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.
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.
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.
In December 2019—just days after the international Playback Theatre conference in Bangalore–the Indian parliament abruptly and controversially passed a law denying citizenship for Muslim immigrants while fast-tracking it for members of other religions. Widespread protests followed. The authors compellingly describe how Playback Theatre played a role in protests by Muslim women in Bangalore. Their article presents a very current example of how Playback can contribute to a social justice cause when performances emerge organically out of political solidarity, adapting the form to the needs of the situation.
Bilal Bagh: Playback Theatre at a Historic Protest by Muslim Women
By Kavya Srinivasan, Laxmi Priya S.N. and Rashmi Ravikumar
Pictures of bodies – Muslim bodies, Muslim female bodies, standing shoulder to shoulder together – have made the headlines regularly in national and international media. These record the opposition to the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed by the Indian parliament on 11 December 2019. Demonstrations and protests against the Act, spontaneously organised by citizen groups and student communities, spread across the country1. The protests were a demonstration of growing dissent in the minority communities and among allies against a government that is anti-people and anti-dissent, even as India worked as a (non) functional democracy. Many constitutional experts have labeled the CAA non-secular in general and anti-Muslim in particular. The movement grew across the country in urban and rural spaces to include 24/7 sit-ins, protest meetings, seminars and workshops to understand one’s constitutional rights and more. More recently, they were suspended and, many times, dismantled by the State forces due to the global pandemic we are facing today.
The Islamophobia research and documentation project2 records the work of S Sayyid, the professor of Rhetoric and Decolonial Thought at the University of Leeds. It says that “…Islamophobia in India operates within what he determines to be the ‘second theater’ – when ‘Muslims are a clear minority, marginal to the national narrative, even though their presence is simultaneous to or predates the formation of the state.’” 3 Expressions of Islamophobia are often diverse and occur through a range of deployments, he emphasized. Sayyid argued that “a gesture, a speech, and a police action can all be aspects of Islamophobia reflecting not an underlying unity, but a series of overlapping similarities.” This is one of many articles documenting the complex and enduring islamophobia that colours the fabric that is India. CAA was one such legislative manifestation by the Hindu right wing party, after their re-election to power in 2019.
Who is Writing This?
It is important to note that the authors of this article are savarna people who are female-identifying and born into households that practice the majoritarian religion in India, Hinduism. While we are speaking as active dissenters, we are not speaking of or for the lived experience of the minority communities. It is only as allies and playbackers that we author this piece. The attempt is to reflectively document the playback theatre performed at the site of resistance, Bilal Bagh.The process of writing this essay has been one of un- and re-learning along with recording of a pivotal moment in India’s political history-in-making. Each writer on this team has been challenging discourses and practices of oppression and discrimination while educating themselves about the ways to show up in allyship and solidarity, accepting the long and fruitful journey for what it is.
We have been practitioners of playback theatre (playback or PBT) since 2012 (with one of us having begun practice more recently) but it was at Bilal Bagh,4 a space of resistance in Bangalore where hundreds of Muslim women had gathered in dissent, that we encountered the possibility of playback theatre as a protest form. Preceding this, we had performed around four shows titled “An Ode to Resistance” (OTR) to create space for the dissenters, who were mobilising, demonstrating and showing up at these sites of resistance, to share their stories. These stories echoed our own experiences of acts of resistance. The sharing and stories at Bilal Bagh, however, markedly different from the lived experiences of the performers.
In an interview, Ben Rivers, a playback theatre artist and social activist who has worked in Palestine, Egypt and Kashmir, notes that playback theatre can create a space for listening, expression and empathetic playing back in locations that are seeing social and political conflict or crises. An important point in his sharing is to view playback as complementary to the demands for systematic and infrastructural changes.5 In keeping with this, we saw the protest performances at Bilal Bagh in conjunction with the ongoing protests, the protest songs, petitions and work by activists and community leaders for a more just world.
The themes of stories that came alive at Bilal Bagh had strong undercurrents of hope, helplessness, fear, loss, pain, anger and determination. Most of the stories spoke of their refusal to let a non-secular Act take away their active citizenship. We were very aware of our positionality as we went into the protest site – both as allies in the dissent and as artists. The idea that we, as members of an outgroup, would be performing stories that we had never lived or experienced, was a source of anxiety. It stemmed from our desire to hold the stories shared with us as tenderly and with as much respect as they deserved.
Protest in our Bodies
The performers’ listening has a direct impact on building connection with the teller and the audience through the performance. Listening deeply to the stories and carrying them in our bodies was our promise to the tellers. In addition to stories shared during the performance, further stories were shared privately with the performers after the performance was over. The importance of these peripheral sharings marked the urgency for these voices to be heard by the authorities as well as the larger civil society.
One such sharing was by a young Muslim woman who was having tea at the same shop as some performers late at night. She wanted to share anonymously that she felt like she was being pushed out of a house (India), a house that her ancestors had also worked towards building and lost lives doing that. Upon being asked if she would like for us to play it back to her the next evening, she said that she just needed to share it.
Meanwhile, during the performance another woman shared that when Hindus (the religion of the majoritarian population) and Muslims stand together, an authoritarian government will become powerless. This could have possibly stemmed from the recognition that all performers were non-Muslim. The performances were a testament to possible allyship from the community that otherwise treated the minority religious community as the ‘foreigner’.6 The playback performers, therefore, might have represented solidarity from across communities and corners of Bangalore.
The performances challenged our conventional preparation. Addressing the following key aspects allowed the stories to emerge:
1. The language: While the conductors spoke the primary language of the audience, most of the performers did not. The audience spoke a mixture of Hindi/Urdu and the performers primarily spoke English and a smattering of other Indian languages. Similarly, with minor exceptions, before the protest performances most of our audiences had also been English-speaking. We have discussed often the linguistic divide informally but this was an instance of clearly seeing the audiences our playback had never engaged with before. It meant that the performers shifted their primary tool of expression from text to their bodies. We would break the fourth wall, walk into the audience, run to the ends of the protest site in order to make our point. The body language was loud and exaggerated in its political stance and when we chose to speak, it was at top volume. The quiet, contained energy of our closed-room shows – with monologues that had wordplay, and formats that relied on shared cultural understandings – could not survive the asks of a protest space.
2. The space: Our previous performance experience primarily had been in intimate, indoor settings. These were often ticketed shows for an average of 45 attendees per show, who might or might not have watched playback theatre performance(s) before. The agreement between the playbackers and the audience in such a setting was one evening of story sharing.
The protest site at which we performed was about 200 square metres, and stood in the shadow of a mosque, where the daily call to prayer would proudly ring five times, responded to by the gathered protestors. It was on a busy road in North Bangalore, with hundreds of protestors sitting in attendance. As we performed, food and water would be passed around, children would play, tea would be served. Crowds would thin in the performances around midnight. People would be in conversation – about our show and otherwise. We had to give ourselves many permissions as we performed. To let our political stance show. To invite the interested and curious kids to explore the musical instruments. The foundational permission was to put the gift of these stories at the centre of the playing back and navigate the “ought to’s” of playback theatre around this.
