this, the conducting is still difficult and delicate, because the environment is not totally safe and their participation is embedded in an asymmetry of power that is almost inevitable, just as it is in the settings of workplace, or in the social-politically sensitive occasions, which we mentioned earlier. Therefore, the development of new conducting skills for such challenging situations are needed, practically and ethically speaking.
Exploring possible responses to challenges for conducting
In response to the sad fact in Hong Kong that “freedom of speech” was officially “redefined” to a version that is detached from the global understanding of the concept, making public sharing of personal stories sensitive or even dangerous, I have started to think seriously about how Playback Theatre can still be possible, and how conducting can adapt. Even if political surveillance becomes even more radical and all-encompassing, we will try our best not to give up sharing our stories via Playback Theatre. I ask myself: Are there still ways for the teller to tell their stories, indirectly but at least safely, where actors and musicians can still have “clear enough” materials to play back?
Yes, it is not ideal even if it is possible, because Playback Theatre inherently encourages direct, authentic and frank sharing of personal stories in a state free from anxiety. But in a situation that is not ideal but nevertheless real, is it possible for us to share indirectly and still authentically? Will it be at least better than nothing? Will there be still authentic connections among teller, conductor, actors, musicians and audience?
From such thinking, I have started to experiment and develop two directions of conducting techniques and strategies:
1) conducting a personal story around something unspeakable (e.g., secret, trauma, etc.)
2) conducting a personal story totally dressed as a metaphor/metaphorical story, in order to prepare in advance for the worst social-political situation to come. Interestingly, later I found that some of these discoveries and new devices can also be applied in workplace and school settings, the other challenging settings mentioned above.
Conducting personal stories around something unspeakable
By personal stories with something unspeakable, I refer to the kind of sharing when the teller thinks or feels that a part of the story cannot or should not be told in a public circumstance, but they still want to share their personal story in a realistic manner. There are three main principles in conducting a story where a key part cannot be disclosed:
It is still possible for the conductor to guide the teller to tell clearly about how he/she was affected in manifold ways by that unspeakable part of experience (e.g., the secret, trauma, etc.), an unknown X for the performing team;
The flow or skeleton of the whole personal journey on both meaning and feeling level can still be traced and outlined;
Facing this unknown X, the conductor, actors and musicians may focus on where would the heart of story be, instead of what the heart of story is.
In practice, questions like the following would be helpful during the conductor’s interview:
“Was that event something you expected and were prepared to face, or did it break out suddenly?”
“How would you describe yourself in reaction when that event was happening?”,
“What did you say in your heart when it happened?”
“What impact does that event bring you, or how was your life affected?”, etc.
These questions can help to go around the unspeakable, while the effects of the unspeakable can still be disclosed and described in relation to the other parts of the story as a context. In this way the heart of the story can still be located and felt. What concerns us is the teller’s life or experience of life as it is expressed via his/her story, or narration of his/her story, as it is affected by that unspeakable incident, instead of the incident itself.
In addition, for this kind of story, it is often helpful and safer to firstly ask the teller how he/she would sum up the story as a whole. How would he or she describe the story if we saw it from a wide shot like an outline? This gives the conductor, the teller, the other performers and the audience a sense of the landscape of the story prior to going through the journey. The teller can also get a sense that he/she is in total control about the telling of the story, the distance that he/she maintains during storytelling, and how the story is told, while the conductor can have a sharper sense about where there could be sensitive or intense areas of the story, what kind of caution would be required, and how he/she would be able to support the teller correspondingly. In certain problematic settings, such as those mentioned earlier, a conductor who has sufficient social awareness or sensitivity to group dynamics may sense at the outset that this story will include an “unspeakable” or “unmentionable” element and thus chooses to use these questions from the outset. Or, even in an ordinary public performance, a conductor may also sense such need during the initial greeting and first few interactions with the teller, and then decide on this initial question—for example, if a teller appears to be in an ambivalent state, raising his/her hand to share but showing anxiety or hesitation and not knowing how to start once he/she sits in the teller’s chair.
Conducting totally via metaphors
The second direction of my experimenting is conducting totally in metaphorical media, so that the teller can share his or her personal story with a magic dress of metaphor. Yes, it is radical, but I imagined this possibility because reality itself is turning to be radical. It is not unlikely that in the coming future any sharing of personal stories in public occasions will become more and more dangerous in Hong Kong. It could also be useful knowledge for conductors in extreme situations elsewhere under the kind of regime that most people around the globe would call “totalitarian.” (However, in some countries, the sad and absurd reality is that this word, or other similar words, simply do not exist, or are not allowed to exist, according to the official ideology). I imagine that even in such radical contexts, the natural need and impulse to share personal experience would still exist; therefore, as a “compromise” for survival while still keeping a bit of humanity, can we share via metaphors completely, as an alternative or practical compromise? If so, how should conducting skills be adjusted accordingly? Can this kind of sharing still achieve authentic connection and sense of togetherness?
During exploration and experimentation with some colleagues and students, I find that sharing in this metaphorical manner is possible. It is similar to what I often do in my clinical practice as a drama therapist, especially with my clients in their adolescence, when I focus mainly on whether the teller can express him/herself and his/her feelings in this metaphorical manner. Despite being indirect, this way of sharing is creative, for both the teller and conductor.
To begin my conducting in this “compromised” manner of indirectness, I often start by asking “What do you look like and feel like in this story, if you describe yourself by a metaphor?”, “What does the situation feel like at the beginning of the story if you say it through a metaphor?”, or “Metaphorically speaking, how would you describe the world of your story? Is it like a forest, a ship on the ocean, somewhere above the clouds, a maze in the underworld, or…..?” Compared with the ordinary, direct way of conducting, more effort is required to assist the teller to develop the metaphor and the world in which this metaphorical story unfolds, and also to find the metaphorical images of other significant characters in the story, especially because not all tellers are used to expressing him/herself in this way.
this method tries to avoid enacting a story abstractly or with a random series of metaphors, hoping that the teller will project meaning onto it.
After that, it is crucial for the conductor to give special care to the explication of the narrative structure and dramatic moments, with even more attention on these items than how we would do in “normal” conducting. Otherwise the metaphor may turn into a very nice, imaginative image which is very hard for the actors to enact as a series of happenings unfolding in time. In other words, this method tries to avoid enacting a story abstractly or with a random series of metaphors, hoping that the teller will project meaning onto it. Meaning is considered more than mood, and narrative structure and dramaturgy are considered to be the container or skeleton of meaning. Sometimes, after the momentum of the metaphor has been kicked off and the teller is in a creative state of indirect expression and association, it is still helpful to guide the teller to think about a key moment, or several key moments in this “metaphorical story”, as the anchor(s) for the actors and musicians to dig deeper to catch the underlying feelings and humanity.
Experientially, sharing in such a metaphorical manner can allow the tellers to express themselves, not just as a catharsis but also as a chance to re-articulate and to process their past once again, because the teller knows well about the projective relevance between the metaphorical images and his/her experiences in the real story. Nevertheless, the main challenge for the conductor is on behalf of the actors (for musicians it is easier) and the audience, to help them catch the feelings and make sense of the sharing. In any kind of Playback Theatre, it is important for the conductor to remember that he or she is responsible for taking care of these two parties as well as the teller. However, when it comes to this kind of metaphorical storytelling, it becomes crucial. If the actors get lost, they may not know how to dramatize the enactment effectively; if the audience feels lost, they will lose interest and detach from the teller’s sharing, and hence the teller will lose support from the community.
Therefore, when conducting a story through metaphor, on a technical level, I would keep reminding myself to pay extra attention to 1) explicating the narrative/dramatic structure of the story, 2) highlighting what kind of dramatic moments exist in the story, and 3) zooming in on key images that are emotionally charged within the metaphorical narration, because such structure, moments and images can help both the actors and audience to grasp the meanings and feelings, and connect with the humanity in the story. Especially for the actors, I also need to guide the teller to articulate some key lines for the metaphorical characters. These lines can go beyond the metaphorical images and touch the same humanity and deep feeling that the teller would express if sharing in a direct, non-metaphorical manner, without leaking too much information. In other words, these lines are shared by the metaphorical characters and the actual characters in teller’s real story, so that they can have the same power no matter if they are said by a metaphorical character or a realistic character. Thus, it is a useful way that the conductor can help the actors during metaphorical conducting.
Possibilities of wider applications
For me, developing skills in these two directions of conducting were originally just a preparation for the probable upcoming hard time in my homeland’s future. But later I realized that some of these skills can be very useful in other situations when the teller wants to share but does not have a sense of safety or internal clarity. In such applications, these skills may be used in a modified way, mixed with our usual more direct way of conducting. They can be combined in different proportions.
For example, when working with teenage students in school settings, as mentioned earlier, there are some tellers who may want to share but once they sit on the teller’s chair, they suddenly feel so nervous and unsafe that they do not know how to start, even if the conductor helps by asking “When did the story start?” or “How would you describe yourself in the story?”. Or similarly, when the sharing comes close to an intense part, the teller may fall into moments of stuckness or blankness, because of both the emotional intensity and a heightened awareness of the presence of peers that amplifies everything. In such cases, the skills of asking indirectly around the unspeakable part, or the skills of asking questions through metaphors did help me a lot. Similarly, in those staff retreat settings, also mentioned earlier, when staff members feel unsafe to share directly, I can also ask for sharing about merely feelings first, and then try to “concretize” the situation or the story in a metaphorical or partly metaphorical way. On the other hand, if a staffer has inadequate awareness about the potential risk of leaking information or expressing opinions during his/her sharing, I as conductor can also guide the teller to share in a metaphorical way that is more indirect and hence safer. Or, if the sharing stays on a realistic level, I can ask the teller about the impact experienced by him/her, how he/she reacted, and what happened afterwards instead of going into the details of a sensitive incident.
In other words, there are many possibilities for these skills to be used so that the conductor can better fulfill his/her ethical responsibility to protect the tellers in situations that are not ideal for sharing personal stories publicly, which are more common than we would wish or expect.
Some last remarks
In an atmosphere with safety and inclusiveness, people can share directly without worries, and in Playback Theatre we encourage people to do so, whenever such conditions are present. It is a paradise on earth that we hope for and strive for, and in many places in the world this paradise does exist–and is taken for granted. In such lucky circumstances, if the performing team does a good enough job in creating a safe and respectful space that welcomes any stories, people can enjoy sharing directly.
Nevertheless, in our world nowadays when situations become more and more complicated in many places around the globe, the social conditions may make such an ideal scenario impossible even if the performing team has done its best. Therefore, special conducting techniques and capacities that are adaptive to difficult situations may be needed. Moreover, even in peaceful, democratic societies, less than ideal settings are not only possible but also quite common. As described earlier, Playback Theatre in workplaces or in schools, for example, are not rare at all and ideal conditions for Playback Theatre are rarely fulfilled in these scenarios. Whether we are aware of the imperfect conditions and whether we have enough strategies and skills to handle these situations practically and ethically, are key questions.
It is also an important ethical issue to consider carefully beforehand whether we should say “no” to an invitation if the essential conditions to do it safely and meaningfully are simply absent and the risk is too high for both the performing team and the audience. It is true that, as a conductor, it is important to be flexible enough to adapt to various situations, but it is even more important for the conductor to take care of the safety and wellbeing of the teller, the performers, the audience and him/herself. This professional reliability is the ground for the audience and the team to trust the performance. A technically competent person who is not cautious and thoughtful enough can be very harmful.
Thanks to the flexibility of the arts, the multiplicity of human expression, and our spontaneity actualizing itself in creativity, which help us to preserve this hope and keep on taking actions, such efforts, like little stars, are still possible.
The weight of being a conductor is that this role stands and acts at the border, the interface, between the Playback sharing-and-performing space and the (public) reality. When the world is going crazier and crazier and the public space becomes more and more dangerous, the job of conducting will become harder and harder. Maybe it is time for us to develop new skills, as the luxury of sharing in public free from fear or worries is disappearing.
It sounds heavy and sad. It is frustrating and annoying. However, seen from another angle, exploring different compromises and alternatives is also a sincere expression of commitment to making connection and enriching each other through sharing our life experiences via Playback Theatre. So long as we can still share in some ways, we can maintain our deep yearning to share our stories and our hope to share more freely, with less fear and anxiety.
Thanks to the flexibility of the arts, the multiplicity of human expression, and our spontaneity actualizing itself in creativity, which help us to preserve this hope and keep on taking actions, such efforts, like little stars, are still possible. They are especially precious and beautiful in times of darkness. The darkness everywhere may continue to expand, but the sincerity, resilience and flexibility of Playback Theatre will also continue, I still believe.
 See “What is Good Playback Theatre?” by Jo Salas in Personal Stories in Public Spaces: Essays on Playback Theatre by Its Founders by Fox & Salas. Tusitala Publishing, 2021.
Larry Ng is a theatre practitioner specialized in physical theatre, mime and mask, and is also a registered drama therapist under NADTA, and a certified Feldenkrais Method practitioner. He has been practicing Playback Theatre since 2009, and completed Leadership training in 2012. He teaches Playback Theatre internationally in different cities in Europe, Middle East and Asia, especially in the areas of artistry, actor training, conducting for social dialogue and using Playback Theatre in therapeutic contexts, which are areas of his long-term interest of research. Besides developing different pedagogies to teach Playback Theatre for different populations, in recent years he started to explore how to do Playback Theatre effectively and ethically in adverse conditions.
Here is the third and final part of participants’ commentaries following the one-year Better Together project. Part One and Part Two were published on Playback Theatre Reflects previously.
During the project, eleven Playback practitioners from eleven countries met online twice a month for a year. Each person then wrote about what happened in this extraordinary experience, from their individual point of view. The participants’ statements and articles provide a fascinating composite portrait of a sustained experiment that was clearly profound for all concerned–with implications that go beyond those who were directly involved.
The writing has been lightly edited for clarity, first by Emily Conolan and then myself, preserving the voice and English usage of these diverse writers. For most, English is their second or third language. Some use American spellings, others British.
Readers can go directly to any article by clicking on its title in the table of contents.
Better Together, Part Three: Participants’ Commentaries on a Year-Long Project
Newbies in Playback: Two South Asian Working Mothers Comment on Their Experience in the Better Together Project Poh Kiang Tan, Malaysia, and Mansee Shah Thard, India
(Gratitude to Radhika Jain for guidance)
Poh Kiang: Last year, my Playback Theatre friend shared a Facebook post with me, and I tried my luck to apply for it. How I wished that both of us could join together. We had joined some activities online together in the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. I was lucky that I succeeded in the interview and was shortlisted to be part of Better Together. This was meaningful to me as it’s another kind of recognition for me.
Mansee: When the concept of Better Together was announced in the International Playback Facebook group, it sounded like a dream. More so, as I had just started jamming online with international participants and felt the need for it. There were times during international online playback jams when I felt at sea because of not knowing about cultures and dynamics of different countries which limited me to play back these multicultural stories. Also, I realised that other international playbackers did not know about the cultural nuances of my country, and so I felt the performances to be incomplete when those stories were played back. Thus, I felt the need to apply – to learn about different cultures and also to share my own. I was elated when I got a confirmation email from Will C, one of the organisers, that I was a part of the Better Together group.
PK: The moment I took up this project, I told myself that I must commit to all meetings, and I put this as a priority activity. The most challenging part for this project is to have the meetings at midnight (due to time zones and daylight saving). I knew that I would be very tired and this would affect work the next day, but I just had to overcome it. Reasons for me to join this project were that I wished to expand my network and get to know more playbackers from different cultures. As a new member in playback, I knew that there was so much to learn and practice. So, I knew this experience would help me to absorb different skills especially in terms of conducting. From the past 12 months, I’ve proved myself to be persistent, and committed. Yes! I made it. Eleven members in this project was a nice number for me as the small group size reduced my anxiety. I had been so anxious about whether I would miss any messages or information. Thank God that there was always a reference plan for me to refer to, so that I knew all the meeting dates, the coming events, and if it would be a presentation, a reflection, or a group dynamic activity. I am grateful to the organising team for the detailed and thoughtful plan.
I felt very nervous to have the first session with all new faces. Thankfully I had met Michael before this, and I remembered I met Elsa somewhere online but never had a chance to talk further. I felt much better with these few familiar faces, especially Sheila, my roommate at the IPTN conference in Bangalore in 2019. After many months of working together, I noticed a familiar logo appear on the screen and I recognized I’ve been there during my visit to Bangalore – Lahe Lahe. This is a very special place where they have live art performances and Mansee is the co-founder of Lahe Lahe! What a beautiful meet up here. I felt so touched with these indirect connections and I was lucky to be able to reconnect back with them. Cheraé was also at the same conference but we never got the chance to know each other. Anyway, I believe we had the same faith and this brought us together in the same space.
