Better Together, Part One: Participants’ Commentaries on a Year-Long Project

During the recently completed Better Together project, eleven Playback practitioners from eleven countries met online twice a month for a year. Each person then wrote about what happened in this extraordinary experience, from their individual point of view. The participants’ statements and articles (including two that were co-authored) provide a fascinating composite portrait of a sustained experiment that was clearly profound for all concerned–with implications that go beyond those who were directly involved.

The writing has been lightly edited for clarity, first by Emily Conolan and then myself, preserving the voice and English usage of these diverse writers. For most, English is their second or third language. Some use American spellings, others British.

Playback Theatre Reflects will publish the commentaries in a series of three posts.

Better Together: Participants’ Commentaries on a Year-Long Project, Part One


Introduction: Will C.

What the rest of the world needs to know about us: Cheraé Halley

Better Together – The Way of Connection: Nina Garbuzova

My connection to PT outside Malaysia: Poh Kiang Tan

How Do I Share My Country’s Story in Twenty Minutes? Mansee Shah Thard

The space between: Interweaving the “I” and the “We”: Elsa Maurício Childs

Contributors’ biographies

Introduction: Will C.

“Better Together” is a Playback in the Port project designed by Nina Garbuzova, Marat Mairovich, and Will C. This online initiative took place September 2021 – October 2022 with a goal of connecting 11 Playback practitioners, each representing a different country. By creating presentations of our own countries, practicing Playback Theatre, and utilizing other interactive discussion methods, we intentionally learned about our individual and collective capacities and limitations. During the final month of the project, each member of the group wrote what they felt was most important to share to the global Playback community, and beyond, about our process. The writing that we have compiled is an offering, an attempt to create opportunities for understanding how we might connect over shared values and invite difference inside of diverse spaces. While the writing that follows signals the end of our project, we hope that it is the beginning of a communal conversation of how we can continue striving to become “Better Together.”

What the rest of the world needs to know about us:
A personal reflection on five concepts that (potentially) made our group “better together”
Cheraé Halley, South Africa

After the first three months of joining this group there were five themes that kept showing up in my engagement with the Better Together project. I recall jotting these down after being provided with the prompt “what is something that you are experiencing or witnessing in this group that you wish to express to the larger world?” Below was what I had prematurely written.

  1. Trust. There was a deep sense of trust among strangers.
  2. Humour. There was in a strange kind of way, a common understanding of humour.
  3. Believing. A belief in the human organism’s ability to listen to one another, hold space for each other, honour story.
  4. Saying “Yes”. We were a group of people who would just say “yes” in what feels right when it feels right.
  5. Becoming. We all understood that we were becoming something. Even if we didn’t know what we were becoming yet.

What really happens when you put 11 Playbackers into a virtual project set up by three of the group members? I can tell you that a bunch of nerves, mixed with a will to succeed and a dash of human error is bound to flavour up the entire pot. At times the heat became aggressively too much to handle, but upon reflecting back on the project, the five themes listed above seemed to keep the pot from overboiling and spilling onto our (sometimes very dirty) Playback kitchen floor. This personal statement will reflect the ways in which the five themes above resonated with me the most over the course of the 12 month project. It will also name the implications (if any) that these themes had on how I show up in this twice-monthly group project. 

Right from the beginning I found that we had begun developing a sense of trust that often needs time to work on for groups of strangers.  Even though there were a few people in the group who knew each other prior to the work, there were many people in the room who were strangers to me and each other. How we managed to develop such a sense of trust in such a short time can only be reflected through the frame of the Better Together project. We had not spent a great amount of time “building trust” which often happens as part of the usual start to any group. No, instead, we jumped right in. I get the sense that everyone had some level of trust allocated to either one person in the group, or towards the frame of the project or possibly towards the practice we are all so familiar with. Personally, I could only operate from a place of trusting the practice and trusting the other Brown people in the room, even if I did not yet know them very well yet. It certainly created a safety net for me to deep dive into taking on certain roles within the group such as a facilitator or as a conductor right in the early stages of the project. And I wonder where the rest of the group members placed their trust for the duration of the project, and in what ways these carried them and their participation in the project.

