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

Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas

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

Playback Theatre and Social Change

By Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Spirit of the Order: Playback Theatre Against the Normalization of Evil by Norbert Ross

Using Playback in a fraught sociopolitical context compels practitioners to navigate choices that are both moral and dramaturgical. Norbert Ross’s article illuminates the heart of this challenge in a very current situation: the abuse of power by border agents in the US.


The Spirit of the Order: Playback Theatre Against the Normalization of Evil

by Norbert Ross, Ph.D.

What might have gone on in the heads of the immigration officials when they told Sofia[1], one of our narrators from Venezuela, that her 18-year-old son had been deported to Mexico? She and her two sons had crossed the border into Texas where they immediately turned themselves in to the authorities, asking for asylum. The family was separated, with Sofia and her younger son sent first to San Diego and finally to Tijuana, Mexico, to await the decision on their asylum case. While in San Diego, officials informed her that her older son, processed separately as an adult, had been deported to Matamoros, some 1600 miles away on the other side of Mexico.

Worried about her son, Sofia received help from volunteers, who, as part of a network of refugee shelters, searched for her son along the Texan border – an area known for being extremely dangerous – while Sofia feared the worst. After 10 long days, she finally received a phone call. It was her missing son. She had been deliberately lied to, and he was in fact in custody at an immigration processing center in the US, awaiting the decision on his asylum application. He had never been deported.

How does one enact this kind of cruelty? How are we to comprehend this kind of behavior?

This became a very real question this past summer, when we, a playback ensemble from El Salvador, conducted a series of playback theatre events among (mostly) Central American refugees living in shelters just south of the US border in Tijuana, Mexico. The shelters were established mainly in response to the trail of thousands of Central American refugees, fleeing their home countries seeking a better and safer life in the US. Many of these refugees never crossed the US border, while others were returned to places like Tijuana to await the final decision on their asylum cases.

Mexico has no system in place to support this stream of people. Instead, civil society has established a network of support by way of refugee centers providing food and shelter, as well as some legal and emotional support for these displaced people.

As a theatre group from El Salvador, we decided to provide our share of support with what we knew best – playback theatre – while at the same time learning more about the lives of some of these families and their fate on their trek north.

The home of our theatre ensemble is Morazán, an economically poor, rural department of El Salvador bordering Honduras. More specifically, our ensemble was established in the community Segundo Montes, as part of the Salvadorian NGO ACTUEMOS!

The community of Segundo Montes was founded toward the end of the 12-year long civil war (roughly from 1980-1992), when Salvadorian war refugees returned from the refugee camps in Honduras. While most of the actors were born after the war, one actually experienced living in a refugee camp as a young child. Another actor had been deported from the US just a few years ago. I myself had been deported from Mexico some years back during social unrest in the early 1990s. I had lived there for several years, and the event uprooted my life entirely.

In addition, during our playback events, we listened to many stories related to living as refugees or migrants. Of course, living and working in El Salvador we were painfully aware of the situations that force people to migrate. Different forms of violence, from pandillas (gangs), to police brutality, and more often than not gender violence inspired by toxic masculinity – usually going unpunished. Economic issues, especially as they come with the lack of basic services, too, are to be seen as among the main reasons to migrate. Said differently, people don’t just leave El Salvador, and other Central American countries, for a more comfortable life: they leave to survive. Yet stories brought to us via neighbors and friends, or through the media also made it clear that the trek north was not a simple solution, further confirmed by the humanitarian crisis that has developed along the US southern border.

With the exception of me – a white male of German origin – the members of the ensemble shared much of the refugees’ background, and we all knew people who had travelled north or who had families living in the USA. Partly because of this proximity we felt the need to learn more about the people migrating and to actively listen to their stories through playback theatre.

Playback theatre is a form of improvisational theatre that intentionally breaks the boundaries between audience and actors. In fact, audience members become the main protagonists of the performances, as it is their stories, told on stage, that the actors bring to life. Tellers not only share their stories, but also cast the members of the ensemble for the different roles they want to see represented in their story. Not everyone mentioned gets cast, so there is some creative liberty for actors to jump into roles as it seems fit or needed.

In order to protect the teller’s story, audience members do not participate in the enactments and no revisions/discussions of the stories take place on stage – as for example in Theatre of the Oppressed (Boal 1979). Compared to the latter, the goal of playback theatre is not to rehearse and discuss reality in search for alternative pathways and outcomes (see Freire’s Education of the Oppressed (1970/2018), nor is the aim to evaluate or analyze the stories told. Instead, playback aims at valuing people’s stories through attentive listening, while affording a space of reflection to both the narrator and the audience. In a successful event, a community of compassionate listeners is created through the audience’s story-telling, and by talking to one another – indirectly through their stories and directly in post-event social gatherings (Fox 1986; Salas 1993; Fox & Dauber 1999). For the latter we often brought coffee, hot chocolate and tamales.

