During the project, eleven Playback practitioners from eleven countries met online twice a month for a year. Each person then wrote about what happened in this extraordinary experience, from their individual point of view. The participants’ statements and articles provide a fascinating composite portrait of a sustained experiment that was clearly profound for all concerned–with implications that go beyond those who were directly involved.
The writing has been lightly edited for clarity, first by Emily Conolan and then myself, preserving the voice and English usage of these diverse writers. For most, English is their second or third language. Some use American spellings, others British.
Readers can go directly to any article by clicking on its title in the table of contents.
Better Together, Part Three: Participants’ Commentaries on a Year-Long Project
Newbies in Playback: Two South Asian Working Mothers Comment on Their Experience in the Better Together Project
Poh Kiang Tan, Malaysia, and Mansee Shah Thard, India
(Gratitude to Radhika Jain for guidance)
Poh Kiang: Last year, my Playback Theatre friend shared a Facebook post with me, and I tried my luck to apply for it. How I wished that both of us could join together. We had joined some activities online together in the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. I was lucky that I succeeded in the interview and was shortlisted to be part of Better Together. This was meaningful to me as it’s another kind of recognition for me.
Mansee: When the concept of Better Together was announced in the International Playback Facebook group, it sounded like a dream. More so, as I had just started jamming online with international participants and felt the need for it. There were times during international online playback jams when I felt at sea because of not knowing about cultures and dynamics of different countries which limited me to play back these multicultural stories. Also, I realised that other international playbackers did not know about the cultural nuances of my country, and so I felt the performances to be incomplete when those stories were played back. Thus, I felt the need to apply – to learn about different cultures and also to share my own. I was elated when I got a confirmation email from Will C, one of the organisers, that I was a part of the Better Together group.
PK: The moment I took up this project, I told myself that I must commit to all meetings, and I put this as a priority activity. The most challenging part for this project is to have the meetings at midnight (due to time zones and daylight saving). I knew that I would be very tired and this would affect work the next day, but I just had to overcome it. Reasons for me to join this project were that I wished to expand my network and get to know more playbackers from different cultures. As a new member in playback, I knew that there was so much to learn and practice. So, I knew this experience would help me to absorb different skills especially in terms of conducting. From the past 12 months, I’ve proved myself to be persistent, and committed. Yes! I made it. Eleven members in this project was a nice number for me as the small group size reduced my anxiety. I had been so anxious about whether I would miss any messages or information. Thank God that there was always a reference plan for me to refer to, so that I knew all the meeting dates, the coming events, and if it would be a presentation, a reflection, or a group dynamic activity. I am grateful to the organising team for the detailed and thoughtful plan.
I felt very nervous to have the first session with all new faces. Thankfully I had met Michael before this, and I remembered I met Elsa somewhere online but never had a chance to talk further. I felt much better with these few familiar faces, especially Sheila, my roommate at the IPTN conference in Bangalore in 2019. After many months of working together, I noticed a familiar logo appear on the screen and I recognized I’ve been there during my visit to Bangalore – Lahe Lahe. This is a very special place where they have live art performances and Mansee is the co-founder of Lahe Lahe! What a beautiful meet up here. I felt so touched with these indirect connections and I was lucky to be able to reconnect back with them. Cheraé was also at the same conference but we never got the chance to know each other. Anyway, I believe we had the same faith and this brought us together in the same space.
MST: When I attended the orientation session, I must admit I was excited but also very nervous. Most of the participants were all experienced playbackers who were also trainers or conductors in their respective countries, and some of them even globally. I myself had attended workshops facilitated by two of them, and the thought that I would not be an attendee but a co-participant with all these senior people (whom I had a reverence for) was not exactly a very comfortable position to be in. Having said that, I also realised that I had not joined this session to train in the technical playback sense. Of course, that might happen as a by-product but the main reason I joined was to learn about different cultures and in that aspect, almost all of us were similar. What I didn’t know about their different cultures, they didn’t know about mine, so that was definitely a leveller, and a lot of co-learning could happen as far as sharing stories was concerned.
Through the presentation and the shared stories, I realised that though we were different, there was some commonality in most of us. Some themes were different and maybe difficult to understand, but some issues hit home. Thus, I shared a story in the first month itself and the themes in it continued till almost the last session. Whenever I felt called to share, I shared, not limiting myself due to my newness in playback. I felt a responsibility as well. When you join a group where everyone is a co-learner and learning through each other’s presentations and stories, you also contribute by sharing your stories. At the same time, when the technical parts of Playback came, I must admit that I took my time to be comfortable in acting, facilitating, or conducting. In fact, conducting was something that I didn’t do at all during the entire process (an aspect that I am not so happy about). All this was maybe because I was not yet confident about my abilities as a new playbacker as compared to the others. The two times that I did facilitate, I was nervous and I reached out to conductors of the session for some feedback and they helped every time. Thus, I realised there is no harm in reaching out for help and co-participants will always hold you. Also, I realised all of us had different styles of presenting about their country, playbacking, conducting and facilitating. Some of us had an easy style, some were more creative and it was nice to see that diversity in the group and learn from it.
PK: After a few sessions then we had some arrangements for buddy sessions. I was with Ági [Orbán] and we chatted a few times and we worked together on a few events. I struggled because we faced some miscommunication in the first event. We were both anxious about this and worried for the events. Thanks to the playback experience, that held us together for trusting each other. Surprisingly, the event turned out well.
MST: Besides the playback, the conducting and the facilitating, what was intimidating for me were some of the discussions – especially if they were in the larger group. Some sessions had discussions on a one-on-one basis in the breakout rooms and those were a breeze, but the larger group was sometimes intimidating. Again, the other participants were all very experienced and quite a few of them were activists. I am not an activist (at least not in the conventional sense and not especially for political activism). My opinion in how I see things would sometimes be different than what the others saw, and thus it was difficult to speak out. I wished I had spoken out though, as maybe the group would have been made richer by a different point of view. At other times, my knowledge on the topic was limited and though I felt strongly about the issue, I didn’t know what to add to the discussion.
PK: My belief about America was that it is rich, advanced, superior in technology, well educated, free: a beautiful and big country. When I learnt more about it, I realised we had the same social problems – government policies, injustice, discrimination, income gap and so on. I had to relearn from what I knew earlier.
I never saw a western lady protecting a Buddhist Temple and learning Qi Gong. In my life, I had only seen Buddhists that were Asian. I felt like an idiom in Chinese, 井底之蛙, “the frog in the well”, which means seeing things from a limited point of view. In fact, I felt I was not doing my part in society, I should have done more than I thought I needed to.
Many times when the Europeans shared their life stories related to their society, I felt lost. I couldn’t understand what “Gypsies” were; what was the history about “Jews”; how was Brazil related to Portugal; and so many more issues that I didn’t really care about when I was in Malaysia. Issues related to LGBT rights and identity, gender equality, fair policies, education system, young generation’s future, climate change etc. came into my awareness. I felt that I should be more caring about my community, try my best to connect people together through Playback Theatre in Malaysia.
As a Malaysian, my location is near Singapore and we share so much similar colonial history, climate, food, cultures etc. It’s very easy for me to connect here, especially as our ancestors originated from China. I’m still in search of my identity…
Since my last visit to Bangalore, I knew a little bit more about this city and it’s easier to connect to. I felt so happy and warm when the logo of Lahe Lahe appeared. This was my connection point! Besides, meeting another mother in the group, I felt like I could understand her life. Being working mothers, we knew that we always strive to balance our family and our work. All these did not need to be told, and we could connect so instinctively.
During our one year in Better Together, I witnessed a new baby be born to two lovely mothers. A child having two female parents is something that I might have read in the news, but here I had the chance to know this happening personally. This is so touching and it’s a miracle to me. Sadly, I don’t think I’ll see it in my country.
