Crossing the Threshold by Rea Dennis

Welcome to PLAYBACK THEATRE REFLECTS, a new blog for thoughtful writing on Playback Theatre, both recent and from the past. The first post, “Crossing the Threshold” by the Australian Playback practitioner and researcher Rea Dennis, was originally presented at the symposium on Playback Theatre at Arizona State University in 2005 and later published in the Journal of Interactive Drama. Rea’s idea of the “tensions of participation” will be recognizable to anyone involved in Playback Theatre. And it has an echo right here, where you’re invited to participate in PLAYBACK THEATRE REFLECTS as a reader, subscriber, commenter and contributor. (see comment button on the left)

Next month: Jonathan Fox’s recent article about Playback Theatre in Nepal. Subscribe to receive an email when it’s published!


Tensions of Participation in Community-Based Playback Theatre Performance

Rea Dennis, Deakin University, Australia

First published in Journal of Interactive Drama, Vol. 2.1, January, 2007


Contained by a simple accessible ritual structure playback theatre offers a unique audience experience with the possibility of participation. The opportunity to participate introduces a challenge for some. This can be further compounded by the central place of personal storytelling. It is the repeated invitation to tell a story that drives the ritual momentum in the playback theatre performance. Audience members sit with the constant possibility of volunteering, while some are preoccupied with a persistent reluctance to tell. This ‘tension of participation’ could be considered the more potent tension underpinning audience members’ experiences in the playback theatre event – perhaps more than the dramatic tensions emerging from the performative acts of storytelling and enacting.


Playback theatre is a hybrid performance form blending non-traditional theatre and ritual. Significant to defining it as nontraditional are things like the placement in nontraditional theatre venues or locations, the participation of audience members, and the emergent nature of the content[1]. The method is designed as a collective experience and is mediated through a patterned, sequential, theatrical process. It is these key features that render it ritual in form[2]. This article explores the phenomenon of the tension of participation for audience members of playback theatre. It proposes that this tension is contingent on audience members’ initial response to the nontraditional nature of playback theatre as a theatre event and the ritual momentum that arises from the way in which it is framed. A strong ritual containment is an essential aspect of fostering and facilitating audience participation during playback theatre. It is this that compels storytelling. The momentum built through the ritualised method, the repeated invitation to tell and the evocation of a heightened theatrical environment can be challenging for audience members and cause them to resist participation. The discussion herein has emerged from my interactions with audience members during a three-year research project[3] in Brisbane, Australia. Excerpts from audience members’ stories are interwoven throughout to illustrate the ways in which the tension of participation builds during performance.


Interactive theatre processes like playback theatre demand the removal of the traditional notion of aesthetic distance and therefore promote an ongoing uncertainty as the fourth wall disintegrates into a blurred threshold for both performer and audience. This is the vitality of such a form. The intersection of personal story with this theatrical uncertainty generates further complexities for participants and introduces additional avenues for the tension of participation. The nontraditional nature of the playback theatre event can shift audience members into a sophisticated process of engagement that demands they undertake a meta-process alongside the fundamental spectating role they are familiar with. For the purposes of this discussion, I will call this process reflective distance. Reflective distance involves a metaphorical move into and out of the real-time aspects of the event as participants weigh up how what they are encountering differs from what they had expected, for example. A similar shift can occur in ritual processes. After van Gennep, Turner [4] proposes that the ritual event proceeds in three phases[5]: separation; transition; and incorporation or re-entry. The separation or pre-liminal phase involves participants leaving behind of the real-time and real-space dimensions of their daily lives. It enables them to shift to a more “sacred space and time from profane or secular space and time”[6]. This phase coincides to the pre-show period at playback theatre and can begin days or weeks before as the purpose and context of the performance are established and the gateway by which participants will enter is initiated. The shift to separation opens a performance arena that exists in-between rather than set-apart from ordinary life, a space on the “border, a margin, a site of negotiation”[7]. Within this, participants encounter the second phase, the liminal or transition phase[8]. The liminal phase induces the potential for anti-structure and ambiguities, a space where past and future can merge. Interestingly, Cabral constructs this in-between time and space as a bridge into “situations that would be tense in the real context”[9]. Crossing this bridge, the threshold into a social context that has the potential to disturb the social status quo, and contravene the protocols of political correctness, presents a challenge for many audience members. Such a shift is compelled by the potency of ritualised time and space. It is this shift between the separation and liminal stages that is a key site for the tension of participation and can trigger shifts into reflective distance. The third stage, incorporation, coincides with the post-show period of the playback theatre event[10].