For the actors, playback theatre is challenging on several levels. While a theme for a performance might be set or, as in our case, suggested by the circumstances, the emerging stories are not known beforehand. We had prepared ourselves through readings and discussions for possible stories, and of course, the actors shared a common background with audience and the tellers. Still, tellers were not guided in what stories they would tell.

Our proximity to the audience and being familiar with their lives back home also meant that the emerging stories became all the more unsettling for us. However, we tried to convert the unsettling experience into a productive space for personal learning and understanding.

Existing differences were clear, too. For us, traveling to Tijuana by plane was a privilege, and very different from refugees traveling the nearly 3000 miles by foot, car, bus, or train. Our difficulties of securing the money and the Mexican visas were nothing compared to the problems of our tellers, some of whom had to flee their countries with only what they could carry – and even these few belongings were often stolen by the “federales” (the Mexican federal police) on their trip north. Ours was a journey of hope and learning, unlike the Salvadorian woman who fled her violent husband, who not only beat her to the point of having a premature birth, but who also kidnapped her daughter afterwards. Once she got her daughter back, she knew they had to leave her country, where women and children are still not protected from the violence of husbands and fathers.

Of course, we did prepare for stories such as these. After all, such stories are common knowledge if one bothers to look and listen even in the most cursory way. As mentioned, one member of our theatre ensemble had travelled to the US, and experienced firsthand what it means for a Salvadorian youth to be held in a detention cell, interviewed and doubted by case officers, and finally sent back home.

However, our work was not about unearthing newsworthy stories of refugees for a wider audience. Instead, playback serves the audience – and specifically the tellers – by listening to their stories, and bringing them to life on stage.

Playback shows usually have three basic rules:

  • Stories must be true
  • Stories must be about the teller
  • Neither the audience nor the actors / conductor are allowed to evaluate or comment on the stories told.

The second rule is, of course, inspired by Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed (1970). In a sense it forms the core of playback’s mission – to help create the consciousness that everyone has a story worthy of being told and listened to. In fact, each of us has many such stories.

However, with the focus on the teller’s story, other characters usually remain underdeveloped in the narration and the resulting enactment. Lacking an omniscient playwright, much information is simply not available. For example, Doña Sofia didn’t know anything about the individuals who told her that her son had been deported. She didn’t know their names, ranks, or anything about their lives. In fact, until her son’s phone call ten days later (when she was already in Tijuana), Doña Sofia didn’t even know that these officials were lying to her. Hence, although she was unable to access information about these border agents, their role was nevertheless extremely important for the story to be developed on stage. In a way, it constituted part of the story’s climax.

But then, how to portray the cruel border agents?

As a playback ensemble we had decided early on that, in order to protect storytellers and to avoid distracting from the actual stories, we wouldn’t portrait any violent actions on stage. After all, rarely is the enactment of direct violence important for a story to be fulfilled. However, in this case the important question for us was not one of whether or how to display the actions of a border official, but how to understand such violent behaviors, and whether and how to explain and represent it on stage. To be clear, understanding and explaining must not be confused with agreeing or excusing. Yet in order to understand Sofia’s ordeal, mustn’t one also understand the perpetrator’s motives and why certain types of violence occurred or were not contained by the border agency, for example?

This, of course, makes enacting the story a much more complex event. The focus of the story still had to remain on Sofia: her travels north, how her family had been separated by border control policies, and how a seemingly simple lie by a border agent had turned her life upside down. Sofia did not cast an actor to represent the border agent. Understandably, her story focused on her family and the emotional torture, the fear she and her younger son had gone through during these ten long days. Yet to enact her story the actors felt the need to bring a border agent on stage, opening not only the questions of why the family was separated but also (and maybe more importantly) why some border agents actively lied to Sofia. Said differently, in order to represent Sofia’s story, we needed to somehow represent the perpetrating force that threw Sofia’s life into disarray.

But how? As mentioned, in playback theatre we do not have the luxury of knowing every detail, especially not when it comes to supporting characters. Neither did Sofia know them or their motives. With no written play, the ensemble becomes a team of instantaneous playwrights, endowing characters with motives and emotions. So how are we to represent the excess of violence by these officials? How are we to depict individuals of whom we know nothing except their willingness to exert cruelty beyond the point of duty?

While the role might be small, how we characterize this piece of the story is crucial. In order to really understand Sofia’s ordeal, we need to understand and talk about what exactly caused her pain, and why. How did the border agents relate to her, what might they have felt while lying to her, and why did they do so? These points are essential in establishing not only the characters, but also the relations between them on stage.

This is one instance where our work becomes highly political – even if only subtly so. Answering these questions, representing them on stage, the emerging scene provides somewhat of an analysis or theory of Sofia’s encounter with the US border. Whether we portray the border agents that lied to Sofia as deranged individuals, people that might have been having a bad day, or whether we describe their behavior as the outcome of a larger system at work makes a huge difference in terms of our understanding and the understanding we ask the audience to take on. What explanation we accept and foreground, depends, of course, on our ideological commitment and understanding of how the world works. In the words of Freire (1970) it is in these scenes that we “decode” existential situations.

