In this excerpt from her recent doctoral thesis, Kathy Barolsky investigates the Playback Theatre term “citizen actor”, which leads her to the concept of social artistry, “an attunement to socially just ways of being.” In addition to the thesis, Kathy has published extensively about Playback Theatre and social justice, informed by her company Drama for Life Playback Theatre’s work in the complicated context of post-apartheid South Africa.
Acknowledging the importance of the citizen actor and social artistry in Playback Theatre
Excerpted and adapted from Playback Theatre: Intra-acting with stories in post-apartheid South Africa, 2022 (doctoral thesis)
By Kathy Barolsky, PhD
Jonathan Fox coined the term the citizen actor (2021) in the early years of PT in the mid-70s. It is a crucial concept capturing the role of the PT actor, but despite its importance, there is very little detail as to what the citizen actor does, or what might define a citizen actor in PT.
In 2021, Fox briefly and concisely outlined key beliefs behind the concept. Fox begins by bringing attention to the straightforwardness of the word actor as “the standard meaning of the theatrical role player, and at the same time a suggestion of ‘activist’” (Fox, 2021, p.184). Fox quickly points out that the word ‘activism’ has been contentious in the PT community, with many practitioners not seeing the direct link between the practice and politics. However, he clarifies this by stating that “Playback Theatre practice is committed to general principles of human rights…, and the Playback Theatre actor will be an activist if she is to live up to this credo of all humans [and non-humans] deserving a voice…” (2021, p.184).
There are many activist art forms to work with in applied theatre, ranging from Boal to Brecht, but choosing to articulate ‘activism’ through PT asks for a subtler, less in-your-face activism because of its emphasis on creating dialogue by ‘honouring people’s stories’ which can leave the enactment by the performers as a wide open field for interpretation. Due to this, the form does not accentuate foregrounding the political aspects of a teller’s stories. Therefore, this is completely dependent on the actors listening to tease out the political dimensions of a teller’s story. Nevertheless, its potential as a politicised art form is no less significant and has an important contribution to make to the spectrum of political art. The required dialogue in and around the art form among the ensemble itself and between the ensemble and audience involves a profound level of engagement and connection from all involved to make PT work. It invites a sophisticated artistic challenge for the performers to enunciate different nuances within the dialogue that takes place.
Fox continues to describe more specifically the use of the term ‘citizen’ in a PT context. I have taken the liberty of breaking them down into the following points. The word citizen actor embodies and implies:
- A sense of community responsibility.
- The citizen actor will espouse an ethics that strives for a theatre event benefitting everyone involved.
- A Playback actor as common citizen requires humility, an absence of ego in social standing that mirrors the egolessness of our stage work.
- A sense of context that includes historical and political knowledge.
- It is …incumbent upon the citizen actor to interrogate herself regarding social stereotypes and prejudice that might contaminate understanding and enacting others’ stories. (2021, p.184-185)
To me, Fox’s briefness in elaborating on the ‘definition’ of the citizen actor is an invitation to the PT community to consider the implications of these guidelines in practice thoroughly. It is a provocation to problematise what responsibility might look like in PT in fine detail, which is a central part of the undertaking of the research from which this article is excerpted. What does it mean to set up performances that benefit everyone? What type of dialogue can be facilitated in this context? What are the limits of this? The egoless actor is an ideal that is important when collaborating with fellow performers and the audience. At the same time, PT performers need a certain level of boldness to claim the necessary space to do what they do. Finally, a foundation of historical and political knowledge is an integral arsenal in a performer’s backpack. However, this aspect of PT training often falls by the wayside.
Finally, the last point of the profound task of investigating the layers of oneself and the prejudices we hold as performers is a monumental and necessary task. These blind spots have a direct impact on how performers listen and stage a teller’s stories. I have written about this in depth in ‘Doing white differently? Playback Theatre and whiteness in post-apartheid South Africa’ (Barolsky 2021), from a conductor’s perspective. Cherae Halley and I also co-authored a book chapter (Barolsky & Halley 2021) where we unpack the complexity of our unexpected blind spots in a PT performance in relation to a teller’s story about gender-based violence.
Learning the form of PT is complex with its rituals, and combining that with a high level of artistic expression is another bar to surmount. Coupled with finding a way to have enough artistic flexibility to find form for socio-political and psychological understanding of a teller’s story, and do it effectively, is not an easy task. Despite this, I have witnessed with Drama for Life Playback Theatre that this goal is worth working towards. Striving towards this goal gives more opportunity for the presence of the sophistication of the citizen actor to come to the fore.