Humour has a weird way of connecting people to one another and building bonds in a group. I know I use humour both as a way of reaching out to strangers and as a way to release tense energies in a group setting. Humour online however, is not always well read and even more tough when there is a group of diverse ages and cultures present. I am always aware of when my humour lands and does not land…and with whom it mostly lands with. These are always indications for me that a pathway of connection is possible between myself and others. I can say that humour led me to connect with all the members in this group in very different ways. And then I became the clown, an easy role for me to step into, but not in any avoidance kind of way. Knowing that in the first three months of this project my reflections were being read by the organisers, I (sort of) (deliberately) made use of humour to connect with them in a lot of what I had written.

Carl Rogers speaks about the ‘freedom to learn’ in education, and introduces the concept of the ‘facilitation of learning’ (Rogers, 1968,p. 112.) I would like to borrow one of the attitudes between the facilitator and the learners which he names as a requirement in the facilitation of learning. And that is to “believe in the human organism”. When he mentions this, he says if we are going to trust our learners, if we are going to warrant success from them, then we need to trust and believe in their abilities to do so as well. Trust that humans have the ability to do, to think, to have opinions, to absorb, and to question. In our case, I borrow it in the sense that there was definitely a belief in the human’s ability to listen to stories of strangers, to hold space for each other in a frame we have adopted and to honour everyone’s emotions present in the project. I think this is testament to how, despite not having clear instructions and understandings of some of the forms, people were willing to share their stories and members were willing to play them. The above concept (together with the first) is what supports the fourth concept I wish to reflect on in this personal statement and that is, saying “yes”.  Ahhh…our good old improvisation number one skill. Of course, saying yes, among strangers, is completely built on the concept of believing in the human organism and trusting in the human organism. It also brings to light how deeply rooted our practice is in these concepts that are the foundations of good ensemble.

Behind any good Playback Theatre practice is the well known fact that whatever we bring to the enactment is always still in a process of becoming, by virtue of it being spontaneous and improvised and non-scripted. This could mean becoming something aesthetically beautiful, or becoming something potentially dangerous, or becoming something that could affirm what our teller has expressed. Becoming. This for me, means that we are constantly still finding and searching and are always living in the possibility that nothing is fixed. When all else failed us during the Better Together project, what perhaps, most of the members understood is that as a group we were still in the process of becoming something.  While that something might not have been a fixed and similar thing for all members, we were all in various “becoming” processes and as a collective. This could have potentially been one of the concepts that continued giving everyone in the group an ongoing sense of puzzlement and inquiry despite the times when our kitchen became too hot for comfort. I know that this was definitely the case for myself as a member of this group.

So what is something that I experienced and witnessed in this group that I wish to express to the larger world?… Well, that for our Playback Theatre community, perhaps more room could be given to these five concepts when we gather at international spaces, forums, boards, and in performances. We spend so much time judging each other’s practice, each other’s intentions and each other’s opinions. We need to tap back into the principles of “saying yes”, but only if we recall what it means to trust and believe in the human organism’s ability to care for others, although that does not mean we must dismiss the wrongdoings of members of our community. But remember that they too, as we all always are, still becoming. Becoming something. And of course, a little humour goes a very long way…that is, if we make room to let the laughter and joy in.


Rogers, C. (1969). Freedom to Learn. Columbus, Ohio: Charles Merrill.

Better Together – The Way of Connection
Nina Garbuzova, Russia

This is a personal statement on what makes people connected, what helps us know each other at different levels, and the personal discoveries of eleven universes in zoom windows.

My name is Nina Garbuzova. I am from Russia, and in September 2022 I moved to Israel with my husband Marat Mairovich. A year ago we (Will C, Marat and I) decided to do a project together. A Playback Theater project to explore the cultural characteristics of different countries, to understand how playback can work with these features, and just to have an adventure, apparently … because “Better Together” became a real adventure.

I have been doing Playback Theater since 2015, and the most valuable thing that playback has brought into my life is connection. My theater group Playback01 has become my family. Relationships based on playback values ​​are incredibly strong and flexible. We have learned to hear and listen to each other; we have learned to accept each other in any condition; we have learned to work together; we have learned to hear ourselves and our needs; we have learned to be attentive to each other and to ourselves; and we have learned to tell own stories and find ourselves in the stories of others.

At the start of Better Together, we agreed that in a year each participant would write an article to share their experience with the community and not lose the treasures we found along the way. By the way, I hate writing articles, it’s good that we agreed that our personal statements can be written in any style. I chose the style of a chaotic stream of consciousness and a little poetry.