Back then to the question at hand: how does one understand and enact this kind of cruelty?

Other than the lying, Doña Sofia didn’t ascribe any other cruelty or aggressive behavior to the border agents. To her, they seemed to simply have been doing their job, an observation that undermines any explanation depicting the acts as committed by “deranged individuals having a bad day.”


Hannah Arendt (1963) is often invoked when it comes to explaining the cruelty enacted by US border agents. Reporting on and analyzing the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a former Nazi, who claimed to have “simply” followed orders and the law, Arendt describes him as an ordinary, bland bureaucrat, neither perverted nor sadistic. In a sense, he was terrifyingly normal, acting without any motive other than his career, leading to Arendt’s famous assertion of the “banality of evil.” He was most definitely not the deranged sadist as the prosecution painted him to be. Instead, according to Arendt, Eichmann never understood what he was doing as wrong. This, she explains, was due to a lack of empathy, an inability to take the perspective of another person.

In Arendt’s view Eichmann was not inherently evil, but merely shallow and clueless, a “joiner” in search of a purpose, not an ideologue. Max Weber’s bureaucrats come to mind. Individuals leading compartmentalized lives – dutifully obeying orders to kill and torture while remaining “good family men (and women)” outside work. It is this notion of a motiveless, thoughtless bureaucratic man that Arendt had in mind when describing the banality of evil, how seemingly thoughtless and “banal” acts amount to a non-trivial, non-banal outcome – evil.

It is easy to visualize the inhumanity of immigration laws. In fact, that is what bureaucracy is for, providing a technological, i.e. inhumane (non-social) solution for personal dilemmas. Through the anonymity of the law, responses are technically administered, and hence responsibility remains invisible or even lacking. Eichmann’s statement to have simply followed orders falls into this category.

As actors then, we could simply deny humanity and individual life to border agents, exploring and depicting the cruelty of “the machine.” However, while it might be tempting to represent the border agents as a lifeless machine, such imagery leaves out the question of its human parts, taking away the individual responsibility of the people that constitute the machinery.

Bureaucrats who are “simply following the law” might explain separating Sofia from her 18-year old son. It might even explain the freezing temperatures in la hielera, “the ice-chest,” as asylum seekers name the immigration holding facilities. But can bureaucracy explain the gratuitous cruelty of lying to Sofia about her son, or the insults and abuses refugees experience in detention facilities? How are we to bring to life border agents who destroy water containers left in the desert for refugees, knowing that these containers might make the difference between life and death of a human being?

Others have come to call Arendt’s concept a cliché, yet these critics tend to point to individual monsters as culprits of evil acts, something Arendt refused to invoke for Eichmann. The monster or troubled person narrative provides an immediate relief for wider society, by relegating evil to individual failures (stressors in a person’s life etc.). This kind of disturbed behavior, where the monster is an abnormal individual, is also easy to depict on stage. But does this explanation really capture what is happening on our borders, or are we simply continuing to excuse society’s failure to act by depicting structural problems as individual failures? More importantly, does it do justice to our tellers’ experiences?

Sofia didn’t perceive these border agents as evil at the time of the lie (this changed, once she knew that they indeed were lying). Also, her story is not an exception. In fact, we heard similar stories over and over again. It soon became clear that to present the cruelties enacted by border guards (or other law enforcement officers) as the acts of abnormal monsters, would ignore the structural nature of these acts and the frequency with which they occur. Many exceptions form a pattern.

Eichmann himself might help us understand the mindset of these agents. According to him, he was not simply following orders, but actually tried to follow “the spirit of the orders.” This led him to anticipate orders and to do things he was never directly told to do. Of course, having subordinates who think and act like Eichmann keeps the agency clean. One can easily imagine public relations officers telling the press that lying to Sofia did not represent the agency’s policy, but constituted individual transgressions (the monster explanation). But are these behaviors, however frequent, simply deviations from the norm? Or are they extensions of policies that separate small children from their parents, that have people live in tents in the summer heat of Tijuana?

Around the time of our visit, the US president suggested shooting refugees in the legs to slow them down (BBC 2019), and we all have heard about the racist and threatening comments made by border agents in closed Facebook groups (Kanno-Youngs, 2019). Ought we not to regard these comments and discussions as the spirit of the order that agents might choose to follow? To be clear, the “spirit of the order” does not simply emerge from the president’s comment. In the case of border agents, Trump simply captured much of the raison d’être of border control, voicing what has been urged by many before him. After all, the roots of US border agencies lie in white supremacists’ fears for “their land” and “their race” (Grandin, 2019).