Initial perceptions of the playback theatre event can be surprising for audience members as they come to some realisation that separation is imminent. An audience member’s expectations and initial perceptions of the playback theatre performance might need to be met or transformed in order for them to effect separation and be freed to enter into the spirit of the performance. When Darren arrives at a playback theatre event by himself he looks around in the hope of meeting a friend there. He is a performer himself and has been at a Company performance some years back. As he takes in the surrounds he is more than surprised by what he observes. This is how he describes it:

“I was expecting a different venue. Some place more neutral. [When] I came in and realised that it was a community … I felt really apart from that, and that worked against me feeling at home because a lot of people seemed to know each other and I didn’t know anyone. I found myself doing some social-environmental (analysis), who are these people? I felt quite outside. And I was expecting to see [a friend] there, and she wasn’t … The thing that struck me was that, there were three women on stage, or four women on stage, and two of them were older women, and I was quite surprised by that” (Darren[11], independent street performer).

Darren’s experience reveals significant tension due to unexpected elements about the venue, the company and the audience composition. Trying to make sense of the location of the performance, the history of the Company alongside his socially formed cultural values and personal ideas seems to overwhelm him. It appears that, at a certain level, the mounting tension he feels stimulates a shift to reflective distance and dispels the tension of participation somewhat. This distancing alters Darren’s perspective and results in an experience of separation or alienation which further impedes his capacity to participate until he finds a moment of re-entry.

Being surprised by elements of a theatre event is not uncommon. The participatory nature of playback theatre can up the ante with regard to how a participant manages such surprises. In stark contrast to Darren some find surprises stimulating and delightful and respond to the tension of participation by anticipating greater involvement. Far from overwhelming the participant, the quality of this tension is appealing and comes when an encounter with the unexpected engenders intrigue. Craig arrives at the same event Darren describes above. His first impressions follow:

“There was a wonderful sense of community. There were people walking up, shaking hands, and introducing themselves. People felt very comfortable to do this. It wasn’t contrived and it wasn’t forced. … There was individuals, groups, couples … It reminded me of an old town public meeting, ‘let’s gather’ let’s we – the community – gather, and let’s talk about what’s on. … There was a sense of event, but not in a traditional (theatre) sense. It even has its own rituals. It’s not like we’re going to see play [at] ‘the theatre’ [yet] there is a set of rituals that take place. … [W]hen the performance began, there was immediate silence when the actors entered” (Craig, High School Drama Teacher).

Craig appears ready for whatever comes next. His response is more in line with what Coppieters[12] predicts of audience members at the non-traditional theatre event, who suggests that they are likely to be interested and playful and take more of a risk. This risking takes the form of becoming “a tangible active creator of the theatrical event[13]“. They embrace their pivotal role in what happens next and trust that this role is guided by the way the ritualised framing of the process points to specific gaps in the action that invite genuine participation.