Absolutely all the details, written in a very cool and structured way about how the project was arranged, you can find in the article by Will C.

My stream of consciousness says that questions you can ask yourself are far more important than the answers I can give. So…

What happens when 11 strangers from different countries agree to meet together twice a month?

What happens to you when you talk about yourself through the prism of your country and your nationality?

What happens when the whole group serves one person and plays only his/her stories?

What happens when difficult questions about oppression and privilege are raised in a group?

What happens when group members don’t feel the need to take responsibility for the group?

What happens when group members take responsibility for the group?

What happens when, during a project, your country unleashes a war of aggression against a neighboring country?

What happens when you move permanently to another country during a project?

What happens in the team of project organizers when external circumstances are so massive that two out of three are simply crushed and washed away by a wave of emotions and have to change their lives?

What happens when you start a project as a group of three and then you feel like you’re alone?

What happens when you listen to stories and play them back without always understanding English because it’s not your native language?

What happens when you immerse yourself in the culture of another country, its features and worldview through the personal stories of a person?

What happens when 11 strangers get closer to each other?

What happens if you decide to make this journey by yourself?…

Each of these questions could be discussed in a separate article. But, do you remember that I don’t like to write articles? I like to ask questions, I love to get to know people, diving into the depths of their personal stories with them, I love to feel the connections between people. Sometimes, it seems to me, that I have a professional deformity, that I can no longer just sustain small talk about nature, about the weather, or about something that really does not matter. The opportunity to tell stories and be heard, the opportunity to play the story of another and hear a person is exactly the path to connection. This is what makes it possible to truly touch the soul, life, the very essence of another person and see your reflection in another.

I know that another ten people from our group will write their own articles, and others will write more than one.  I want to dedicate a poem to our group. I don’t know how to write poetry in English, so there will be no rhyme.

Better Together Forever

When you set off on a journey and want to get there quickly, go alone.
When you set off on a journey and want to go far, go together
The road will not be easy, you will get tired and want to quit everything
Cursing the day you hit the road
But each time, overcoming the peaks, descending into underground caves,
Crossing fast rivers, every time you will thank God
For the fact that you went out on this road and overcame this path not alone
No one will return from this journey the same
Our world has expanded, it has become ten times larger
Ten new universes are now opening their doors for you
When you want to open your inner world – open up to another person
When you want to discover the world of another, listen to their stories
Sometimes smart and right words do not allow you to look into the depths
And mistakes help you get to the point very quickly
Mistakes we make on the path to excellence

At the end of this chaotic stream of consciousness, I would like to say that we managed to create a truly unique and much needed tool for the community. It is structured, and thanks to the efforts of each member of our group, brought to almost perfection, it is a finished product with a clear methodology that everyone can use. It allows you to touch on really important and complex topics at the human level, thus creating a window of opportunity to find solutions to these problems.

It develops social awareness, skills as a playback actor, conductor, and facilitator.  It gives understanding of group dynamics, personal responsibility, responsibility for the group and an understanding of your personal contribution to the group.

If you decide to gather your group and follow our trail, let us know, we have life-hacks.

My connection to PT outside Malaysia
 Poh Kiang Tan, Malaysia

My Background

I’m Poh Kiang, my family name is Tan. I lived in a very tiny Malaysian Chinese fishing village (Bagan Tengkorak) when I was young, there’s about 30 houses there. We lived with our 4th uncle and his family in our grandpa’s big house. So, it’s interesting to know how two families lived together: we had two kitchens in this big house. I felt grateful to have my 4th aunt to support my mum for taking care of her nine children. My aunt was the one who held my little hand for my first writing, sharpened my pencils, helped me with some drawings and so on. My first formal social experience was in my primary school as I didn’t even have a chance to attend preschool. There was a bad experience where my friend teased me in class, and said my family drank water from the river. I was speechless!

I took a long time to complete my tertiary education due to my dad’s financial situation. Basically, he had no extra money to support us but he had a very kind heart to allow us (girls) to get an education. During those days, Chinese society was narrow minded and kept girls at home to help with household chores, feeding pigs, farming, sorting fishes etc. I was lucky to have my elder siblings to guide me on my studies and show me the path. I chose to attend our government’s Polytechnic for a three-year Diploma in Accountancy with some sponsorship from Kuok Foundation. I graduated from the University of Putra Malaysia with a Degree in Accounting in another three years under some study loans.

