The Shamanic Actor: Playback Theatre Acting as Shamanism

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


Playback Theatre Acting as Shamanism

By Simon Floodgate



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

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

Let me begin with a story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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