3. The emotional charge of the resistance: Playback theatre, initially, did not seem like the obvious choice for expressing protest in a theatrical manner. Even as we pondered the possibility of other forms, we were aware of the space for sharing we could create through a series of playback theatre performances at Bilal Bagh. Also, playback is what we do well together. The series of performances unfolded even as violence had broken out at other 24/7 protest sites across the country . There was the constant threat of government surveillance. However, the space was also a celebration of dissent. A friend remarked about the festivity of atmosphere, the sense of being at a family event and a sense of unconditional welcome to allies. This sense of many realities of dissent made the playback performances travel the landscape of tender resolve. The performatively artistic elements became less important than the authenticity and present listening of the performers and the conductor.
Nick Rowe, in his book Playing the Other, describes playback as (a form that) “..provides a space in which the processes of representing experiences can be made visible and thus seen to be contingent and provisional”.7 Describing the possibility of playback theatre as a tool for empathy and expression in conflict-ridden zones, Ben Rivers, in the previously mentioned interview, outlines the space of playing back as a space that holds a mirror to the social stories that the community and the individual members trust the players with. To build on these conceptual notions of playback as a space, witnessing and embodying the stories of the women at Bilal Bagh gave us a way to reflect upon the moment of history we were experiencing under an authoritarian State mechanism. Being able to hold the stories and play them back asserted the possibility of shared experiences, collective and community healing. The evening and nights of performance were telling us that the stories of grit and persistence co-exist with the stories of mocking and satirising the oppressive forces.
When Stories Hold a Mirror to Propaganda
The stories that were enacted and shared in the OTR space came from people who were closer to our identities – folks who were constantly showing up at protests, having difficult conversations with their families about why the right to dissent is one written into the constitution and cannot be deemed criminal, etc. The audience was invited to the performance space. The procedure of posters, social media, RSVP-ing were all followed so that we could hear their stories of dissent in a closed room away from the traffic and the slogans. A space to breathe.
At Bilal Bagh, however, the performers were invited into the space of continuous protest and this gave rise to stories from the communities that were directly facing the danger of disenfranchisement. We were invited to perform as an extension of our regular presence at the protest site. Many of us were involved in singing protest songs, sloganeering, and facilitating play space for the children at the site already. We were graciously welcomed into the performance space next by the organizers of Bilal Bagh. There were regular ongoing speeches, performances and candle light vigils to celebrate and honour the resistance. The invitation to these events, including ours, were open to the public and shared on social media.
At Bilal Bagh, we had to abandon many ideas of what we thought playback ought to look like. The ritual of playback wasn’t strictly adhered to, as outlined in conversations about the zone of good playback. Art and social interaction took precedence. We bent the rules – when we interacted with the audience during a fluid sculpture performance, when we supported each other through the language barriers, when we drummed on chairs to add music, and when a conductor had to sit out during a particularly vulnerable sharing as they were emotionally moved- and a new conductor took their place. As performers, we felt that the audience was looking for a space to share stories and their truth more than engage with critical dissection of a performance. This spirit was obvious in the ways sharings would emerge even before the previous playing back reached a frozen ending.
The story that had prompted the conductor change came from a middle aged woman who was sharing her emotional response to a story from the Delhi pogrom that had taken place recently. It was carried out against Muslims by armed Hindu mobs. The story involved a young man being killed by the mob. He had only recently been married and his mother was distraught. The teller shared with us that her heart breaks as she thinks of the mother who must have saved money her whole life to hold a good wedding for her son. The teller was visibly shaken and tearing up as she shared this story with us. The conductor, upon hearing the story, was also visibly shaken and requested another performer to take over the conducting. We played the story back in a free form using words, movements and metaphors, ensuring that we do not re-traumatize the teller.
The pogrom had taken place in the capital city of India, Delhi, and had resulted in the death of at least 40 individuals and injury to around 200 people. Popular media has showcased this incident as a result of riot between communal sections. However the stories emerging from the areas by independent sources spoke of loss of lives and destruction of property being disproportionately heavier on the Muslim side. These killings had taken place due to complicity of the police and state authorities to diffuse the situation and arrest the guilty. This semantic difference between perceiving the killings as pogrom or as riots is also the difference between seeking news beyond propaganda and being complicit in consuming propaganda.
Writing on “good” playback theatre, Jo Salas, co-founder of PBT, notes, “There is always an interplay between what is actually offered by the artists, on the one hand, and what the audience brings to it, on the other. The same is true of non-performance art forms such as literature, or painting. Value is ultimately a co-creation of artist and perceiver, which accounts for the genuine artistic meaning found at every point along the spectrum of actual accomplishment”. The stories from Bilal Bagh reinforced the idea that real life stories will be the true counter narrative to the propaganda spread by partisan media houses. Their stories of everyday living, upholding the ideas of secularism and facing the threat to their dignified existence with strong determination directly exposed the lies behind the propaganda that labeled the women as ‘ill-informed’ and motivated by ill reasons.
A Space for More Questions
While closing this essay, we wanted to leave you, the reader, with our independent voices. We were each left with something to reflect upon. Bilal Bagh was disbanded in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, the police also targeted protestors at other protest sites . The disproportionate police action and intimidation against dissenters continues . What was only earlier this year feels like a much longer time.
When I look back at this time, I am primarily left with deep awareness and clarity about my various identities. Much reflective writing does not acknowledge that bodies in a space have multiple overlapping identities. I would go so far as to say they are not only overlapping, but competing and complex, in the way they emerge. My body in Bilal Bagh was a playbacker, a musician, a woman, a Hindu, upper caste, English speaking, left liberal – identities that are complex and nuanced. Each identity has relative precedences, taking priority at different moments. My identity as a performer was tied to authenticity and speaking the truth of the stories I heard. My identity as a protestor was tied to signaling dissent and amplifying the voices of the women who were sitting there all day and all night. These key identities found their intersection in protest specific playback performances.
My strongest memory of performing in Bilal Bagh was being so aware of how my choices as a performer were political. I was the musician for our show, and there was a sharing about a sense of solidarity that was larger than all faiths. I chose to perform “Hallelujah”, by Leonard Cohen, as the music for the fluid. And I remember clearly the split second where I was hyper aware of how I was a Hindu, performing a song with clearly Christian overtones, for an audience of primarily Muslim women. It was our reality of being in the protest. We needed everyone we could get.
I frequently think about my work as an artist as a kind of service to my community. To communities in general. And it is in this capacity that I frame the experience of performing at Bilal Bagh as the only kind of service I know. I believe deeply that we performed at the protest sites with complete presence, sensitivity and authenticity, to stories that were deep, immediate, and hard to share. I can only hope that our performances became containers that the women at Bilal Bagh could draw some strength from.