MST: When we were asked to write articles based on the learning and experience in the Better Together group, we were supposed to write one personal statement and /or combined articles with others in the group. For the longest time, I did not reach out for a combined paper to anyone nor did anyone reach out to me. Maybe this was because of the reasons cited above (my newness/ rawness to playback). I did remember two or three instances when I connected strongly to another person in the group – Poh Kiang. What she shared, I related to completely. We both were different individuals, but there were some commonalities like both of us were working South Asian mothers, we have had our share of financial struggles growing up, both of us were from big families, both of us were strong individuals and both of us were very new to Playback, and thus I reached out to her. We discussed the possibility of writing something together and thus this article! Because of these commonalities I noticed that there were a lot of times when we our stories had similar backgrounds. Maybe because our rich life experiences were such that we had stories to share for almost every theme that came out. This left me wondering, why am I discounting myself due to my newness in playback? I remember my first playback trainer saying that we get better at Playback by sharing stories. First mission accomplished!
I also remember another incident. A participant in a group observed some statement that was made by the presenter and pointed that out afterwards. That statement offended a few people in the group and we discussed that in the discussion session a fortnight later. I remember towards the end, Poh Kiang said that she didn’t understand what the problem was, and I could relate to her. I contemplated there could be a million reasons why both of us did not think it was such a big issue. Were we insensitive? (I strongly didn’t think so, but maybe as compared to others). Did we not take offense so easily because of the fact that such statements, thinking, or behaviour are normalised to us since our childhood and our threshold is so high that it would take a huge foot in the mouth moment to ignite our offense radar? And is that a good thing, or bad? Was it because we were not activists? I can go on and on – but for now, let’s just say, maybe we recognise this and keep that in mind instead of analysing it to death.
PK: I felt secure when I managed to get Michael’s help to be my conductor when I presented Malaysia to our group. At least he spoke Chinese like me: English is my second language and I hardly used it after our government exam. He knew about Malaysia and most of our traditional cultures are similar. Most importantly, when I couldn’t express myself, he could help me to translate. I was the second presenter, and I would say that I did a very surface-level introduction. I thought I should show people the nice parts of my country, and that I should reveal less about the negativities and the perceived sufferings, as that might only be my personal point of view. I need to be fair to Malaysians, as I know that my interpretation may differ from others.
At the end of our meetings, I felt regret for not sharing deeply enough with our members. On reflection, I know that’s because I was not an activist, I was not at the frontline of the community. Anyway, I was able to share my personal childhood stories, and these were the stories that connect us easily.
My courage pushed me twice to take up the conductor role (this was the toughest thing for me to do). I was hiding myself for many months, not volunteering to be a conductor. Voices like “I can’t do it”, “I’m not experienced”, “wait for me to attend a proper course first”, “I’ll get very nervous” were circling in my head. I couldn’t escape because Mansee, whom I connected with and admired, asked me to conduct. I took up this role because I wished to support her presentation. This was the time I put in some effort to recall the previous sessions’ notes, I tried to learn: how did people conduct successfully?
My anxiety had worsened after my two experiences of conducting, and it became a joke in our group. I remember a story where someone sent a big pack of “crackers” to the teller’s house annually. I, as the conductor, forgot to clarify what she meant by “crackers.” In the enactment the actors were happily eating the “crackers” but at the end of the performance, the teller told us the “crackers” were actually “firecrackers”! Everyone burst into laughter and I felt so ashamed about this….
I would say I’m still confused with the online forms, whether on camera or off camera? When to step in? How to perform in monologues and so on… Sometimes, I am unsure, I felt I was very unclear when performing, but I am really grateful that none of them blamed me. This gave me a lot of security and released me from self-assumptions.
It’s fun, safe, multicultural, it’s an eye-opening experience…I’ve mixed feelings now, finally I’ve completed the first stage, but I wish this project can be continued and can benefit more playbackers in the world and create ripples of kindness and compassion to our universe.
This journey has enriched my life, it led me to my dream of exploring the world.
MST: Our project of “Better Together is almost coming to an end and I have mixed feelings. One aspect is that life has really become busy from when we started out, so the time management might be slightly easier now, since the project is coming to an end. But having said that, now is the time when I have started connecting deeply with the group and have developed a voice and thus I’m feeling sad that it’s coming to an end. Also, it was a very enriching exercise to connect on multicultural issues and themes – if some opportunity with the same group comes along (or maybe another), I would definitely think about taking it up. Maybe I would look at less time investments than twice a month for a year, which can be pretty difficult. I would like to end with this poem, which I wrote as a part of the group exercise in one of the sessions.
No matter what you believe
No matter what you assume
No matter what you were taught
No matter what you experienced
There are millions of things that separate us and yet,
There are millions of things that hold us together.
We are different yet similar
We are similar yet different
While it is lovely to be different,
it’s also ok to have differences.
There is so much wisdom in celebrating these differences.
We are different, yet similar
We are similar, yet different.
Where you are in me … A journey of identity between difference and connectedness
Anna Smetanová, Slovakia
Slovak translation here
Am I blind?
Not wanting to see
Where you are in me?
Am I blind?
Not willing to see
Where your suffering conditions me?
Am I deaf?
Not listening to the voices
It’s me – your thread?
Am I deaf?
Denying your choices?
Selecting life over death?
Where you are in me?
No, I don’t want to see….
Ability is not the burden
What I try is to draw a border
Between you and me …
Don’t let you destroy
The beautiful world, a dream
Coming from the roots
Outworn pair of shoes.
Where you are in me?
Reflecting on the one-year Better Together project
I joined the Better Together Project with a lot of curiosity. There was this curiosity about fellow playbackers from 11 countries, many of which I had never been to, and two of which I had never met a person from. And there was that curiosity about my identity too. I will explain. Prior to the project, I experienced my identity in two ways. Firstly, how I see myself compared to others. Secondly, how others want to see me, or what they identify me with. I learned a lot about myself through my experiences of living in different countries, contexts, and with and within different cultures. Yet, at that point of joining Better Together, I had to present myself as the country I was born in. It was a new challenge for me, and I was curious what I would find about my roots that I did not know.
There were countries, presentations, stories, and stories triggered by stories. Our stories and enactments connected around topics related to what I call ‘universal issues of humanity’ – relationship to parents, relationship to parenthood, gender roles, cultural conditioning, being the pioneer among others who do not want to change, patriarchy, oppression…
We were diverse in the details of our stories, in cultural nuances. I was playing back a story of ‘crackers’ thinking the teller meant those goodies to eat, and only after the teller explained later did I learn they meant firecrackers. It was obvious to them, but unknown to me. Small nuances in the layers of the narrative, which pointed out my cultural incompetence.
If I am blind in those small seemingly superficial details, what about being blind to the bigger ones? The bigger, relevant underlying nuances, reasonings, mental models, learned behaviours and behavioural patterns? These are hard to explain to others: either because of my (your, their…) pre-conditioning, or because being embedded in my own socio-cultural field to such extent, that I miss perspectives which might be recognised by others, or because it is so complex, that even if I do see it, it is hard to grasp the essence of it, and decide what and how to explain.
For example? One of the traditions in the country of my origin is that men throw water on women and smack them with a ‘whip’ made of ribbons on Easter Monday, supposedly as a ritual to keep them beautiful, healthy and fertile. This act of gender-based violence is widely observed, celebrated, and passed through generations. It is hard for me to understand how this suffering has conditioned me.
And it was even harder to explain it to the others, coming from different backgrounds, cultures, and countries–to people who every day suffer with oppression. Who are afraid to walk down the street, or to walk in the dark. We had such people in the group. And even if we hadn’t, they would still exist. How could I stand, and say, “We replicate toxic behavioural patterns in my culture. Yes, we proudly do.”?
It would mean being deaf to all those unknown voices, and to those known in our group, and ignoring them.
I could not say it. Of course, I expressed my disagreement very clearly. I wanted to show that I am not making myself deaf while being able to hear.
I wanted to, but… My life experience and Better Together showed me, my senses are not trained enough. My beliefs and life attitude cannot suit everyone. The attitudes, conditionings, and the choices of others are simply different. My perspective cannot contain everything. I cannot understand by looking through my glasses, until I am told the truth from another’s perspective. Otherwise I always have incomplete pictures about others, relationships between others, others and the group. My view of others is coloured through my own story. I can make wrong choices when acting.
But who am I to require explanations? Explanations from those who might not be able to explain? Who am I to ask and criticise their choice to not / communicate? Who am I to draw a line between what is beneficial and what is not?