We have come a long way from Sofia’s story to discussing border agents and Hannah Arendt. As the German theatre critic Bertolt Brecht taught us, theatre is not reality and should not strive to become an illusion thereof. Instead, it should provide a space for reflection. In playback theatre, we allow people to reflect on their own stories without actors or audience evaluating and analyzing their behavior. While this is important in relation to the teller, who in turn gets to watch her life enacted on stage, other parts do need interpretation and analysis. What exactly do we need to bring to life? These questions point at the responsibilities we carry not only as actors, but as fellow humans. Don’t we owe it to Doña Sofia to “decode” what it means to be a border agent lying to a refugee mother – just because he or she can? Aren’t we in desperate need to explore the why of their actions, if we want our scenes to make sense, and, more importantly, if we want to prevent these and other cruelties from continuing? How are we to guarantee the “never again” of the Holocaust, if we cannot understand the seemingly banal actions of US border agents? Following Hannah Arendt, one way out of the conundrum is to strip the border agents of their exceptionalism. For them, Sofia and her children are apparently not persons but refugees, aliens, numbers, and probably worse. They should have been “shot in the legs.” Lying to them was simply part of the spirit of the order to protect “our homeland.”

Of course, this line of thought harbors a dangerous potentiality, as it means that no special monstrosity is needed to be cruel and violent. Everyone has that potential, hence the banality of evil Arendt evoked. This is a dangerous truth, yet, it also harbors a place to work from. Cruelty could happen anywhere, but does not happen everywhere, Hannah Arendt tells us, insisting that moral choice remains even under totalitarianism. Moral choices have political consequences even when the chooser is politically powerless.

To be sure, US border agents do not live under a system of terror, and not all border agents arbitrarily lie to refugees. Hence, we might want to focus on the ones that do not simply follow orders or, worse, amplify the spirit of the orders. Most people will comply but some people will not, says Arendt. Having compassion for the people that do not comply takes away Eichmann’s claim of innocence. It refuses to allow border agents to normalize “simply following orders,” however cruel. Arendt’s friend Mary McCarthy made this point when she insisted that Eichmann, according to Arendt’s own description, lacked an important human quality: the capacity for thought, consciousness – conscience. McCarthy goes on to ask whether lacking these human qualities (and one might add empathy to the list) doesn’t make Eichmann a monster (Brightman 1996).

These considerations seem to be key in understanding and enacting the border agents that lied to Sofia. They are a good starting point to counter any normalization of cruelty and violence we encounter. “The banality of evil” refers to the fact that evil can be enacted through a series of seemingly banal acts. It does not refer to evil itself as banal. As a good bureaucrat, Eichmann separated his actions – driven by orders – from the outcome of the actions or their effects. In other words, he lacked consciousness and empathy for others. While McCarthy might be right that this lack of basic human qualities makes him a monster, I would add that this type of monster is unfortunately rather commonplace. In fact, administrating without empathy is the hallmark of a neoliberal bureaucratic world.

In other words, yes, the lying border agents were monsters, they lacked empathy and conscience, while performing seemingly banal acts. They weren’t deranged individuals having a bad day and clearly no fault can be found in Sofia and her family. The border agents didn’t know more about Sofia than she knew about them – and they clearly didn’t care. They probably do not even remember her, or their lies, and if it hadn’t been for Sofia telling her story, neither would we.

What did we learn from all this? As a theatre ensemble we realized that as responsible playback (or improv in general) actors we need more than simple acting skills. We need to know the context within which the stories emerge. We need to pay attention not only to the main story line – here Sofia’s ordeal – but also to explore details such as the motivations of border agents. It is here that our acting collides with our ideological commitments and understandings of the world. It is here that we offer additional spaces of reflection. It is here that we take a stance. Hannah Arendt ended her book directing herself at Eichmann:

And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations – as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world – we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you.” (Arendt 1963)

As improv performers, we (sometimes) hold control of the stage. For that brief moment in time the stage is the universe. We pick and choose what to focus on, what to bring to life and what not. As an ensemble, we chose to not have Sofia share the stage with these border agents. We did enact them, yet tried to do it in a way that made them flat humans, humans who lack the main mark of humanity, empathy. While this made them monsters, we did not want to make them special in any sense. While they were enacted on stage as human-like, we avoided attributing any sense of story or emotion to them. That way we tried to illuminate their lack of conscience and empathy, dismantling the banality of evil for what it was, a form of monstrosity that often goes unknown.

Refusing to invest the border agents with life contrasted with the spontaneous acts of a 10-year-old girl from the audience. She simply entered the stage to support the tellers by hugging them while they were telling their stories. This simple gesture of empathy and support contrasted wonderfully with the lifeless actions of the border agents, offering hope and solution in a moment of despair. This action also reaffirmed our conviction of the role of playback theatre as an act of active and empathic listening and a form to create community.


[1] Sofia is a pseudonym.


Bibliography and References

Arendt, H. (1963) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York. New York: Viking Press.

BBC (2019). Donald Trump ‘suggested shooting migrants in the legs’. Oct. 2nd.

Boal, A. (1985). Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Theatre Communications Group.

Brightman, C. (Ed.) (1996). Between Friends: The correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975. San Diego, CA: Harvest Books.

Fox, J. (1986). Acts of Service: Spontaneity, Commitment, Tradition in the Nonscripted Theatre. New Paltz, NY: Tusitala.

Fox, J. & Dauber, H. (eds.) (1999). Gathering Voices: Essays on Playback Theatre. New Paltz, NY: Tusitala.