The moment I stepped onto the stage at Bilal Bagh to playback, it was like all my other identities within me froze for those few moments and in that sense I was a playbacker, a conduit only. But I do know, outside of me, that can never be true. I was still an upper middle class, English speaking woman, with caste and religion privilege performing for a community I shared very little common ground with.
Right now, I am still unable to comprehend the nature of experiencing me as a performer to the audience at Bilal Bagh. I do realize, I will not really know until we have a conversation with the audience. But, because playback in a way is a much more of a consensual form of theatre than any other form of theatre (because our storytellers are right there and are telling us their lived experiences and giving us permission to perform them) and because I have at times chosen a white man to play me and felt the emotional core of the story still remained true, I am hoping the tellers and the audience have felt heard.
We weren’t doing “art for art’s sake” anymore, we were doing art as a language to reach out, to show up and to honor the lived experiences. I feel the non ‘well made-ness’, so to speak, where the rituals of playback weren’t perfectly followed, is what made the playing back so sincere.Because we were honoring the rawness of the space and I think our audience too, gave us permission for that. Not once did it feel like they were looking for a “performance” but it was a space for stories to be shared. It felt much like a circle of people just coming together around a fire and wanting to be heard and being heard. If anything, listening and holding space for acknowledgement felt like what we did there, more than a performance. It felt like playback was finally home, with the community where building bridges was the need of the hour.
The scope of this article is to enquire about the place of playback theatre in the realm of social justice movement in general and protest sites in particular through reflective documentation of events. There are more questions which deserve to be unpacked in this moment of history as a playback practitioner doing a community form of theatre under an authoritarian regime. Would it require a different kind of playback theatre that addresses the needs of a resistance site? Are playback theatre and protest sites an unlikely fit? How much of the fulfillment of playback theatre can be subject to the organic community that is formed between the performers and the sharers at the site of performance – protests, based on trust and authentic listening – and how much on the non-negotiables like rituals and agreements of the form? The conception of playback theatre as a tool for community-making is ever evolving. It was our privilege to use a form we have loved and nurtured for over a decade in creating a space of common citizenry, relative safety and a container for listening and artistic expressive mirroring. The experience has also put into forefront my identities of privilege and my relationship with them as I playback stories of the “other”. It also, during the times of active, outdoors protesting, gave me a tool in addition to performing protest songs, sloganeering and sending postcards of dissent to the authorities. Most importantly, it taught me to not speak over voices with assumptions, especially in “good faith”.
 This concept was first discussed in: S Sayyid, “A Measure of Islamophobia,”Islamophobia Studies Journal, vol. 2, no.1, 2014, 14 doi:10.18411/d-2016154.
 The performers for the series of playback theatre performances were Angela, Sangeeta, Winnu, Riya, Laxmi, Kavya, Akash, Rashmi, Deepak, Sannidhi. Almost all perform with the playback group ‘citylamps’
 171, Rowe, N. (2007). Playing the other: Dramatizing personal narratives in playback theatre. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
About the Authors
Kavya has been working with spontaneous theatre for the last three years, and with scripted work for over ten years, as an actor, playwright and storyteller. Her work has been published in an anthology of plays by Bangalore Little Theatre entitled “History of Ideas”, and in the Economic and Political Weekly. In her spare time, she can be found reading, singing and daydreaming. Reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Laxmi Priya S.N.
Laxmi has engaged with Playback Theatre in various stages of her life and, thus, Playback theatre has become her yardstick to see all the people she was, is, and is in the process of becoming. As a conductor, performer and someone who likes to be an imperfect ally rather than a silent spectator, she is interested in the spaces that writing on playback theatre can take her and the community. She is part of a Bangalore-based team called citylamps and knows that the little dot above a lowercase ‘i’ and ‘j’ is called a tittle.
Rashmi has been doing playback for 8 years now and dabbles with acting, conducting and facilitation in the space. Writing, performance and research is an intersection she loves to engage with. She has trained at NSD, Rangashankara and works with theatre in facilitation for corporates with Navgati. While not scheduling rehearsals and meetings, Rashmi likes to lay in her bed with her favorite pink comforter and some crispy snacks.
First written as an essay for the Playback Theatre Leadership course, this article reports on the authors’ research on the role of translation in the worldwide development of Playback Theatre. Based on responses from 24 Playback practitioners representing 17 languages, the authors address topics such as the importance of practitioners being able to learn from texts in their own languages, and the intriguing variations in how PT terms have been translated and adapted.
Translation as a way to expand the Playback Theatre community
By Andrea Berge and Marie-Louise Larsson
Data collection methods
RESULTS 1. PT vocabulary in different languages
2. On the role of written texts in PT
Books/texts about playback
The importance of PT books in different languages
Texts as part of playback training and/or practice
3. On the translation process
The wish for more translated texts
Interview with Jo Salas
Translating books about playback theatre
Translations in the IPTN Journal
4. What has contributed to playback’s growth?
The response from the audience/the surrounding society
Acknowledgements About the authors Appendix 1: Participating playbackers Appendix 2: The Questionnaire
How come we are curious to know more about translations?
We are part of a small Playback Theatre community in Sweden. Here some of the names of the forms and other playback terms are kept in English. We do not really know why. Is it to be sure to keep the original intention? Are they difficult to translate? Every time when telling somebody new to Playback Theatre what it is, it feels awkward to use these untranslated terms. When Andrea started her group with beginners, she felt a need for texts in her mother tongue. We were curious to get to know how other playback communities had dealt with these kinds of questions.
The main aim is to explore what role translations have played so far and may play in the future within the playback community. This study addresses four specific objectives:
To compare the vocabulary used for playback terms and playback forms in different languages.
To explore the role of written texts in PT communities.
To reflect on the translation process.
To explore what is considered to contribute to playback’s growth.
Our research questions include: What difference does it make to have texts originally written or translated into your first language while learning or deepening your understanding of playback theatre? What variations can we see in choices of what to translate between different language areas? How close or far from the original playback vocabulary are the translated words? Our aim was to look at similarities and differences.
This study is a cross-sectional study, where PT is studied at a specific point in time. A mixed methods approach is used to fulfill our four specific objectives.
A purposive sampling was used, meaning that participants were chosen not randomly but because of their ability to contribute to the research questions. We realized that we would not manage to gather data from all the different languages in use in playback, but we strived to reach out to people from different parts of the world. We invited people through our networks. In addition we posted a question in the Facebook group Playback Theatre Around the World. Some playbackers that answered our question in the Facebook thread also chose to participate in the questionnaire.
We received answers from playback practitioners speaking Arabic, Bengali, Dutch, Filipino, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Nepali, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Ukrainian. Sometimes we received more than one answer about the same languages. We have data from 17 languages and 24 practitioners. Every participant has a number in this text. The list of participants’ names with their numbers is in Appendix 1.