There are a myriad of possibilities and choices of our group as a whole, and of individuals. Each of them created a Better Together process and the group identity. I am thankful to each of you for being a part of this year with me. For making these choices, and for opening up to your reflection during the research that Elsa [Childs] and I did together. It was important for me to hear, to touch, to smell those voices, which would remain unheard otherwise. Thank you for these gifts to me.
I learned from this eye- and heart-opening research the most. The voices I heard, confirmed. Despite us all being willing to walk freely and dance with every step for a better world, we still wear an outworn, aching pair of shoes. In our everyday non- / action, in looking through our own glasses instead of trying to see through the neighbours’ glasses, or share the glasses and creating a common sense of vision. In taking and giving space, in intention behind, in fears of losing stakes, in nonlistening and overinterpreting the untold or the told. And when I write “we”, I mean me. Despite differences, here we connect. Here I see, where you are in me.
Another circle on the spiral…
So vivid, playful, beautiful
There was the beginning
The better ending
The experience was meaningful
Thank you Ági, Cheraé, Elsa, Mansee, Marat, Michael, Nina, Poh Kiang, Sheila, Will C.
At a certain point in our Better Together project, we were all invited to have conversations with our project “buddies” that led to starting points for potential articles. Mansee wrote a poem on how we as a group are all so different yet so similar, how we as a group are all so similar, yet different. It was this poem (found in the article written by Mansee Shah Thard and Poh Kiang Tan) that inspired Cheraé to question whether the group truly did embrace their differences or whether there was a clear agenda for the project to find similarities and remain there. When the time to write up any starting points for potential articles came, Cheraé had written the following statement:
Does Playback, as our tool, provide a bridge-in to the difference in the room? Or does this entire framework serve a diverse group? Are we diving into the difference enough before we name the similarity?
When everyone shared their statements, the group was invited to respond to any of the statements they wished to partner on for the write up, and Sheila immediately responded. The two (Sheila Donio and Cheraé Halley) met and shared their initial interests on the topic.
Why has this become a topic for me? You know we are sitting in a big diversity group. We are diverse in age, in gender, sexual orientation, race, country. Yet, we keep looking for similarity. Have we done enough work on seeing the difference before asking ourselves “how are you relating to this person’s story? How are you relating to this person’s country?” Have we made room to also ask, “how are you feeling different from what’s being shared?”
And as you mentioned before, there are oppressive systems, structures that highlight our differences (and diversity) still present in the room. Are we really able to break it through this project? Are we really able to build bridges through this project? Are we only looking at the similarities or are we also acknowledging “I am different from you and this is how and this is why and is there room for our cultural differences to be present in the room?”
Thus began the journey for Sheila and Cheraé to dive into this topic of difference and commonality. This article will present a two-part series of the discussions we had on the topic. First, we share our thoughts on the topic of difference and commonality, based on our experience and our Playback Theatre practice. We then dig deeper into what others have written about these concepts to further unpack them in relation to the Better Together project. But first, here is a brief description of who we are and where we have found ourselves engaging with the topic of diversity in our own lives.
Cheraé is a South African woman who identifies as Coloured, a South African racial category that includes individuals of multi-racial ethnic communities. Coloured people have ancestry from various populations across Africa, Europe and Asia. Within this complex identity, Cheraé is constantly having to push back against the “single story” (Adichie, 2009) of her identity as a Brown person moving through the world.
Sheila is a Brazilian cisgender, pansexual, white woman, co-mothering 2-month old Júlia with another woman. She has been practicing and deeply studying Playback since 2002, currently performing and teaching it online and in person all around the world with her company Cria Playback, through her work at the Centre for Playback Theatre, and as an English-Portuguese translator and interpreter inside and outside the Playback world, focused on building bridges through different languages and cultures.
It is clear for both of the authors that diversity must thrive in any group setting.
Sheila shared a moment where she connected with another member in the Better Together project through a vulnerable and personal moment. Part one of this article will pick up on this point of connecting through vulnerability.
In that sharing of vulnerability, it was an opportunity for you to connect with each other. The organizing team created this project with people from different countries. I appreciate the frame, but I have been questioning it. To what extent is the frame allowing for the diversity to thrive in our group? Or does it keep asking us to find the similarities? Find the common ground! So many practitioners use Playback in diverse spaces for conversation of diversity, and we know that the social dimension is so critical. Understanding diversity is a core component in our practice, it keeps coming up for me in this group.
It’s so interesting. Isn’t that always in the background? When we do social mapping, the idea is to include the edges. Jonathan Fox always talks about that: You are trying to get people to feel included. How do we do that? By finding commonalities, by understanding that on this one spectrum you are on the edge but on the other spectrum you are in the middle. And then you feel more comfortable. When we share personal stories inside a diverse group it’s for people to say, “oh I also have a mother who I have an issue with”. It’s not to say “yes, we are different and that is amazing”.
But any sociometry work also shows us how we are different. It focuses on the commonalities in the shared spaces, in the shared circles. But we don’t only see those who stood up, we also see everyone who remained seated. For me, there should always be room for both. It’s not about othering, it is about saying, “no I don’t experience that because of my privilege or I don’t experience that because of my disadvantage, or…”
…“I don’t know why I don’t experience that.” I have never seen space made for that. I’ve seen space made for “I don’t experience that” with others saying “I don’t experience that either”. So again, you’re finding the…
I love this conversation.
At this point, Cheraé and Sheila agreed that there is a need to bring additional research and theoretical input on the two concepts (difference and commonality). And to begin answering the question Cheraé had posed earlier, Have we done enough work on seeing the difference before asking ourselves “how are you relating to this person’s story and/or country?” With this intention we hope to add value to this discussion when it comes to Playback Theatre groups.
Why do we do social mapping, sociometry? Here’s what The Essential Moreno says:
An instrument to measure the amount of organization shown by social groups is called the sociometric test. The sociometric test requires an individual to choose his associates for any group of which he is or might become a member. He is expected to make his choices without restraint and regardless of whether the individuals chosen are members of the present group or outsiders. The sociometric test is an instrument which examines social structure through the measure of the attraction and repulsions which take place between the individuals within a group. In the area of interpersonal relations we often use more narrow designations, as “choice” and “rejection.”…It determined the position of each individual in a group in which he has a function. It revealed that the underlying psychological structure of a group differs widely from its social manifestations; that group structures vary directly in relation to the age level of the members; that different criteria may produce different groupings of the same persons or they may produce the same groupings; that groups of different function…tend towards diverse structures; that people would group themselves differently if they could; that these spontaneous groups and the function that the individuals act or intend to act within them have a definite bearing upon the conduct of each individual and upon the group as a whole; and that spontaneous groupings and forms of groupings which are superimposed upon the former by some authority provide a potential source of conflict. It was found that chosen relations and actual relations often differ and that the position of an individual cannot be fully realized if not all the individuals and groups to which he is emotionally related are included. It disclosed that the organization of a group cannot be fully studied if all related groups or individuals are not included, that individuals and groups are often to such an extent interlocked that the whole community to which they belong has to become the scope of the sociometric test…. …” (Fox, 2008, p106 – 107)
It’s very interesting. He makes room for both, he makes room for difference and attraction. Where we are repulsed, where we are attracted. Where we differ, where we are the same… It’s constantly both.
What’s also really interesting is that it also reveals the function of the individual in the group. And I’m thinking about our first group conflict. You said, at the end of that session, “if anybody wants to stay on to chat, I’m willing to stay on.”. Even that in itself became a sociometric test. It’s almost as if you’d said “if anyone else is feeling unsafe…”, “if anyone else here is feeling silenced…” “if anyone else here is feeling concerned, please stay.”
Yeah, and then 3 people stayed. And that became a close “chosen relation” between us.
True. And that was “attraction”, we were attracted to that place, to stay on.
So, Moreno created the social tests to find “the position of each individual in a group.” I like that: “It determined the position of each individual in a group, in which he has a function.”
And this is my argument: if we had a little bit more of an opportunity, maybe, we could have bonded better, or more, or made stronger bonds if we had moments of acknowledging both, the “I share this with you” and the “I don’t share this with you”.