It is likely that most audience members have experienced a degree of separation by the time the players take the stage in a playback theatre event. There can be further jolts at this stage as the central place of personal story is highlighted, and again, when this personal dimension is juxtaposed with the revelation that participants are to join players on stage in a public performance as a storyteller. These transitions are likely sites for the tension of participation and can serve to further inhibit the full separation of audience members. Unlike Darren and Craig, Eloise draws little conclusion from initial perceptions of the venue and audience. She arrives at the performance with friends who are familiar with playback theatre and feel well hosted. It is in witnessing the actions of the first few storytellers that she begins to feel uneasy. She shares her experience:

“I wasn’t used to that kind of theatre. I found it quite confronting that this was on an emotional level … I was watching, looking back to see whose story it was, seeing if they were reacting in the right way, the traditional way, and that was good. I was trying to understand what was going on. I got more involved, got more carried away, with some of the longer stories at the end”(Eloise, young woman new to playback).

The tension she is feeling about the way in which the playback theatre moment contravenes her values shifts Eloise to reflective distance. She needs to gather information about the unfamiliar form and is able to observe the process and assess the consequences of participation on others. After stepping back, Eloise is able to surrender or renegotiate her expectations of the theatre event and her idea about what constitutes performance or public gatherings and move toward being more involved. Eloise uses her moment of retreat to reflective distance to integrate unexpected emotions she is experiencing. She states that at some point she is carried away signaling her growing ease with the experience, a growing recognition of the ritual pattern, and a move toward the liminal.

Earlier, Craig names what he sees as a “set of rituals” at play in the opening sequence of the playback theatre event. He appears very comfortable with the way in which this start might diverge from a traditional theatre event. Fox (1999) summarised the ritual dimension of playback theatre highlighting five specific elements: keeping to rules, ecstatic emotion, transpersonal dimension, goal of transformation, spellbinding language. It is the fundamental simplicity of the first element that could be responsible for creating the conditions for the other four. The repetitive nature of the form gradually reveals the rules of the frame. It is not that there are rules as such, but that the implicit rules are made known in some way. In observing the patterns in the form, Eloise has become freer to enter the ritualised frame. This does not automatically translate into a desire to participate more publicly, however.


As the performance progresses, the personal stories that are told are animated on the spot. As the players improvise, the audience members are exposed to the possibilities of participation as they observe the actors giving full expression to the characters and explore the emotional texture of the tellers’ experiences. There is time to watch the immediate impact on participants of telling and of watching the subsequent enactment, as Eloise does. As familiarity builds, comfort with the form grows. Establishing a ritual frame serves to announce that a certain set of rules are at play and releases participants to act beyond their constrained domestic roles and engage in other ways with themselves, with each other, and with the social environment[14]. The potential of this released state equates to the liminal or transitional moment and frees participants to dare and to risk as they move toward an experience of flow[15]However, the tendency for audience members to respond to the tension of participation by shifting to reflective distance continues.

In many ways, the move into and out of flow (and into and out of reflective distance) constitutes the occurrence of micro ritual-phase cycles: separation-transition-integration where the micro integration phase coincides with the next separation phase. The way in which Clare speaks about her first experience of playback theatre reveals a number of micro cycles as she prepares to enter more fully into the spirit of the event. She admits:

“At first we didn’t know what to expect. We watched and tried to catch on. I really started to get into the last part of it. The beginning was confusing. We didn’t know what to expect or what to think. We had to wait and see. We started getting into it more toward the end … After a while, when I realised that I wasn’t going to have to speak, or be made to, and that I could watch other people’s stories I was OK. But for quite a while I was worried I would be picked out” (Clare, first-time playback theatre-goer).

Clare’s comment suggests that she is feeling anxious about what is required of her and is not particularly confident that she is up to the challenge. Tension of participation is linked to participant anxiety. Clare’s concern is compounded by the realisation during one of her integrative moments, that her story includes her husband. The idea of revealing intimate details and possibly embarrassing her husband is a values conflict for her. This provides another surge of anxiety and further tension around whether she will consent/choose to tell her story. Clare admits to feeling resistant to participating due to her anxiety about exposing her husband. Self-regulation such as this occurs frequently during the playback theatre performance and impedes experiences of flow for individuals. Spectators are known to shift to reflective distance to release a growing tension of participation and engage in inner dialogues with themselves as they develop reasons not to tell, for example, that others are more interesting, or that others have a greater need. These shifts represent micro-integrative moments that move a participant to a place of re-separation and subsequently enable re-entry. Schechner[16] states that “in all kinds of performances a certain definite threshold is crossed at which time participants attain a state of flow.” Flow coincides with those times when participants feel some resolution with respect to values conflict or risk challenges arising during the performance. This is most often with respect to whether to participate as a storyteller yet could also be connected to the experience that Clare alludes to of reaching a new level of understanding about the rules of engagement and the collective culture of the audience; information that emerges as the performance proceeds.