While practicing and researching PT, I have noticed details surrounding the activation of the ‘citizen actor’ when the performer is at the pinnacle of embodying this during a performance. In this moment, the performer brings together the ideals of the citizen activist actor, finding the highest expression of responsibility within the PT form without being didactic. As Rancière eloquently explains, “the dream of a suitable political work of art is in fact the dream of disrupting the relationship between the visible, the sayable, and the thinkable without having to use the terms of a message as a vehicle” (Rancière 2015, p.59).
The strength of the actor and the citizen coming together has captivated a sense of awe in me. This has instigated a curiosity to try and engage with how this dream of a suitable work of art comes to be, where affect and responsibility can come together with such a force. It is a force that alters the perception of how the ensemble and the audience experience a teller’s story. To embody this dream, where art and the political come together, as expressed by Rancière, is when the performer’s yearning for a socially just world enacts itself with full spirit, and materialises itself in relation to a teller’s story expressed by the citizen actor’s social artistry. Social artistry is cultivating affective responsibility through:
…an attunement to the world, an attunement to socially just ways of being. The echoes of histories, memories and landscapes, and all things physical that imprint and sculpt us as human beings. The performer tunes into their social artistry capacity by dropping into these multiple layers, this affective wisdom- profoundly listening to it on a sensorial and corporeal level. This attunement is what condenses itself as a creative knowing and intuition drawn upon in the moment of staging social artistry. The work of social artistry is about an authentic practice, rooted and informed by an understanding of the world’s workings around us. This commitment is not a textbook understanding of a discursive phrase but driven by curiosity and a performative understanding of social justice, visioning it into everyday life creatively. (Barolsky 2022, p.57)
Rancière’s conception of political art fits with the ideal of how social artistry comes about as it resists an instrumentalisation of what politically attuned PT should look like. There is no road map to this, nor a total ‘tool kit’ devised for this purpose. Social artistry differs, deepening the artistic strengths of the performer and how they combine that with how they see the world – comprehending and seeing the world as a constant becoming in practice and exercising new ways of being with others. The performer does not come armed with the conscious intention of going into a performance to make visible every power structure and those that are made invisible by them at every turn. Instead, the performer consistently commits to social justice ideals and the idea of being a citizen actor on and off stage. Therefore, when the performer is on stage and a political moment arises, the performer can channel their social artistry appropriately towards participatory parity (Fraser, 2005). Enacting this may be along the spectrum of affirmative or transformative modes of staging social justice themes within a teller’s story. For more detail about Nancy Fraser’s participatory parity concept and transformative and affirmative modes of justice in PT, one can read Barolsky 2021b.
As the performers translate the teller’s story, the spontaneity of that engagement and its material worlds configure themselves to produce affects. From this moment, the actor draws on what has gone before to match and intra-act with this moment using the wisdom that comes with social artistry, reconfiguring material agents in the moment of becoming. The political capacity of PT comes to fruition when the teller is suddenly made visible by the teller’s actor and supporting ensemble as citizen actors. The visibility through social artistry is not a trite representation, the type that Dennis (2007) actively warns against in her form of materialising social artistry in translating refugee stories in PT. The staged political art finds nuance in taken-for-granted staging of oppressed or marginalised people so that people’s names, histories, and constant becoming are honoured and not reified. Thus, images of silenced tellers resist commodification into ‘disaster porn’ (Recuber, 2013). Such work relies on the performer’s prowess of intuiting the relationship between art and politics as part of the aesthetic regime of art.
The performer’s act of resistance of re-establishing what can be seen and heard is not premeditated. If it were so, it could easily fall into the ethical regime of applied theatre instrumentalism. The work of the PT performer is to do the opposite. It is to disrupt the co-ordinates where appropriate, yet this can never be foreseen. The ethical regime can never completely be dismissed, as teaching PT forms are part of the ethical regime but can still be taught in a way that makes performers aware of implementing PT in a way that encourages the aesthetic regime.
PT performers can be carried then to a place of fruitful risk that Rowe refers to (2007), where “practitioners work the equipment, theoretical and experimental, without any illusion of clean hands and unapologetically express their enthusiasm and amazement for the world and the possibilities of fostering just relationships among the world’s diverse ways of being/becoming” (Barad, 2012, p. 207). Barad captures an aspect of social artistry as a social theoretical, practical experiment of playing in the muck of life. It asks for boldness and bravery from the performer. Even if it is dirty and feels all-defeating at times, having the opportunity to muck about in the PT space is an opportunity for those diverse ways of becoming to be thrashed out amongst PT ensemble members, and that will translate into social artistry on the stage.