I agree with you! We could have bonded more.
Yeah. And on some level the bond is superficial because it was only based on “What are you connecting with?”
We are talking about learning more about each other here, and what would have helped us bond more. So now my question is: By finding more commonalities, would we have felt safer to share more of our diversity?
The initial feeling I had was that the more we share commonalities, I feel, less room is made for people to share their differences. So I was looking for articles that talk about difference, and why difference is important to be highlighted. I think we both know why difference and diversity is important, why it always needs to be present, however, if we don’t name it, if we don’t name the difference, the trap is that we will fall into a “we share as the human race” belief.
I found something. Taken from a book called “Race Talk and The Conspiracy of Silence”. When it comes to racism, specifically, one of the themes that pop up as a part of black talk/white talk is “colour blindness”. Derald Wing Sue writes about three aspects found within this theme and in fact Derald writes the theme as “Colour Blindness: Minimizing Differences or Pretending Not to See Them.”. The first aspect is that many white people think that seeing race is admitting to one’s own racism because you are going against the belief that “everyone should be treated the same” (p42). The second aspect, which is the aspect that I believe applies in our context, and that is:
…the disinclination to see color (color-evasion) is often motivated by a belief that differences are divisive or deviant and we should stress similarities or sameness (Neville et al., 2013). …many White Americans prefer to stress commonalities or the universal level of identity – we are all members of the human race. This mentality suggests that stressing similarities leads to greater group cohesion (Sue & Sue, 2013). Although there is great merit in acknowledging and stressing commonalities of the human condition, the belief that pretending not to notice differences (race, culture, and ethnicity) contains a hidden message: There is something wrong with differences, and they ultimately lead to conflict. (Sue, 2015, p42-43)
I’ve seen that happening.
So for me, allowing differences to thrive in a group setting is important. And there is caution if we only want to acknowledge commonalities and similarities and relatability. Do you really see me then? I don’t like this idea of “let’s find the commonalities” because that will give us the interpretation of social cohesion. So I don’t know if people would have felt safer to share their differences.
Well, feeling safer and being more willing to share our differences is different than having space to do it. So, “what makes us share our differences?” One thing is to make room for that, to create a safe space. But what does that look like?
I think one of the things that all the conductors, in our Better Together group, could have asked is: “What did you connect with and what did you NOT connect with?” or like “What did you relate to and what did you NOT relate to?” Because that could have invited different stories.
I agree with you. And I’m thinking about the last Playback Theatre show I conducted, 20 days ago for kids. It was about pride: “What are you proud of?” One of them shared about taking care of their younger sibling. The next story was about taking care of a younger cousin. And then I asked: “Who else has taken care of their younger siblings or cousins?” And many hands came up. I’ve been trained in Playback to ask those questions: “Who else has this experience?”
And then we move forward. But we don’t necessarily open space for people who have not had… that experience.
… a different experience.
… or a solo experience, an experience that no one else in the room has.
Once, I was in a Playback show as an actress for a business company, and the conductor of the show asked, aiming for a fluid sculpture: “How has your day gone so far?”, It was early in the morning, and the very first story was: “I just came from a funeral, our colleague passed away yesterday.” In Brazil we bury people on the same day they pass or the day after. The person shared how they were feeling, we played it back in a fluid sculpture, and then immediately after the conductor asked: “Ok, good. Now who has a different experience from that?” And then the room got VERY QUIET for what in my experience was a very long time. And that was because everyone there either had gone to the vigil or had not gone to the vigil, but everyone there was feeling really sad, everyone there was mourning. At least that was what it looked like. Then, asking for something completely different from that first told moment and not acknowledging that there was commonality in the room, that was really bad for the show, and really bad for that audience at that moment. And I think it’s interesting for us… I am sharing this because I want to hear your thoughts around it, Cheraé. It goes against what we are talking about, right? We are talking about not asking about the commonalities and making space for the differences, but like in this story, when acknowledging the commonality was needed, and it didn’t happen it jeopardized the show and the audience’s comfort.
Woah. My thoughts are – read the room! The conductor knows that they all work together and that automatically means they all share in the mourning and loss of their colleague. This is not a moment to be asking for a different experience. You and I were trained to ask the question “who here shares that experience? Raise your hand.”. I read this article, based in Australia and doing Playback within the context of refugees by Rea Dennis.
Yeah, I know Rea.
The articles I read of hers are focused on performances with refugee and asylum seekers in Australia. She focuses on personal story and inclusive democracy. She unpacks a performance made up of a diverse audience with people playing different roles in the society. Different audience voices are heard, stories from different perspectives.
It could be argued that the vision for the event was an alternative kind of democracy; one that could be considered in the spirit of Anne Phillips’ (1996) description of democracy as ‘an exciting engagement with difference: the challenge of ‘‘the other’’; the disruption of certainties; the recognition of ambiguities within one’s self as well as one’s differences with others’ (Dennis, 2007, p. 144).
She actually critiques some of the choices she made. And one of the choices she made is: she pinpoints a man in the audience and says “Can YOU share a story with us?” A man with a particular vulnerability. I think he was in a wheelchair? While reading I questioned, “why would you do that?” We cannot point out who is different in our performances.
I grew up hearing a lot of “everyone is the same,“ “everyone is equal,“ Later I realized that’s the wrong marketing strategy. Because we are really not equal. Everyone is different on something.
We’re not the same.
No, look at us. We are different. We look different, we dress differently, we live in different places, we have different backgrounds, we have different ages, we have different preferences, and we go through different stories. I always thought it would be best to say that we are all different AND we all have the same rights, instead of we have the same rights because we are all the same. It would be better if we educate people to understand our differences and accept them, and guarantee everyone the same rights, instead of trying to get people to be the same to then access their rights. And then we can talk about labeling, trying to put people in these boxes. And now we go back to social mapping, where we sometimes offer boxes. Other times it’s more fluid but sometimes it’s like “where do you fit in?”
I attended an online talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It was the University of Cape Town Vice-Chancellor’s Open Lecture held in 2021. Towards the end of this talk she comments on what it means to acknowledge difference, this is what she said:
When we talk about inclusivity, the premise of inclusivity is difference…There is an impulse from the left, the political left, to wish away difference, because difference is the cause of oppression. We cannot talk about inclusivity, if we do not talk about the premise of inclusivity, which is that there are differences. (Adichie, 2021.)
Let’s put it back in the Better Together context. Certainly we wouldn’t have wanted our conductor to say “Cheraé, you are black. Can you tell us a story…?” Just so we can get the difference. Instead, you wanna balance the room, for example: “We heard a lot of male voices, maybe we can get some female voices sharing now”. But this is not about balance, it’s about allowing the difference to exist. Let me ask you, Sheila. What does it mean for diversity to thrive? Because maybe it did happen, but I feel it was subtle. What would it mean to give room for the diversity to be alive among us in Better Together?
It might have felt more comfortable. It is one thing to find the space to share your diversity and another thing to feel that you’ve been respectfully heard.
And not judged.
So was the diversity really present, living, thriving in the group? I argue it wasn’t.
I also think it wasn’t. If we were truly sharing our diversity, would we all have presented our countries in similar ways, like we did? Why was it that everyone shared their screen and used slideshows? And no one did a performance, for example!
And we are all performers. So why is that? Is that because we didn’t have time to prepare?
You are making me think of the other ways that we shared. We all conducted the same. We all had our nuances, but we all did a similar thing. I wrote in one of my reflection forms: I wish more people took up the roles of conductor and facilitator– so that we could have visuals on different ways of being in these roles.
Those are places where we could have seen something different…
If diversity was thriving.
Maybe our first day, the orientation day, could have been dedicated to understanding each other in the group by using social mapping, for example. I found one quote from Jonathan in 2017 when talking about Narrative Reticulation: “The story of a teller shows their identity. The stories of a performance show the identity of the group.” But I ask: Do they? Or do they show a part of the identity of the group?
They show a part.
Then, which part is it showing, which part is it not showing, and why?”