My experience in Better Together

During the pandemic, I came across many organisations which shifted from physical to online performances when China started lockdown and playbackers from India and China initiated some performances for them. I had some chances to join a few of them, but it was for short term projects, like a study group for 3 months, an online performance in Chinese Language for a few months, Playback for Playbackers for another short period, etc.

I felt so thankful that I was selected to be part of the Better Together project. This was something  that I was looking for, as it was longer term as compared to the earlier ones. I read through the requirements and marked down all the dates of meetings. I didn’t really pay much attention to the requirements for writing, in fact, I didn’t realise that I needed to write some reports after this project! Anyway, I believe I would still have chosen to join if I had known that there would be some writing work at the end of this project. Why? Simply because I was looking for a platform for me to explore more about playback theatre. I love to connect with different playbackers, especially different cultures, so I joined with full curiosity about what this project would bring to me. Like it or not, I didn’t think much. I knew that “THIS IS WHAT I WANT!!!”

As a preschool educator, I enjoy my work.  I love teaching children, seeing them grow is like a miracle. Most importantly, I’m so happy that I can help them to unleash their potential. However, I’m not sure how to share my playback experience with them since they’re so young, at 3 – 6 years old. My life’s journey is to give back to society what I’ve benefited from before, promote love, caring and a peaceful society through mutual understanding among different ethnicities. I believe playback theatre will be an important tool for my life purpose. I know that our society needs harmonious activities to promote listening to each other, and being proactive to respect each other. I am at my best when I’m sharing, contributing and fully focused. So, I wish to make this playback theatre happen in Malaysia.

After a year in this project, I was resonating with some topics like oppression, identity, career, relationships, racism, etc. Some topics on activism which had never come to my mind like protest, human rights, environmental issues and so on, were presented and these issues caught my attention. I was grateful that this group was so open and had a high level of acceptance, I felt safe after a few meetings and bravely volunteered myself for the presentation. Somehow, I reflected that I only shared the common facts about Malaysia such as food, the different races (Chinese, Malay, and Indian) and my hometown. I should have presented more dimensions about myself, my culture, my country’s sometimes unfair policies, and my opinion about what’s happening here. I guess I was pretty reserved in the beginning and not sharing a lot of how I think. But then, I’ve been taught from a young age not to mention some sensitive issues openly, it may cost me very highly to be in jail if I say something offensive, especially if it’s related to politics, religion, culture etc.

I felt so happy that I was able to incorporate Johari’s Windows (a tool that helps us understand ourselves and each other) into our playback theatre together with Agi Orban, my buddy in Better Together. She’s very creative and open to my ideas and was able to innovate within our group dynamic. I had a strong sense of success in this experience, at least this was another way for me to know more about our eleven members from a different perspective: how do I see myself? How do others see me? What are the things that I know about myself but others don’t? What is the potential that others see in me that I don’t realise?

Since we’re coming to the end of this project, I wish that the good vibes will continue and be shared to more people. Thanks to our organising team, Will C, Marat and Nina; thanks to all participants Michael, Cherae, Mansee, Elsa, Sheila, Anna, Agi and myself, Poh Kiang. We’ve made it happen!

How Do I Share My Country’s Story in Twenty Minutes?
Mansee Shah Thard, India

When eleven people from diverse countries get together online for a year on the “Better Together” Playback project, the process and dynamics can be pretty interesting. The idea is to know each other’s cultures through presentations about their countries, followed by personal stories, playback and some discussions.

When the concept of Better Together was announced in the International Playback Facebook group, it sounded like a dream. More so, as I had just started jamming online with international participants and felt the need for it. There were times when I felt at sea because of not knowing about cultures and dynamics of different countries which limited me to play back these multicultural stories.

Twenty minutes is given to each person to present about their countries, culture and their relationship to it. “Tell your story” in twenty minutes. When I first heard about this, I thought that twenty minutes would be too much.

Our own choices about what we want to present or what we look for in presentations from other countries say a lot about who we are. When we initially started the presentation, the first few presentations were more from an individual perspective – their childhood years, what they liked about their countries and what they didn’t like, and so on. I don’t know if they would have been different if they were presented in the later part of the year when there was more comfort in the group.