Freire, P. (1970/2018). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.

Grandin, G. (2019). “The Border Patrol Has Been a Cult of Brutality Since 1924.” The Intercept, Jan. 12th.

Kanno-Youngs, Z. (2019). “62 Border Agents Belonged to Offensive Facebook Group, Investigation Finds.” New York Times, July 15.

Salas, J. (1993, 2013). Improvising Real Life: Personal Story in Playback Theatre, 20th Anniversary Edition. New Paltz, NY: Tusitala.





Norbert Ross is an Anthropologist at Vanderbilt University. For the last three years he has worked on topics related to children and violence in El Salvador. As part of his work, he co-founded the NGO ACTUEMOS! to combat different forms of violence through the arts (and specifically theatre). He trained in playback theatre at the Centre for Playback Theatre in New Paltz and established ACTUEMOS! PLAYBACK, a playback performance group with young Salvadorian actors. ACTUEMOS! PLAYBACK has conducted many shows in El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico. Norbert Ross also teaches a course on theatre and social change at Vanderbilt University.




Bilal Bagh: Playback Theatre at a Historic Protest by Muslim Women

In December 2019—just days after the international Playback Theatre conference in Bangalore–the Indian parliament abruptly and controversially passed a law denying citizenship for Muslim immigrants while fast-tracking it for members of other religions. Widespread protests followed. The authors compellingly describe how Playback Theatre played a role in protests by Muslim women in Bangalore. Their article presents a very current example of how Playback can contribute to a social justice cause when performances emerge organically out of political solidarity, adapting the form to the needs of the situation.

Bilal Bagh: Playback Theatre at a Historic Protest by Muslim Women

By Kavya Srinivasan, Laxmi Priya S.N. and Rashmi Ravikumar

Kavya Srinivasan
Laxmi Priya S.N.
Rashmi Ravikumar





Pictures of bodies – Muslim bodies, Muslim female bodies, standing shoulder to shoulder together – have made the headlines regularly in national and international media. These record the opposition to the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed by the Indian parliament on 11 December 2019. Demonstrations and protests against the Act, spontaneously organised by citizen groups and student communities, spread across the country1. The protests were a demonstration of growing dissent in the minority communities and among allies against a government that is anti-people and anti-dissent, even as India worked as a (non) functional democracy. Many constitutional experts have labeled the CAA non-secular in general and anti-Muslim in particular. The movement grew across the country in urban and rural spaces to include 24/7 sit-ins, protest meetings, seminars and workshops to understand one’s constitutional rights and more. More recently, they were suspended and, many times, dismantled by the State forces due to the global pandemic we are facing today.

The Islamophobia research and documentation project2 records the work of S Sayyid, the professor of Rhetoric and Decolonial Thought at the University of Leeds. It says that “…Islamophobia in India operates within what he determines to be the ‘second theater’ – when ‘Muslims are a clear minority, marginal to the national narrative, even though their presence is simultaneous to or predates the formation of the state.’” 3 Expressions of Islamophobia are often diverse and occur through a range of deployments, he emphasized. Sayyid argued that “a gesture, a speech, and a police action can all be aspects of Islamophobia reflecting not an underlying unity, but a series of overlapping similarities.” This is one of many articles documenting the complex and enduring islamophobia that colours the fabric that is India. CAA was one such legislative manifestation by the Hindu right wing party, after their re-election to power in 2019.

Who is Writing This?

It is important to note that the authors of this article are savarna people who are female-identifying and born into households that practice the majoritarian religion in India, Hinduism. While we are speaking as active dissenters, we are not speaking of or for the lived experience of the minority communities. It is only as allies and playbackers that we author this piece. The attempt is to reflectively document the playback theatre performed at the site of resistance, Bilal Bagh.The process of writing this essay has been one of un- and re-learning along with recording of a pivotal moment in India’s political history-in-making. Each writer on this team has been challenging discourses and practices of oppression and discrimination while educating themselves about the ways to show up in allyship and solidarity, accepting the long and fruitful journey for what it is.

We have been practitioners of playback theatre (playback or PBT) since 2012 (with one of us having begun practice more recently) but it was at Bilal Bagh, 4 a space of resistance in Bangalore where hundreds of Muslim women had gathered in dissent, that we encountered the possibility of playback theatre as a protest form. Preceding this, we had performed around four shows titled “An Ode to Resistance” (OTR) to create space for the dissenters, who were mobilising, demonstrating and showing up at these sites of resistance, to share their stories. These stories echoed our own experiences of acts of resistance. The sharing and stories at Bilal Bagh, however, markedly different from the lived experiences of the performers.

In an interview, Ben Rivers, a playback theatre artist and social activist who has worked in Palestine, Egypt and Kashmir, notes that playback theatre can create a space for listening, expression and empathetic playing back in locations that are seeing social and political conflict or crises. An important point in his sharing is to view playback as complementary to the demands for systematic and infrastructural changes.5 In keeping with this, we saw the protest performances at Bilal Bagh in conjunction with the ongoing protests, the protest songs, petitions and work by activists and community leaders for a more just world.