In Better Together it was only showing the part of “What are you relating to?” “What do you share in common with these people?” It wasn’t showing the part of “I have a different viewpoint because I have a different experience, because my context is different.” I love that quote, Sheila. I love the question you are asking. It’s not showing the full nature of the group. Actually it’s just showing a part of it, based on what’s being asked.
Another example: We didn’t turn the Zoom transcript feature on from the very beginning, on orientation day, for example. It took some of us a few sessions to understand/learn that not all of us were fluent in English. I think that’s another area that could have looked different…
…if diversity was thriving.
Leticia Nieto and Margot Boyer published three articles in ColorsNW Magazine in 2006 and 2007. They discuss this notion of stressing commonalities or undertaking a surface level of shared identities in Part 3 of their three publications. They speak of agents and targets. Agents are referred to people who are overvalued in society, also known as ‘privileged’. And targets are referred to people who are undervalued in society and are subject to oppression (2006, p.4). Most people are agents in some areas of their lives, and targets in others. Nieto and Boyer provide anti-oppression skills for agents, called “The Agent Skills Model” and one of the skill sets used by Agents is Inclusion.
The skill set of Inclusion offers some advantages over distancing. Using Inclusion, we focus on the similarities between Target group members and ourselves. We use verbal messages that emphasize similarity and connection, like ‘We’re all children of God,” “fundamentally, we’re all the same,” “treat everyone as an individual,” and “every human being suffers.” The physical posture associated with Inclusion is arms open, as if to embrace members of the Target group. As Agents, we experience Inclusion as liberating. It feels like we’ve finally gotten out of the oppression business. We can appreciate members of the Target group. This seems terrific, to us. It takes a while to notice the limitations of Inclusion Skills, and many of us never do. In society as a whole, Inclusion is often seen as the height of intercultural appreciation, diversity and liberation. Yet Inclusion is still an Agent-centric skill. Using Inclusion, we do not recognize the Rank system, the ways we are consistently overvalued, and the consequences of our privilege and of Target marginalization. (Nieto & Boyer, 2007, p14)
Neither Sheila nor Cheraé are saying that no one in our group recognized the Rank system present in Better Together, the socially constructed systems that make us different from one another. However, it is important to acknowledge that such recognition was only really present for those Agent group members who were operating from skills of awareness and allyship. And we recognise that those Agent group members who continue to embrace individuals with an inclusive approach won’t really be doing the work on acknowledging any privilege they carry as Agent group members.
Upon reviewing our passionate discussions above, we are saying that Playback Theatre can invite skills of awareness and allyship because we tell human stories, and as Nieto and Boyer note, “…awareness skills are, at the heart, an opportunity to listen to and learn from the experience of Targets. It’s a good opportunity to pay attention to what Targets have to say about their experience” (2007, p15). But only if “we are actually open to hearing these stories” (Adichie, 2021) and only if a difference in understanding is made “between a shallow emphasis on coming to voice…and the more complex recognition of the uniqueness of each voice and a willingness to create (such) spaces” (hooks, 1994, p186). And here, there is responsibility on the conductors of Playback Theatre as well as leaders of diverse groups to ensure that this possibility is carefully navigated. There is of course immense value in the “me too” similarity effect (Vainilovych & Rozsa, 2019, p. 123) during a Playback Theatre performance, Sheila and Cheraé do not deny that commonality does indeed form emotional and empathic connections when stories are shared among strangers. But there is even greater value when stories that are shared reflect an “internal change” through the “now I see it differently” effect (Vainilovych & Rozsa, 2019, p. 124).
Adichie, C. 2021. Idolatry of theory: a defense of storytelling. University of Cape Town (UCT) Vice-Chancellor’s (VC) Open Lecture.
Adichie, C. 2009. The danger of a single story. TED TALK.
Dennis, R. 2007. Inclusive democracy: A consideration of playback theatre with refugee and asylum seekers in Australia, in Research in Drama Education. Vol. 12, No. 3, pp 355 – 370. Routledge.
Fox, J. 2008. The Essential Moreno: Writings on Psychodrama, Group Method, and Spontaneity by J.L. Moreno, MD. Tusitala Publishing: New Paltz:
hooks, b. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge: New York.
Nieto, L & Boyer, M. 2006. Understanding Oppression: Strategies in Addressing Power and Privilege. ColorsNW Magazine.
Sue, D. 2015. Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and facilitating difficult dialogues on race. John Wiley & Sons: New Jersey.
Vainilovych, N & Rozsa, D. 2019. The Influence of Story in Playback Theatre, in, Playback Theatre around the world: diversity of application. Tasker, B & Gopal, B (Eds.). CHRIST (Deemed to be University): India
Prequel to Better Together
I found Playback Theatre in 2006 as an undergraduate academic lesson that attracted me to what was then called the Ethics Center Student Fellowship. My eventual acceptance as a fellow led me to become a summer intern for the School of Playback Theatre under the leadership of Jonathan Fox. While in New Paltz for those five weeks, Jonathan taught me much about Playback philosophy while Jo Salas taught me the ins-and-outs of what it takes to build a Playback Theatre company. This began what is now a 16 year international journey as a Playback performer, trainer, and administrator.
I met Marat and Nina in August of 2019, a 3:00 am summer night in Belarus, after my severely delayed flight brought me to at the International Playback Theater Camp; I was a trainer. We soon became friends and continued to cross paths when the week-long camp finished. Occasionally we worked together on projects, including my organization “Playback in the Port” hosting the two of them for workshops. Perhaps the most notable collaboration came as the pandemic forced us all to remain indoors. Some trainers of the International Playback Camp came together with Nina and Marat to become (I believe) the first Playback group performing online with the intent to gather members from different countries. Each performance of that group had a different conductor, which also translated to a different facilitation of the rehearsal process for each performance. After a handful of shows, that performance group disbanded. What remained in me was an interest in understanding how group dynamics develop amongst Playback practitioners; what happens when significant and diverse Playback experiences come together to create a shared act of service?
Once that international group disbanded, I spent a year cultivating an online Playback company with membership coming largely from the northeast of the United States. I was less than thrilled at the progress we were making toward our stated objective and reasonably certain that we would never settle with consensus. I began thinking of new project ideas while closing out my leadership of that group. At the time I was having a collegial conversation with Marat and we thought it would be a good time to organize an international Playback group online; this was a way of diving into the group dynamics work we began to witness with the Playback Camp performance team. I had a great working relationship with Nina to this point, and was thrilled to know Marat was interested in bringing her into the project.
The three of us crafted the idea for Better Together in various meetings. We had to make decisions about how to recruit, how to select who to accept, the layout of each session, scheduling dates, which Playback forms we would choose, and what message we intended to share with the world about our process. I branded the project a Playback in the Port initiative to access the international reach we established from the pandemic forcing us to do online programming. Nina, Marat and I laughed our way through designing application questions and making a marketing video that we shared in our various Playback networks and on social media accounts. We received many applicants and were confronted with our first big challenge. Our intention always was to have a country represented only once in the group, which automatically meant since Nina, Marat and I were the organizers we couldn’t take anyone else from Russia, Israel, or the United States. It also meant that if there were multiple viable applicants from the same country we could only choose one. As decisions like these presented themselves more and more, the laughter in our meetings slowly began to diminish.
As an orga team we didn’t necessarily agree on many things: e.g. what Playback forms we would use, the number of forms, the definition of group dynamics, the value of bringing in an outsider to lead part of our sessions, and countless others. At times these planning session disagreements boiled over; as tensions reached unconstructive points we agreed to use a safe word for when discussions needed to pause. While we rarely used it throughout the process, there was the need for one. These disagreements were also useful for us to practice articulating the context we were building for our applicants.
Building a cohort – people and boundaries
Our initial outreach to the community consisted of posting on social media the advertising video we made along with the application questions we determined were the most important factors in developing a project like this. We sent out individual invites to our respective communities, and then we waited and learned a thing or two about patience. Eventually we had a significant group of applicants to choose from and went to work reading the applications and checking references.
We managed to shorten the list of potential participants and decided to have group interviews serve as an audition. We offered group interviews as opposed to individual ones because we also wanted to see how these potential group members interacted with each other. Individual skill did not feel good as a determining factor, but how you present and interact with others did. After two group interviews we had a team we were confident in.