Ritualising time and space brings with it an inherent counterpoint to the expected social structure of a public event. Even mild resistance to the ambiguities inherent in the “anti-structure” evoked by the ritual frame stimulates tension of participation. Despite this the ritual momentum builds and the lure of the liminal can feel like a loss of autonomy or an interruption of personal agency and can lead to an experience of terror for some. If the liminal pull accelerates in such a way that a participant becomes frightened or confused they will do more than shift to reflective distance, they will resist the desire to participate at all costs. Let us return to Darren who is still recovering from the disappointment he felt about the venue, the audience and the players on arrival. He has found a seat in the third row near the aisle. This positioning enables him to continue his observation of the audience as they arrive, and gives him an excellent view of the stage area. As the show gets underway he maintains his observational stance. He is determined to overcome his earlier disappointment and discomfort yet he is immediately besieged by a totally unexpected story:

“I entered with the idea that I didn’t have any experiences that related to the theme. Then had a whole lot of things go ‘Bop! Bop! Bop!’ (a sound representing each story). That really struck me about the night, we were telling stories like when a bunch of people sits around a table. It was a dynamic process. … I had a bunch of things come up – personal stories – and I didn’t really know there were issues there” (Darren, independent street performer).

He is highly resistant to telling his personal story in this public place to this gathered public audience. Darren’s resistance is more complex than Clare’s and in turn leads to a greater generation of the tension of participation as he battles the persistent story. As the performance proceeds he is constantly distracted by the inner tension he experiences yet continues to resists telling his story. He admits that he does not feel that he can relax and surrender to the ritual moment. He spends the performance vacillating between the persistent urge to participate and share his story, and his reflective reasoning that it is not the time or place for him to tell. This decision not to tell has demanded his full attention as he has been gripped by the tension of participation, teetering on the verge of the ritual threshold. Darren’s reluctance to tell could be interpreted by considering a number of impediments to his capacity to release. Firstly, he admits that he does not feel he can succeed in participating in a way that does not contravene his values. He feels he will be over-exposed as he endeavours to construct a story that he feels is poorly formed and is breaking out in such an unexpected and discomforting way. As he resists, his confusion grows and he feels further excluded. It is only after the event that Darren can appreciate how determined he was not to yield. He is left feeling disappointed and isolated until he is able to chat with other audience members during the after-show period and integrate the experience.

It is not clear what might have happened had Darren succumbed to the persistent story. One possibility is that he would have relaxed. When Helen attempts to resist the story that bubbles up about ten minutes into the performance, she too is continually distracted by it. She recounts her experience:

“I thought ‘oh it’ll go away’ [laugh] but then it was too insistent, I could feel it, I can’t remember how, but I was connecting with other responses. I thought ‘I have to say something.’ … I couldn’t hold it anymore” (Helen, regular playback theatre-goer).

Unlike Darren she eventually succumbs and shares her story in the public arena. She consents to the ritual momentum compelling her and the tension she is harboring dissipates. Helen is able to relax into another level of flow in the performance and enjoy the chance to listen to others. The shift in attention that occurs when a volunteer teller comes to the stage can dispel tension in participants who have chosen not to tell. Tension of participation appears to be a uniquely individual experience and is transformed when the individual shifts attention from him/herself to another and engages more intimately in the collective experience of the ritual event. It is during these experiences of flow, of unselfconscious engagement, and collective listening that the tension of participation can be released.