Data collection methods
An e-mailed questionnaire was sent to active playbackers. The questionnaire can be found in Appendix 2. The Facebook group got one question: ”What is Playback Theatre called in your language? Has the meaning changed in any way? Please describe!” Interviews were held with four persons: one of the founders of PT, the editor of the IPTN Journal and two playbackers involved in a Spanish translation. Moreover we reflected on our ongoing Swedish translation.
The responses to the questions were read several times and similarities and differences analyzed. In the result section excerpts from the responses and interviews are used to illuminate the voice of the informants.
The informants gave informed consent to participation. They could choose to be quoted with their name or remain anonymous.
The results are presented in four sections following our four specific objectives.
I. PT vocabulary in different languages
Several respondents pointed out that there can be a lot of variations within the same language. So what we have received does not necessarily cover the whole picture within a language. We have listed the variations among the informants.
“I know that names and terminology differ even in one city, not to mention the spread across a country or continent. For us, this is especially significant because Western Ukraine has the European school of Playback and Eastern Ukraine (where I live) is closer to Russia and therefore, before the military conflict, we invited Russian coaches. In Russia, there is the Central Playback School. We recently started the process of unification, but I’m sure it will take even a long time.” (Russian – 18)
A similar situation in France, with influences from three different Playback Schools in other countries was described:
“I think it’s important for your work to have a view of the history of these groups because practices are quite different and so are the names we use in playback…” (French – 13)
Sometimes different generations of playbackers within the same languages, make different choices. When Jo Salas’s book ”Improvising Real Life” was translated into Portuguese the word diretor (director), a term used in psychodrama, was chosen instead of condutor (conductor). On chapter 5, which was called “The Directing”, a footnote explains: “… we have chosen the term ‘director’ while translating (this book) for its closeness to the theatrical terminology.” Other practitioners have chosen to use conductor, feeling that it has a wider and more inclusive meaning in the playback context. (Portuguese – 15)
And then there is the political side of it, the resistance against being colonized by another language. Of course a huge topic in many countries:
“In Latinamérica there is a phenomenon, given by our political and cultural circumstances. PT came to us, first by Cuba, then went to Argentina. There, the name was changed from PT to Spontaneous Theatre. And that is the name which PT has been known in all Latinoamérica. There are always troubles between people who want to call it PT and who want to call it ST. The last one say that we must speak in our language because english is the imperialism and we are not a colony, among others ideas. Personally, I say I do PT. I don’t care of language issues. I care that what I learned from Jonathan and Jo was PT. I respect that and I ask other to respect my view.” (Spanish – 3)
In addition to the questionnaire, we posted this question: ”What is playback Theatre called in your language? Has the meaning changed in any way? Please describe!” in the Facebook group Playback Theatre Around the World. We then received four additional languages: Greek, Kannada, Tamil and Vietnamese (Table 1).
(Please note that in the following tables we provide the literal meaning of a translation where it is significantly different from the original term.)
In some languages the whole name is kept in English. In other languages the English and the translated name coexist:
“PT is very well known in Lebanon with its English name, but still we use the Arabic version to make it accessible to everyone.” (Arabic – 21)
In many languages Playback is kept in English and Theatre is translated. In Russian for example the word playback is kept but written with the cyrillic alphabet. One consequence is that it will require explanations for non English speakers in these language areas, as it will only sound like a name without any meaning to them.
“I decided to use Teatro Playback (we use like that in our company). I had seen it that way in other groups in Latin America. I even thought about translating the word Playback, but I could not find a proper way. I also found it appropriate to keep that word as a connection to the world movement. We translate only the word “Theatre”.” (Portuguese – 24)
In some languages words with a different meaning have been chosen:
“Chautari is the name for a communal place where two trees get married in a Hindu ceremony in a special way. I have described this in an article the following way: “Chautari is a communal space under the Bar and Pipal tree and of great cultural and social importance. It exists in almost every Nepali village and its shadow serves as a place for social gatherings as well as for individual rest and recovery. In the past, it was also the place for traditional justice mechanisms such as the village Kachahari, a form of arbitration by the elders. The Chautari trees were then painted as a background for the Playback Theatre performances and eventually a song relating to the trees as a place of rest and emotional
unburdening became the initial ritual of each performance.” (Nepali -1)
To play back is sometimes literally translated and sometimes other expressions are chosen (Table 2).
*”Play back” as a term, doesn’t quite work in the Chinese language very smoothly. My view is this caused the different translation of “Playback Theatre” in the first place. So we don’t quite say “to play back stories” as well. The way we say it is more like “We will enact the stories you share”. (Chinese: Mandarin – 19)
Some languages have a fixed expression for Let’s watch, often close to the original. In other languages there are more than one expression in use. (Table 3)
Conductor in English is a word with many inherent meanings (Table 4). In Swedish it was hard to find an equivalent and the word chosen gives less and different associations. We notice that words that differ from the original word are chosen in several languages, so maybe this is a difficult word to translate in many languages?
* “Different territories use different terms, but for those who cross borders (in the geographical sense), understand both terms to mean conductor or conducting. For instance, in China, they use “Navigator”. In Taiwan, they use “host”. In Hong Kong, they use the English word and also “Navigator”. But with books published in the Chinese language, both terms are interchangeable, and I think “Navigator” seems to be slightly preferred.” (Chinese: Mandarin – 19)
Many languages seem to stay close to the original meaning, with small variations (Table 5).
*Sometimes a word is replaced with another over time:
“We used to say the protagonist, but now we’re [saying] the narrator’s hero. Because we used to logically lead [with] the main character, and now we believe that the leading role is for the ninja (jokers)”. (Russian – 18)
Sometimes practitioners would like to change the chosen words:
** “I personally would use a different one, even though the whole community uses the ‘actor por narrador’. The correct one for me would be ‘actor del narrador.'” (Spanish – 20)
Since we asked for the 5 most used forms of the respondents groups, a lot of different forms were mentioned. We have chosen some of them for comparison. In some cases the forms have been possible to translate without losing their essential meaning. In other cases new expressions have been chosen in order to keep the essence of the original meaning.
“We mostly use the English names as we are used to with English words. Besides, the Bengali meanings are, most of the times, slightly different. It feels something like that the Bengali words are not containing the spirit/heart of the form. Also we have debates to choose the right Bengali words to describe some forms.” (Bengali – 7)
“I have to make a difference between my PT-troupe and my intercultural PT groups (unprivileged people)! – PT-troupe: this is an English-speaking group so here I don’t have to change names of the PT forms. – intercultural PT groups: here I have groups in different languages. In Dutch, French, Turkish. Mostly I speak in my groups in different languages.”(Dutch, French, Turkish – 17)
Some practitioners point out that they never mention the forms in front of the audience:
“The names of the forms may differ slightly in different theaters, but often everyone knows what the international base looks like. In my practice, I generally try not to name forms. I try to speak in such a way that the actors understand the form without naming it (see the struggle between two conflicting feelings, a story about the relationship of 2 states)” (Russian – 18)
“All translations are literal translations, these were agreed on among all Arab playbackers, but in my troupe specifically we use them in English, as we only use them in rehearsal setting, since in our performances the actors choose and initiate the form, it’s not dictated by the conductor.” (Arabic – 21)
The translations of playback forms can be grouped in those with similar literal meaning and those with new literal meaning. The translations of “fluid sculptures” are given in Table 6.