Some of the participants found it challenging to decide what to share about their country. After all, most of the countries are complex with different races, classes and divisions. Besides, there were a few of us who felt unsure about presenting the not so glorious aspects of our countries. Then again, there were a few who were most comfortable sharing about the political aspects of their countries, and not so comfortable with sharing about their personal life.

Considering that I was amongst people who were unknown to me and had longer Playback Theatre experience than me, I wondered what I could present to them in twenty minutes. But, as time moved on, and the comfort set in, I realised that twenty minutes is too short a time to tell the story of my country, India. There is so much – history, politics, culture, people, economy, geography and beyond. What should I include and what is okay to not include? When actually I started preparing for my presentation, I decided I wanted to showcase my country in a way which only I know (through my local eyes). History was important, so I sent a couple of videos about my country beforehand. Other information such as politics and geography, I assumed people could always find through Google. I decided to talk a little about myself, my family and about the nuances which only I, an Indian woman living in India, knew and that’s how I went about it. Even then, the twenty minutes felt very short because there is so much more about my country which I wanted to share. I was comfortable presenting about the culture, the idiosyncrasies of India and Indians, as it was something I had lived in for forty-two years of my life. What I was not comfortable presenting was the facts of the political scenario, as my knowledge was too limited to discuss it but still, I did my best as they were important facts. The main theme that came out (maybe because I spoke very passionately about it or it touched the group more) was patriarchy in India. It was not easy for me to show my country in a negative light but still it was important to share.  I’m glad that I did, as a lot of participants could connect to it and found it enriching. Somehow, for me this theme has stayed with me, even now, three months later. And it has ignited in me a spark to be observant and to speak up when required (especially for the voiceless) and not be a bystander.  This, I believe, is the most important takeaway for me from this group. To not be on autopilot, observe, read up and speak up. I will always be grateful for Better Together for this and beyond.


The space between: Interweaving the “I” and the “We”
(Narrative Reticulation in a multinational Playback Theatre project exploring multicultural encounters.)

Elsa Maurício Childs, Portugal

When I was a child,
I believed in magic.

Now I have grown, and
I believe in stories.

Now I am older,
I give words
to the stories in people’s heads.

(“The Storyteller”, Imogen Wade)

My name is Elsa and I… 

In 2021, Playback in the Port created the online Better Together project, a highly stimulating and bold experiment on multicultural encounters through the mediation of Playback Theatre, directed by Will C., Marat Mairovich and Nina Garbuzova. After a selection process, with small group interviews, eleven people from eleven different nationalities were chosen to participate. The project, previewed to last for thirteen months, with twice-monthly two-hour meetings on alternate Sundays, consisted of presentations about each one of the countries represented in two sessions (one country per month). The first session was aimed at presenting each participant’s country, culture, and individual history and stories. The second session focused on stories of how the rest of the group related to the presentation and stories shared in the first session. There were also sessions specifically aimed at handling group dynamic questions resulting from previous sessions.

My personal testimony about my participation in this project is an attempt at underlining the patterns of connection between stories coming from and inspired by such diverse individual, social, cultural and political contexts as the ones these eleven people came from, as it became clear that this would be an opportunity to highlight the occurrence of Narrative Reticulation, especially appealing due to the fact that the group of tellers and the team of performers would be the same throughout these twenty-six sessions. As such, it would not only be possible to study the occurrence of Narrative Reticulation in each one of the sessions individually, but also from week to week and throughout the twenty-six sessions in total, thus contributing to an understanding of Playback and its effectiveness as a communication and bridge-building tool in the context of multicultural dialogue, proving that Narrative Reticulation “provides a rationale for dialogue through personal story” (Fox, 14).

Another element that contributed to this decision was the fact that, even though this would be an audience made up solely of playbackers, and thus of people who are aware of the Playback concepts that I propose to highlight in relation to the possible connections between stories, this deep familiarity of the whole group with Playback was counterbalanced by the originality of the context and framework that defined the very nature of each session and group of sessions and the thematic and formal prompt for the presentation and storytelling. This breaking away from the habitual, underlying expectations and premises of Playback Theatre could prevent a more significant type of preconception on the part of the tellers when deciding to share a story, which, when occurring, could introduce a bias in the conclusions of this reading.