MST: When I attended the orientation session, I must admit I was excited but also very nervous. Most of the participants were all experienced playbackers who were also trainers or conductors in their respective countries, and some of them even globally. I myself had attended workshops facilitated by two of them, and the thought that I would not be an attendee but a co-participant with all these senior people (whom I had a reverence for) was not exactly a very comfortable position to be in. Having said that, I also realised that I had not joined this session to train in the technical playback sense. Of course, that might happen as a by-product but the main reason I joined was to learn about different cultures and in that aspect, almost all of us were similar. What I didn’t know about their different cultures, they didn’t know about mine, so that was definitely a leveller, and a lot of co-learning could happen as far as sharing stories was concerned.
Through the presentation and the shared stories, I realised that though we were different, there was some commonality in most of us. Some themes were different and maybe difficult to understand, but some issues hit home. Thus, I shared a story in the first month itself and the themes in it continued till almost the last session. Whenever I felt called to share, I shared, not limiting myself due to my newness in playback. I felt a responsibility as well. When you join a group where everyone is a co-learner and learning through each other’s presentations and stories, you also contribute by sharing your stories. At the same time, when the technical parts of Playback came, I must admit that I took my time to be comfortable in acting, facilitating, or conducting. In fact, conducting was something that I didn’t do at all during the entire process (an aspect that I am not so happy about). All this was maybe because I was not yet confident about my abilities as a new playbacker as compared to the others. The two times that I did facilitate, I was nervous and I reached out to conductors of the session for some feedback and they helped every time. Thus, I realised there is no harm in reaching out for help and co-participants will always hold you. Also, I realised all of us had different styles of presenting about their country, playbacking, conducting and facilitating. Some of us had an easy style, some were more creative and it was nice to see that diversity in the group and learn from it.
PK: After a few sessions then we had some arrangements for buddy sessions. I was with Ági [Orbán] and we chatted a few times and we worked together on a few events. I struggled because we faced some miscommunication in the first event. We were both anxious about this and worried for the events. Thanks to the playback experience, that held us together for trusting each other. Surprisingly, the event turned out well.
MST: Besides the playback, the conducting and the facilitating, what was intimidating for me were some of the discussions – especially if they were in the larger group. Some sessions had discussions on a one-on-one basis in the breakout rooms and those were a breeze, but the larger group was sometimes intimidating. Again, the other participants were all very experienced and quite a few of them were activists. I am not an activist (at least not in the conventional sense and not especially for political activism). My opinion in how I see things would sometimes be different than what the others saw, and thus it was difficult to speak out. I wished I had spoken out though, as maybe the group would have been made richer by a different point of view. At other times, my knowledge on the topic was limited and though I felt strongly about the issue, I didn’t know what to add to the discussion.
PK: My belief about America was that it is rich, advanced, superior in technology, well educated, free: a beautiful and big country. When I learnt more about it, I realised we had the same social problems – government policies, injustice, discrimination, income gap and so on. I had to relearn from what I knew earlier.
I never saw a western lady protecting a Buddhist Temple and learning Qi Gong. In my life, I had only seen Buddhists that were Asian. I felt like an idiom in Chinese, 井底之蛙, “the frog in the well”, which means seeing things from a limited point of view. In fact, I felt I was not doing my part in society, I should have done more than I thought I needed to.
Many times when the Europeans shared their life stories related to their society, I felt lost. I couldn’t understand what “Gypsies” were; what was the history about “Jews”; how was Brazil related to Portugal; and so many more issues that I didn’t really care about when I was in Malaysia. Issues related to LGBT rights and identity, gender equality, fair policies, education system, young generation’s future, climate change etc. came into my awareness. I felt that I should be more caring about my community, try my best to connect people together through Playback Theatre in Malaysia.
As a Malaysian, my location is near Singapore and we share so much similar colonial history, climate, food, cultures etc. It’s very easy for me to connect here, especially as our ancestors originated from China. I’m still in search of my identity…
Since my last visit to Bangalore, I knew a little bit more about this city and it’s easier to connect to. I felt so happy and warm when the logo of Lahe Lahe appeared. This was my connection point! Besides, meeting another mother in the group, I felt like I could understand her life. Being working mothers, we knew that we always strive to balance our family and our work. All these did not need to be told, and we could connect so instinctively.
During our one year in Better Together, I witnessed a new baby be born to two lovely mothers. A child having two female parents is something that I might have read in the news, but here I had the chance to know this happening personally. This is so touching and it’s a miracle to me. Sadly, I don’t think I’ll see it in my country.
MST: When we were asked to write articles based on the learning and experience in the Better Together group, we were supposed to write one personal statement and /or combined articles with others in the group. For the longest time, I did not reach out for a combined paper to anyone nor did anyone reach out to me. Maybe this was because of the reasons cited above (my newness/ rawness to playback). I did remember two or three instances when I connected strongly to another person in the group – Poh Kiang. What she shared, I related to completely. We both were different individuals, but there were some commonalities like both of us were working South Asian mothers, we have had our share of financial struggles growing up, both of us were from big families, both of us were strong individuals and both of us were very new to Playback, and thus I reached out to her. We discussed the possibility of writing something together and thus this article! Because of these commonalities I noticed that there were a lot of times when we our stories had similar backgrounds. Maybe because our rich life experiences were such that we had stories to share for almost every theme that came out. This left me wondering, why am I discounting myself due to my newness in playback? I remember my first playback trainer saying that we get better at Playback by sharing stories. First mission accomplished!
I also remember another incident. A participant in a group observed some statement that was made by the presenter and pointed that out afterwards. That statement offended a few people in the group and we discussed that in the discussion session a fortnight later. I remember towards the end, Poh Kiang said that she didn’t understand what the problem was, and I could relate to her. I contemplated there could be a million reasons why both of us did not think it was such a big issue. Were we insensitive? (I strongly didn’t think so, but maybe as compared to others). Did we not take offense so easily because of the fact that such statements, thinking, or behaviour are normalised to us since our childhood and our threshold is so high that it would take a huge foot in the mouth moment to ignite our offense radar? And is that a good thing, or bad? Was it because we were not activists? I can go on and on – but for now, let’s just say, maybe we recognise this and keep that in mind instead of analysing it to death.
PK: I felt secure when I managed to get Michael’s help to be my conductor when I presented Malaysia to our group. At least he spoke Chinese like me: English is my second language and I hardly used it after our government exam. He knew about Malaysia and most of our traditional cultures are similar. Most importantly, when I couldn’t express myself, he could help me to translate. I was the second presenter, and I would say that I did a very surface-level introduction. I thought I should show people the nice parts of my country, and that I should reveal less about the negativities and the perceived sufferings, as that might only be my personal point of view. I need to be fair to Malaysians, as I know that my interpretation may differ from others.
At the end of our meetings, I felt regret for not sharing deeply enough with our members. On reflection, I know that’s because I was not an activist, I was not at the frontline of the community. Anyway, I was able to share my personal childhood stories, and these were the stories that connect us easily.
My courage pushed me twice to take up the conductor role (this was the toughest thing for me to do). I was hiding myself for many months, not volunteering to be a conductor. Voices like “I can’t do it”, “I’m not experienced”, “wait for me to attend a proper course first”, “I’ll get very nervous” were circling in my head. I couldn’t escape because Mansee, whom I connected with and admired, asked me to conduct. I took up this role because I wished to support her presentation. This was the time I put in some effort to recall the previous sessions’ notes, I tried to learn: how did people conduct successfully?
My anxiety had worsened after my two experiences of conducting, and it became a joke in our group. I remember a story where someone sent a big pack of “crackers” to the teller’s house annually. I, as the conductor, forgot to clarify what she meant by “crackers.” In the enactment the actors were happily eating the “crackers” but at the end of the performance, the teller told us the “crackers” were actually “firecrackers”! Everyone burst into laughter and I felt so ashamed about this….
I would say I’m still confused with the online forms, whether on camera or off camera? When to step in? How to perform in monologues and so on… Sometimes, I am unsure, I felt I was very unclear when performing, but I am really grateful that none of them blamed me. This gave me a lot of security and released me from self-assumptions.
It’s fun, safe, multicultural, it’s an eye-opening experience…I’ve mixed feelings now, finally I’ve completed the first stage, but I wish this project can be continued and can benefit more playbackers in the world and create ripples of kindness and compassion to our universe.
This journey has enriched my life, it led me to my dream of exploring the world.
MST: Our project of “Better Together is almost coming to an end and I have mixed feelings. One aspect is that life has really become busy from when we started out, so the time management might be slightly easier now, since the project is coming to an end. But having said that, now is the time when I have started connecting deeply with the group and have developed a voice and thus I’m feeling sad that it’s coming to an end. Also, it was a very enriching exercise to connect on multicultural issues and themes – if some opportunity with the same group comes along (or maybe another), I would definitely think about taking it up. Maybe I would look at less time investments than twice a month for a year, which can be pretty difficult. I would like to end with this poem, which I wrote as a part of the group exercise in one of the sessions.
No matter what you believe
No matter what you assume
No matter what you were taught
No matter what you experienced
There are millions of things that separate us and yet,
There are millions of things that hold us together.
We are different yet similar
We are similar yet different
While it is lovely to be different,
it’s also ok to have differences.
There is so much wisdom in celebrating these differences.
We are different, yet similar
We are similar, yet different.
Where you are in me … A journey of identity between difference and connectedness Anna Smetanová, Slovakia
Am I blind? Not wanting to see Where you are in me?
Am I blind? Not willing to see Where your suffering conditions me?
Am I deaf? Not listening to the voices confessing It’s me – your thread?
Am I deaf? Denying your choices? Selecting life over death?
Where you are in me? No, I don’t want to see….
Ability is not the burden What I try is to draw a border Between you and me …
Don’t let you destroy The beautiful world, a dream About me?
Coming from the roots Outworn pair of shoes. Where you are in me?
Reflecting on the one-year Better Together project
I joined the Better Together Project with a lot of curiosity. There was this curiosity about fellow playbackers from 11 countries, many of which I had never been to, and two of which I had never met a person from. And there was that curiosity about my identity too. I will explain. Prior to the project, I experienced my identity in two ways. Firstly, how I see myself compared to others. Secondly, how others want to see me, or what they identify me with. I learned a lot about myself through my experiences of living in different countries, contexts, and with and within different cultures. Yet, at that point of joining Better Together, I had to present myself as the country I was born in. It was a new challenge for me, and I was curious what I would find about my roots that I did not know.
There were countries, presentations, stories, and stories triggered by stories. Our stories and enactments connected around topics related to what I call ‘universal issues of humanity’ – relationship to parents, relationship to parenthood, gender roles, cultural conditioning, being the pioneer among others who do not want to change, patriarchy, oppression…
We were diverse in the details of our stories, in cultural nuances. I was playing back a story of ‘crackers’ thinking the teller meant those goodies to eat, and only after the teller explained later did I learn they meant firecrackers. It was obvious to them, but unknown to me. Small nuances in the layers of the narrative, which pointed out my cultural incompetence.
If I am blind in those small seemingly superficial details, what about being blind to the bigger ones? The bigger, relevant underlying nuances, reasonings, mental models, learned behaviours and behavioural patterns? These are hard to explain to others: either because of my (your, their…) pre-conditioning, or because being embedded in my own socio-cultural field to such extent, that I miss perspectives which might be recognised by others, or because it is so complex, that even if I do see it, it is hard to grasp the essence of it, and decide what and how to explain.
For example? One of the traditions in the country of my origin is that men throw water on women and smack them with a ‘whip’ made of ribbons on Easter Monday, supposedly as a ritual to keep them beautiful, healthy and fertile. This act of gender-based violence is widely observed, celebrated, and passed through generations. It is hard for me to understand how this suffering has conditioned me.
And it was even harder to explain it to the others, coming from different backgrounds, cultures, and countries–to people who every day suffer with oppression. Who are afraid to walk down the street, or to walk in the dark. We had such people in the group. And even if we hadn’t, they would still exist. How could I stand, and say, “We replicate toxic behavioural patterns in my culture. Yes, we proudly do.”?
It would mean being deaf to all those unknown voices, and to those known in our group, and ignoring them.
I could not say it. Of course, I expressed my disagreement very clearly. I wanted to show that I am not making myself deaf while being able to hear.
I wanted to, but… My life experience and Better Together showed me, my senses are not trained enough. My beliefs and life attitude cannot suit everyone. The attitudes, conditionings, and the choices of others are simply different. My perspective cannot contain everything. I cannot understand by looking through my glasses, until I am told the truth from another’s perspective. Otherwise I always have incomplete pictures about others, relationships between others, others and the group. My view of others is coloured through my own story. I can make wrong choices when acting.
But who am I to require explanations? Explanations from those who might not be able to explain? Who am I to ask and criticise their choice to not / communicate? Who am I to draw a line between what is beneficial and what is not?
There are a myriad of possibilities and choices of our group as a whole, and of individuals. Each of them created a Better Together process and the group identity. I am thankful to each of you for being a part of this year with me. For making these choices, and for opening up to your reflection during the research that Elsa [Childs] and I did together. It was important for me to hear, to touch, to smell those voices, which would remain unheard otherwise. Thank you for these gifts to me.
I learned from this eye- and heart-opening research the most. The voices I heard, confirmed. Despite us all being willing to walk freely and dance with every step for a better world, we still wear an outworn, aching pair of shoes. In our everyday non- / action, in looking through our own glasses instead of trying to see through the neighbours’ glasses, or share the glasses and creating a common sense of vision. In taking and giving space, in intention behind, in fears of losing stakes, in nonlistening and overinterpreting the untold or the told. And when I write “we”, I mean me. Despite differences, here we connect. Here I see, where you are in me.
Another circle on the spiral…
So vivid, playful, beautiful
There was the beginning The better ending
The experience was meaningful
Thank you Ági, Cheraé, Elsa, Mansee, Marat, Michael, Nina, Poh Kiang, Sheila, Will C.
“Who here does NOT relate to that story?” Sheila Donio, Brazil, and Cheraé Halley, South Africa
At a certain point in our Better Together project, we were all invited to have conversations with our project “buddies” that led to starting points for potential articles. Mansee wrote a poem on how we as a group are all so different yet so similar, how we as a group are all so similar, yet different. It was this poem (found in the article written by Mansee Shah Thard and Poh Kiang Tan) that inspired Cheraé to question whether the group truly did embrace their differences or whether there was a clear agenda for the project to find similarities and remain there. When the time to write up any starting points for potential articles came, Cheraé had written the following statement:
Does Playback, as our tool, provide a bridge-in to the difference in the room? Or does this entire framework serve a diverse group? Are we diving into the difference enough before we name the similarity?
When everyone shared their statements, the group was invited to respond to any of the statements they wished to partner on for the write up, and Sheila immediately responded. The two (Sheila Donio and Cheraé Halley) met and shared their initial interests on the topic.
Cheraé: Why has this become a topic for me? You know we are sitting in a big diversity group. We are diverse in age, in gender, sexual orientation, race, country. Yet, we keep looking for similarity. Have we done enough work on seeing the difference before asking ourselves “how are you relating to this person’s story? How are you relating to this person’s country?” Have we made room to also ask, “how are you feeling different from what’s being shared?”
Sheila: Beautiful questions.
Cheraé: And as you mentioned before, there are oppressive systems, structures that highlight our differences (and diversity) still present in the room. Are we really able to break it through this project? Are we really able to build bridges through this project? Are we only looking at the similarities or are we also acknowledging “I am different from you and this is how and this is why and is there room for our cultural differences to be present in the room?”
Thus began the journey for Sheila and Cheraé to dive into this topic of difference and commonality. This article will present a two-part series of the discussions we had on the topic. First, we share our thoughts on the topic of difference and commonality, based on our experience and our Playback Theatre practice. We then dig deeper into what others have written about these concepts to further unpack them in relation to the Better Together project. But first, here is a brief description of who we are and where we have found ourselves engaging with the topic of diversity in our own lives.
Cheraé is a South African woman who identifies as Coloured, a South African racial category that includes individuals of multi-racial ethnic communities. Coloured people have ancestry from various populations across Africa, Europe and Asia. Within this complex identity, Cheraé is constantly having to push back against the “single story” (Adichie, 2009) of her identity as a Brown person moving through the world.
Sheila is a Brazilian cisgender, pansexual, white woman, co-mothering 2-month old Júlia with another woman. She has been practicing and deeply studying Playback since 2002, currently performing and teaching it online and in person all around the world with her company Cria Playback, through her work at the Centre for Playback Theatre, and as an English-Portuguese translator and interpreter inside and outside the Playback world, focused on building bridges through different languages and cultures.
It is clear for both of the authors that diversity must thrive in any group setting.
Sheila shared a moment where she connected with another member in the Better Together project through a vulnerable and personal moment. Part one of this article will pick up on this point of connecting through vulnerability.