The translations of pairs are given in Table 7.
The translations of story are given in Table 8.
The name of the story form is not always expressed:
* “We don’t really say it in a performance. It’s a given when we don’t mention a particular form.” (Filipino – 14)
Some names of forms are inspired by the people who taught them: “There is still funny name ‘shpairs’, like a pair of Shirley [playback trainer]” (Russian, Ukrainian – 18)
II. On the role of written texts in PT
Books/texts about playback
It often seems to be quite difficult to find the books about playback in different languages. Sometimes respondents told us that they hadn’t heard of any books in their languages, when we actually knew that books existed. How come? We guess that books sometimes are independently printed and money is lacking for distribution and promotion, but there can of course be other reasons. The same goes for essays and articles.
“It’s quite easy for us to introduce playback theatre to Taiwan people, but the publishing in Taiwan is not an easy job. So the readers in Taiwan are still unfamiliar with playback theatre.” (Chinese: Mandarin – 8)
“In French we only have Daniel Feldhendler’s book but its distribution is rare even in the community” (French – 13)
“There is also Clarice Siewert’s master’s thesis, published in Portuguese in a book called Nossas Histórias em Cena: Um Encontro Com o Teatro Playback (= Our Stories Onstage: An Encounter With Playback Theatre), which talks about Playback’s foundations, its historical roots, and gives us the opportunity to go deeper in our academic research about Playback. And there are some Leadership articles after 12 Brazilians graduated from CPT, but we don’t have a place where we can find all of that, so it’s not that the community really have access to it. Only when the authors choose to pass it around.” (Portuguese – 15)
There are probably more resources than the ones we list here, but this is what we got to know from the questionnaire and the interviews (Table 9).
Table 9: Available texts in different languages
It seems that all languages have some kind of PT texts. Sometimes it is only articles online or handouts received at training that are available. What determines whether they get accessible online for the wider community?
The importance of PT books in different languages
From the answers we can see that books in one’s own language can be very valuable for the individual practitioners and the playback communities.
“The text is written by our leader Kayo Munakata in our mother tongue, Japanese. It is still very helpful for me. And we have other texts by Jo Salas and Jonathan Fox which are translated in Japanese.” (Japanese – 2)
“We have Improvisando en la vida real of Jo Salas. This book has been like a bible to me, because it is nicer to read in our own language” (Spanish – 3)
“ We have several books published! We are very proud within the community in Israel. Moreover, part of the participants read only Hebrew. And there are several books that propose many games and drills and also basic formats- so it’s always helpful. One book is translated, Jo Salas’s – Improvising real life which we are very happy and see it as the “bible” of classical PT.” (Hebrew – 9)
Texts as part of playback training and/or practice
Playback seems to be an orally transmitted method to a large extent. We were curious to know to what degree respondents had used texts as part of their training or in their playback practice.
Texts seems to be more present during training:
“I have used just text for having a better theoretical background. In my practice I do not use them much anymore.” (Spanish – 3)
“Students in trainings must read all books I can find in Playback.” (Finnish – 4)
“There were few handouts written in English given during workshops. In our practice, we contextualize. We use a different curriculum for our trainees. However, all the learnings from CPT curriculum that our leaders were taught are integrated in our modules.” (Filipino – 14)
“ (…) I also have translated a few diagrams (3 circles and the explanation from “Gathering Voices”, and the Echoes of Playback) and for CPT’s classes in Brazil in 2014, I’ve translated all handouts myself, Jonathan, and Jo used while teaching here. That material is very much used by our community up to this day.” (Portuguese – 15)
“I have used hand-outs, given as training materials, during my training. They all were in English. In our practice group or training conducted by me, I have used training notes in Bengali. We hardly used texts in our practice sessions due to limited resources.” (Bengali – 7)
“While learning I used English texts, and for the ongoing training of the troupe and myself we use English texts, from books to articles and so on, we don’t rely much on written text I would say, even though we are always reading and sharing but we rely more on experience and having more experienced trainers.” (Arabic – 21)
Texts can be used to deepen the understanding of the roots of playback:
“Learning PT I didn’t use written text. But when I wanted to know more about the background, the book I used was ”Playing the other”. At the moment, we use text from PT leaders/trainers, which we search and find at different websites, like IPTN-website.” (Dutch – 10)
Texts seems to be more important to playback trainers and leaders:
“I personally read a lot but use for my students very less text materials. After practice work I can send them text about playback forms as a memory for them. Other texts look like exercises for analytical practice – for example how to analyze a story or performance. It based on some theoretical ideas from Jonathan Fox or some other international articles or my experience during playback conferences.” (Russian – 6)
“I must admit, that only now preparing and doing the leadership [course] I have gotten into reading intensively. As I had a very good trainer I learned everything from him.” (German – 5)
III. On the translation process
The wish for more translated texts
One of the benefits the respondents highlight is that translations make playback more accessible for everyone in their countries regardless of factors such as the individual’s level of education or the socioeconomic background:
“Having the texts in our mother tongue would definitely help students in poorer communities to understand better the concept of playback theatre. Admittedly, the middle and upper class in our society would definitely appreciate the English language better. They have been schooled to think and speak in English. As for the disadvantaged ones, they would be more disadvantaged if they do not have access to the texts in a language that they understand best.” (Filipino – 14)
There are different barriers that make translations difficult:
”We have not any texts in Bengali. Because-
We have not any Playback Theatre graduate yet from Playback Theatre School. So we have lack of technical and formal knowledge to write texts.
Our PT community is very small. So the market is too small to publish a book.
We are almost detached from the international PT community as well as IPTN. So we need some influence and interaction to be inspired.