From left: Riya, Akash, Laxmi, Rashmi and Sannidhi performing at an Ode to Resistance show. Photo: Arjun Thomas, Break Bramha Studio.

The themes of stories that came alive at Bilal Bagh had strong undercurrents of hope, helplessness, fear, loss, pain, anger and determination. Most of the stories spoke of their refusal to let a non-secular Act take away their active citizenship. We were very aware of our positionality as we went into the protest site – both as allies in the dissent and as artists. The idea that we, as members of an outgroup, would be performing stories that we had never lived or experienced, was a source of anxiety. It stemmed from our desire to hold the stories shared with us as tenderly and with as much respect as they deserved.

Protest in our Bodies

The performers’ listening has a direct impact on building connection with the teller and the audience through the performance. Listening deeply to the stories and carrying them in our bodies was our promise to the tellers. In addition to stories shared during the performance, further stories were shared privately with the performers after the performance was over. The importance of these peripheral sharings marked the urgency for these voices to be heard by the authorities as well as the larger civil society.

One such sharing was by a young Muslim woman who was having tea at the same shop as some performers late at night. She wanted to share anonymously that she felt like she was being pushed out of a house (India), a house that her ancestors had also worked towards building and lost lives doing that. Upon being asked if she would like for us to play it back to her the next evening, she said that she just needed to share it.

Meanwhile, during the performance another woman shared that when Hindus (the religion of the majoritarian population) and Muslims stand together, an authoritarian government will become powerless. This could have possibly stemmed from the recognition that all performers were non-Muslim. The performances were a testament to possible allyship from the community that otherwise treated the minority religious community as the ‘foreigner’.6 The playback performers, therefore, might have represented solidarity from across communities and corners of Bangalore.

The performances challenged our conventional preparation. Addressing the following key aspects allowed the stories to emerge:

1. The language: While the conductors spoke the primary language of the audience, most of the performers did not. The audience spoke a mixture of Hindi/Urdu and the performers primarily spoke English and a smattering of other Indian languages. Similarly, with minor exceptions, before the protest performances most of our audiences had also been English-speaking. We have discussed often the linguistic divide informally but this was an instance of clearly seeing the audiences our playback had never engaged with before. It meant that the performers shifted their primary tool of expression from text to their bodies. We would break the fourth wall, walk into the audience, run to the ends of the protest site in order to make our point. The body language was loud and exaggerated in its political stance and when we chose to speak, it was at top volume. The quiet, contained energy of our closed-room shows – with monologues that had wordplay, and formats that relied on shared cultural understandings – could not survive the asks of a protest space.

2. The space: Our previous performance experience primarily had been in intimate, indoor settings. These were often ticketed shows for an average of 45 attendees per show, who might or might not have watched playback theatre performance(s) before. The agreement between the playbackers and the audience in such a setting was one evening of story sharing.

The protest site at which we performed was about 200 square metres, and stood in the shadow of a mosque, where the daily call to prayer would proudly ring five times, responded to by the gathered protestors. It was on a busy road in North Bangalore, with hundreds of protestors sitting in attendance. As we performed, food and water would be passed around, children would play, tea would be served. Crowds would thin in the performances around midnight. People would be in conversation – about our show and otherwise. We had to give ourselves many permissions as we performed. To let our political stance show. To invite the interested and curious kids to explore the musical instruments. The foundational permission was to put the gift of these stories at the centre of the playing back and navigate the “ought to’s” of playback theatre around this.

3. The emotional charge of the resistance: Playback theatre, initially, did not seem like the obvious choice for expressing protest in a theatrical manner. Even as we pondered the possibility of other forms, we were aware of the space for sharing we could create through a series of playback theatre performances at Bilal Bagh. Also, playback is what we do well together. The series of performances unfolded even as violence had broken out at other 24/7 protest sites across the country . There was the constant threat of government surveillance. However, the space was also a celebration of dissent. A friend remarked about the festivity of atmosphere, the sense of being at a family event and a sense of unconditional welcome to allies. This sense of many realities of dissent made the playback performances travel the landscape of tender resolve. The performatively artistic elements became less important than the authenticity and present listening of the performers and the conductor.

At Bilal Bagh. From left: Riya, Akash, Deepak, Sannidhi, Angela, and Laxmi. Seated is Kavya. Photo: Anisha Pucadayil.

Nick Rowe, in his book Playing the Other, describes playback as (a form that) “..provides a space in which the processes of representing experiences can be made visible and thus seen to be contingent and provisional”.7 Describing the possibility of playback theatre as a tool for empathy and expression in conflict-ridden zones, Ben Rivers, in the previously mentioned interview, outlines the space of playing back as a space that holds a mirror to the social stories that the community and the individual members trust the players with. To build on these conceptual notions of playback as a space, witnessing and embodying the stories of the women at Bilal Bagh gave us a way to reflect upon the moment of history we were experiencing under an authoritarian State mechanism. Being able to hold the stories and play them back asserted the possibility of shared experiences, collective and community healing. The evening and nights of performance were telling us that the stories of grit and persistence co-exist with the stories of mocking and satirising the oppressive forces.