Cheraé: In that sharing of vulnerability, it was an opportunity for you to connect with each other. The organizing team created this project with people from different countries. I appreciate the frame, but I have been questioning it. To what extent is the frame allowing for the diversity to thrive in our group? Or does it keep asking us to find the similarities? Find the common ground! So many practitioners use Playback in diverse spaces for conversation of diversity, and we know that the social dimension is so critical. Understanding diversity is a core component in our practice, it keeps coming up for me in this group.
Sheila: It’s so interesting. Isn’t that always in the background? When we do social mapping, the idea is to include the edges. Jonathan Fox always talks about that: You are trying to get people to feel included. How do we do that? By finding commonalities, by understanding that on this one spectrum you are on the edge but on the other spectrum you are in the middle. And then you feel more comfortable. When we share personal stories inside a diverse group it’s for people to say, “oh I also have a mother who I have an issue with”. It’s not to say “yes, we are different and that is amazing”.
Cheraé: But any sociometry work also shows us how we are different. It focuses on the commonalities in the shared spaces, in the shared circles. But we don’t only see those who stood up, we also see everyone who remained seated. For me, there should always be room for both. It’s not about othering, it is about saying, “no I don’t experience that because of my privilege or I don’t experience that because of my disadvantage, or…”
Sheila: …“I don’t know why I don’t experience that.” I have never seen space made for that. I’ve seen space made for “I don’t experience that” with others saying “I don’t experience that either”. So again, you’re finding the…
Cheraé: …the commonality.
Sheila: I love this conversation.
At this point, Cheraé and Sheila agreed that there is a need to bring additional research and theoretical input on the two concepts (difference and commonality). And to begin answering the question Cheraé had posed earlier, Have we done enough work on seeing the difference before asking ourselves “how are you relating to this person’s story and/or country?” With this intention we hope to add value to this discussion when it comes to Playback Theatre groups.
Sheila: Why do we do social mapping, sociometry? Here’s what The Essential Moreno says:
An instrument to measure the amount of organization shown by social groups is called the sociometric test. The sociometric test requires an individual to choose his associates for any group of which he is or might become a member. He is expected to make his choices without restraint and regardless of whether the individuals chosen are members of the present group or outsiders. The sociometric test is an instrument which examines social structure through the measure of the attraction and repulsions which take place between the individuals within a group. In the area of interpersonal relations we often use more narrow designations, as “choice” and “rejection.”…It determined the position of each individual in a group in which he has a function. It revealed that the underlying psychological structure of a group differs widely from its social manifestations; that group structures vary directly in relation to the age level of the members; that different criteria may produce different groupings of the same persons or they may produce the same groupings; that groups of different function…tend towards diverse structures; that people would group themselves differently if they could; that these spontaneous groups and the function that the individuals act or intend to act within them have a definite bearing upon the conduct of each individual and upon the group as a whole; and that spontaneous groupings and forms of groupings which are superimposed upon the former by some authority provide a potential source of conflict. It was found that chosen relations and actual relations often differ and that the position of an individual cannot be fully realized if not all the individuals and groups to which he is emotionally related are included. It disclosed that the organization of a group cannot be fully studied if all related groups or individuals are not included, that individuals and groups are often to such an extent interlocked that the whole community to which they belong has to become the scope of the sociometric test…. …” (Fox, 2008, p106 – 107)
Cheraé: It’s very interesting. He makes room for both, he makes room for difference and attraction. Where we are repulsed, where we are attracted. Where we differ, where we are the same… It’s constantly both.
Cheraé: What’s also really interesting is that it also reveals the function of the individual in the group. And I’m thinking about our first group conflict. You said, at the end of that session, “if anybody wants to stay on to chat, I’m willing to stay on.”. Even that in itself became a sociometric test. It’s almost as if you’d said “if anyone else is feeling unsafe…”, “if anyone else here is feeling silenced…” “if anyone else here is feeling concerned, please stay.”
Cheraé: Yeah, and then 3 people stayed. And that became a close “chosen relation” between us.
Sheila: True. And that was “attraction”, we were attracted to that place, to stay on.
Sheila: So, Moreno created the social tests to find “the position of each individual in a group.” I like that: “It determined the position of each individual in a group, in which he has a function.”
Cheraé: And this is my argument: if we had a little bit more of an opportunity, maybe, we could have bonded better, or more, or made stronger bonds if we had moments of acknowledging both, the “I share this with you” and the “I don’t share this with you”.
Sheila: I agree with you! We could have bonded more.
Cheraé: Yeah. And on some level the bond is superficial because it was only based on “What are you connecting with?”
Sheila: We are talking about learning more about each other here, and what would have helped us bond more. So now my question is: By finding more commonalities, would we have felt safer to share more of our diversity?
Cheraé: The initial feeling I had was that the more we share commonalities, I feel, less room is made for people to share their differences. So I was looking for articles that talk about difference, and why difference is important to be highlighted. I think we both know why difference and diversity is important, why it always needs to be present, however, if we don’t name it, if we don’t name the difference, the trap is that we will fall into a “we share as the human race” belief.
Sheila: I agree.
Cheraé: I found something. Taken from a book called “Race Talk and The Conspiracy of Silence”. When it comes to racism, specifically, one of the themes that pop up as a part of black talk/white talk is “colour blindness”. Derald Wing Sue writes about three aspects found within this theme and in fact Derald writes the theme as “Colour Blindness: Minimizing Differences or Pretending Not to See Them.”. The first aspect is that many white people think that seeing race is admitting to one’s own racism because you are going against the belief that “everyone should be treated the same” (p42). The second aspect, which is the aspect that I believe applies in our context, and that is:
…the disinclination to see color (color-evasion) is often motivated by a belief that differences are divisive or deviant and we should stress similarities or sameness (Neville et al., 2013). …many White Americans prefer to stress commonalities or the universal level of identity – we are all members of the human race. This mentality suggests that stressing similarities leads to greater group cohesion (Sue & Sue, 2013). Although there is great merit in acknowledging and stressing commonalities of the human condition, the belief that pretending not to notice differences (race, culture, and ethnicity) contains a hidden message: There is something wrong with differences, and they ultimately lead to conflict. (Sue, 2015, p42-43)
Sheila: I’ve seen that happening.
Cheraé: So for me, allowing differences to thrive in a group setting is important. And there is caution if we only want to acknowledge commonalities and similarities and relatability. Do you really see me then? I don’t like this idea of “let’s find the commonalities” because that will give us the interpretation of social cohesion. So I don’t know if people would have felt safer to share their differences.
Sheila: Well, feeling safer and being more willing to share our differences is different than having space to do it. So, “what makes us share our differences?” One thing is to make room for that, to create a safe space. But what does that look like?
Cheraé: I think one of the things that all the conductors, in our Better Together group, could have asked is: “What did you connect with and what did you NOT connect with?” or like “What did you relate to and what did you NOT relate to?” Because that could have invited different stories.
Sheila: I agree with you. And I’m thinking about the last Playback Theatre show I conducted, 20 days ago for kids. It was about pride: “What are you proud of?” One of them shared about taking care of their younger sibling. The next story was about taking care of a younger cousin. And then I asked: “Who else has taken care of their younger siblings or cousins?” And many hands came up. I’ve been trained in Playback to ask those questions: “Who else has this experience?”
Sheila: And then we move forward. But we don’t necessarily open space for people who have not had… that experience.
Cheraé: … a different experience.
Sheila: … or a solo experience, an experience that no one else in the room has.
Once, I was in a Playback show as an actress for a business company, and the conductor of the show asked, aiming for a fluid sculpture: “How has your day gone so far?”, It was early in the morning, and the very first story was: “I just came from a funeral, our colleague passed away yesterday.” In Brazil we bury people on the same day they pass or the day after. The person shared how they were feeling, we played it back in a fluid sculpture, and then immediately after the conductor asked: “Ok, good. Now who has a different experience from that?” And then the room got VERY QUIET for what in my experience was a very long time. And that was because everyone there either had gone to the vigil or had not gone to the vigil, but everyone there was feeling really sad, everyone there was mourning. At least that was what it looked like. Then, asking for something completely different from that first told moment and not acknowledging that there was commonality in the room, that was really bad for the show, and really bad for that audience at that moment. And I think it’s interesting for us… I am sharing this because I want to hear your thoughts around it, Cheraé. It goes against what we are talking about, right? We are talking about not asking about the commonalities and making space for the differences, but like in this story, when acknowledging the commonality was needed, and it didn’t happen it jeopardized the show and the audience’s comfort.
Cheraé: Woah. My thoughts are – read the room! The conductor knows that they all work together and that automatically means they all share in the mourning and loss of their colleague. This is not a moment to be asking for a different experience. You and I were trained to ask the question “who here shares that experience? Raise your hand.”. I read this article, based in Australia and doing Playback within the context of refugees by Rea Dennis.
Sheila: Yeah, I know Rea.
Cheraé: The articles I read of hers are focused on performances with refugee and asylum seekers in Australia. She focuses on personal story and inclusive democracy. She unpacks a performance made up of a diverse audience with people playing different roles in the society. Different audience voices are heard, stories from different perspectives.
It could be argued that the vision for the event was an alternative kind of democracy; one that could be considered in the spirit of Anne Phillips’ (1996) description of democracy as ‘an exciting engagement with difference: the challenge of ‘‘the other’’; the disruption of certainties; the recognition of ambiguities within one’s self as well as one’s differences with others’ (Dennis, 2007, p. 144).
She actually critiques some of the choices she made. And one of the choices she made is: she pinpoints a man in the audience and says “Can YOU share a story with us?” A man with a particular vulnerability. I think he was in a wheelchair? While reading I questioned, “why would you do that?” We cannot point out who is different in our performances.
Sheila: I grew up hearing a lot of “everyone is the same,“ “everyone is equal,“ Later I realized that’s the wrong marketing strategy. Because we are really not equal. Everyone is different on something.
Cheraé: We’re not the same.
Sheila: No, look at us. We are different. We look different, we dress differently, we live in different places, we have different backgrounds, we have different ages, we have different preferences, and we go through different stories. I always thought it would be best to say that we are all different AND we all have the same rights, instead of we have the same rights because we are all the same. It would be better if we educate people to understand our differences and accept them, and guarantee everyone the same rights, instead of trying to get people to be the same to then access their rights. And then we can talk about labeling, trying to put people in these boxes. And now we go back to social mapping, where we sometimes offer boxes. Other times it’s more fluid but sometimes it’s like “where do you fit in?”
Cheraé: I attended an online talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It was the University of Cape Town Vice-Chancellor’s Open Lecture held in 2021. Towards the end of this talk she comments on what it means to acknowledge difference, this is what she said:
When we talk about inclusivity, the premise of inclusivity is difference…There is an impulse from the left, the political left, to wish away difference, because difference is the cause of oppression. We cannot talk about inclusivity, if we do not talk about the premise of inclusivity, which is that there are differences. (Adichie, 2021.)
Let’s put it back in the Better Together context. Certainly we wouldn’t have wanted our conductor to say “Cheraé, you are black. Can you tell us a story…?” Just so we can get the difference. Instead, you wanna balance the room, for example: “We heard a lot of male voices, maybe we can get some female voices sharing now”. But this is not about balance, it’s about allowing the difference to exist. Let me ask you, Sheila. What does it mean for diversity to thrive? Because maybe it did happen, but I feel it was subtle. What would it mean to give room for the diversity to be alive among us in Better Together?
Sheila: It might have felt more comfortable. It is one thing to find the space to share your diversity and another thing to feel that you’ve been respectfully heard.
Sheila: And not judged.
Cheraé: So was the diversity really present, living, thriving in the group? I argue it wasn’t.
Sheila: I also think it wasn’t. If we were truly sharing our diversity, would we all have presented our countries in similar ways, like we did? Why was it that everyone shared their screen and used slideshows? And no one did a performance, for example!
Sheila: And we are all performers. So why is that? Is that because we didn’t have time to prepare?
Cheraé: You are making me think of the other ways that we shared. We all conducted the same. We all had our nuances, but we all did a similar thing. I wrote in one of my reflection forms: I wish more people took up the roles of conductor and facilitator– so that we could have visuals on different ways of being in these roles.
Sheila: Those are places where we could have seen something different…
Cheraé: If diversity was thriving.
Sheila: Maybe our first day, the orientation day, could have been dedicated to understanding each other in the group by using social mapping, for example. I found one quote from Jonathan in 2017 when talking about Narrative Reticulation: “The story of a teller shows their identity. The stories of a performance show the identity of the group.” But I ask: Do they? Or do they show a part of the identity of the group?
Cheraé: They show a part.
Sheila: Then, which part is it showing, which part is it not showing, and why?”
Cheraé: In Better Together it was only showing the part of “What are you relating to?” “What do you share in common with these people?” It wasn’t showing the part of “I have a different viewpoint because I have a different experience, because my context is different.” I love that quote, Sheila. I love the question you are asking. It’s not showing the full nature of the group. Actually it’s just showing a part of it, based on what’s being asked.
Sheila: Another example: We didn’t turn the Zoom transcript feature on from the very beginning, on orientation day, for example. It took some of us a few sessions to understand/learn that not all of us were fluent in English. I think that’s another area that could have looked different…
Cheraé: …if diversity was thriving.
Leticia Nieto and Margot Boyer published three articles in ColorsNW Magazine in 2006 and 2007. They discuss this notion of stressing commonalities or undertaking a surface level of shared identities in Part 3 of their three publications. They speak of agents and targets. Agents are referred to people who are overvalued in society, also known as ‘privileged’. And targets are referred to people who are undervalued in society and are subject to oppression (2006, p.4). Most people are agents in some areas of their lives, and targets in others. Nieto and Boyer provide anti-oppression skills for agents, called “The Agent Skills Model” and one of the skill sets used by Agents is Inclusion.
The skill set of Inclusion offers some advantages over distancing. Using Inclusion, we focus on the similarities between Target group members and ourselves. We use verbal messages that emphasize similarity and connection, like ‘We’re all children of God,” “fundamentally, we’re all the same,” “treat everyone as an individual,” and “every human being suffers.” The physical posture associated with Inclusion is arms open, as if to embrace members of the Target group. As Agents, we experience Inclusion as liberating. It feels like we’ve finally gotten out of the oppression business. We can appreciate members of the Target group. This seems terrific, to us. It takes a while to notice the limitations of Inclusion Skills, and many of us never do. In society as a whole, Inclusion is often seen as the height of intercultural appreciation, diversity and liberation. Yet Inclusion is still an Agent-centric skill. Using Inclusion, we do not recognize the Rank system, the ways we are consistently overvalued, and the consequences of our privilege and of Target marginalization. (Nieto & Boyer, 2007, p14)
Neither Sheila nor Cheraé are saying that no one in our group recognized the Rank system present in Better Together, the socially constructed systems that make us different from one another. However, it is important to acknowledge that such recognition was only really present for those Agent group members who were operating from skills of awareness and allyship. And we recognise that those Agent group members who continue to embrace individuals with an inclusive approach won’t really be doing the work on acknowledging any privilege they carry as Agent group members.
Upon reviewing our passionate discussions above, we are saying that Playback Theatre can invite skills of awareness and allyship because we tell human stories, and as Nieto and Boyer note, “…awareness skills are, at the heart, an opportunity to listen to and learn from the experience of Targets. It’s a good opportunity to pay attention to what Targets have to say about their experience” (2007, p15). But only if “we are actually open to hearing these stories” (Adichie, 2021) and only if a difference in understanding is made “between a shallow emphasis on coming to voice…and the more complex recognition of the uniqueness of each voice and a willingness to create (such) spaces” (hooks, 1994, p186). And here, there is responsibility on the conductors of Playback Theatre as well as leaders of diverse groups to ensure that this possibility is carefully navigated. There is of course immense value in the “me too” similarity effect (Vainilovych & Rozsa, 2019, p. 123) during a Playback Theatre performance, Sheila and Cheraé do not deny that commonality does indeed form emotional and empathic connections when stories are shared among strangers. But there is even greater value when stories that are shared reflect an “internal change” through the “now I see it differently” effect (Vainilovych & Rozsa, 2019, p. 124).
Adichie, C. 2021. Idolatry of theory: a defense of storytelling. University of Cape Town (UCT) Vice-Chancellor’s (VC) Open Lecture.
Adichie, C. 2009. The danger of a single story. TED TALK.
Dennis, R. 2007. Inclusive democracy: A consideration of playback theatre with refugee and asylum seekers in Australia, in Research in Drama Education. Vol. 12, No. 3, pp 355 – 370. Routledge.
Fox, J. 2008. The Essential Moreno: Writings on Psychodrama, Group Method, and Spontaneity by J.L. Moreno, MD. Tusitala Publishing: New Paltz:
hooks, b. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge: New York.
Nieto, L & Boyer, M. 2006. Understanding Oppression: Strategies in Addressing Power and Privilege. ColorsNW Magazine.
Sue, D. 2015. Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and facilitating difficult dialogues on race. John Wiley & Sons: New Jersey.