Orienting everyone to the process ahead became the main focus for the orga team. We crafted a set of 10 group expectations and six values to live by. We presented these documents during the group interviews and at our first orientation session, ensuring everyone agreed to them. We also detailed nine Playback forms that we practiced in the orientation session. In our second month we asked everyone to find a buddy partner so that they can check in with each other all year. In a way we hoped this would lessen the strain of being so vulnerable in our sessions and then instantly being alone at home once the zoom call ended. Throughout the year buddy pairs were offered different challenges to stimulate interpersonal relationships outside of the structured group sessions.
It was also important for us to identify the ways we would communicate as a group. Our sessions took place almost exclusively in English. We used the zoom interpretation feature which made the gaps in language a bit easier to manage. During the interview process we exchanged messages with all the applicants via email, but once we had our committed group we switched our main mode of communication to the app Telegram. We started a group chat which remained active throughout. This chat became a center for social and informative sharing. We learned about the meaning behind each other’s holidays and sent content to prepare others to understand the context of our countries and presentations. For our documents and presentations, we created a shared google folder that we all had access to.
How do you decide what parts of a structure are mandatory and which ones are malleable?
The basic structure of Better Together consisted of a 14 month process starting from September 2021 and ending in October 2022. The first month served as time for orientation and the last month provided some closure for the process. In between were 12 months, 11 of which were divided among the participants as the number of countries we ultimately represented in the group. Every month we focused on a different country and were led by a different team. Each of those months had two sessions. During the first session, a member of the group volunteered to provide a presentation on their country. Following their presentation, the witnessing Better Together group members publicly generated questions inspired by what they had just seen, with no expectation for those questions to be answered in the moment. Then the group warmed up and performed a Playback Theatre performance with the presenter of the presentation being the only teller for the full performance. Two weeks later, we reconvened as a group for session #2. This time we all performed Playback Theatre for each other, making connections to the country presentation and the personal stories shared by the presenter in session #1. After making space for the teller to have the last word about their experience in the two sessions, we spent the remaining time having a facilitated conversation about what was coming up for us as individuals and as a group.
It is important to highlight how each month was deliberately run by a different team. The presenter chose the month of their presentation, a conductor for the first session, and a facilitator who was responsible for making sure the structure was honored in a way that provided all members of the group equitable space from month to month. While there was structure, each team had the freedom to put their own style on the structure, just as Playback has forms but the way to artistically express ideas inside of those forms is led by actor choice. It is also worth mentioning here that the conductor of the Playback portion in session #2 was not the same as the conductor for session #1. It was the responsibility of the facilitator to make sure they organized a conductor for session #2 at the end of session #1. This means that each month had a unique team of four individuals (Presenter, Conductor of session #1, Facilitator, and Conductor of Session #2). Those teams were encouraged to meet beforehand and plan together.
While this shared leadership was intentional, I did not have the language to describe my goal for this until about four months into the process. Ági [Orbán] shared a passage from a book, Transforming Yourself: Becoming who you want to be (2002), by Steve Andreas, that discussed the difference between a hierarchy and a heterarchy:
A heterarchy functions something like a committee, but one in which everyone can talk and listen to each other simultaneously. The various elements of this system all communicate with each other, contributing to a consensus about which perceptions and activities are most relevant at a particular moment. In a heterarchical system all the different elements mutually interact, and one of them temporarily gains control in cooperation with the others. This system is very ancient, and it determines attention not only in human beings, but in all vertebrates, and it has been doing this for several hundred million years, an indication of how useful it is.
By sharing leadership in this way we were hoping to ensure that no one culture dominated anyone’s experience. Additionally, knowledge about holding space could pass between group members horizontally as opposed to being solely led by the orga team. We were building a system where everyone had the opportunity to add their culture around an agreed upon structure.
This level of work may be easiest seen in the three group dynamic sessions throughout the process. On average, every four months we came together for a group dynamic session. The structure of these sessions was different from the others. Half of the group worked with their buddies to lead the first group dynamic session. There was a list of topics for facilitators to explore based on what was coming up in the post-session reflections that were filled out after each session. The second group dynamic session invited the other half to lead on similar issues, while the final group dynamic session was left open for all of us to design in the moment.
We also asked that everyone fill out a reflection form after each session. In addition to helping the orga team assess the success of each session, it was a good opportunity to invite the members of Better Together to reflect on and articulate their experience throughout the project. These structural elements are what held us together as a group as we went on our collective and individual journeys.
Right before starting orientation, we immediately lost one of the members of the group due to circumstances beyond our control. Our team of 12 was down to 11 even before we got everyone into the same zoom room for the first time. While we were incredibly sad to lose that member, it also was a blessing in disguise. Admittedly, Nina, Marat and I started this project before fully strategizing how we would pull everything off, so having an entire month of programming become vacant gave us an extra month to work with, which was obviously needed in retrospect.
Nina, Marat and I thought it important to model the process as much as possible in the first month. Nina volunteered to present about Russia first and picked me as the conductor and Marat as the facilitator. Eventually Ági volunteered to conduct session #2 as we needed a four person team each month for each country. Nina’s strong emotional response to sharing after session #1 allowed us to see how emotionally moving the process was, and also that our current structure was not set up to hold people having all the emotions that we were stirring up. We invited everyone to find a buddy in the group and carried on. Session #2 was the first time, but not the last, when there was an issue with how our process was facilitated and how it affected some members emotionally. This ended the honeymoon period for anyone that was able to maintain that sentiment to that point.
Whose needs get met, and when, and why? What does it mean for a group to be responsible for itself? How do you foster a sense of accepting responsibility for each other when many of the most experienced participants were happy that they finally did not have to take leadership responsibility for a group? What is my role in providing the space as one of three inviting others into this experience? What happens when the orga team is perceived as incapable of respectfully holding the stories and/or the perceptions of marginalized groups early on? How shall we deal with imposter syndrome and the lack of self-confidence? Can we actually make a positive change? What happens when advocacy for others usurps their advocacy for self? I found myself constantly asking questions like these and more. Somehow, even without finding answers to all of these questions, everyone fulfilled our mission, month after month.
We went through all the countries represented in the expected 11 months. Some members repeated roles more than others, but everyone tried multiple roles throughout the year. Many moments of learning came from watching others: how people warmed up, conducting choices, acting offers, what content was focal in the presentations, decisions to facilitate small or large group discussions.
I found myself increasingly intrigued by the various ways people invited us to share. The beginning of each session started with face rights: in the larger group we each had an opportunity to share how we were arriving in the space and any pertinent reflections. I never would have thought to offer this in a nonverbal way, but some of my favorite experiences with this element of our process was when we did not rely on words to express and become present with each other. Another opportunity to learn from our cultural mix was in the range of warm up activities and how they incorporated the language, music, and dance of the presenting country. Even our discussions in session #2 had a similar benefit in terms of diversifying what I considered possible. Every month felt different: we were speaking in small groups, in the large group, using jamboards (an online tool for creative group interaction) or annotation features on Zoom to paint together, showing family pictures, etc. This simultaneous knowing, but not really knowing, what was going to happen kept the process invigorating while familiar enough to maintain some sense of safety.
I was able to assess everyone’s experience of Better Together through the reflections we filled out after every session. These reflections were private to the orga team until the group dynamic session #2; in May we decided to make the reflections public, as feeling policed by reporting exclusively to the orga team came up multiple times in group dynamic session #2. It felt important to keep our initial reflections private as we started the project, and important to open the future reflections to everyone at that point in the process. Before each group dynamic session the orga team sent everyone their individually submitted reflections to date. In May we created a new google form and gave everyone access to all the responses, which generated more conversations and connections based on what people were reading about each other.
Our three group dynamic sessions were pivotal to providing us space to make some sense of what was happening to us over time as a group, and for what reasons those things were happening. The first group dynamic session was led by half of the group (in their buddy pairings) and the orga team. The second group dynamic session was led by the remaining half of the group that did not lead the first, along with the orga team. The last group dynamic session was purposefully left open for organic explorations from anyone in the group. I created prompts for the facilitating teams based on my understanding of group process and the feedback we received in the reflections; then the buddy pairs were left to collaborate on selecting, designing, and facilitating their part of the session based on those prompts.