As a chorus, let’s watch…

The mere witnessing, as a member of the group myself, of the stories as they were told rendered immediately evident the fact that the occurrence of Narrative Reticulation was strong, as we heard story after story that connected to previous stories not just from the same session, but from previous sessions, sometimes weeks apart, which seemed to confirm that “the dynamic balance of four attributes – story, atmosphere, spontaneity, and guidance – allowing a flow of interconnected stories” (Fox, 1), was definitely in place in the Better Together project.

Looking at the structure that may have given rise to this flow, the first session dedicated to each country started with a moment for face rights (a check-in that acknowledges the importance of each voice being heard, each face being seen) led by the conductor for the session, followed by a 20-minute presentation on their country by the teller-presenter. After a moment for discussing what, from the presentation, was resonating with the audience and a warm-up led by the facilitator of the session, the teller-presenter was invited by the conductor of that session (chosen previously by the teller), to tell stories based on their presentation and/or on the questions shared by the rest of the group in the chat after the presentation. The first session ended with a few minutes for takeaways and for inviting someone to volunteer as conductor for the second session. Besides the conductor, as just mentioned, who facilitated the Playback part, the session was guided by a facilitator also chosen by the teller, a role that, unlike that of the conductor, was extended to the second session, establishing a connection and a sense of continuity between the two sessions for each country/teller. In the second session, the follow-up facilitator was responsible for the face rights moment, dedicated to assessing how the previous session was resonating with the group, a moment followed by a warm-up led by the previous conductor. This warm-up led into the Playback part, directed by the volunteer conductor, who elicited from the group stories about the way the previous session had resonated with them. After the Playback and main part of the session, the facilitator guided a discussion with the whole group on what had remained with them from the two sessions. The final word of the second session was always given to the teller/presenter, as should happen in a traditional Playback context, as a part of the Playback ritual.

The stability, familiarity and internal logic of the structure for each module of two sessions, and of the succession of the different modules, as well as what came to be the ritualistic nature of each one of the different moments and their respective facilitation, helped create a coherence and balance in the guidance of the whole process and of each individual part of the process. This balance enabled us to encompass very different conduction styles, different individual and group energies, different focuses on the part of the conductors and the presenters, different formats for the presentations, and different audience/teller responses. And the coherence and balance that defined both the basic structure and the type of simultaneously solid and flexible guidance that it stimulated and contained allowed for connections between stories in each session and throughout the sessions that made up our one-year journey to occur more easily.

The same can be stated, without any hint of contradiction, for the spontaneous nature of what was gifted to the whole group by the whole group in the form of stories, of the performers’ (actors and musician) offerings, and of the fluidity, flexibility and univocity of the conducting and facilitating, beyond any and all the individual specificities that singularized each participant of the project. All the attributes associated with this determining feature of Playback, its improvisational nature, for which spontaneity is a sine qua non condition, were present: the playfulness with which we started and ended the sessions; the interplay of creativity and imagination in the retellings, where body expression and movement and a more poetic, minimalist use of language, set and props were central; the level of collaboration between performers; the interaction between actors and musicians; their presence and deep listening capacity; and the flexibility with which everyone exchanged roles.

The exact same final coherence and cohesion happened with the atmosphere that each individual, each team and the group as a whole were able to co-create, co-construct, and co-manage. The use of each individual stage, the balance of music, word and silence, the deep sense of theatre and the creation and maintaining of ritual in the retellings, alongside a stated, continuous search for inclusivity (which defined the sessions up to the very last moment we were together), the profound familiarity and, especially, affection that connected the group helped construct the collective resonance of individual stories that I would say defined Better Together as a whole.

Better Together was based upon the fundamental premise of Playback that stories are key to our identity, deepened by the other central premise that inspired the creators of the project: that the stories of the space(s) where we became individuals are also key to our identity; that is, that for our personal and national identities, the “I” and the “we”, are intertwined. As such, the most characteristic thread that united the stories that were shared along the project was the one that connected the stories of each individual country to each teller’s personal, family story.

Throughout each session, but also throughout the whole process, the stories shared by the group expanded both in breadth, as each set of two sessions structurally evolved from one single teller, to multiple tellers and because more and more people were motivated to share and to show their vulnerability along the thirteen months, and in depth, as the recurrent, main themes seemed to be increasingly explored in terms of scope and implications, seeming to become progressively more complex.