Vainilovych, N & Rozsa, D. 2019. The Influence of Story in Playback Theatre, in, Playback Theatre around the world: diversity of application. Tasker, B & Gopal, B (Eds.). CHRIST (Deemed to be University): India
What have we done?! Yet another Playback project! Will C.
Prequel to Better Together
I found Playback Theatre in 2006 as an undergraduate academic lesson that attracted me to what was then called the Ethics Center Student Fellowship. My eventual acceptance as a fellow led me to become a summer intern for the School of Playback Theatre under the leadership of Jonathan Fox. While in New Paltz for those five weeks, Jonathan taught me much about Playback philosophy while Jo Salas taught me the ins-and-outs of what it takes to build a Playback Theatre company. This began what is now a 16 year international journey as a Playback performer, trainer, and administrator.
I met Marat and Nina in August of 2019, a 3:00 am summer night in Belarus, after my severely delayed flight brought me to at the International Playback Theater Camp; I was a trainer. We soon became friends and continued to cross paths when the week-long camp finished. Occasionally we worked together on projects, including my organization “Playback in the Port” hosting the two of them for workshops. Perhaps the most notable collaboration came as the pandemic forced us all to remain indoors. Some trainers of the International Playback Camp came together with Nina and Marat to become (I believe) the first Playback group performing online with the intent to gather members from different countries. Each performance of that group had a different conductor, which also translated to a different facilitation of the rehearsal process for each performance. After a handful of shows, that performance group disbanded. What remained in me was an interest in understanding how group dynamics develop amongst Playback practitioners; what happens when significant and diverse Playback experiences come together to create a shared act of service?
Once that international group disbanded, I spent a year cultivating an online Playback company with membership coming largely from the northeast of the United States. I was less than thrilled at the progress we were making toward our stated objective and reasonably certain that we would never settle with consensus. I began thinking of new project ideas while closing out my leadership of that group. At the time I was having a collegial conversation with Marat and we thought it would be a good time to organize an international Playback group online; this was a way of diving into the group dynamics work we began to witness with the Playback Camp performance team. I had a great working relationship with Nina to this point, and was thrilled to know Marat was interested in bringing her into the project.
The three of us crafted the idea for Better Together in various meetings. We had to make decisions about how to recruit, how to select who to accept, the layout of each session, scheduling dates, which Playback forms we would choose, and what message we intended to share with the world about our process. I branded the project a Playback in the Port initiative to access the international reach we established from the pandemic forcing us to do online programming. Nina, Marat and I laughed our way through designing application questions and making a marketing video that we shared in our various Playback networks and on social media accounts. We received many applicants and were confronted with our first big challenge. Our intention always was to have a country represented only once in the group, which automatically meant since Nina, Marat and I were the organizers we couldn’t take anyone else from Russia, Israel, or the United States. It also meant that if there were multiple viable applicants from the same country we could only choose one. As decisions like these presented themselves more and more, the laughter in our meetings slowly began to diminish.
As an orga team we didn’t necessarily agree on many things: e.g. what Playback forms we would use, the number of forms, the definition of group dynamics, the value of bringing in an outsider to lead part of our sessions, and countless others. At times these planning session disagreements boiled over; as tensions reached unconstructive points we agreed to use a safe word for when discussions needed to pause. While we rarely used it throughout the process, there was the need for one. These disagreements were also useful for us to practice articulating the context we were building for our applicants.
Building a cohort – people and boundaries
Our initial outreach to the community consisted of posting on social media the advertising video we made along with the application questions we determined were the most important factors in developing a project like this. We sent out individual invites to our respective communities, and then we waited and learned a thing or two about patience. Eventually we had a significant group of applicants to choose from and went to work reading the applications and checking references.
We managed to shorten the list of potential participants and decided to have group interviews serve as an audition. We offered group interviews as opposed to individual ones because we also wanted to see how these potential group members interacted with each other. Individual skill did not feel good as a determining factor, but how you present and interact with others did. After two group interviews we had a team we were confident in.
Orienting everyone to the process ahead became the main focus for the orga team. We crafted a set of 10 group expectations and six values to live by. We presented these documents during the group interviews and at our first orientation session, ensuring everyone agreed to them. We also detailed nine Playback forms that we practiced in the orientation session. In our second month we asked everyone to find a buddy partner so that they can check in with each other all year. In a way we hoped this would lessen the strain of being so vulnerable in our sessions and then instantly being alone at home once the zoom call ended. Throughout the year buddy pairs were offered different challenges to stimulate interpersonal relationships outside of the structured group sessions.
It was also important for us to identify the ways we would communicate as a group. Our sessions took place almost exclusively in English. We used the zoom interpretation feature which made the gaps in language a bit easier to manage. During the interview process we exchanged messages with all the applicants via email, but once we had our committed group we switched our main mode of communication to the app Telegram. We started a group chat which remained active throughout. This chat became a center for social and informative sharing. We learned about the meaning behind each other’s holidays and sent content to prepare others to understand the context of our countries and presentations. For our documents and presentations, we created a shared google folder that we all had access to.
How do you decide what parts of a structure are mandatory and which ones are malleable?
The basic structure of Better Together consisted of a 14 month process starting from September 2021 and ending in October 2022. The first month served as time for orientation and the last month provided some closure for the process. In between were 12 months, 11 of which were divided among the participants as the number of countries we ultimately represented in the group. Every month we focused on a different country and were led by a different team. Each of those months had two sessions. During the first session, a member of the group volunteered to provide a presentation on their country. Following their presentation, the witnessing Better Together group members publicly generated questions inspired by what they had just seen, with no expectation for those questions to be answered in the moment. Then the group warmed up and performed a Playback Theatre performance with the presenter of the presentation being the only teller for the full performance. Two weeks later, we reconvened as a group for session #2. This time we all performed Playback Theatre for each other, making connections to the country presentation and the personal stories shared by the presenter in session #1. After making space for the teller to have the last word about their experience in the two sessions, we spent the remaining time having a facilitated conversation about what was coming up for us as individuals and as a group.
It is important to highlight how each month was deliberately run by a different team. The presenter chose the month of their presentation, a conductor for the first session, and a facilitator who was responsible for making sure the structure was honored in a way that provided all members of the group equitable space from month to month. While there was structure, each team had the freedom to put their own style on the structure, just as Playback has forms but the way to artistically express ideas inside of those forms is led by actor choice. It is also worth mentioning here that the conductor of the Playback portion in session #2 was not the same as the conductor for session #1. It was the responsibility of the facilitator to make sure they organized a conductor for session #2 at the end of session #1. This means that each month had a unique team of four individuals (Presenter, Conductor of session #1, Facilitator, and Conductor of Session #2). Those teams were encouraged to meet beforehand and plan together.
While this shared leadership was intentional, I did not have the language to describe my goal for this until about four months into the process. Ági [Orbán] shared a passage from a book, Transforming Yourself: Becoming who you want to be (2002), by Steve Andreas, that discussed the difference between a hierarchy and a heterarchy:
A heterarchy functions something like a committee, but one in which everyone can talk and listen to each other simultaneously. The various elements of this system all communicate with each other, contributing to a consensus about which perceptions and activities are most relevant at a particular moment. In a heterarchical system all the different elements mutually interact, and one of them temporarily gains control in cooperation with the others. This system is very ancient, and it determines attention not only in human beings, but in all vertebrates, and it has been doing this for several hundred million years, an indication of how useful it is.
By sharing leadership in this way we were hoping to ensure that no one culture dominated anyone’s experience. Additionally, knowledge about holding space could pass between group members horizontally as opposed to being solely led by the orga team. We were building a system where everyone had the opportunity to add their culture around an agreed upon structure.
This level of work may be easiest seen in the three group dynamic sessions throughout the process. On average, every four months we came together for a group dynamic session. The structure of these sessions was different from the others. Half of the group worked with their buddies to lead the first group dynamic session. There was a list of topics for facilitators to explore based on what was coming up in the post-session reflections that were filled out after each session. The second group dynamic session invited the other half to lead on similar issues, while the final group dynamic session was left open for all of us to design in the moment.
We also asked that everyone fill out a reflection form after each session. In addition to helping the orga team assess the success of each session, it was a good opportunity to invite the members of Better Together to reflect on and articulate their experience throughout the project. These structural elements are what held us together as a group as we went on our collective and individual journeys.
Right before starting orientation, we immediately lost one of the members of the group due to circumstances beyond our control. Our team of 12 was down to 11 even before we got everyone into the same zoom room for the first time. While we were incredibly sad to lose that member, it also was a blessing in disguise. Admittedly, Nina, Marat and I started this project before fully strategizing how we would pull everything off, so having an entire month of programming become vacant gave us an extra month to work with, which was obviously needed in retrospect.
Nina, Marat and I thought it important to model the process as much as possible in the first month. Nina volunteered to present about Russia first and picked me as the conductor and Marat as the facilitator. Eventually Ági volunteered to conduct session #2 as we needed a four person team each month for each country. Nina’s strong emotional response to sharing after session #1 allowed us to see how emotionally moving the process was, and also that our current structure was not set up to hold people having all the emotions that we were stirring up. We invited everyone to find a buddy in the group and carried on. Session #2 was the first time, but not the last, when there was an issue with how our process was facilitated and how it affected some members emotionally. This ended the honeymoon period for anyone that was able to maintain that sentiment to that point.
Whose needs get met, and when, and why? What does it mean for a group to be responsible for itself? How do you foster a sense of accepting responsibility for each other when many of the most experienced participants were happy that they finally did not have to take leadership responsibility for a group? What is my role in providing the space as one of three inviting others into this experience? What happens when the orga team is perceived as incapable of respectfully holding the stories and/or the perceptions of marginalized groups early on? How shall we deal with imposter syndrome and the lack of self-confidence? Can we actually make a positive change? What happens when advocacy for others usurps their advocacy for self? I found myself constantly asking questions like these and more. Somehow, even without finding answers to all of these questions, everyone fulfilled our mission, month after month.
We went through all the countries represented in the expected 11 months. Some members repeated roles more than others, but everyone tried multiple roles throughout the year. Many moments of learning came from watching others: how people warmed up, conducting choices, acting offers, what content was focal in the presentations, decisions to facilitate small or large group discussions.
I found myself increasingly intrigued by the various ways people invited us to share. The beginning of each session started with face rights: in the larger group we each had an opportunity to share how we were arriving in the space and any pertinent reflections. I never would have thought to offer this in a nonverbal way, but some of my favorite experiences with this element of our process was when we did not rely on words to express and become present with each other. Another opportunity to learn from our cultural mix was in the range of warm up activities and how they incorporated the language, music, and dance of the presenting country. Even our discussions in session #2 had a similar benefit in terms of diversifying what I considered possible. Every month felt different: we were speaking in small groups, in the large group, using jamboards (an online tool for creative group interaction) or annotation features on Zoom to paint together, showing family pictures, etc. This simultaneous knowing, but not really knowing, what was going to happen kept the process invigorating while familiar enough to maintain some sense of safety.
I was able to assess everyone’s experience of Better Together through the reflections we filled out after every session. These reflections were private to the orga team until the group dynamic session #2; in May we decided to make the reflections public, as feeling policed by reporting exclusively to the orga team came up multiple times in group dynamic session #2. It felt important to keep our initial reflections private as we started the project, and important to open the future reflections to everyone at that point in the process. Before each group dynamic session the orga team sent everyone their individually submitted reflections to date. In May we created a new google form and gave everyone access to all the responses, which generated more conversations and connections based on what people were reading about each other.
Our three group dynamic sessions were pivotal to providing us space to make some sense of what was happening to us over time as a group, and for what reasons those things were happening. The first group dynamic session was led by half of the group (in their buddy pairings) and the orga team. The second group dynamic session was led by the remaining half of the group that did not lead the first, along with the orga team. The last group dynamic session was purposefully left open for organic explorations from anyone in the group. I created prompts for the facilitating teams based on my understanding of group process and the feedback we received in the reflections; then the buddy pairs were left to collaborate on selecting, designing, and facilitating their part of the session based on those prompts.
While these group dynamic sessions provided more space for us to look at the internal systems at work in our group and how they came to be, it often felt more superficial than what many desired. Our structures were a blessing and a curse; they kept us on the same page but didn’t allow for extended deep exploration. Part of me was fine with this. After all, isn’t Playback practice deep exploration? The fact that we did not spend time giving notes on Playback technique or analyzing “what is Playback,” meant we could actually focus on our listening as opposed to proving how “right” our opinion of what should happen was. I learned something from my previous year-long project–developing leadership in the community through Playback practice– about minimizing the need to feed egos. I believed since the Better Together members were only engaging with ourselves within a closed group, as opposed to performing publicly, that we were able to remain in love with each other longer. I had a strong desire to see how much cultural complexity Playback could hold over time and was afraid of losing sight of this due to uncontrolled internal and interpersonal criticisms that were more subjective than objective.
Nina frequently reminded me that people will be people, and that we should create a space for them to do that. I struggled with this idea, but trusted my partner. One way that mentality translated into our process was in Nina offering to guide the group to host a New Year’s party for ourselves. By doing this we would also ensure that by mid-January everyone had facilitated and/or organized a part of some process for the group. While I am not the biggest fan of parties (I am an introvert, despite popular belief), I will say that this session and the group dynamic sessions taught me as much about the people in the group as the rest of our structure. I did not learn many statistics of a country there, but I did learn plenty about culture. We laughed, cried, held silence, were silly, and often were unapologetic versions of ourselves without conforming to a rigid structure. That too felt like an important part of the process by the end of our time together.
How much of a structure do you allow a group to change? How much will change with or without allowances? Will group members make changes based on what’s best for the group or based on personal preferences? These are a few questions that still linger in me at the end of this project.
There are plenty. Ultimately the concept was a success. We got through every country and now people are reading our statements about the experience. In terms of what Nina, Marat and I dreamed we would do, we succeeded. By the time you are reading this, everyone in the group has written something about the experience individually and/or collaboratively. What’s more, 11 strangers from all across the globe now have a deeper bond with one another. This project has generated a significant amount of potential for future social connections.
I am also in awe that we were successful in spite of a brutal time difference. The biggest time gap between us was 12 hours, and that’s not to mention the havoc daylight savings time created for our scheduling. I have so much gratitude for everyone in the group, but especially for Michael Cheng and Poh Kiang Tan who were awake past midnight to attend most sessions.
While managing time was a challenge, the pandemic made the timing of this project uniquely beneficial. We started the project between waves of global covid recovery efforts. This era made being with people in a virtual space commonplace. That normalcy contributed to the ease of getting committed participants together for such an extended period of time and at a high caliber. The orga team did arguably rush into this project prematurely in order to lean into some of the momentum we expected we would gain from the pandemic. That said, we gained many successes inside of our build-as-you-go model of leadership.
Better Together was not a project designed explicitly to develop leaders, yet embedded in the process were many opportunities for people to be leaders in the group, and for that leadership opportunity to rotate. This allowed participants to see and learn from different leadership styles that change based on the individual culture represented. The team of four devoted themselves each month to finding some consensus on what would be the best way of engaging the group as a whole. It was a useful system that created ‘checks and balances’ in the group process.
I began to appreciate the flow of Playback knowledge coming from inside and outside the Better Together container. The lessons and takeaways from our sessions influenced the lives and spaces outside our Sunday meetings. Meanwhile, many Better Together members were active in cross-national Playback projects: regional Playback conferences; Centre for Playback Theatre’s Leadership course; the International Playback Camp, and more. The Better Together project felt like a positive and active contribution to maintaining a healthy culture of Playback globally: it will hopefully continue to benefit the Better Together members and the larger Playback community long after this project officially ends. It’s a big reason these articles are a culminating piece to this project, so that there is some tangible thing from this experience that can benefit our field and communities long after the formal Better Together project is done.
Real people go through real things. With so many people working together for over a year, there were bound to be significant challenges to our presence and energy with each other. War, parenting, scheduling, illness (including covid), work, family emergencies, and giving birth are just a few examples of what people were dealing with when showing up for the Better Together group. The baggage that we brought from our personal lives into our meetings affected the process. At times this became incredibly difficult for me to manage with the grace and compassion I like to think of myself as having.
Part of what made this a challenge for me to manage is in the dissolving of the orga team in the middle of this project. Russia began its war on Ukraine, and Nina, as a Russian living inside of Russia, felt the impacts of this immediately. Marat began working intensively with Ukrainian Playback practitioners in weekly sessions that overlapped with the ending of the Better Together sessions. The two of them also worked hard to bring Nina to Israel so that she could be with her husband, Marat. I too was consumed with personal burdens, many of which, as a Black man in America, I experience as a centuries-old war thrust upon me. It almost devastated me, losing my bond with the organizational team. I was left feeling solely responsible for the weight of organizing ten others from around the world. I believed it was not acceptable for me to allow everyone’s investments to get lost in the crisis of it all. Instead, I did my best to ensure we would achieve the stated mission we set out toward, regardless of the external factors in our life. We had come too far to fail. My dedication to this mission further splintered the delicate balance of when I was able to be a leader or a participant in the program. I consider it an unfortunate side effect of being a determined leader at a time when others were giving up leadership. Part of me is concerned that made me less connected to the group, and seem like a dictator.
