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
Is That Still Playback? Sheila Donio
“If this was my dream over the course of one year: Cheraé Halley
Simple Questions and Complicated Answers: Michael Cheng
My Journey with Better Together: Marat Mairovich
“Evolution” of a white playbacker – how I created separation: Ági Orbán
Is That Still Playback?
Sheila Donio, Brazil
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.