Statistically speaking, so that we can have an idea of the dimension of the storytelling involved in the process, Better Together had eleven tellers, eleven stories-presentations on countries, forty-two stories told by the presenters, immediately following their presentations, fifty-three stories by the whole group that were inspired by those presentations and by the presenters’ follow-up stories, and eleven final moments of sharing by the teller-presenters, in a total of one hundred and seventeen narratives shared by the whole group, which is equivalent to an average of more than ten stories per teller.

Type of Stories Number of stories Average per teller 

(11 tellers) 

Presentations on each country 11 1
Follow-up stories by presenters 48 4.4
Stories by rest of the group  53 4.8
Final word by presenter 11 1
Total 117 10,6

Table 1: Story stats

As regards the topoi that define the one hundred and seventeen stories shared, they can be grouped into four major thematic groups:

  1. Family history: ancestors, children, memory, loss, (dis)connection, roots, growing up, chosen family;
  2. National and individual identities: ambiguity, immigration, questioning, distance, proximity, re-evaluation;
  3. Work and activism: awareness, lack of awareness, self-awareness, belief, hope, despair, social justice, commitment, passion, self-knowledge, Playback;
  4. Oppression: violence against women, misogyny, racism, colonialism, lack of freedom(s), the patriarchy, gender-based discrimination, questioning of one own’s patterns of oppression.

We experienced a journey among these connected topics in each session, which deepened and became progressively more complex and vulnerable throughout the duration of Better Together, a process marked by an obvious augmentation of meaning (Fox, 2). This became perceptible in the dialogue that the stories progressively established with each other, revealing new meanings and new depths as we moved along, even if this dialogue could take different forms. Stories spoke to and of each other by association, by opposition, by inversion, offering new meanings to each individual story and to the general story of Better Together, a story of connection and courage, as the most quoted words in our final sharing exercise revealed.

The art of quilting

What quite immediately came to be and kept forming itself as a beautiful composite, integral, puzzle-like image made up of diverse individuals, playing diverse, changing roles, sharing about diverse spaces and times, in diverse ways reminded me of the reading of Narrative Reticulation as creating “a kind of tapestry with a unified design and a sense of the whole” (Fox, 3). But a tapestry is defined as a single piece of woven fabric where all the threads are hidden to form a single, unified, final image. A more productive and telling metaphor, from what I have experienced in Better Together, would be that of the quilt. Each individual story we told became a geometric piece of fabric in this evocative quilt, with colors, textures and patterns of its own, alongside all the other pieces of individual, single pieces of fabric, with colors, textures and patterns of their own, with distinctive tones, hues, lines, and threads that connected them to other pieces of fabric previously sewn in and to the ones that would still come to be. And, as happens in a quilt, but not in a tapestry, it was not only at the end of the sewing process of the whole patchwork that the complete image, the final design, appeared. This quilted image, made up of all of those individual, unique, original pieces, became progressively evident and readable, at every step of the way, by all of us as we sewed it together, as a community, throughout the thirteen months of the project.

Does a quilt possess unity? It is made of patches, its pieces may come from the most diverse origins, from anywhere; they may be stitched together, with different threads, by the most diverse hands, that often work in different moments in time, across generations even, to assemble it; it may seem to create different images at different times. That is all true and actually part of the reason why it is such an apt image for the process of Narrative Reticulation in general and for the type of strong, meaningful and inclusive Narrative Reticulation that defines Better Together. Quilting, both as a craft and as a metaphor, derives its power precisely from the fact that it is a multi-layered textile, made of numerous individual patches of different cloth that come together both as a progressive and as a final image or design, involving the communal synchronous and/or asynchronous work of different individuals and/or groups, a profoundly meaningful communal gesture that simultaneously tells the identity of each individual and of the whole community that created it. Just as Better Together gave rise to a quilted, multicultural group of diverse individuals whose connection and interweaving seems to contribute to the belief that “more of [Narrative Reticulation] in our social contexts will lead, one can hope, to more cohesive and civil communities” (Fox, 15).