Barad names the need to speak to ghosts, to open up for new ways of being willing to take on the idea of responsibility, a core element of social artistry:
Only by facing the ghosts, in their materiality, and acknowledging injustice without the empty promise of complete repair (of making amends finally) can we come close to taking them at their word. The past is never closed, never finished once and for all, but there is no taking it back, setting time aright, putting the world back on its axis. There is no erasure finally. The trace of all reconfigurings are written into the enfolded materialisations of what was/ is/ to-come. Time can’t be fixed. To address the past (and future), to speak with ghosts, is not to entertain or reconstruct some narrative of the way it was, but to respond, to be responsible, to take responsibility for that which we inherit (from the past and the future), for the entangled relationalities of inheritance… (Barad 2010, p. 261)
Social artistry is a commitment to living life fully and seeing it as an opportunity; to walk alongside ghosts, to cry and laugh and feel into the histories that we as citizens inherit. In countries with a tenuous relationship to democracy, which in South Africa’s case is hampered primarily by the ghosts of colonialism and apartheid, a volatile concoction of entangled material simmers. The ghosts lie latent in entanglements and assiduously materialise when one least expects them through daily intra-actions. When they are not conversed with and acknowledged, they find new paths to entangle themselves and persevere. Their obstinacy creates magnified affects in a soup of wounding that continues to fester. Here, they parade about – banging, stamping, whistling, and wailing for attention. The point is that in South Africa and other countries where injustice lies unaddressed, their material presence gnaws and chafes at everyday life, making navigating everyday life difficult and draining.
PT, the citizen actors, and their skill of social artistry have a unique role in such contexts of transitional justice, where citizens are haunted by the empty promises of reparations that have yet to come. To model and create spaces of how to go on and find meaningful ways of making sense of such realities is indispensable.
Fostering social artistry as a performer in PT is a commitment to renewal and finding ways to relate through seemingly impossible situations in working towards justice to come. This wondrous wisdom and commitment shared in PT offers a platform for the performers’ social artistry to invite everyone into this vision. This invitation may be met with trepidation at first as the ensemble and tellers warm up to one another, especially when there are so many ghosts around. However, then they begin to speak, and us with them, and so the work begins.
Barad, K. (2010). Quantum entanglements and hauntological relations of inheritance: Dis/continuities, SpaceTime Enfoldings, and Justice-to-Come. Derrida Today, 3 (2),240-268.
Barad, K. (2012). On touching—the inhuman that therefore I am. Differences (Bloomington, Ind.), 23(3), 206–223. https://doi.org/10.1215/10407391-1892943
Barolsky, K. (2022). Playback Theatre and the significance of intra-actions in staging social artistry. Applied Theatre Research, 10(1), 55-70.
Barolsky, K. (2021a). Doing white differently? Playback Theatre and whiteness in post-apartheid South Africa. Research in Drama Education, 26(2), 224–239. https://doi.org/10.1080/13569783.2021.1882840
Barolsky, K. (2021b). Playback Theatre, social justice and empathy: A diffractive review. Applied Theatre Research, 9(2), 117–132. https://doi.org/10.1386/atr_00052_1
Barolsky, K., & Halley, C. (2021). Chapter 12 Liezel’s Story – #NotInMyName: Playback Theatre in post-apartheid South Africa. In P.J. Janse van Vuuren, B. Rasmussen, & A. Khala (Eds.),Theatre and Democracy: building democracy in post-war and post-democratic contexts. Cappelen Damm NOASP.
Dennis, R. (2007). Inclusive democracy: a consideration of Playback Theatre with refugee and asylum seekers in Australia. Research in Drama Education, 12(3), 355–370. https://doi.org/10.1080/13569780701560636
Fox, J. (2021). Citizen Actor: The artist as citizen and the ethical role of a Playback performer (essay written in 2020). In J. Fox & J. Salas (Eds.), Personal Stories in Public Spaces: Essays on Playback Theatre by Its Founders. (pp.184-185). Tusitala Publishing.
Fraser, N. (2005). Reframing justice: In a globalizing world. New Left Review, 36, 69–88.
Rancière, J. (2015). The politics of aesthetics: The distribution of the sensible. Continuum.
Recuber, T. (2013). Disaster porn. Contexts (Berkeley, Calif.), 12(2), 28–33. https://doi.org/10.1177/1536504213487695
Rowe, N. (2007). Playing the other: dramatizing personal narratives in playback theatre. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Kathy Barolsky is a drama and movement therapist (MA, RCCSD), applied theatre specialist (MA Dramatic Arts, Drama for Life, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg) and Playback Theatre Leadership graduate (2013). Kathy founded Drama for Life Playback Theatre in 2008. In August 2022 Kathy completed her Ph.D. as part of the Building Democracy Through Theatre project at the Norwegian University of Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, Norway. She is also a member of the South African conference committee that is hosting the International Playback Theatre Network World Conference for the first time on African soil, in 2023.