It is difficult for us to collect English texts from US or EU. So we have lack of resources too.” (Bengali – 7)
Translations are needed for people who are not very familiar with English or do not speak English at all. This was reported from many respondents:
“As I read in English, I have not had big trouble with books, but when I have wanted to teach and give bibliography to my students, it has been a real problem. Not everybody speaks English here.” (Spanish – 3)
“We have translated some of our own handouts and a very simple manual where we explain the main basics about roles, rituals, and forms in a way that we felt useful for the people we work with (which are people from villages with quite marginalized background). They were written in simple English by me and then translated by a Nepali and read back to me (as I understand it)… we revised them several times as we worked with them, so that they became more and more clear to the readers. It would, of course, be great to have the main books translated, as many Nepali theatre practitioners do not read English fluently enough to be able to access the literature otherwise. However, there is no one who is taking initiative at present… it’s a lot of work to do this well and even for our short versions, it took us a lot to find good translations.” (Nepali – 1)
“My English is not so good. I read generally not well. That’s why I prefer German texts, because they’re also more understandable to me. I try to translate the texts with Google and Co.” (German – 11)
”We would need to have a French translation of Jo Salas’s book Improvising real life… Most of the actors in my group do not read English fluently.” (French – 13)
“My mother tongue it’s Turkish I have few Turkish woman in my group. lucky they speak Dutch or French. Sometimes when they don’t understand something then I try to translate the PT terms in Turkish. It’s very difficult for me because I don’t have any PT texts in Turkish so I try to translate in the literally way.” (Dutch, French, Turkish – 17)
“India has as many as 22 languages. Our group generally conducts and performs in English. We have used Hindi in our performances but, I have not seen any playback text (translated or written) in hindi uptil now. Since, we use hindi only intermittently, we as a group haven’t found a need yet to translate the playback text. For playback to penetrate into regional communities, I do see a need for it to be translated into different regional languages.” (Hindi – 23)
In the younger playback communities, translation does not seem to be the first priority, they may appear in a later stage:
“We don’t have a lot of our own texts. Most often it is adapted to the English texts and articles. Playback in Ukraine is young enough, because I think this is only the beginning of the journey. Now we are moving towards creating our own texts, unifying, creating manuals. “ (Russian, Ukrainian – 18)
“No playback texts are available in Arabic yet, I have heard that someone in Egypt was working a few years ago on translating one of the books of Jo Salas but haven’t heard anything about it after that. The absence of it is because, PT is still new (10 years more or less) to the Arab world, theater based research and publications are also very rare in Arabic, all PT practitioners in the Arab world speak English and other languages where they can access the needed information without having it in their mother tongue. PT is still very far from making it to the academic world so also no thesis or papers are being written or published by students or academics. There is no deep interest and/or investment in the process of translation or research to be done, sadly.” (Arabic – 21)
Several people also express a wish to translate, but lack time and/or funding:
“I’ve been dying to translate more Playback books, especially Jonathan’s Beyond Theatre, Jo’s Do My Story, Sing My Song (as besides Playback it would also address a gap of material in Portuguese about musical therapy), as well as translate the new edition of Improvising Real Life. But I’m struggling to find funding for it.” (Portuguese – 15)
“Having texts in Spanish is a huge and important thing to the Cubans, because not all the practitioners can read English and then, they miss the opportunity of having good literature about Playback Theatre. It becomes less and less accessible. Or they depend on someone who translates the articles for them. Every time a text in Spanish appears is a very good thing for us.
We recently had the luck of getting access to a Spanish book of articles about PT, where we can finally find the Narrative Reticulation theory by Jonathan Fox. This is an example.
Other texts come to us without having an edition, in sheets, sent or brought by teachers, trainers, who come to give workshops and share with the Cuban Community. And then, in this case, the information needs to be translated. Sometimes I translate it for my company. I’d love to translate all the books from English to Spanish, even if it’s not a perfect translation, but there hasn’t been a mechanism to get it done properly. It involves time and also editing, etc. And the permit from the author.” (Spanish – 20)
Interview with Jo Salas
Jo Salas is one of the founders of Playback Theatre and has written several books that have been translated.
What is your overall experience of working with translators?
It’s been different with different translators/publishers, ranging from no contact at all to a very thoughtful and fruitful dialogue with the translator. I encourage contact with the translator. Sometimes words need clarification, and sometimes there are concepts or assumptions that do not have an exact cultural parallel. Discussing these questions together produces a better translation. However, in the end it is the choice of the translator to reach out or not.
What are the different challenges and worries regarding working with translators that are professional and the ones that are not?
Translating is difficult work, requiring a deep knowledge of the original language as well as excellent writing skills in the translated language. It’s not just about accuracy: you have to make sure that the writing feels natural in the target language, and you have to find a style and “voice” that matches the style of the original writer. Professional translators are more likely to have these skills. However, for Playback books, it is often non-professional translators who have the passion to do this hard work, and their personal interest and commitment can compensate for their lack of professional experience.
Do you have an opinion about whether to keep some of the playback terms in English in the translated texts or not?
About Playback terms: in countries where Playback is established, I think it’s important for translators to use the terms that are already in use (and the publishing contracts require translators to consult Playback practitioners about terms). It is completely the choice of the local practitioners whether to translate the terms or use English-language terms. We have no preference about that–it’s just a question of what works best.
Have the books in different countries reached a wider audience? Do you know what contributed to how they were received?
The translations have meant that many more people have access to the books. However, I don’t have a lot of information about how they have been received. Publishers are asked to provide reports about sales but they often do not. When I travel I always have many requests to sign translated books–which tells me they’re being used! Some readers have told me that they thought a particular translation was not well done, and in some cases they have pointed to inaccuracies. One translation was published with a cover image that I thought was unfortunately misleading and unattractive, and I think it has led to poor sales in that country.
Do you think languages/ translations make a difference for the growth of the Playback community?
I’m sure that having the books translated has helped with the growth of the Playback community in different countries. By now there is a lot of knowledge embodied in books and other writing about Playback. Most of it is in English. The more that is translated the better. I know, from conversations with students around the world, that people appreciate being able to learn about Playback directly from the founders’ writing.
Translating books about playback theatre
In order to further explore the translation process we focus on two ongoing translations to Swedish and Spanish language. The editor of the IPTN Journal has also been interviewed.
A big difference between the Swedish and the Spanish translations is that Swedish is a tiny language, only understood by the inhabitants in Sweden and the small neighbouring Nordic countries, while Spanish is the main language in many countries around the world and is a really widespread language.
A Swedish translation:
Andrea: To do a translation as a volunteer beside one’s regular job is a slow process. My advice to others who plan to do a translation under the same circumstances is to get advice and involve others! When I had done my first rough translation of A Playback Theatre Toolkit, I contacted a friend who is a professional translator to see what advice she could give me.
One of the things the translator stressed was how necessary it is to work with a lot of different dictionaries, including dictionaries of synonyms. She examined an excerpt of my translation and pointed out weak areas to work with. I perceived her feedback as a professional’s ambition to achieve a translation that has a more varied language than the original text, in order to get the best flow.
How would I ever be able to reach such a level, not being a professional translator myself? What would be a good enough translation from my own point of view? It made me doubt if I would be able to complete the translation. After a long break I continued the translation process.
I had several Skype sessions with one of the authors. As part of the work, I have also had several test readers, both playback practitioners and non playbackers. Every one of them brought valuable viewpoints. I felt that I could bring the translation to a certain level and then needed help to improve it.
I asked Marie-Louise, as a much more experienced playbacker, to take a closer look at an excerpt from the book. A creative dialogue started. To be able to discuss the text more in depth with Marie-Louise was particularly fruitful, as she has been an active playbacker for a much longer time than I have been. We decided to bring this experience into this essay.