While these group dynamic sessions provided more space for us to look at the internal systems at work in our group and how they came to be, it often felt more superficial than what many desired. Our structures were a blessing and a curse; they kept us on the same page but didn’t allow for extended deep exploration. Part of me was fine with this. After all, isn’t Playback practice deep exploration? The fact that we did not spend time giving notes on Playback technique or analyzing “what is Playback,” meant we could actually focus on our listening as opposed to proving how “right” our opinion of what should happen was. I learned something from my previous year-long project–developing leadership in the community through Playback practice– about minimizing the need to feed egos. I believed since the Better Together members were only engaging with ourselves within a closed group, as opposed to performing publicly, that we were able to remain in love with each other longer. I had a strong desire to see how much cultural complexity Playback could hold over time and was afraid of losing sight of this due to uncontrolled internal and interpersonal criticisms that were more subjective than objective.
Nina frequently reminded me that people will be people, and that we should create a space for them to do that. I struggled with this idea, but trusted my partner. One way that mentality translated into our process was in Nina offering to guide the group to host a New Year’s party for ourselves. By doing this we would also ensure that by mid-January everyone had facilitated and/or organized a part of some process for the group. While I am not the biggest fan of parties (I am an introvert, despite popular belief), I will say that this session and the group dynamic sessions taught me as much about the people in the group as the rest of our structure. I did not learn many statistics of a country there, but I did learn plenty about culture. We laughed, cried, held silence, were silly, and often were unapologetic versions of ourselves without conforming to a rigid structure. That too felt like an important part of the process by the end of our time together.
How much of a structure do you allow a group to change? How much will change with or without allowances? Will group members make changes based on what’s best for the group or based on personal preferences? These are a few questions that still linger in me at the end of this project.
There are plenty. Ultimately the concept was a success. We got through every country and now people are reading our statements about the experience. In terms of what Nina, Marat and I dreamed we would do, we succeeded. By the time you are reading this, everyone in the group has written something about the experience individually and/or collaboratively. What’s more, 11 strangers from all across the globe now have a deeper bond with one another. This project has generated a significant amount of potential for future social connections.
I am also in awe that we were successful in spite of a brutal time difference. The biggest time gap between us was 12 hours, and that’s not to mention the havoc daylight savings time created for our scheduling. I have so much gratitude for everyone in the group, but especially for Michael Cheng and Poh Kiang Tan who were awake past midnight to attend most sessions.
While managing time was a challenge, the pandemic made the timing of this project uniquely beneficial. We started the project between waves of global covid recovery efforts. This era made being with people in a virtual space commonplace. That normalcy contributed to the ease of getting committed participants together for such an extended period of time and at a high caliber. The orga team did arguably rush into this project prematurely in order to lean into some of the momentum we expected we would gain from the pandemic. That said, we gained many successes inside of our build-as-you-go model of leadership.
Better Together was not a project designed explicitly to develop leaders, yet embedded in the process were many opportunities for people to be leaders in the group, and for that leadership opportunity to rotate. This allowed participants to see and learn from different leadership styles that change based on the individual culture represented. The team of four devoted themselves each month to finding some consensus on what would be the best way of engaging the group as a whole. It was a useful system that created ‘checks and balances’ in the group process.
I began to appreciate the flow of Playback knowledge coming from inside and outside the Better Together container. The lessons and takeaways from our sessions influenced the lives and spaces outside our Sunday meetings. Meanwhile, many Better Together members were active in cross-national Playback projects: regional Playback conferences; Centre for Playback Theatre’s Leadership course; the International Playback Camp, and more. The Better Together project felt like a positive and active contribution to maintaining a healthy culture of Playback globally: it will hopefully continue to benefit the Better Together members and the larger Playback community long after this project officially ends. It’s a big reason these articles are a culminating piece to this project, so that there is some tangible thing from this experience that can benefit our field and communities long after the formal Better Together project is done.
Real people go through real things. With so many people working together for over a year, there were bound to be significant challenges to our presence and energy with each other. War, parenting, scheduling, illness (including covid), work, family emergencies, and giving birth are just a few examples of what people were dealing with when showing up for the Better Together group. The baggage that we brought from our personal lives into our meetings affected the process. At times this became incredibly difficult for me to manage with the grace and compassion I like to think of myself as having.
Part of what made this a challenge for me to manage is in the dissolving of the orga team in the middle of this project. Russia began its war on Ukraine, and Nina, as a Russian living inside of Russia, felt the impacts of this immediately. Marat began working intensively with Ukrainian Playback practitioners in weekly sessions that overlapped with the ending of the Better Together sessions. The two of them also worked hard to bring Nina to Israel so that she could be with her husband, Marat. I too was consumed with personal burdens, many of which, as a Black man in America, I experience as a centuries-old war thrust upon me. It almost devastated me, losing my bond with the organizational team. I was left feeling solely responsible for the weight of organizing ten others from around the world. I believed it was not acceptable for me to allow everyone’s investments to get lost in the crisis of it all. Instead, I did my best to ensure we would achieve the stated mission we set out toward, regardless of the external factors in our life. We had come too far to fail. My dedication to this mission further splintered the delicate balance of when I was able to be a leader or a participant in the program. I consider it an unfortunate side effect of being a determined leader at a time when others were giving up leadership. Part of me is concerned that made me less connected to the group, and seem like a dictator.
I struggle with this concept as a human, a Black male one, that often leads in a world where individuals cater more towards comfort and avoiding stress than achieving greatness. When I say “achieving greatness,” I do not mean seeking greatness for the sake of saying, “I’m great.” I mean seeking greatness so that we (I) can feel free at least once for an extended period of time. There are such great forces working against us in the world. How can we expect to ever break free of our social and internal bonds if we are not prepared to confront these great forces with our own personal and communal greatness? When I hear others’ hesitations around striving for greatness, I feel like I’m listening to a lifetime prison sentence being announced at the end of an unfair trial.
During one session discussion, I perceived that the members of the group were sad that Zoom couldn’t allow us to offer a hug to our international colleagues through the computer screen. I noticed this was more of a concern and focus for the group than mobilizing and becoming an agent of change on the issues discussed; I noticed I began to feel skeptical and apathetic. While I do immensely value hugs, I’d much rather people fight for my right to live in conditions that won’t put me in such a dire situation that a hug is the only thing people have to offer. I’d much rather use our time to take advantage of the magical space we are co-creating because of the benefits of zoom. Being part of Better Together has reinforced for me that there is no shortage of people that feel they love you with all their emotions, yet those same people may not be around when it is time to address, confront, and dismantle the systems and situations that have my exploitation and demise at the root. Nor are those populations readily accessible when it is time to recreate systems that are designed for those you love to thrive. I don’t think this is intentionally malicious (in most cases), rather it is a simple fact of how we are conditioned to relate to each other.
While I perceive this resistance to stepping up and taking leadership as natural, it makes me terribly sad. I am left feeling as though the effort it would take for me to experience a sense of freedom is too big an ask for those that admire and love me. Meanwhile I am left to design and hold space that will hopefully lead to a positive experience for others, even as I witness the group at times seemingly forget me as a participant when they are trying to be inclusive to others and make space. The parallels between my personal experiences with black exploitation and assumed labor are not lost on me in these settings. While the orga team, and others, were able to eventually name when they dropped the ball in terms of their participation in what they said they would own, I don’t remember any instance where admitting a need to step back also came with a plan of how to replace what was lost. The assumption is that things will be fine somehow, and in that space I became the ‘somehow’. I am continuously perplexed at how quickly people in Playback settings can turn their focus to their own needs, preferences, and desires and away from their responsibilities for the aspects of the collective.
I get the sense that in these troubling moments, empathy is valued above action. I am aware part of my struggle here is that “acts of service” is my love language. It is in fact one of the reasons I enjoy Playback so much; Playback can be an experience of love reciprocated. Yet that is not always the case, and that tension brings up questions for me: how much of myself I can bring to the organizing process? How much am I an empty vessel that is offering an act of service? How much of what I’m doing in Playback is for me? How much is for the community? What are the ethical ways of balancing those sometimes conflicting needs?