When Stories Hold a Mirror to Propaganda

The stories that were enacted and shared in the OTR space came from people who were closer to our identities – folks who were constantly showing up at protests, having difficult conversations with their families about why the right to dissent is one written into the constitution and cannot be deemed criminal, etc. The audience was invited to the performance space. The procedure of posters, social media, RSVP-ing were all followed so that we could hear their stories of dissent in a closed room away from the traffic and the slogans. A space to breathe.

At Bilal Bagh, however, the performers were invited into the space of continuous protest and this gave rise to stories from the communities that were directly facing the danger of disenfranchisement. We were invited to perform as an extension of our regular presence at the protest site. Many of us were involved in singing protest songs, sloganeering, and facilitating play space for the children at the site already. We were graciously welcomed into the performance space next by the organizers of Bilal Bagh. There were regular ongoing speeches, performances and candle light vigils to celebrate and honour the resistance. The invitation to these events, including ours, were open to the public and shared on social media.

At Bilal Bagh, we had to abandon many ideas of what we thought playback ought to look like. The ritual of playback wasn’t strictly adhered to, as outlined in conversations about the zone of good playback. Art and social interaction took precedence. We bent the rules – when we interacted with the audience during a fluid sculpture performance, when we supported each other through the language barriers, when we drummed on chairs to add music, and when a conductor had to sit out during a particularly vulnerable sharing as they were emotionally moved- and a new conductor took their place. As performers, we felt that the audience was looking for a space to share stories and their truth more than engage with critical dissection of a performance. This spirit was obvious in the ways sharings would emerge even before the previous playing back reached a frozen ending.

The story that had prompted the conductor change came from a middle aged woman who was sharing her emotional response to a story from the Delhi pogrom that had taken place recently. It was carried out against Muslims by armed Hindu mobs. The story involved a young man being killed by the mob. He had only recently been married and his mother was distraught. The teller shared with us that her heart breaks as she thinks of the mother who must have saved money her whole life to hold a good wedding for her son. The teller was visibly shaken and tearing up as she shared this story with us. The conductor, upon hearing the story, was also visibly shaken and requested another performer to take over the conducting. We played the story back in a free form using words, movements and metaphors, ensuring that we do not re-traumatize the teller.

The pogrom had taken place in the capital city of India, Delhi, and had resulted in the death of at least 40 individuals and injury to around 200 people. Popular media has showcased this incident as a result of riot between communal sections. However the stories emerging from the areas by independent sources spoke of loss of lives and destruction of property being disproportionately heavier on the Muslim side. These killings had taken place due to complicity of the police and state authorities to diffuse the situation and arrest the guilty. This semantic difference between perceiving the killings as pogrom or as riots is also the difference between seeking news beyond propaganda and being complicit in consuming propaganda.

Writing on “good” playback theatre, Jo Salas, co-founder of PBT, notes, “There is always an interplay between what is actually offered by the artists, on the one hand, and what the audience brings to it, on the other. The same is true of non-performance art forms such as literature, or painting. Value is ultimately a co-creation of artist and perceiver, which accounts for the genuine artistic meaning found at every point along the spectrum of actual accomplishment”. The stories from Bilal Bagh reinforced the idea that real life stories will be the true counter narrative to the propaganda spread by partisan media houses. Their stories of everyday living, upholding the ideas of secularism and facing the threat to their dignified existence with strong determination directly exposed the lies behind the propaganda that labeled the women as ‘ill-informed’ and motivated by ill reasons.

A Space for More Questions

While closing this essay, we wanted to leave you, the reader, with our independent voices. We were each left with something to reflect upon. Bilal Bagh was disbanded in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, the police also targeted protestors at other protest sites . The disproportionate police action and intimidation against dissenters continues . What was only earlier this year feels like a much longer time.

When I look back at this time, I am primarily left with deep awareness and clarity about my various identities. Much reflective writing does not acknowledge that bodies in a space have multiple overlapping identities. I would go so far as to say they are not only overlapping, but competing and complex, in the way they emerge. My body in Bilal Bagh was a playbacker, a musician, a woman, a Hindu, upper caste, English speaking, left liberal – identities that are complex and nuanced. Each identity has relative precedences, taking priority at different moments. My identity as a performer was tied to authenticity and speaking the truth of the stories I heard. My identity as a protestor was tied to signaling dissent and amplifying the voices of the women who were sitting there all day and all night. These key identities found their intersection in protest specific playback performances.

My strongest memory of performing in Bilal Bagh was being so aware of how my choices as a performer were political. I was the musician for our show, and there was a sharing about a sense of solidarity that was larger than all faiths. I chose to perform “Hallelujah”, by Leonard Cohen, as the music for the fluid. And I remember clearly the split second where I was hyper aware of how I was a Hindu, performing a song with clearly Christian overtones, for an audience of primarily Muslim women. It was our reality of being in the protest. We needed everyone we could get.