An experience of flow occurs when our “body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile[17]“. It equates to attaining a sense of mastery over something that presents a challenge. Reframing this “sense of mastery” to “a sense of participation” is perhaps more meaningful in the context of the playback theatre ritual. Within the magic of ritual anxiety can quickly move to arousal. Between flow and anxiety, arousal occurs where the participant’s skills may not be immediately sufficient but there is scope for them to engage in the challenge. The following excerpt from Hillary’s story demonstrates one teller’s experience of moving beyond resistance and concern about what others think and surrendering to the growing momentum that delivers her to the stage. She says:

“I was thinking ‘how can you possibly reflect this story that I have so heartfelt, inside my belly that makes me feel the way I do, and express it, like that, in all these little stories.’ [At that moment] I was thinking ‘they can do this (the little stories), can they do that (my heartfelt-inside-my-belly-story)?’ In a way, those first few stories were weaving the test of you. [As I watched] I thought, ‘OK, they got part of it right, pretty well – and I had doubted you would get it right – [it was] close enough. You were touching everything. That was great. … I thought, ‘It’s going well. Now, what’s going to happen next? You had that space for people to decide whether or not they wanted their story to be out there. I had heavy legs, and inside was about the burst, whether I was going to run away or run up to you [laughs]. It was a pretty shaky moment. But once I got up, I could feel the strength of others, and I thought, ‘Go for it Hillary!’” (Hillary, community worker).

When Hillary becomes aware of her desire to tell she is a little overwhelmed. Yet she launches herself across the threshold harnessing all the tension that is arising from the interaction of her urgent story with her reflective assessment of the likely risks. As she gathers herself she moves toward flow and becomes, in Csikszentmihalyi’s (1992) words, “master” of her own “fate” (p.3). Hillary is besieged by her compelling need to tell. She makes a different choice to that of Darren. Her story is an example of those audience members who yield fully to the ritual pull taking great risks and delivering the performance more fully into the hands of the audience. This notion of personal (and collective) agency is embedded in the participatory opportunities in the ritual process where the involvement of the individual cannot be forced, only invited or sought[18]. The way in which playback theatre draws on personal stories and theatrical form within a ritual performance process expands the potential for engagement in the public event and encourages individual and group agency and responsibility. This renders the tension of participation a potential desirable element for maximising the performance energy and the audience experience.


The stories shared here suggest that through the ritualised structure of the playback theatre form, participants seem empowered or challenged, or stimulated to be involved. Unlike some traditional ritual performances, the liminal opportunity afforded through the ritualised structure of the playback theatre performance does not necessarily induce deep trance states for audience members. Audience experiences are predicated on the way in which they negotiate the initial unfamiliarity of the form and the uncertainty of the separation and liminal phases of the ritual. This is helped or hindered by individuals’ responses to the invitation to tell a personal story in the context of a public performance. Sitting with the constant possibility of volunteering to participate can be a preoccupation. Participants can become occupied by their repeated preparation to tell a story and for some, feel compelled to participate. Others experience a persistent reluctance to tell. The dynamic of reflective distance appears to enhance the engagement of the audience and provide an outlet for the tension of participation. The question remains as to whether the dissipation of the tension of participation through the move to reflective distance hinders the possibilities for the performance (and audience).