I hesitate to write this next paragraph, but would be remiss if I didn’t. In my professional opinion, the culture of Playback tends to lean toward feeling good and demanding comfort inside of Playback processes. In my experience, that can easily lead to a conscious or unconscious practice of entitlement that is counter to the act of service we wish to provide along with our own personal growth. There were multiple moments in our group’s process where I thought we might break through some layer of toxic social conditioning, but as a group, perhaps unconsciously, we often collectively decided to sit down as opposed to stand up and engage in the work of changing unhealthy systemic cultural norms. I wonder about this. I try to consider how shame is a factor in the directions we choose in these moments. I wonder how shame leads to performed behavior of “being one of the good ones,” and how shame is directed toward others to avoid feeling shame of self in the group. I notice who in the group is willing to explore this concept with integrity and who avoids it like the plague. I study the avoidance tactics. I observe how the fear of doing something wrong, once activated, absolves people from feeling bad for not doing anything at all. These patterns are ones that feel discouragingly familiar to observe, and I am reminded that the micro population and dynamics of the Better Together group are representative of the macro.
Throughout the project there was a general focus on what we have in common, which is great. For example, I was surprised to find out that I have so much in common with Anna, a white Slovakian woman. Still, as a group we did not operate with the same amount of enthusiasm for difference. We sought similarity, and at times demanded it, instead of embracing difference. For example, one country’s presentation in our sessions involved an exploration of cultural foods, which included more images of meat options than could be digested in that time. Following the presentation, there was a subtle tone in the group questioning whether it was an appropriate offering since there might be vegans and vegetarians in the space.
I am not personally equipped to entertain or engage in these types of challenges based on preferences. I think the presenter, or any human being, has the right to present their country and culture without first censoring aspects of it based on how someone else might feel about it. The idea that I have to suppress something I’m culturally proud of because it might make someone uncomfortable is a notion I resist. I can accept this type of censorship if the offering is intended to offend a population, but when it’s simply a difference in lifestyle, who has the authority on whose feelings are protected and whose are not? I think this is where the effects of white supremacy culture, which can be perpetrated by any race, can take hold by mandating one group’s perspective is the dominant one and others should cater to their comfort. I can say as a Black man, and one in the Playback community, it is rare that I see people in the Playback community framing their existence in a way that would not offend me. Black culture tends to be celebrated when it exists outside black bodies, unless black bodies can be used to tell non-black stories (e.g. Hamilton, the musical written by Lin-Manuel Miranda). I find that sentiment to be true in my global Playback experience as well.
Even in a project which I designed, I experienced multiple instances where the group marginalized and omitted my presence, direction, and sensitivities. Furthermore, calling this out tended to lead to having to hold space for fragility and claims of misunderstanding, which confused me since I later witnessed my concepts accepted when other members of the group or orga team said the same thing. I have rarely felt as though the Playback community has considered me entitled to any culturally relevant comfort in our gatherings, and instead of hoping for that entitlement, I see a benefit in all of us becoming more comfortable with the idea of being more uncomfortable. Where in our process do we lose our willingness to be an empty vessel and instead demand that the team we are part of provide us with an act of service (e.g. provide comfort) before we will step up to offer service to others?
It may be worth mentioning that there are some other challenges and experiences that I’m not unpacking here. For example, English dominated so much of our time together that I found myself longing to hear other languages in the way I’ve grown accustomed to in my international Playback experience. There is also a potential conversation about hierarchy of Playback forms that I’m not particularly interested in discussing here; I mean, can we honestly consider any online Playback form a traditional form of Playback when the traditional forms were designed for in-person performances? There are many successes and challenges that I have chosen to omit, and likely even more that live in my blind spots. I hope to continue to explore those individually and in community in a different forum.
If I could do it all again
If I were to do this project again, I would definitely structure more time for orientation. The one session we had was not enough. There I would bring clarity to the various roles that I only now understand having gone through the process. The structure for the four-person monthly team was ultimately built during the start of the process. So was the buddy system, both of which still were a source of some confusion nine months into the process. The way the four-person monthly team can collaborate and prepare for their two sessions is another place to spend more time in orientation. Also, I would announce all group dynamic dates during orientation. We struggled to find common dates and times later into the project, so having all dates at the start is a crucial time saver. With a similar sentiment, I would also pre-schedule orga team meetings for the year.
The timing of our structured sessions did not account for any announcements, yet there was always some information to share with everyone. We could have done a better job of allotting time for announcements instead of taking time away from the presenting group. I cannot imagine requesting more than two hours from members committing to this project across such vast time zones, so some part of the monthly session days would have to be intentionally removed to provide that time.
I would also have more group dynamic sessions, perhaps one every third month. That would allow us to go deeper into understanding who we are as a group and create a more routine space for collective assessment.
I would put more thought into the structure of the orga team. Marat and Nina were the partners I needed to get this project off the ground. That said, our casual nature of starting Better Together came back to haunt me in the end, once their organizational participation faded. The roles of team members were not clearly defined, and there was no system of accountability, and this led to a severe challenge in balancing out tasks to make this project successful, especially in the last months when we switched from Playback and country presentations to writing articles and closing out the group. Without clarity of roles I became paralyzed, as I scrambled to know with certainty the gaps I needed to fill in the absence of someone attending to those areas.
Another consideration would be putting a question on the reflection form about language. I wish I had better data to reflect on how much of each session people were actually understanding.
While I am reasonably satisfied with what we created, I know there are plenty of places for improvement. I enjoy thinking about them constructively.
Marat: Thank you for being a dreamer with me and seeing value in the concept.
Nina: Thank you for proving to me that pressing the trust button can be worthwhile.
Michael: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to learn from your leadership, even in a group you aren’t technically leading.
Cheraé: Thank you for all the laughs and the thoughtfulness of your reflections.
Poh Kiang: Thank you for always arriving to the sessions with a supportive heart as big as your radiant smile and energy.
Mansee: Thank you for your precise observations and the way you dive into difficult conversations with genuine curiosity.
Sheila: Thank you for your commitment to making this project successful for others, and for making it work for your process as well.
Elsa: Thank you for your sensitivity and superb offers inside of the Playback practice and the discussions.
Ági: Thank you for your courage and vulnerability in the group, and for inspiring so much growth.
Anna: Thank you for having so many brilliant existential conversations with me.
Emily: Thank you for your attention to detail and compassionate curiosity in preparing our words for the general public.
Jo: Thank you for your continued support in helping me think about Playback group dynamics and providing this platform for us.
And although you were not part of the group, I want to thank Lisa Chan. You called me when we were beginning to advertise this project. You were clear that you did not want to be in the Better Together group but you did want to share with me your experience of running a similar project. You were a stranger at that point, but in a couple of hours you shared so much knowledge with me that I ultimately utilized throughout this project. I will remember that moment as living the value of Playback: a community member sharing their personal story, and an individual and a whole community becoming stronger as a result.
“Will C.” AKA Will Chalmus (United States): Will C. is a Playback practitioner and international trainer that simultaneously holds positions as an educator, consultant, performance artist, and event manager.
Sheila Donio (Brazil): Sheila is an actress and an accredited Playback Theatre trainer, performing and facilitating training programs in Brazil and abroad for over 20 years, while also being a translator-interpreter and an administrator for CPT and several art projects.
Cheraé Halley (South Africa): Cheraé Halley is an applied drama practitioner and creates theatre with a focus on human rights and social justice. Cheraé is currently the co-director of Drama for Life Playback Theatre and serves as a board member on the IPTN.
Anna Smetanová (Slovakia): Anna is a playback practitioner, process facilitator, capacity building specialist genuinely interested in the transformative power of playback in connecting our inner and outer environment.
Poh Kiang Tan (Malaysia): Poh Kiang has ventured into early childhood education for more than 10 years. She is a playbacker in Malaysia under Rasa Sayang Playback Theatre. She’s interested in influencing society through playback theater.
Mansee Shah Thard (India): Mansee Shah Thard is a Playbacker and a social entrepreneur who manages a performing art space in Bangalore, India