Marie-Louise: Helping Andrea with the translation was a fascinating work from my perspective. I was also struck by the enormous work Andrea had already done. I was invited at a stage where keywords and PT terms, the way we use them in Sweden was needed. And it was sometimes a matter of making the text fit into our context. I really think the translation is more than good enough since none of us are translators. It is a great feeling when you sit and discuss how to translate a phrase and suddenly you find it and you both know it is right, it has been translated not only literally but also made sense into your own language. I relate to what Jo Salas said in the interview above: “However, for Playback books, it is often non-professional translators who have the passion to do this hard work, and their personal interest and commitment can compensate for their lack of professional experience.”
A Spanish translation:
At the same time there has been an ongoing translation of “A Playback Theatre Toolkit” into Spanish. I asked the two translators, Cristina Frodden from Colombia and Andrea Sandoval from Mexico, about their work.
They decided to divide the work between them; Cristina translates part 1 and 3, Andrea part 2 and 4. They translate independently, but they discussed how to make the translation in a neutral Spanish, avoiding slang. In order to achieve the same style, register and vocabulary in the book, Cristina subsequently took on the editing role and made revisions. As Cristina says: “The idea is that the reader should not notice that different people translated different parts.” Since Cristina is a professional translator as well as an experienced playback practitioner she finds the book quite easy to translate.
One difference between English and Spanish is that Spanish requires you to choose gender every time you mention “conductor(s)”, “narrator(s)”, “artist(s)”, etc. They rarely keep any English words in the Spanish text, if so they provide a translation such as: Cuadros (Tableau).
There are cultural matters which have been changed. For example, instead of dancing the Hokey Pokey, another typical dance which is done with gestures is included: La Macarena.
Translations in the IPTN Journal
The International Playback Theatre Network Journal is a resource that is open to everyone, with all back issues available at IPTN’s website. In 2015 the Journal transformed from the established format with two issues yearly to a more fluid form divided into two parts: Featured Articles and Regional Reports.
We asked the editor, Brian Tasker, about this new approach. The intention was to create a multilingual journal with regional editors. Brian’s idea was to expand the languages available and make it less English-centric.
Translation has always been a part of the IPTN Journal and Interplay. It has been dependent on the volunteering translators being available. Texts are being translated not only from English into other languages. There can now be texts published in other languages that are then translated into English, or not. More regional editors are welcome, as well as more translators!
IV. What has contributed to playback’s growth?
In the last question of our questionnaire we opened up for answers not directly linked to translations. We live in a country where playback was introduced as early as 1981, but still have a very small playback community (Only four groups at the moment as far as we know). Our neighboring country Finland has a much bigger playback community (more than 30 groups). We were curious to get to know how playback communities expand.
The respondents mentioned five types of important factors for the growth of the playback community: commitment, training, networking, funding and the responses from the audiences and the surrounding society.
The commitment of practitioners and trainers to be present and perform in different settings was one factor for growing PT communities.
“COMMITMENT. That is, commitment of the members to be present during practice and performances and, commitment of mentors in supervising and guiding our team.
We have been blessed to be mentored by some pioneers of PT globally. (Jonathan Fox, Jo Salas, Veronica Needa, Karin Gisler, Michael Cheng, Yu-Chen Kao and Kayo Munakata)” (Filipino – 14)
“In Taiwan, by Playbacker Theatre, we have more connections with social workers, communities elder citizens, educators, facilitators, and some psychological counselors. All of us had contributed to the development of PT in Taiwan, very luckily, the playbackers in Taiwan contact with each other very often. And we have many chances to perform, to study, and to play together. Maybe due to Taiwan is a small island country and we have very convenient traffic.” (Chinese: Mandarin – 8)
“I think on a local level we can make a difference and bring change in the community. For example the groups with whom I’m working see that they are growing and becoming stronger and they are sharing their experiences with others and this is very positive evolution in the community of the unprivileged people. Because they don’t have easily access to PT workshops, gatherings, etc… because it cost a lot of money.” (Dutch, French, Turkish – 17)
Training can contribute to the growth of the PT communities in different ways: having courses available in the region; trainers travelling to different countries to share their knowledge; practitioners bringing back experiences from trainings in other countries; the use of mentoring; and playback included in the curriculum for different professions.
“In the beginning we had many trainers from many countries. I was able to organize some long trainings both financed by state and self paid. (…) I assume this training has been a good support for long time and this training is still on. I was able to participate in Jonathan’s School from the very beginning and bring the knowledge back to my group. The contribution of foreign trainers and Jonathan Fox has had a great impact for our development as well as many international conferences that we have had.” (Finnish – 4)
“Our growth as a community in Cuba always relied on the presence of trainers from all over the world, teachers who are willing to come without getting a reward or money contribution, to share their knowledge with us. We document and register the techniques, games, wisdom and then take it to our practice and also experiment with that. We receive information, articles, knowledge from outside and take it to our own companies, trainings, performances.” (Spanish – 20)
”(…) I went to live in the U.S., specialized in teaching Playback, started travelling around Brazil to teach and, again, more companies came up; In 2014, I brought CPT’s classes here, with the founders, with translation into Portuguese, and that got the community closer together; A group from those classes organized the 1st Brazilian Playback Gathering in 2015; Then I brought Leadership and other CPT classes here in 2017, again with translation; We organized the 2nd Brazilian Playback Gathering in 2018. Each step has contributed for companies and practitioners to get stronger and do better Playback work, and for new companies to rise.” (Portuguese – 15)
“Actors and drama-therapists who got to know PT and started to practice, use PT in corporate environment, (mental) health care and educational environments (university, schools etc.). Therefore organizations start to find PT. Further: In the education for drama-therapists PT is a basic tool. So all drama-therapists in The Netherlands know what PT is. A lot of actors who work as training-actors in communication- trainings, know PT. Most of the PT actors are also working as training- actor. So they introduced PT as a training- and communication- tool.” (Dutch – 10)
“The emergence of a PT community through workshops with guest instructors in Perpignan, gatherings in summer near Montpellier, and the organization of local introductory workshops (“core training”) in Montpellier and Perpignan” (French -13)
Networking was also reported as a growth factor including having regular gatherings or other events in the PT community and organizing international conferences.
“The factors which have contributed to PT’s growth in Israel are the vivid community led by the Israeli PT union. The forum for conductors and leaders which is very strong and meets regularly 6 times a year for several years. The annual Israeli gathering that about 200 playbackers attend yearly. The yearly festival which opens its doors to the general public. The workshops different leaders give over the years.” (Hebrew – 9)
”We got the international conference to Finland 1993 and it was really inspiring for all who already knew about the form. We started having gatherings every year. We established a network of playback and so we have website for information” (Finnish – 4)
“Playback has spread all over Germany but is not something very well known yet. At the national gatherings I notice, that we are mainly 50 +++ there are few young people, many playbackers are therapists, psychologists, coaches. As playback has been established in Germany for many years already, there are groups that exist already about 20 years, there is a school of playback and I guess it is the field of the therapists that made it spread initially.” (German – 5)
“Several factors. Several waves of growth. (…) 2007 IPTN’s conference got more people engaged and, again, a few companies came from there. Right after that, I started to translate IPTN’s Interplay main articles and some important emails from CPT and created a mailing list on Yahoo Groups called “Playback for All”, so the community could start to connect (way before Facebook…);” (Portuguese – 15)
Creating projects can lead to funding.