I struggle with this concept as a human, a Black male one, that often leads in a world where individuals cater more towards comfort and avoiding stress than achieving greatness. When I say “achieving greatness,” I do not mean seeking greatness for the sake of saying, “I’m great.” I mean seeking greatness so that we (I) can feel free at least once for an extended period of time. There are such great forces working against us in the world. How can we expect to ever break free of our social and internal bonds if we are not prepared to confront these great forces with our own personal and communal greatness? When I hear others’ hesitations around striving for greatness, I feel like I’m listening to a lifetime prison sentence being announced at the end of an unfair trial.
During one session discussion, I perceived that the members of the group were sad that Zoom couldn’t allow us to offer a hug to our international colleagues through the computer screen. I noticed this was more of a concern and focus for the group than mobilizing and becoming an agent of change on the issues discussed; I noticed I began to feel skeptical and apathetic. While I do immensely value hugs, I’d much rather people fight for my right to live in conditions that won’t put me in such a dire situation that a hug is the only thing people have to offer. I’d much rather use our time to take advantage of the magical space we are co-creating because of the benefits of zoom. Being part of Better Together has reinforced for me that there is no shortage of people that feel they love you with all their emotions, yet those same people may not be around when it is time to address, confront, and dismantle the systems and situations that have my exploitation and demise at the root. Nor are those populations readily accessible when it is time to recreate systems that are designed for those you love to thrive. I don’t think this is intentionally malicious (in most cases), rather it is a simple fact of how we are conditioned to relate to each other.
While I perceive this resistance to stepping up and taking leadership as natural, it makes me terribly sad. I am left feeling as though the effort it would take for me to experience a sense of freedom is too big an ask for those that admire and love me. Meanwhile I am left to design and hold space that will hopefully lead to a positive experience for others, even as I witness the group at times seemingly forget me as a participant when they are trying to be inclusive to others and make space. The parallels between my personal experiences with black exploitation and assumed labor are not lost on me in these settings. While the orga team, and others, were able to eventually name when they dropped the ball in terms of their participation in what they said they would own, I don’t remember any instance where admitting a need to step back also came with a plan of how to replace what was lost. The assumption is that things will be fine somehow, and in that space I became the ‘somehow’. I am continuously perplexed at how quickly people in Playback settings can turn their focus to their own needs, preferences, and desires and away from their responsibilities for the aspects of the collective.
I get the sense that in these troubling moments, empathy is valued above action. I am aware part of my struggle here is that “acts of service” is my love language. It is in fact one of the reasons I enjoy Playback so much; Playback can be an experience of love reciprocated. Yet that is not always the case, and that tension brings up questions for me: how much of myself I can bring to the organizing process? How much am I an empty vessel that is offering an act of service? How much of what I’m doing in Playback is for me? How much is for the community? What are the ethical ways of balancing those sometimes conflicting needs?
I hesitate to write this next paragraph, but would be remiss if I didn’t. In my professional opinion, the culture of Playback tends to lean toward feeling good and demanding comfort inside of Playback processes. In my experience, that can easily lead to a conscious or unconscious practice of entitlement that is counter to the act of service we wish to provide along with our own personal growth. There were multiple moments in our group’s process where I thought we might break through some layer of toxic social conditioning, but as a group, perhaps unconsciously, we often collectively decided to sit down as opposed to stand up and engage in the work of changing unhealthy systemic cultural norms. I wonder about this. I try to consider how shame is a factor in the directions we choose in these moments. I wonder how shame leads to performed behavior of “being one of the good ones,” and how shame is directed toward others to avoid feeling shame of self in the group. I notice who in the group is willing to explore this concept with integrity and who avoids it like the plague. I study the avoidance tactics. I observe how the fear of doing something wrong, once activated, absolves people from feeling bad for not doing anything at all. These patterns are ones that feel discouragingly familiar to observe, and I am reminded that the micro population and dynamics of the Better Together group are representative of the macro.
Throughout the project there was a general focus on what we have in common, which is great. For example, I was surprised to find out that I have so much in common with Anna, a white Slovakian woman. Still, as a group we did not operate with the same amount of enthusiasm for difference. We sought similarity, and at times demanded it, instead of embracing difference. For example, one country’s presentation in our sessions involved an exploration of cultural foods, which included more images of meat options than could be digested in that time. Following the presentation, there was a subtle tone in the group questioning whether it was an appropriate offering since there might be vegans and vegetarians in the space.
I am not personally equipped to entertain or engage in these types of challenges based on preferences. I think the presenter, or any human being, has the right to present their country and culture without first censoring aspects of it based on how someone else might feel about it. The idea that I have to suppress something I’m culturally proud of because it might make someone uncomfortable is a notion I resist. I can accept this type of censorship if the offering is intended to offend a population, but when it’s simply a difference in lifestyle, who has the authority on whose feelings are protected and whose are not? I think this is where the effects of white supremacy culture, which can be perpetrated by any race, can take hold by mandating one group’s perspective is the dominant one and others should cater to their comfort. I can say as a Black man, and one in the Playback community, it is rare that I see people in the Playback community framing their existence in a way that would not offend me. Black culture tends to be celebrated when it exists outside black bodies, unless black bodies can be used to tell non-black stories (e.g. Hamilton, the musical written by Lin-Manuel Miranda). I find that sentiment to be true in my global Playback experience as well.
Even in a project which I designed, I experienced multiple instances where the group marginalized and omitted my presence, direction, and sensitivities. Furthermore, calling this out tended to lead to having to hold space for fragility and claims of misunderstanding, which confused me since I later witnessed my concepts accepted when other members of the group or orga team said the same thing. I have rarely felt as though the Playback community has considered me entitled to any culturally relevant comfort in our gatherings, and instead of hoping for that entitlement, I see a benefit in all of us becoming more comfortable with the idea of being more uncomfortable. Where in our process do we lose our willingness to be an empty vessel and instead demand that the team we are part of provide us with an act of service (e.g. provide comfort) before we will step up to offer service to others?
It may be worth mentioning that there are some other challenges and experiences that I’m not unpacking here. For example, English dominated so much of our time together that I found myself longing to hear other languages in the way I’ve grown accustomed to in my international Playback experience. There is also a potential conversation about hierarchy of Playback forms that I’m not particularly interested in discussing here; I mean, can we honestly consider any online Playback form a traditional form of Playback when the traditional forms were designed for in-person performances? There are many successes and challenges that I have chosen to omit, and likely even more that live in my blind spots. I hope to continue to explore those individually and in community in a different forum.
If I could do it all again
If I were to do this project again, I would definitely structure more time for orientation. The one session we had was not enough. There I would bring clarity to the various roles that I only now understand having gone through the process. The structure for the four-person monthly team was ultimately built during the start of the process. So was the buddy system, both of which still were a source of some confusion nine months into the process. The way the four-person monthly team can collaborate and prepare for their two sessions is another place to spend more time in orientation. Also, I would announce all group dynamic dates during orientation. We struggled to find common dates and times later into the project, so having all dates at the start is a crucial time saver. With a similar sentiment, I would also pre-schedule orga team meetings for the year.
The timing of our structured sessions did not account for any announcements, yet there was always some information to share with everyone. We could have done a better job of allotting time for announcements instead of taking time away from the presenting group. I cannot imagine requesting more than two hours from members committing to this project across such vast time zones, so some part of the monthly session days would have to be intentionally removed to provide that time.
I would also have more group dynamic sessions, perhaps one every third month. That would allow us to go deeper into understanding who we are as a group and create a more routine space for collective assessment.
I would put more thought into the structure of the orga team. Marat and Nina were the partners I needed to get this project off the ground. That said, our casual nature of starting Better Together came back to haunt me in the end, once their organizational participation faded. The roles of team members were not clearly defined, and there was no system of accountability, and this led to a severe challenge in balancing out tasks to make this project successful, especially in the last months when we switched from Playback and country presentations to writing articles and closing out the group. Without clarity of roles I became paralyzed, as I scrambled to know with certainty the gaps I needed to fill in the absence of someone attending to those areas.
Another consideration would be putting a question on the reflection form about language. I wish I had better data to reflect on how much of each session people were actually understanding.
While I am reasonably satisfied with what we created, I know there are plenty of places for improvement. I enjoy thinking about them constructively.
Marat: Thank you for being a dreamer with me and seeing value in the concept.
Nina: Thank you for proving to me that pressing the trust button can be worthwhile.
Michael: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to learn from your leadership, even in a group you aren’t technically leading.
Cheraé: Thank you for all the laughs and the thoughtfulness of your reflections.
Poh Kiang: Thank you for always arriving to the sessions with a supportive heart as big as your radiant smile and energy.
Mansee: Thank you for your precise observations and the way you dive into difficult conversations with genuine curiosity.
Sheila: Thank you for your commitment to making this project successful for others, and for making it work for your process as well.
Elsa: Thank you for your sensitivity and superb offers inside of the Playback practice and the discussions.
Ági: Thank you for your courage and vulnerability in the group, and for inspiring so much growth.
Anna: Thank you for having so many brilliant existential conversations with me.
Emily: Thank you for your attention to detail and compassionate curiosity in preparing our words for the general public.
Jo: Thank you for your continued support in helping me think about Playback group dynamics and providing this platform for us.
And although you were not part of the group, I want to thank Lisa Chan. You called me when we were beginning to advertise this project. You were clear that you did not want to be in the Better Together group but you did want to share with me your experience of running a similar project. You were a stranger at that point, but in a couple of hours you shared so much knowledge with me that I ultimately utilized throughout this project. I will remember that moment as living the value of Playback: a community member sharing their personal story, and an individual and a whole community becoming stronger as a result.
“Will C.” AKA Will Chalmus(United States): Will C. is a Playback practitioner and international trainer that simultaneously holds positions as an educator, consultant, performance artist, and event manager.
Sheila Donio (Brazil): Sheila is an actress and an accredited Playback Theatre trainer, performing and facilitating training programs in Brazil and abroad for over 20 years, while also being a translator-interpreter and an administrator for CPT and several art projects.
Cheraé Halley (South Africa): Cheraé Halley is an applied drama practitioner and creates theatre with a focus on human rights and social justice. Cheraé is currently the co-director of Drama for Life Playback Theatre and serves as a board member on the IPTN.
Anna Smetanová (Slovakia): Anna is a playback practitioner, process facilitator, capacity building specialist genuinely interested in the transformative power of playback in connecting our inner and outer environment.
Poh Kiang Tan (Malaysia): Poh Kiang has ventured into early childhood education for more than 10 years. She is a playbacker in Malaysia under Rasa Sayang Playback Theatre. She’s interested in influencing society through playback theater.
Mansee Shah Thard (India): Mansee Shah Thard is a Playbacker and a social entrepreneur who manages a performing art space in Bangalore, India
Here is Part Two of participants’ commentaries following the one-year, recently completed Better Together project. Part One was published on Playback Theatre Reflects two weeks ago. The third and final part will appear later in February.
During the project, eleven Playback practitioners from eleven countries met online twice a month for a year. Each person then wrote about what happened in this extraordinary experience, from their individual point of view. The participants’ statements and articles (including two that were co-authored) provide a fascinating composite portrait of a sustained experiment that was clearly profound for all concerned–with implications that go beyond those who were directly involved.
The writing has been lightly edited for clarity, first by Emily Conolan and then myself, preserving the voice and English usage of these diverse writers. For most, English is their second or third language. Some use American spellings, others British.
Better Together, Part Two: Participants’ Commentaries on a Year-Long Project
Right on the orientation day of this project, while the facilitators of the process were introducing the forms we were going to use in our Playback practice, I felt the first shock of the discomfort of being part of this process. Who can determine which forms developed around the world can still fit the art form called Playback Theatre? How have the forms evolved to the online realm? Where is the line between what is still Playback and what is something else? What to do when there is no agreement about what is or is not Playback Theatre?
As the online forms were being introduced in that first meeting, we moved from original-based forms, to forms I got used to in the past couple of years, then to forms I had never heard of. It is true that my atypical brain needs a moment to adjust to improvising over a foundation that doesn’t feel strong enough to me. But in the back of my mind I heard: “Why would we do this or that form?” “Is that Playback?” Some of those forms were full of logistical details and steps. It was very hard for me to internalize any of that without time to embody and practice it. But even before trying that, I felt I needed to understand the purpose of each of the forms being chosen and presented. I did not find, nor did I create, the opportunity for such a discussion.
In the sessions that followed, every time a form I felt uncomfortable with was called, I made sure I was not onstage. After a couple of months, I learned that I was not the only one uncomfortable (as I am not the only one writing about it now). That made me feel a bit better, although the sense that I was disrupting a process well cared for and planned by others is still present and disturbing me.
But what can be considered a Playback Theatre form?
After 20 years studying Playback, I understand that part of its guidelines is to reenact something that really happened in someone’s life, which is spontaneously volunteered by them during a Playback event. The different forms are there to help structure that, while moving the arc of the event forward, in a way that people feel as safe and as comfortable to share as possible. And balancing art, ritual, and social interaction is of the essence. But do we really do that? Expanding Playback around the world, and adapting it to the online format, do we still do that? What if a form does not represent what really happened to someone, but beautifully shows a metaphor of someone’s interpretation of what that could be? What if you are asked to join this marvelous art form that brings out poetry and creativity, and it comes to a beautiful result, but does not relate to Playback as you know it? What would you do? Would you feel comfortable performing? Would you want to share a story? Would I want to share a story in such a space?
When I joined this project, I was so concerned about how to represent my country in a legitimate way, that I forgot how challenging it could and would be to do Playback Theatre with people from ten other corners of the world, who have taken different paths in their Playback journey to get here. Where can we all meet? Which Playback language can we all speak? One of the first challenges I faced was the one thing I had thought we all had in common: Playback Theatre.
“If this was my dream” over the course of one year Cherae Halley, South Africa
Part 1: An opening statement
I have always found a great thrill as a playback actor, performing Playback Theatre with people from different parts of the world. This is because people play differently and people have different cultural understandings and practices of theatre and performance. I particularly like the challenge it brings to the actor. This interest was initiated during my leadership training in Québec where performances were scheduled as part of our training for the surrounding communities. We came together from different countries, having only a week of training and both teams made aesthetic magic in these local performances. I have continued doing so in various ways, performing in ensembles made up of different practitioners, especially when our performance world expanded online. Therefore coming into this project, Better Together, I had no performance anxiety or feelings around difference in understanding the forms.
One of the items in our orientation session was going through the forms they ( the organising team, made up of Will Chalmus, Nina Garbuzova and Marat Mairovich), selected as forms the Better Together group will make use of for our year together. This task would prove to not be as simple as perhaps the organising team imagined it to be. There was first, the idea of a three person pair…something that I had never come across before. Then, the introduction of forms “monologue” and “if this was my dream” that were brought into the long form frame as forms that can be used in the same way scenes/stories are. And lastly, the first attempt at “if this was my dream” confused many in the room. There was clearly not enough time for us to fully grasp these forms, as a collective new to each other and still in learning.
Suddenly, there it was – the anxiety. I recall asking Marat the question “when is this form called by the conductor? What kind of story does the conductor hear when choosing to invite this form?” and I recall not being satisfied with the answer I received. So, week after week the anxiety made a special appearance. Something I had not felt before when working with an international group. Why? Recalling my reflections on these challenges in the first four sessions, I wrote the following under what I found challenging:
Remembering the different ways the forms are done on this platform. The forms in general – I have anxiety around them. Performing the episodes and the long stories. I am not sure why really. I know I need to sit with these forms, I feel like because they are not forms I use every day, I hit a blank when the better together sessions happen. So I must make a reminder to myself to go over the forms each week. The “if it was my dream” form. I am still confused by it. It isn’t any criticism, I am genuinely confused by the intention of the form and when it is best used, for what kind of story? So when it was called out – I still thought “Oh God…I’m so glad I am not one of the actors right now”. (I am) struggling to find a way to honour a story if this is called out while I am acting.
There was clearly a block for me in understanding, a gap in the learning process. And over the course of the project, I battled with this form. I rejected it. I would offer to be an actor right at the beginning of our sessions so as to never be in long form and have the conductor call out this form. I observed others reject it – asking to step down from the acting team whenever it is called out. I recall advice from one of the group dynamic sessions to “not be concerned with always getting Playback right”. And then, just one month away from completing our project, I was an actor standing up there and the conductor called out this form. I panicked. Quickly opened the google document that listed all our forms and read through the ritual – let me at least get this ritual right, for the sake of the teller! I reflected thereafter:
What did you find challenging: If this was my dream – lol! What are the memorable moments of today: performing “If this was my dream” was a memorable moment for me today. It was memorable because I have been boycotting this form for almost a year now due to not fully understanding it and then I could not stand there and boycott it at that moment because I was called for duty under very limited circumstances. I had to serve.