This article has explored the tension of participation confronting audience members as they contend with the ritual momentum of playback theatre. It has focused on storytelling as the primary avenue for participation. In performances where the tension of participation is the more potent tension underpinning audience members’ experiences, conductors and ensembles need to work with a greater sensibility to enable individuals to negotiate the shift to the liminal experience. To ensure that the liminal phase of the playback theatre performance is characterised by moments of unselfconsciousness, high spontaneity and experiences of flow, certain elements in the form have to converge to enable participants to join in. This usually means that the challenge present in the task of participating is not too difficult for the individual. The improvised nature of the performance can represent too great a challenge for some audience members and lead to anxiety or confusion. Any factor that induces fear, uncertainty or anxiety acts to inhibit flow for the audience. Other barriers to participation arise from a lack of familiarity with the rules of engagement, concerns about of exposing self or another, concerns about being judged, boredom, disappointment, and feelings of alienation. Similarly, concern about others’ safety, dissatisfaction with the quality of the artistry, and discomfort arising from emotional responses could limit an individual’s capacity to surrender. It is the responsibility of the conductor and the ensemble to work to maximise the conditions required for greatest participation by the greatest number over the course of the performance. Inability to overcome barriers to participation could result in individuals excluding themselves from the activity altogether.

The conductor’s role is subtle here as she works with the audience to maximise the agency of the participant to generate the “text,” through the volunteering of and performance of the stories that are told and enacted. Maximising theatricality and working to create an environment in which adults are enticed to playfulness are primary factors if the performance is to ride the tension of participation wave. The process is dialectic and calls forth the agency of the participant as risk-taker and storyteller and the agency of the conductor as ritual shaman, theatre producer and host[19].



[1] Bennett (1990)

[2] Cabral (2001)

[3] This project was the central project in my PhD research at Griffith University.

[4] Turner (see 1969, 1986, 1990) has been a seminal thinker in bringing ritual theory to bear in contemporary western performance theory. While very much predicated on the notion of performance as a culturally conservative activity in tribal and agrarian societies it is useful when discussing public ritual.

[5] These stages are derived from van Gennep. The van Gennep schema derives from the idea that performance occurs in the context of everyday life, in in-between spaces, rather than the idea implicit in the frameworks of Singer, Hymes, Bauman and Barba that performance is “set apart” (Carlson, 1996, p.20).

[6] p.24, Turner (1982)

[7] p.20, Carlson (1996)

[8] Van Gennep referred to this as ‘margin’ or ‘limen’ (meaning threshold in Latin).

[9] p. 56, Cabral (2001).

[10] Here participants begin to integrate their experiences, making sense of what they have seen, heard, felt, and remembered. Reflective integration can continue well after the show as people resume their everyday social roles becoming aware of the insights they may have.

[11] Darren is a fictionalised name; while all interview participants have given permission for their testimony to be included, their names have been anonymised.

[12] Bennett (1990)

[13] p.10, ibid

[14] Turner (1982) and Schechner (1985).

[15] Flow provides another way in which to speak of the liminal experience. 
 Csikszentmihalyi (1990, 1992, 1997) writes of activities where we experience flow. He shows that the degree of difficulty of a sporting event must not exceed the level at which it becomes unachievable (too hard) for the individual. He proposes that we desire to feel stretched to the limit and yet simultaneously feel as though we are somehow “master of our own fate”.

[16] p.10, Schechner (1985)

[17] p.3 Csikszentmihalyi, (1997)

[18] p.246 Myerhoff (1990).

[19] Fox (1994), Good (1986).


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Rea Dennis is a performance practitioner and scholar from Australia. Her interdisciplinary practices engage with notions of identity, mobility and belonging as experiences self, cognition and motion. She completed her PhD on Playback Theatre at Griffith University in 2004. Co-artistic director of bi-lingual contemporary performance company Lembrança, her work has toured to USA, UK, Taiwan, Germany, Brazil and Japan. A senior lecturer in Drama and Performance at Deakin University, Australia, her research interests include performer training, and embodied cognition and memory in improvisation practice. She has published on autobiographical performance, ensemble devising and refugee performance in a range of peer-reviewed journals. She is a former editor of Interplay (International Playback Theatre Network 2007- 2014).

Acknowledgements: I acknowledge the openness and generosity of the players and audience members of the Brisbane Playback Theatre Company 2002 program whose experiences inform this research. Special thanks to those whose stories are recounted herein.

Email for correspondence: rea.dennis@deakin.edu.au



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