I remember a group that…

For me, as a human being, first and foremost, and as a playbacker and a citizen of the world, this learning experience was one of the most rewarding ones I have ever lived in terms of its profound humanity, its emotional wealth, its experiential depth and of the critical awareness it offered me and, I believe, offered all of us. I leave this project as a better person for having learned from the example of a beautiful group of humans that I miss already, even if we just said goodbye to each other. The leaf of reticulating, communicating, dialoguing veins that all our narratives have created will also carry this final farewell story:

I miss your laughter, your honesty and your insights, Agi.

I miss your serenity, your care and your attentive silences, Anna.

I miss your power, your intelligence and your sense of humor, Cherae.

I miss your gentleness, your listening and your determination, Mansee.

I miss your creativity, your sensitivity and your belief in dialogue, Marat.

I miss your metaphors, your attentiveness, and your presence, Michael.

I miss your courage, your beauty, and your capacity to feel for and see others, Nina.

I miss your joy, your commitment, and your spontaneity, Poh Kiang.

I miss your perseverance, your integrity and your guidance, Sheila.

I miss your energy, your generosity and your inspiration, Will C.

And that is why I will end my personal article by dedicating to each and every one of you the song that Michael chose for my presentation about Portugal. “Saudade” is a polysemic, untranslatable Portuguese word that speaks, at the same time, of distance and constant presence, of longing and belonging. Your stories spoke of you and me. They spoke of us. They spoke of others. They spoke of the world. And they will keep inhabiting me and telling me who I am and who I want to be, forever…


Fox, Jonathan. 2019. Playback NR Workbook: Guidelines for Mastering Narrative Reticulation. New York: Tusitala.

Blanda, John Andrew, and Mariana Brito da Cruz Forjaz Secca. 2022. saudade, saudade.  Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC.


“Will C.” AKA Will Chalmus (United States) is a Playback practitioner and international trainer that simultaneously holds positions as an educator, consultant, performance artist, and event manager.

Elsa Maurício Childs (Portugal) is a Playback performer, conductor, director and researcher, as well as an activist Theatre programmer and producer, working towards social justice, with a special focus on gender and identity questions, and on matters related to gender, sexuality and mental health for teenagers.

Nina Garbuzova (Russia) is co-founder and actress of the Playback01 theater, co-organizer of the International Playback Camp, professional business trainers, expert in Art2Business techniques for solving corporate problems.

Cheraé Halley (South Africa) is an applied drama practitioner and creates theatre with a focus on human rights and social justice. Cheraé is currently the co-director of Drama for Life Playback Theatre and serves as a board member on the IPTN.

Poh Kiang Tan (Malaysia) has ventured into early childhood education for more than 10 years. She is a playbacker in Malaysia under Rasa Sayang Playback Theatre. She’s interested in influencing society through playback theatre.

Mansee Shah Thard (India) is a Playbacker and a social entrepreneur who manages a performing art space in Bangalore, India


Acknowledging the importance of the citizen actor and social artistry in Playback Theatre

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.

Barolsky, K. (2022). Playback Theatre and the significance of intra-actions in staging social artistry. Applied Theatre Research10(1), 55-70.

Barolsky, K. (2021a). Doing white differently? Playback Theatre and whiteness in post-apartheid South Africa. Research in Drama Education26(2), 224–239.

Barolsky, K. (2021b). Playback Theatre, social justice and empathy: A diffractive review. Applied Theatre Research9(2), 117–132.

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 Education12(3), 355–370.

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 Review36, 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.

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.





Bilal Bagh: Playback Theatre at a Historic Protest by Muslim Women

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

Kavya Srinivasan
Laxmi Priya S.N.
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.

From left: Riya, Akash, Laxmi, Rashmi and Sannidhi performing at an Ode to Resistance show. Photo: Arjun Thomas, Break Bramha Studio.

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.

At Bilal Bagh. From left: Riya, Akash, Deepak, Sannidhi, Angela, and Laxmi. Seated is Kavya. Photo: Anisha Pucadayil.

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”.


[1] Reading about the citizen mobilization can aid in understanding this article better:,_2019

[2] Excerpted from a footnote in the section entitled “Measuring Islamophobia”. Source:

[3] 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.

[4] 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’

[5] Playback Theatre Talks, #6, 4th June 2020

[6] Page 67. Source:

[7] 171, Rowe, N. (2007). Playing the other: Dramatizing personal narratives in playback theatre. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.


About the Authors

Kavya Srinivasan

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:

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.

Reach her at:

Rashmi Ravikumar

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.