Prior to this moment, Marat and I had an initial conversation about the forms and the sense that there is a hierarchy of forms in our Playback Theatre community. But my boycott had nothing to do with the status of forms, I was simply confused. It was because I did not know this form that I avoided it. Will C suggested I interview Marat to get some answers.
In this article, I will present some of the findings from my interview with Marat Mairovich, the person who introduced the Better Together group to this form, with the intention to provide a deeper understanding of this form called “if it was my dream”. Through highlighting some critical questions related to metaphor, ensemble and conducting, I hope to provide insight for anyone who makes use of this form. Marat and I end up discussing education and training within the Playback Theatre space, which I have added to the conclusion of this chapter. By doing so, I intend for this chapter to be useful to anyone working within a diverse range of playback skills as well as an international group of practitioners who may or may not have a varied understanding of theatre and performance from within their training, culture of theatre and context.
Part 2: Cheraé interviews Marat Mairovich, and talks with Sheila Donio and Poh Kiang Tan
This section of the article will provide insights on the form “if this was my dream”, based on my interview with Marat as well as include some “Aha!” moments through conversations with Poh Kiang Tan and Sheila Donio (also part of the Better Together project). I specifically had conversations with these two members for a number of reasons. I approached Poh Kiang because I had read in one of the online guidelines that they discovered the form from Malaysian Playback Practitioner Peggy Soo (Rosin & Vogel, 2021, p.30) and Poh Kiang is from Malaysia and had called the form once as conductor in our group. I approached Sheila Donio because she had been our first teller in testing out this form during our orientation, and things had not gone as expected at that moment.
Describing the form and how I understand it operates (on Zoom)
I could not find any writing about this form other than when it was brought to the online platform. In the Storytelling on Screen written by Jordan Rosin, Heidi Winters Vogel and Sammy Lebron, as well as the guide titled Online Playback Theatre written by Gerry Orkin and Nir Raz, the name of the form differs and the ritual of the form differs somewhat. Neither speak about the company or individual who first created the form, neither speak about any clarity on what dreams mean. Between the two guides, the words that the actors say differ. Therefore the first part of this inquiry was about naming some of these details.
Cheraé: Did the form exist before Zoom? Did you know this form when it was done in a shared space, in person, and what did it look like?
Marat: The form existed much before Zoom. Igor Lyubitov, from Russia, founded the form. We spoke a lot with Igor when he taught us this form, the whole of Russia does this form as well as in Israel. Igor taught my group this form. The form is not very different when it is done on Zoom. [The actors] think about the story and they connect to the heart of the story, and to understand the heart of the story they use a metaphor. Then he or she will tell some dream. It [creates] a dreaming mood, to get a little further away from reality, but still be in connection with the story and the heart of the story. And the rest of the group is moving, listening to this dream and trying to move, not pantomime it, almost like a chorus – moving together as inspired by this dream.
Cheraé: Do the actors that are moving together, have to create a dream-like sequence or what is it that they are creating?
Marat: They are creating their reaction to the dream. They can be the dreamer himself or the atmosphere. Like if I am saying “I am the dragon flying in the sky”, they can be the dragon or the sky, but they need to synchronize and work together like in a chorus. This form is very unique, in a scene for example, we work with mixing things between reality and metaphor/dream. And we dive in and dive out, and Igor once said, he invented this form for weird stories.
Cheraé: Do you know why it is called “if this was my dream”?
Marat: “If I would dream about this story, it would be this dream”.
Cheraé: It is not necessarily, “based on the story I have just told, these are my dreams/visions of the future”?
Marat: No, if I was going to sleep, dreaming about something connected to this story, this is what it would be. [What it would] look like.
Cheraé: So it is purely about the metaphor that comes up with that story?
Marat: I understand now that dreams can sometimes be the vision.
Cheraé: Exactly, sometimes dreams can mean a vision for the future. I really want to find that clarity. Because you see, even though on the [google] document it tells us we must find a metaphor, when I played this form, I had gone into the future [based on the past experience] in other words “this is what I dream about now…”.
Marat: I have a dream, like [Martin Luther] King’s speech…
I found it interesting, this distinction between dreaming in the sense of visualising and dreaming in the sense of putting one’s head down and dreaming of this story taking place in a different dimension or landscape. Poh Kiang’s understanding is that this form allows for something we do not yet know to be brought to life, she said “we use this form for something that I had wished but yet, I never achieved. Or something where all the facts aren’t there, I actually still don’t know, I am guessing what my future will be. But I noticed the way we do it here is different from the way we do it in Malaysia.”. Perhaps there is room here for us to consider the use of the word “dream” in this form. At some point of this inquiry, I watched the video recording found on YouTube which is linked to the Rosin and Vogel guidelines. In the example of “if this was my dream” I listened to the teller, to his story and I watched the enactment and at the end the teller said, “yes it was like I was living a dream at that moment”. So the teller interpreted what he watched as, “yes, it was like I was living a dream”. Not necessarily the metaphor, not necessarily a vision of the future, but rather – for him, his story was like a dream come true. Perhaps there is possibility for all these meanings of the word “dream” to exist in this form…however…metaphor is crucial to this form.
Discussing the importance of metaphor (for this form)
The actors find a metaphor for the just-told narrative. This is the dream that the actor speaks. I strongly believe in the use of metaphor in Playback Theatre. Here at our affiliate school in South Africa, Drama for Life School of Playback, we have a whole section in our core training where we ask the students to respond to the stories we hear through metaphor. We include this because we know the power of metaphor and we want to provide students with thinking beyond the literal. We also know that metaphor, linked closely with myth and fairytale, is part of the echoes that exist (Salas, 2004). However, when it comes to theatre, especially for the purpose of activism and education, when using metaphor we are warned against using metaphors that are too out of reach for our audience, ones that will go over their head, for the fear that it will not be read by the audience and then no change will occur. I will unpack metaphor with Marat and why this form is dependent on metaphor.
Cheraé: So how far can the actor take the metaphor? How do we avoid the actor telling a metaphor that just doesn’t land?
Marat: First we need to teach people to listen deeply to the story. The purpose of this, in my opinion not Igor’s, is to deal with the stories that are very painful, not social, it’s about personal trauma. When you are hurt and your soul is bleeding, you need to touch it very very gently. And in my opinion metaphor is the best way to do it. Not to go to the exact point and reframe it again. But to hold this story, to really understand, in the case of what we first experienced in our Better Together rehearsal, the story that was told was not clear for the actors and myself so one of the reasons that we failed is because we clearly did not understand what is the heart of the story. But if we do understand exactly what is the heart of the story, the metaphor will appear and it will be very gentle, touching to this story.
Cheraé: A question I am thinking of now, it’s part of my critique of the form, if four people are telling a metaphor, don’t we lose something? Because if four actors choose, one chooses the dragon…another chooses…
Marat: There is the heart for the whole story. But also we know that a story can have three sections. What was before the story (the platform); the story itself; and then the conclusion. And sometimes we can find a metaphor, or the heart for a particular part and not for the whole story, because it is very transformational. For example, someone was very depressed, and somehow because of some occasions he becomes very happy. So I can go to the depressed side and find the heart of the story in this part and present it as a metaphor, and someone else finds the heart of the story in the second part and present it as a metaphor, so we are not using the metaphor for the same part. But sometimes because the heart of the story is a way of focusing on something. So I can experience this heart of the story in a different way from you as my fellow actor. It’s not just about the metaphor, it is also the conclusion. So maybe if we touch the whole story to the heart of the story and we look at it very differently then there is never only one way to see it.
Cheraé: Yes and the ensemble must work together to bring the fullness of the story, but each on their own. Everyone is contributing one part to the fuller story. Each actor has the responsibility to bring a part of the story alive through the metaphor and if we are all going to be trying to capture the whole thing in one metaphor, it can be so far away from the story. But actually if the ensemble is working together, hearing each other’s metaphors, seeing which parts of the story has been shown and which parts of the stories, experiences still need to be highlighted through metaphor.
How do you capture the heart of the story with a dream interpretation? Because when we talk about the heart of a story, we are talking about what is underneath everything. So how do you capture that, offer that to the teller and audience but it’s in a dream interpretation? The heart in a metaphor?
Marat: So we need to trust. It’s the trust button. The first trust button is to the ensemble. Then the second is we need to trust our imagination of our audience and the teller itself. And I think that open things, not exact reframing or continuing to do the same things that happen in the story. If we do the same thing this story was told, in the same way of what happens…you cannot feel this with your imagination. You just repeat the same thing. And see the same thing on the stage. There is not so much interpretation. If it is open, I just play music for the story, and for someone to be moving, we give room for the audience and the teller to fill it with their own thing. And in my experience the perception of art is about creating something for the imagination of the viewer. We must trust the audience. And sometimes my metaphor will work in a different way.
Cheraé: Rea Dennis speaks about balancing aesthetics with accountability in a Playback Theatre performance. And she says that we must remember the enactment is a “physical and visual language” that carries the story and that we shouldn’t be re-telling the story with literal choices because a literal translation of stories could be “reductive and potentially re-violating”. I actually love what she says on how useful it is to “conceive of an aesthetic rendering of the teller’s account as a translation”. And so we are translating the narrative. So we translate the original telling we are translating it with a more “textured experience for the audience”, bringing that script to life with our aesthetic and certainly metaphor is part of our aesthetic! So I hear you, and I want to explicitly connect what you are saying with what Rea has written.
Marat: I think a little problem in our context (Better Together) is always that our translation and metaphors are landing on cultural backgrounds of people and if we have people from different cultural contexts it could be problematic because we may not be able to touch the right metaphor.
I am concluding from this part of our conversation that the actors must make careful choices with their metaphors and be very aware of one’s cultural references that may not land with everyone. I am also concluding that dreaming of the future in this form does not honour the use of metaphor. In a very basic understanding, we use the echo of metaphor to translate the original telling into something representative of the story.
Discussing when such a form is best used
My next and (main) train of thought is the ongoing question of when such a form should be selected by the conductor. And what I discovered is crucial for those who wish to make use of such a form, that is based both on the need for a more sensitive approach to a traumatic story, as well as a need for aesthetic variation, as Marat better puts it:
Marat: I have two answers:
To hold painful stories. A traumatic story. Not the trauma, but painful stories. We can hold other stories with this form.
As a conductor, I can see that we repeat the way we are dealing with stories, and I want to change something in the whole sequence of this performance so I will choose something different. And this is a different form. I can choose many different forms, one for musical, one for metaphor etc. that can be considered during the conducting. So I choose it if I want to bring something fresh to the performance but not to lose the story. If the story I hear has multiple characters, I wouldn’t select this form for sure. I know I need the personal view mostly, from the teller. And stories that need a more gentle holding.
Cherae: I see what you are saying. So if this is a painful story that needs sensitivity.. Like we would do as actors, when we learn the echoes of a story, we play the myth and fairytale of the story when we don’t want to present the teller with the face of the story or the here and now. We choose those echoes. But in this way, as you describe it – the actors don’t choose the echo, it is the conductor who chooses that we are going to play this story in the echo, in the metaphor.
A final critique on the form itself
One of my earliest and biggest critiques of this form is the fact that there is the real possibility that the teller themselves are missing in the form. If actors detail metaphors far from the initial retelling then the teller could easily disappear. After all, Sheila did voice that “it’s a great improvisational form, but it’s not my story”. Sheila continued in our conversation saying, “I was the guinea pig. It was my story that we first used with this form. And when I saw the enactment of my story, it was beautiful. I loved it. But it had nothing to do with my story. It was like their story. And when the conductor gave it back to me, I told him it looked beautiful but I don’t recognise it as my story”. This form was offered to the Better Together team as one form to be used as part of the long forms. Seated alongside scenes/stories, as an alternative to carrying a longer narrative. However, in scenes/long stories, we always cast the teller. In “if this was my dream” we do not cast the teller, so the teller is not necessarily represented in this form. This is unlike “monologues”, in which while there is distance from the teller, the last monologue must directly represent the teller. I therefore needed to ask Marat: How does “if this was my dream” honour the presence of the teller, the person who has just shared a story?
Marat: I think all the dreams must be from the teller’s view. So those stories are from the personal. Without too many other characters/people in it. So these are the kinds of stories this form touches. So naturally, it becomes the teller’s dreams.
Cheraé: So the actors must use first person, I, me, etc? We can paint landscapes but where is the teller in landscapes?
Marat: No, the way I teach it – I ask people/characters to find the person in the story. “If it was my dream, I would be a dragon…”, and then paint the landscape.
Cheraé: How can you avoid this not becoming a very different interpretation of somebody else’s story? I tried to keep my offering (when I performed it in one of our sessions) as close as possible to what I heard in Michael’s story. I was dreaming now as Michael, of future young boys who wish to walk on the road less traveled the same way he did. But then another actor mentioned an animal…where do we draw the line? I’ve heard you talking about it from a personal point of view, so just checking if there is anything you want to add?
Marat: If it is open enough and the interpretation is not for the actor but for the audience and teller, and when I say open I mean you are not trying to recreate the same story through the eyes of the dragon, you are working with metaphor as input to recognise the story, to understand the story. So it is open, but moving in a specific way. It should be open enough to give an opportunity for the teller to make the interpretation.
Part 3: Concluding remarks
I wish to conclude this chapter by touching on the topic of what it means to be concerned with getting this form “right.” I also wish to end the chapter with a brief discussion on the importance of providing adequate time for training, as well as discussing the hierarchy of forms. In our very first group dynamics session, just four months into the Better Together project, we were asked by those leading the session to respond to a few questions in order for them to prepare adequately. I had provided the following response under the question “Is there anything else you would like to add?”:
I still have some anxiety around the forms. I realized looking at my reflections that each month I had named the forms as my biggest challenges – except for the last month when the conductor was very clear that they will be using only forms I was familiar with. In a way, we didn’t give ourselves enough time to understand new forms that had been introduced to us (eg. Monologues, if it was my dream, 3 people pairs) and I arrive with that anxiety every session. While I read up on them to prepare myself, it’s easier when the learning has happened in the body. So either time is put aside for us to do so or an acknowledgement to not use these forms is made, that’s the only way I think my anxiety will be released.
The leaders of the group dynamics session ran a fishbowl and placed myself in one with two other members of the group. I recall the discussion to be an honest and authentic one, and I also recall the words “let us not be concerned with getting Playback right”. However, it was not so much about getting this form right, but rather serving my group adequately. For these first four months I had flagged over and over again my confusion, my anxiety and my desire for another opportunity to understand the forms. But at what point would the organising team say “let us stop and re-evaluate how we can make people feel like they can contribute effectively in the group?”. In this project, it never happened. I knew that these forms can work. However, when you are in a place of not knowing, I believe that emphasis needs to be put on the learning. But in the Better Together space we never gave each other enough time to learn the forms. I invited Marat to think around – what does he think was needed for the Better Together group to really grasp this form?
Marat: Time. But I do believe it’s still connected somehow to my not good enough explanation as well as the dynamic. I think our group rejected it on the grounds of “why do you use this form that nobody knows, why did you (the organizing team) put it on our shoulders? We are nervous enough, because it’s a new process and now you are putting this form on us to carry also”. And perhaps my persona as a white, straight, male. I am writing about this in my own article. And if Nina (she knows this form too) if she taught the form perhaps something would have been different somehow.
Cheraé: Do you think if there was just another moment, if we gave it another chance do you think people would have opened up?
Marat: Sure. Like you did.
And while I never really opened up to the form, I made it my main priority to set up an inquiry now that the project has ended. In sharing my discoveries with Sheila, she was extremely surprised, her words were “I am a teacher. I just understood this form now for the first time…it’s amazing, a form where you listen to three different metaphors in a story…It’s like witnessing three different narrative V’s.”. My only wish is that we all could have had such a revelation. It was not about getting it right either, we always run the risk of shooting for the moon and missing it completely when we step into the shoes of the Playback Theatre actor. As Marat says:
Marat: I want to say this, this is important – just to say this thing of four actors and four dreams…three of them can match and one of them can be missed. And this is also okay. All of us, we’re shooting in the same place and this is also okay. If someone missed it, it’s okay.
Cheraé: Aren’t we doing that all the time? As Playback Theatre actors? In all of the forms, we are taking the risk that someone will miss something.
Marat: And if just one dream can catch the teller’s heart of the story, it’s enough.
Cheraé: I think there is real room here for the ensemble to understand that they have to work together. That each dream isn’t an individual moment, yes it is, but they need to be hearing each other – if the previous metaphor is too far, if the previous metaphor didn’t begin at the personal, they need to be asking themselves; what is missing and what really needs to be said in order to honour the story?