I frequently think about my work as an artist as a kind of service to my community. To communities in general. And it is in this capacity that I frame the experience of performing at Bilal Bagh as the only kind of service I know. I believe deeply that we performed at the protest sites with complete presence, sensitivity and authenticity, to stories that were deep, immediate, and hard to share. I can only hope that our performances became containers that the women at Bilal Bagh could draw some strength from.

The moment I stepped onto the stage at Bilal Bagh to playback, it was like all my other identities within me froze for those few moments and in that sense I was a playbacker, a conduit only. But I do know, outside of me, that can never be true. I was still an upper middle class, English speaking woman, with caste and religion privilege performing for a community I shared very little common ground with.

Right now, I am still unable to comprehend the nature of experiencing me as a performer to the audience at Bilal Bagh. I do realize, I will not really know until we have a conversation with the audience. But, because playback in a way is a much more of a consensual form of theatre than any other form of theatre (because our storytellers are right there and are telling us their lived experiences and giving us permission to perform them) and because I have at times chosen a white man to play me and felt the emotional core of the story still remained true, I am hoping the tellers and the audience have felt heard.

We weren’t doing “art for art’s sake” anymore, we were doing art as a language to reach out, to show up and to honor the lived experiences. I feel the non ‘well made-ness’, so to speak, where the rituals of playback weren’t perfectly followed, is what made the playing back so sincere.Because we were honoring the rawness of the space and I think our audience too, gave us permission for that. Not once did it feel like they were looking for a “performance” but it was a space for stories to be shared. It felt much like a circle of people just coming together around a fire and wanting to be heard and being heard. If anything, listening and holding space for acknowledgement felt like what we did there, more than a performance. It felt like playback was finally home, with the community where building bridges was the need of the hour.

The scope of this article is to enquire about the place of playback theatre in the realm of social justice movement in general and protest sites in particular through reflective documentation of events. There are more questions which deserve to be unpacked in this moment of history as a playback practitioner doing a community form of theatre under an authoritarian regime. Would it require a different kind of playback theatre that addresses the needs of a resistance site? Are playback theatre and protest sites an unlikely fit? How much of the fulfillment of playback theatre can be subject to the organic community that is formed between the performers and the sharers at the site of performance – protests, based on trust and authentic listening – and how much on the non-negotiables like rituals and agreements of the form? The conception of playback theatre as a tool for community-making is ever evolving. It was our privilege to use a form we have loved and nurtured for over a decade in creating a space of common citizenry, relative safety and a container for listening and artistic expressive mirroring. The experience has also put into forefront my identities of privilege and my relationship with them as I playback stories of the “other”. It also, during the times of active, outdoors protesting, gave me a tool in addition to performing protest songs, sloganeering and sending postcards of dissent to the authorities. Most importantly, it taught me to not speak over voices with assumptions, especially in “good faith”.


[1] Reading about the citizen mobilization can aid in understanding this article better:,_2019

[2] Excerpted from a footnote in the section entitled “Measuring Islamophobia”. Source:

[3] This concept was first discussed in: S Sayyid, “A Measure of Islamophobia,”Islamophobia Studies Journal, vol. 2, no.1, 2014, 14 doi:10.18411/d-2016154.

[4] The performers for the series of playback theatre performances were Angela, Sangeeta, Winnu, Riya, Laxmi, Kavya, Akash, Rashmi, Deepak, Sannidhi. Almost all perform with the playback group ‘citylamps’

[5] Playback Theatre Talks, #6, 4th June 2020

[6] Page 67. Source:

[7] 171, Rowe, N. (2007). Playing the other: Dramatizing personal narratives in playback theatre. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.


About the Authors

Kavya Srinivasan

Kavya has been working with spontaneous theatre for the last three years, and with scripted work for over ten years, as an actor, playwright and storyteller. Her work has been published in an anthology of plays by Bangalore Little Theatre entitled “History of Ideas”, and in the Economic and Political Weekly. In her spare time, she can be found reading, singing and daydreaming. Reach her at:

Laxmi Priya S.N.

Laxmi has engaged with Playback Theatre in various stages of her life and, thus, Playback theatre has become her yardstick to see all the people she was, is, and is in the process of becoming. As a conductor, performer and someone who likes to be an imperfect ally rather than a silent spectator, she is interested in the spaces that writing on playback theatre can take her and the community. She is part of a Bangalore-based team called citylamps and knows that the little dot above a lowercase ‘i’ and ‘j’ is called a tittle.

Reach her at:

Rashmi Ravikumar

Rashmi has been doing playback for 8 years now and dabbles with acting, conducting and facilitation in the space. Writing, performance and research is an intersection she loves to engage with. She has trained at NSD, Rangashankara and works with theatre in facilitation for corporates with Navgati. While not scheduling rehearsals and meetings, Rashmi likes to lay in her bed with her favorite pink comforter and some crispy snacks.