“The EnActing Dialogue project is a financed project that has brought the possibility of in-depth training, including with Jonathan Fox. We were lucky that Jonathan had the interest to revisit Nepal after almost 50years and that he agreed to train people that were not at an advanced level (like he would normally do). The fact that there were funding and a lot of effort in the management and organization of training and performances has supported the growth a lot; There are now several Nepali trainers who are teaching Playback Theatre in the communities. These are mainly people that could never afford taking part in the international Playback Theatre training as these are far too expensive even with scholarships…” (Nepali – 1)
The response from the audience/the surrounding society
Lastly responses to PT can contribute to the growth of the PT community. Three types of responses appeared in the data: strong cultural traditions within the language region; the need for the safe space playback creates in the society; and getting chances to perform in different settings.
“We have a long history in Finland of amateur theatre.” (Finnish – 4)
“Our country is culturally rich. People easily can adopt with new ideas. Beside this we have a very strong history of theatre performance. We have some traditional storytelling forms too. People talk a lot but hardly share their deep or true feelings. PT does not need a stage or a big performance place. Combination of those factors have contributed to PT’s growth in Bangladesh.” (Bengali – 7)
”I got 5 factors: 1. Fertile social ground for art in all its formats, since Ukraine has always been famous for its art, especially songs and dances 2. The desire to be progressive in social practices and focus on the West, including the United States 3. The need of society in agreeing their opinions on various conflict issues 4. Many wounded and combatants who need rehabilitation and adaptation to civilian life 5. Gradual democratization, liberalization of society, when the values of self-expression begin to crowd out the values of survival and security.” (Ukrainian – 22)
“The rising need for safe spaces and for expression. A lot is staying in the untold area in our community, especially when it comes to the memory of the Civil War, violence, conflict, hate speech, GBV… I also would say the high sensitivity of the performers and their professionalism contributed to the boom of pb [Playback] in Lebanon to say the least. I would like to add that the Arab experience in pb brings a lot of input to the international community, as far as I know and per the opinion of Jo Salas we are pioneers in using pb as a tool to prevent extremism, to save child soldiers, to heal memories of war, to create social cohesion among fighting and segregated communities, the use of playback in peace building we are doing is worth being properly documented, studied and shared with the international community.” (Arabic – 21)
In this essay, we have explored the role of translations within the playback community. The PT vocabulary in different languages (objective 1) is different and even in the same language playbackers may use somewhat different vocabulary. The translation process can be essential according to some practitioners as it increases the reach, that is, more people can understand the meaning of PT when it is described in their own language.
When exploring the role of written text in PT (objective 2), it was found that Playback Theatre is action. Much can be learned by practical training. Written texts support the trainers and becomes important for enhancing the understanding and the practice of PT trainers. Handouts and shorter texts are in much use to supplement training.
The translation process (objective 3) must balance a word-by-word translation to keep closeness to the original text and an adaptation to local cultural and contextual circumstances. The interaction between the translator and the authors can be beneficial for the new product. It is also a balance between being a professional translator and an advanced PT practitioner. A written text in their own language seems to benefit the PT members according to our result.
The growth of the PT community (objective 4) was found to be facilitated by several factors. The motivation or commitment of practitioners and trainers was one such factor. The accessibility of PT training in the region as well as international exchange also contribute. Networking through regular gatherings and different events as well as funding was also mentioned. Moreover the growth of the PT community is also enhanced by the responses from audiences and the surrounding society.
Our overall conclusion is that many Playback learners, practitioners, and trainers feel a strong need for Playback material in their own language, whether translated or written in that language. The barriers to having texts in your own language include the availability of translators, and the economics of publishing translations especially in countries where the Playback community is small.
We want to thank all playbackers who have been willing to share their experiences and responded to our questions. Thanks also to all those who are contributing to the development of Playback Theatre, which has become a way of enhancing our quality of life.
Marie-Louise Larsson has been a part of Teater X since 2007. Teater X give monthly open performances and have a long history in working in organisations of different kinds. Since 2019 ML is training an English speaking group longing to serve the immigrant communities mainly in Stockholm.
Andrea Berge cofounded a new group in Stockholm 2016. Since 2019 she is training a new group. Her dream is to offer Playback Theatre in communities that are diverse in languages.
Appendix 1: Participating playbackers
In the order that we received the answers, with names (languages):
Anne Dirnstorfer & Nar Bahadur Saud (Nepali)
Makoto Tange (Japanese)
Nadia Gomez Espinoza (Spanish)
Päivi Rahmel (Finnish)
Linda Steuernagel (German)
Olga Sanachina (Russian)
Reza Aziz (Bengali)
Brian Yang (Chinese: Mandarin)
Rinat Shahaf Barzilay (Hebrew)
Paulien Haakma (Dutch)
Reinhard Strenzl (German)
Sofia Loriega (Filipino)
Marc Rolland (French)
Fhabi Fajardo (Filipino)
Sheila Donio (Portuguese)
Sarah Avci (Dutch, French)
Elena Kalashnikova (Russian, Ukrainian)
Michael Cheng (Chinese: Mandarin)
Susana Gil Padron (Spanish)
Farah Wardani (Arabic)
Volodymyr Savinov (Ukrainian)
Radhika Jain (Hindi)
Answering in the Facebook thread:
Clarice Steil Siewert (Portuguese)
People we interviewed
Jo Salas in her role as founder of Playback Theatre and author of several books about PT.
Andrea Sandoval and Cristina Frodden in their roles as translators.
Brian Tasker in his role as editor of the IPTN Journal.
Appendix 2: The Questionnaire
We, Marie-Louise Larsson and Andrea Berge, are in the Leadership training this year. As part of our essay, that we are writing together, we want to explore similarities and differences in the PT terms and concepts in different languages. We are interested in your communities so you are most welcome to include others in answering the questions.
One aspect that interests us very much is to discuss how playback terms and concepts may differ in meaning in different languages. Another area we are looking at is the use of english texts, translations or texts originally written in your mother tongue.
If you could help us with this and send us your answers before May 31 we would be so grateful.
What are the names of your company’s 5 most used forms called in your language and in English? Is the meaning literally the same or is it slightly different? If so in what way?
Have you translated the following terms? Is the meaning literally the same or is it slightly different? If so in what way?
to play back stories
Do you have playback texts in your mother tongue? If you do, what benefits do you see? If you don’t, why do you think it’s so?
If there are texts, are they written in your language or are they translated?
Have you used written text while learning PT, if so in what language? And to what extent do you use written text in your practice?
Finally we would like to hear your thoughts on which factors have contributed to PT’s growth in your country/community?
If you have questions on the survey don’t hesitate to contact us!