In thinking about status and hierarchy, one final point I wish to make around accepting and rejecting Playback Theatre forms as they develop across the globe, is that we are artists, creatives and we know the role our methodology plays in society. As we engage in the diverse ways in which we perform narratives, let us give each other the time to understand, to develop and to critique, in the best way possible. Let us give each other the opportunities to practice from an informed position, so as to grow better, together (cheesy, I know). I asked Marat whether he thinks people can say “this is not playback”, specifically connected to this form, and here’s what he had to say:
Marat: There are a few stones that we need to remember. Listen to the story with empathy, don’t invent something that was not in the story…the foundations…but everything else goes. In my opinion. Our founders Jonathan and Jo have once said, in a beautiful way, “take it, this is not ours, this is yours, develop it, but remember there are stones (foundations) in a way”. Remember: every story must be heard, think about how we include and build connection with outsiders. Do it with empathy and think about three things (aesthetic, social dimension, rituals) so these three dimensions are very important. If one is better than the other, then one will disappear in some way and then we have a problem. Because now it’s no longer Playback. Improv for example, sometimes they use a story from the crowd but take it over, they don’t think about the social dimensions or they are not thinking about the story itself. It’s just “let me be creative and do things far far away”. This is not our practice, we need boundaries. Sometimes people who did a lot of Playback in their lives, sometimes we know what is right and wrong, we know what is Playback but sometimes new things can be surprising and for those surprises, I personally try to take the time to see if it really does fit the Playback structure or if it’s just new for me and because I am not used to this kind of Playback.
At the end of this inquiry, I felt sad. Sad that we did not explore the form further. Just imagine if we gave each other just another moment in our journey, to re-address “if it was my dream” and “monologues”. We could have understood the form better, the history of it as well as the developments of it, as well as how it fits into these three circles. But the sadness is what led me to put pen to paper and produce this reflection. It doesn’t matter whether this form fits into the traditional model that we know, it doesn’t matter where anyone has been trained or by whom – it doesn’t matter – if we just give each other the space to explore it.
Rosin, J, Vogel, H & Lebron, S. 2021. Storytelling on Screen: An Online Playback Theatre Archive and Guidebook. Virginia Tech School of Performing Arts in association with Virginia Tech Publishing.
Orkin, G & Raz, N. 2020. Online Playback Theatre. V1.05.
Dennis, R. 2008. Refugee performance: aesthetic representation and accountability in playback theatre IN Research in Drama Education, Vol.13. No. 2, P. 211-215
Salas, J. 2014. Echoes in Playback Theatre Stories. Notes from Leadership in Québec, Canada.
Simple Questions and Complicated Answers Michael Cheng, Singapore
What can I write about? What are people interested to know about this year-long journey of ours? What discoveries did I make that might be of interest to others? What am I able to articulate clearly?
“Answers are meaningless if we do not have the right questions.”
I don’t remember where I read this. Maybe it was a line in a play or a television drama. But it has been resonating with me for a long time. In my practice, it translates as trying to pose the right questions, and hopefully also inspiring students to ask the right ones too.
In my journey, questions have always guided my path. They are like lamp posts providing illumination. Sometimes, they make clear the right path to take. Many times, they reveal a different route for me to tread.
So perhaps an article of questions would be more interesting? Perhaps different answers may arise for us in response? I would love to hear from you if you have more questions and thoughts after reading this article.
I began writing this the night after I played a song for our group warm-up. The song is called Saudade, Saudade by MARO, a Portuguese singer.
“Saudade”, as I understood it, has no direct translation to English. It is a feeling with qualities of nostalgia, melancholy, and an enigmatic yearning. The song sets the mood nicely as this article takes form at the end of our Better Together journey.
As we embark on this article, looking for the right lamp posts, perhaps you can search for this song on YouTube, and play it. Let’s listen, walk, and find the questions that matter.
About the forms…
What are the most suitable forms for a group of people with a vast diversity in cultures, Playback traditions, and levels of experience?
How important is it for a group to focus, or not focus, on the forms?
Would that change how we listen to the stories?
Would that change how we are with one another?
What if we build our repertoire of forms together?
How does that impact group building?
Will we have enough time to do all the other important things?
Should we take the time?
What if we let go of “the right forms”?
Do short forms still matter if we are warmed up?
Or are there other aspects of warming up that we may neglect?
Are long forms that do not work with narratives still considered Playback forms?
How much does this project need us to know about conducting, before conducting?
How do we feel when a short form is called after a long dialogue between the teller and the conductor?
How do we feel when the conductor is letting the teller say too much?
Is it just me that feels like online interviews feel even longer than in person?
Is it just me that feels my attention slipping away in moments?
What if we had time to build a common understanding about the process of conducting in the group?
What if we took time to check our common understanding of the differences in interviewing for different forms?
About our country presentations…
What if we knew what was important to say in 20 minutes?
Is that even possible?
What would you choose to share?
How much does what we shared about our country say about us?
How much can we recognise ourselves in a presentation about another country?
How does one presentation influence the next?
How do the playback enactments influence the next presentation?
How important are numbers and facts about a country?
How can we connect those numbers and facts to how we were formed and influenced?
About the format and process…
What would it take to do this project in this format in person?
Is it even possible, or will the same geographical location add another layer of echoes?
How much does the online format affect our sensing and connection?
How much time is too much time in between the sessions?
Are we resonating more with the personal in the presentation, or the information about the country previously not known?
Do the stories resonate with the individual in that time? Does it germinate more thoughts, feelings, and stories?
How much care for the individual can we give as a group? How can we take individual responsibility to give care?
A little bit about Narrative Reticulation
If you’ve made it through the writing thus far, thank you! At the very start of thinking about my topic, Narrative Reticulation (NR) came to mind. Obviously, this didn’t turn out to be a deep exploration into NR, but I do want to add a few thoughts. Hopefully, they seed more questions for future exploration, for you and for me.
NR is one of the Playback topics that I think about quite often, because it is fascinating and yet nebulous in a way. I find it meaningful to think about why and how Playback works, and why and how we do the things we do, in process, forms, and ritual. Theory seems to me to be the foundation for “good action” in Playback.
Better Together was a wonderful opportunity to study this. We played back stories arising from different contexts, cultures, and geographies in each session. At the same time, the format itself offered a unique opportunity to explore and think about NR across multiple sessions in a significant period of time.
In the project, each month would focus on a particular country. A participant had 20 minutes to share about the country of origin. Then the remainder of the session was about playing back feelings and stories triggered by the sharing. Interestingly, the only teller was to be the presenter. It was only in the following session two weeks later, that the other participants shared their stories in response to the previous session.
Incredibly, the Red Thread wove through our stories across the many months. Themes of intergenerational connections, evolving personal identities, colonialism and migration, and our responses to social structures, were just a few that created this rich tapestry.
It was incredible, because you can imagine the diverse ways in which we arrived at each session. We committed to one another for one year. Yet life for all of us carried on outside of the sessions, until we met again two weeks apart. Even though the sessions are linked to one another, we still had to pick up the pieces each time. Still, there were coherent and common themes weaving through the stories. At the same time, it was easy to see when a conductor’s direction of questions led us away from the thread.
Oftentimes, the playback still worked. At times, the dialogue seemed to take a more complicated route to “our story” and dialogue. It seems to me that in this particular format, a deeper awareness of overall themes, as well as grounding or arriving properly, are crucial elements to deepen the Guidance of form and process. This is not easy, nor does it always happen.
In some moments, the tension between Spontaneity and Guidance was very clear. We must attend to the “Here and Now”. We must also acknowledge that much may have happened in between our meetings. These aspects take us away from attending to the thread and dialogue across multiple sessions. Skilful Guidance is needed to bring us back to where we last ended, to remember how we felt, and to recall what we took away. Many times we did that through masterful evocation.
Another aspect of the project was the questions that participants asked the presenter. These were written in the chat or in verbal form after the country presentation. The questions are important as a reflection of our curiosity about the presenter and the country. They also act as stimuli, for both presenter (teller in the same session), and the tellers in the following session.
Nonetheless, clarifying questions about details and opinions bring us away from a “story space”, to a “head space”. To me, it is important that we remember Playback is about stories, first and foremost. Questions that lead us to the “story space” tend to be more about the personal, such as “How did that event affect you growing up?”. Questions that lead us in the opposite direction are in the manner of “How are the rights of the minorities protected in your country?” Which questions to you are important to unfold a personal Story emerging in the moment?
Perhaps, the key is in the Guidance of the transition from the “head space” to the “story space”. Perhaps some of us may identify with this. Sometimes tellers come to tell of their opinions, or of a particular situation that has not yet revealed a personal connection. We can perhaps guide them to find that personal connection through a process such as remembering when that situation affected them.
Narrative details develop the story and help us to imagine what happened in our minds’ eye. We want to be able to “see” the person in the events described. Of course, the more we know about the context, the more likely we are to understand the deeper notes of a story. Still, this is as much about the Atmosphere that we create for storytelling, as it is about the Story node in NR. How did we end the last session? How are we arriving at this one? How can we help participants to recall their feelings from the last session, to breathe, and to look deep to feel an impulse arising? How can we create an atmosphere resonating with, and continuing from, the previous session?
Another crucial aspect is in the conducting. There are important reasons behind why conducting is “Active”. This refers to the thought processes in the moment, as well as the act of interviewing, or as I like to call it, dialoguing with the teller. There is an active co-creation aspect in play. Conducting is more than offering a question and waiting for the completion of the offered answer. As many of us in the wider community know, a key skill is when and how to interrupt, to actively guide the conversation in search of the thread (that the conductor hopefully is aware of).
I see the conductor playing the social investigator role as a very curious person. The conductor-social investigator is curious about how this story is connected to the previous one. There is curiosity about how the events in the story have shaped the identity or the in-the-moment responses of the teller. There is a crucial curiosity about what happened next. There is curiosity about how the story fits into a hypothesis about the overarching themes. Also present are the gentle steering of the conversation, the tender building of trust, and the light touch of a friend across the dining table, in service of the personal Story.
In essence, this project showcased many differences in styles and conducting personalities. Across the more successful (in my opinion) sessions, were a common deep understanding of the playback process, and a presence of skills needed to guide the teller in a relationship of co-creation.
At this point, I am also curious about how playbackers in our communities create the right conditions for a personal Story to be stimulated and shared. I am curious about the different formats of your projects, and how these affect the NR. Perhaps we might even take a step back to consider how NR can be a roadmap for how we design Playback projects. Perhaps many of us are already doing so!
The flow of stories throughout our year-long journey has been tremendous. I can describe it as a water flow through different terrains, perhaps starting as drops of aqua pura from a glacier up in a cold and harsh place. In some moments, the water flow turns into a gentle stream, carving a winding path through the forest. Or perhaps, it is the rocks and stones on the ground, and the roots and growth of the vegetation that carves the path of the water.
There are moments when the flow becomes a muddy torrent, and some of us have to hold on for dear life. There are other moments where the terrain seems to hold back the water, but we can still see the small spread of water on the ground, making its way onwards. Sometimes, the flow gets stuck and muddy waters form. They almost seem stagnant, but there is life within. At other times, a waterfall forms, when the gush of stories seems to cleanse our souls.
Finally, the flow reaches the seas. For some, it is barely now a trickle. For others, it is a last gush of life-giving. Perhaps you will hear some of the stories. For sure, the stories stay with us. For now, the stories are released from our ritual container, into the sea of playbackers around the world.
As this story ends, I take my leave with gratitude for my fellow travelers – Ági, Anna, Cheraé, Elsa, Mansee, Marat, Nina, Poh Kiang, Sheila, and Will C. I will cherish our time together, and look forward to moments of reunion to come.
I leave you with a lyric from Saudade, Saudade… “Nothing more that I can say, says it in a better way…”
My Journey with Better Together Marat Mairovich, Israel
Hello. My name is Marat, I was born in Moldova, and at the age of 17 I moved to Israel. As a musician and conductor, I have been doing Playback theater for 25 years. I lead three Playback Theater groups in Israel: a group for the visually impaired, a group for immigrants, and “Mabat” – a performing group for the sighted and visually impaired. I perform and train throughout Israel and abroad (South Korea, Germany, Latvia, Moldova, Turkey, Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, etc.) and on Zoom (Hong Kong, Uruguay, US, Australia, Singapore). I professionally play violin, piano, synthesizer, guitar, and percussion.
For me, the story of our project began long before its appearance. My personal and important changes are always born from questions, events and, most importantly, because of the people and their stories! Personal stories. It is endless for me: from this vessel I can drink forever, or so it seems to me. And yet, one of my main archetypes is a traveller-seeker. What does that mean? Firstly, I like to travel, that is, to work abroad or to walk and relax there. And I do this a lot, I coach and perform in different countries. For example, this summer I had five trips to different countries of the world; it was a great summer journey. And secondly, my seeker’s nature is expressed in the fact that I love to find and invent new forms of self-expression, and this is mainly related to Playback Theatre (PBT). For example, I sometimes come up with new song forms in the Playback Theater. I already created many forms, and I’m always looking for new ones. Or, for example, together with my friends Roman Kandibur, Andrey Utenkov and Igor Lyubitov, we created “Yonder”. Through our work on Zoom and our common interests, this group has invented a new sub-genre of playback theatre. It relies on myths, fairy tales and the like. So, seeker. It’s me.
It was on the platform of all this: my love for stories, for travel, the search for new PBT forms and in contact with my partners (Will C. and my wife Nina Garbuzova), that a new project was born: “Better Together”.
“Better Together” is an international project in Zoom. All of us, eleven participants from different countries, made a presentation about our country and shared personal stories related to it. We also delved into other people’s presentations, played back other people’s personal stories, and discussed everything, sharing thoughts with each other. We met twice a month to discuss one country at a time: at the first meeting we delved into the presentation and did Playback for the stories of the presenter, and at the second we took part in group reflection with the help of Playback and conversation. Each of us has been in several roles, as a conductor, an actor, a presenter, a facilitator or just an audience member.
Like everything new and unknown, this project has had many unexpected surprises in store for me. Both pleasant and not so pleasant.
Note: Of course, I will describe events from my point of view only, I assume that other members of the group may perceive it in their own way.
Not very pleasant surprises
I cannot say that my experience of this project was easy for me. The only white heterosexual male, a person whose very presence can evoke strong feelings, even unconsciously. Me. The representative of a country that, to put it mildly, is unpopular (Israel). Who is this? It’s me. And most importantly, who is very afraid of group dynamics and especially group aggression? This is me. And who often gets into the epicentre of these very dynamic processes? This is also me. Why am I afraid? Perhaps this is due to my childhood and the fear of being rejected. I will not go into too much detail about my childhood, it is not important and it is too intimate for this article.
If it was my dream
So, from the very beginning, in the study session in September and, subsequently, in the second meeting of the group in October, I met my fears. At the training meeting in September, we as organizers (Nina, Will C and myself) discussed what kind of Playback forms we would like to use in our process. We prepared several forms and distributed the responsibility for explaining them to the group among the three of us. I talked about the “If it was my dream” form. This form, developed by Igor Lyubitov from Russia, is one that many of my playback friends and I use quite often. It is metaphorical, it helps to look at history from a different aesthetic angle, and its flavor is a little “different”. Each of the performers in turn invents and tells a kind of improv dream, which indirectly, with the help of a metaphor, comes into contact with the narrator’s story. The rest of the actors move synchronously under the influence of this monologue. So (if there are three actors), it turns out three invented dreams, or three metaphors for the story of the narrator. I find it a really enjoyable form to use. So, I described it and gave it a try on the story of one of the members of the group. The performers, in my opinion, did a good job. These were beautiful dreams with meaning, but… the teller herself was unhappy. She said that this is not her story and that she does not understand this form at all, or what it is for. I assumed that we had heard her story wrong, then I tried to explain the form again to her, and later to another participant. But there was a group dynamic of rejection. After that, we did not use this form at all: the group rejected it categorically and irrevocably. If I’m not mistaken, the group tried it once and that’s it. Cancel the form. At the same time, the irony is that the form itself is often used and was even included in the handbook of forms for Zoom Storytelling on Screen: An Online Playback Theatre Archive and Guidebook by Jordan Rosin and Heidi Winters Vogel with Sammy Lebron.
This was the first time that I felt Rejection come to call. He did not touch me directly, although I felt that this was partly a challenge to me, as a representative of the organizers of the group.
My second encounter with group dynamics was much more difficult. We started the process in October. We devoted the first session (of two meetings) to Russia. Nina, Will C and I, as the organizers, took responsibility for this session. Therefore, Nina was the presenter of Russia and the narrator, Will C was the conductor, and I was the facilitator, that is, responsible for the second meeting and for the conversation at the end of it. In this conversation, we discuss how the group works, how the presentation of the country influenced us, and also some kind of group dynamics. I can only remind you that I’m wary of group dynamics and really didn’t want to be a facilitator, but the other option, being a storyteller about Israel, scared me even more. Well, it would probably not be a very good idea to start the “Better Together” process from my country, Israel. So, I made up my mind and began to prepare. After the study meeting in September and subsequently at the first meeting in October, I noticed that there are “authorities” in the group. That is, in my opinion, there are people who feel that they “know” how to do Playback correctly, how to be in the process, and so on. And the “authorities” share their vision quite freely. They felt they had this freedom, I think, because they had been in Playback for many years and had been in various important positions in Playback organizations. And also, I noticed that there were new playbackers in the group who felt l they had no right to express their opinion, who were silent and did not often tell stories, and also did not rush to the stage. That is, a certain hierarchy was beginning to establish itself, which is not entirely justified, because although our project uses Playback, it also requires various other skills and knowledge. I felt it was important to push the group in the direction of discussing this. Who thought he could ride out group dynamics? It’s me, silly me! Naturally, during the conversation, I did not directly report on the topic I was referring to. I just asked something like this: What do you think prevents the group from opening up and moving forward? In doing so, I suggested to the group not to focus on technical inconveniences, but only on internal group dynamics. I didn’t want the group to run away from a conversation about what processes were going on within themselves. So when, for example, some participants tried to tell the group that they did not know the forms, I asked them not to continue the conversation in this vein. The group began to search, it was beautiful and I delved into this conversation. There was a little time left before the end of the meeting, and I was so hopeful that the group would uncover the hierarchy that I noticed. So, when one of the participants suggested lack of time as an obstacle (two hours per meeting), I quickly interrupted her and asked her to focus on the dynamics. It is important for me to note that I did it politely, although I did not let her finish. The fact that I interrupted her caused a rather strong reaction (tears) in her, which I and many others did not notice, because I was focused on the conversation, and not everything is always visible in the small windows of Zoom. But part of the group did notice. And gradually the process began: first drawing my attention to her tears, then subsequently group aggression. Through unconscious as well as unspoken group dynamics, the group “recruited” a person who showed this aggression to the maximum. It was a shock for me. Subsequently, thinking about this situation, I realized that this is how I met the old principle of the operation of social fears: If you are very afraid of receiving something from society, you will definitely have to meet it. Of course, we calmed everything down and more or less talked about this conflict in the group and in the organizational team. It was clear that when I interrupted her, it caused the group to associate this action with male aggression towards a woman. It was an archetypal situation for the group. At that moment, having failed to serve the group as a facilitator, I unconsciously gave it the opportunity to adjust the norms of behaviour. After that, the group increased its focus on awareness of privileges and oppression within the group and outside it. I want to emphasize that, of course, individual members of the group were already very focused on these topics. But thanks to this conflict and other cases, in my opinion, this direction has become a clear group norm. Another norm concerned respect for other members of our group.
As for me, from that moment on, I stopped feeling free. I stopped experimenting, and almost did not act as an actor. The group felt it too. I was never chosen to be a conductor. Just one more time I was chosen to be the facilitator. And that was by the woman who I had interrupted previously. I felt blocked by this lack of freedom but I did not let it stop me. I manifested my presence in a different way. I told a lot of personal stories and participated a lot as a Playback musician. In these roles I feel calmer, safer.
Another aspect that was not very pleasant was the language – English. I cannot say that it was a surprise, but I did not expect that it would be so difficult for me. Not being able to freely express yourself, your opinions and your feelings in such a group is a real barrier. After all, it is very important to understand all the nuances of the expression of other members of the group, to accurately express your own. This was very lacking for me. In order to understand someone, you need, for example, to make out the accent of a person, to understand their English. And we had participants from very different countries and with different levels of English. Therefore, I felt I was only ‘surviving’ in the group. I was looking for all available ways to express myself and understand others. Sometimes Google Translate and subtitles in Zoom were able to help. But these “crutches” sometimes hindered more than they helped.
These were wonderful trips to other countries, and I “walked” through them not as a tourist: I got to know them from the inside, looking at their beauty and ugliness. Looking back, I get the feeling that I was looking at these countries through the eyes of another specific person, like a priest of the Faceless God (Game of Thrones) dressing in other people’s faces. I put on the face of a woman from India and thought about patriarchy; I turned into my wife from Russia and was sad about what happened to my homeland; I walked with the face of a man from Singapore and went to the army in another country; I looked around in the form of a woman from Malaysia and thought about my relationship with my mother; I looked back at my immigrant family as a woman from Brazil; I was angry at my country as an African-American from the USA; I rejoiced at the achievements of my country and feared their losses as a woman from Portugal; I struggled with other people’s opinions and looked at my past through the eyes of a South African woman; I felt my country with its delicious food on one hand and racial prejudice on the other as a woman from Hungary. I was there. Walked everywhere. Lots of feelings.
Yes, when I mentioned beauty and ugliness, I certainly didn’t mean architecture. We talked about cultural values, rituals, racial, religious or gender freedoms and prejudices, about relationships with parents or within the family. And all this was true.
I think these trips were priceless. My traveler archetype was delighted with them.
Another pleasant surprise. The group tried to be, and in fact were, very empathetic.
About my presentation
My presentation on Israel was a good example of this. Many, and in particular the woman whom I called to be a facilitator, had their own opinion, quite clearly, on the topic of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. At the same time, at meetings preparing for my presentation, when we discussed this aspect with her, and when I expressed my approach to this (and it is quite complicated and complex), I did not feel rejection, only curiosity and empathy. Of course, her opinion has not changed under the influence of our preparatory meetings and my presentation itself. But to get empathy and some understanding where you don’t really expect it, was nice and felt important. Some members of the group could not come to my presentation due to technical reasons. Thanks to this, the group had a new ritual: to answer in writing the questions that were asked in the chat during the meeting. I did this at the request of one of the participants. Thus, the recording of the presentation and the answers to questions after it made it possible not only for those who were not present to understand what the meeting was about, but also for those who were present to get a more complete picture of the presentation’s perception of the country. It was a nice bonus for us “travelers”.
More about Israel
As for the norms of behavior in the group, which I noted at the beginning of my story, I noticed that the presenters choose for themselves how to talk about their country. The two main lenses were a focus on the personal perception of the country by the presenter, and a focus on facts and statistics. Both were present in all presentations, but at the same time, everyone somehow chose what to focus on more. And so, I chose the prism of the personal. I shared my perception of Israel as an expat who moved to the country at the age of 17. How I got to know Israel. About what aspects of life in it began to be revealed to me later. It was also about nature, about conflicts, about culture, about intimacy and belonging, about rejection, about wonderful contacts sometimes even with strangers, about how I learned to hug, and much more. In this presentation, I used music that I love very much (I also like it because it is a meeting of different musical cultures and a beautiful mix of them), and photos with views from places that could touch my heart. It was wonderful. Of course, I grieved over the conflict between the Arab world and Israel, and I felt partly separated from my country, because I see no way out of this situation and I can painfully perceive what is happening. It was part of my history.
And then I told different but significant stories from my life in Israel. About death and about life near death, about humor and so on. I remember my presentation with a smile.
What else did I like?
What else did I like about our group? Discussions, the opportunity to share your own and hear about different worldviews. After all, the current world order is by no means ideal, and an attempt to change it somehow unites all members of our group.
I really liked the meetings of the organizational team. Lots of controversy, but also lots of laughter. Well, the main thing is that we came up with something new and unknown.
It seems to me that this experience, being a part of “Better Together”, was unique. Why? Probably because of the way of living this experience, and because of the people who gathered in our group. It was overall a very good and unique experience and I am very happy that I went through this journey, that I “traveled” with this group of people.
“Evolution” of a white playbacker – how I created separation Ági Orbán, Hungary
“Better together” has been an online Playback Theatre project which lasted for 12 months and was intended to investigate international cooperation, connection or separation through our own stories of our countries, culture, background, politics and values. This has been one of the hardest Playback Theatre journeys I have been on since 2009 when I got to know this form of improvisational theatre.
All 11 members of the group had two sessions where the focus was on their culture and personal stories. During the first session the person presented their country and shared personal stories, which we played back and listened to reflections from the others. In the second session the other group members told stories in reflection of the first session and there was a discussion about the topics raised during that month.
The purpose of this writing is to reveal my struggle to acknowledge and accept my own bias, potential racism and partaking in the maintenance of oppressive systems. This is my very personal experience and discovery summarised in a very short format, which hopefully will be meaningful to other white people while navigating the seas of their own racism in multicultural environments.
It was May 2022 and my turn to present my country, culture, my life and what is important to me to the group. I talked about a lot of things and within that I was talking about a tiny bit of history, mentioning that the Austro-Hungarian Empire used to be an ethnically very diverse community. This was in the dawn of a national awakening and at the time, in the 19th century, when nationalism started to flourish as an ideology. On the Hungarian side of the empire the leading nationality (meaning that of the most influential decision makers, politicians, and intellectuals) was the Hungarian, who oppressed, used and threatened most of the other nationalities and ethnicities (Serbians, Croatians, Bosnians, Romanians, Slovakians, Ukrainians, Russians, Slovenians, Romas, and Jews). This position of power was completely diminished after the First World War, by the treaties forced upon the losing parties of the war. One would think that people, communities, and nations learn from their mistakes and histories and consider evolving and adapting. It has not yet been the case on the level of countries unfortunately, but hopefully evolution is possible on the personal level.
I studied History at university, I thought I knew better, I educated myself and signed up to treat others with respect, dignity and consideration. I have become an immigrant to better understand others’ points of view, those who migrate and live elsewhere than where they were born. I thought I treated people with different nationalities, cultural backgrounds or skin colour in such a way that my behaviour couldn’t be questioned. I didn’t think my behaviour could be oppressive or hurtful to anyone on a general level of relating. I`m liberal, socially engaged, curious, open minded and an “artist”.
That’s what I thought as a white European, growing up in a mostly (but not exclusively) white country, with a white history. I believed I could put myself in the shoes of people with a different skin colour. I know now it takes much more to awaken to my whiteness and its consequences than just acknowledging it with my words and then moving on.
Below you can see the map I used to illustrate the colourful ethnic situation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during my presentation. While I was explaining the history I used the expression “skin colour” to refer to the peach-coloured area on the map, which represents the Hungarian ethnicity. I didn’t think of using the words ‘peach colour’ in that moment, because I wasn’t even aware at all of my choice of language, while I was presenting to a multicoloured, multicultural group of people.
At the end of the session one of my group members called our attention to my choice of expression during the presentation and commented that not everyone has skin colour like the peach-toned area of the map. The truth was out there and my air froze. I was the king who was naked, and I sank under the ground from the shame I felt. I stopped hearing, seeing and the world started to spin around me. I was alone in my apartment joining the group online. There was no one to talk to and I felt I was kicked out of heaven. This was right at the end of the session, we acknowledged the ignorance of the white people and this event as an expression of systematic oppression and very soon we said our goodbyes.
In the quiet of my home I admitted to myself how ashamed I was, yet I had also forgiven myself, because how could I have known this would come out of my mouth? I promised myself that in future, I would be much more conscious of what I said: but could I? How conscious can I be? Who did I hurt? How often have I hurt people by my ignorance? I still don’t know, but it especially worries me that I’m not the best with language and words, so I can’t guarantee I won’t say things that might not be appropriate in the given context. With some worry in my heart, I closed this event and I thought this was the end, but it wasn’t.
A week later I received a letter from two group members that they had created a questionnaire which would ask the members about this experience: whether they had noticed my use of the term ‘skin colour’, what they felt, or if they wanted to react in that moment, what had stopped them, etc….They wanted my permission to send it to the other people. They felt a growing need to discuss the events of my presentation further and spend time on it in the next session or whenever it was possible. There were four people who worked on this survey from the group and the others didn’t know about it.
When I read the survey and the request, many things started to happen inside me at the same time. It is all human and it is not all beautiful.
First of all, I felt very much alone and isolated, even though they came to me.
I felt left out from something that I was a central part of.
It felt very personal despite their claims that it was not.
I felt hurt, and I also felt I deserved it because I’m ignorant, and that’s what ignorant people deserve.
I could not relate to the questions, and it appeared that the whole discussion was about what I did, which it both was and wasn’t.
I felt I couldn’t decide if this topic needed discussing further, but that the group should have decided.
I felt I wouldn’t be able to carry on in this group, as I had no allies.
I felt attacked, and at the same time I knew that attacking me wasn’t the goal of their action, but I couldn`t differentiate between these intentions for a while.
I felt I had to protect myself.
I felt I was a sinner.
I was terrified of what would happen to me.
I felt it was unfair that all these things happened separately from the whole group.
I felt like disappearing from shame again. I wanted to forget it, I wanted to move on, I wanted to sweep it under the rug. It was so painful that I didn’t feel strong enough to be able to face my own actions. I didn’t forget it, I didn’t move on. I experienced the pain and I did my best to take responsibility.
After discussion, the decision was made to ask the group how much time they want to spend on this topic in the second session and if they wanted to fill out the questionnaire. The majority wanted to spend time on it and fill out the questionnaire, and keep the structure we held for our sessions created by the organisers.
During the second session I was broken by shame and fear and pain. During the second session we heard stories related to “skin colour” as a name of a colour of white people’s skin that exists in many European languages and how some people noticed this more than others. And I heard other stories as well about immigration, roots, and fears. I also heard one of my black-skinned colleagues say that this issue that has come up is the problem of white people. I hadn’t heard it put this way before, and it was very reassuring in a strange way. I started to feel the ground under my feet again. I cried a lot in my fear and listened to the diverse sharing that came out of my first session. The session was over, but this story wasn’t over for me.
The questionnaire wasn`t sent out after this session and it wasn’t filled out. Someone told me that was a pity, which I agreed with, yet I felt lighter that I hadn’t become the centre of an investigation of systematic oppression. I’m too weak or not a big enough person, possibly. My group mates created a very sensitive session and also they truly considered me, which I appreciate fully, even though I could not accept it with an open heart until this day. I felt I did not belong to this group.
I was creating separation, but why? At this point I had the understanding that people didn’t hate me for doing what I did, however I wasn’t able to connect to anybody in the group any more. Some people were kind enough to reach out to the point that I ended up becoming a conductor, which I wasn’t expecting. This was a very kind gesture considering the circumstances, yet I still felt isolated. I wasn’t able to forgive myself, and I wanted to blame everyone else as well.
During these days, I was lucky to listen to Tara Brach’s first podcast on Three Blessings. The first blessing she talked about is forgiveness. I realised that I was going around feeling like a victim and then the perpetrator, then a victim again, and it seemed impossible to get out of this circle. I experienced some disillusionment during the events, I felt rejected and my belonging severed. I was spinning in reactivity. Things really didn’t go my way. I wasn’t sure I could stay in the group. I have also been aware that I’m responsible for creating my own feelings and I have choices, but I could not control my devastation.
All this judgement, anger, reciprocal violation, blame, defence, and spinning created a lot of separation between me and the group, at least in my reality, because I had hardly any contact with others. I felt I was very alone. I was in a trance.
The podcast helped me realise my situation and opened my eyes to the possibility of forgiving myself and others. It opened the door of appreciation for the experience, and what it could have held for me and for all of us who experienced it as a learning and connecting moment. This podcast brought me peace and allowed me to reflect and investigate the situation from a new light.
I acknowledged my own racism and ignorance. I’m now able to do something about it, and support our growing awareness around our whiteness and everything that comes with it. I talked about it openly with a broken, but open, heart. I accepted it as part of me. I got to know myself much much better than before. I was honest about my faults and I took responsibility. This event also created opportunities for others to reflect on their own racism, biases and situations if they wanted to. I was hurt and I recovered, I experienced shifting my emotional state from despair and anger into constructive thinking and reflecting. I become grateful for myself and for others who contributed to the deepening of the Better Together group process through very difficult situations. I realised that I was supported and held, however on the online platform I could hardly sense it. I also realised I have a long journey to heal this wound I opened up, and I have the responsibility to heal the big human wound that we and our ancestors created. I have some hope I can contribute to the healing now that the wound is open in me too.
Overall, it has been a very human experience with all its heavy and light moments, and I will be forever grateful to be part of it.
Michael Cheng (Singapore): Michael is an applied drama practitioner and educator who has initiated socially-engaged arts projects and taught internationally at all levels of Playback Theatre.
Sheila Donio (Brazil): Sheila is an actress and an accredited Playback Theatre trainer, performing and facilitating training programs in Brazil and abroad for over 20 years, while also being a translator-interpreter and an administrator for CPT and several art projects.
Cheraé Halley (South Africa): Cheraé Halley is an applied drama practitioner and creates theatre with a focus on human rights and social justice. Cheraé is currently the co-director of Drama for Life Playback Theatre and serves as a board member on the IPTN.
Marat Mairovich (Israel): Marat Mairovich is a musician and conductor with 25 years of experience in Playback Theater. He performs and trains all over the world (South Korea, Germany, Latvia, Ukraine, Moldova, Turkey, Russia, Belarus, etc.).
Ági Orbán (Hungary): Ági is a playbacker, adventure lover, transformer and a human animal.