What is Playback Theatre?

This is the FIRST ARTICLE in this category about Playback Theatre. The category includes 3 articles on how I see through PSP Playback Theatre: (a) the philosophy on which is based its praxis and training, (b) its several very important functions (without Playback Theatre being a “psychotherapy” – on this topic you may see the 3rd article).  

Note: In this LINK, you may see in pdf based on my yet unpublished book: Relational Playback Theatre in the PSP approach”. The article was published in: “The Journal of practical psychologist” (Russia)



*** The original Playback Theatre Company came together in 1975, by Jonathan Fox and other cooperators, and was part of the experimental theatre explorations of the 1970s. 
*** Playback has spread all over the world (there are more than 250 groups), and is now practiced in many different countries, languages and contexts.

*** In this kind of interactive and improvisational theatrical “praxis” there is no some pre-existing play or script that is to be presented.
*** The performance is co-created by the audience, the actors (the musician is included), the conductor.

The performance raw material is provided by the audience

Stories, dreams, moments, snapshots, expectations, feelings, important and “non-important” events of everyday life, issues which are familiar for anybody of us, yet always experienced only personally by each one of us.

It is said that Playback is a “Theatre – gift” aiming to create a ritual space where every voice and any story -however ordinary, extraordinary, hidden or emotionally difficult- might be heard and told.
Any story is unique and uniquely valuable, and exactly this is why there is much meaning in being told and heard in the “community” context of the performance.

Such narrations are getting “alive” on the Playback stage as they are improvised by the actors.

There is no discussion and preparation between the actors.
The result is a deep and strong experience enriching the actors and the audience within and beyond the “stage” boundaries.

A Playback performing group consists of 5-7 actors trained in the special Playback stage demands and techniques, a musician, and the conductor, who is linking the audience with the actors, and is responsible for the performance flow.

The performance starts with a short introduction by the conductor

about the Playback nature and about the group, as well the specific performance.
Then the performance is structured in periods of sequential “events” of narrations and stage improvisation, and unfolds in a ritual atmosphere according to more or less the following structure.

*** In the beginning of the Playback events making up the performance, someone from the audience expresses one’s wish to narrate some experience.
*** The narration is “shaped” through a short conductor’s interview with the teller. The teller has the chance to give “roles” to the actors: persons, feelings, objects, whatever she/he wishes to see on stage.

*** Then the conductor turns and asks from the actors to improvise the narrated story. The teller watches his/her experience dramatised (“played-back”) on the spot.
*** After the end of the improvisation, the conductor asks the narrator about her/his experience. The conductor turns to the audience, available for the next story, for the next Playback event to start.

As the narrator watches her/his experience to pulsate fully alive right there, on stage, in front of her/his eyes, he/she develops a here and now experience on the basis of the narrated event being now dramatised.
The narrator’s story, on the Playback stage, is getting life as an actual present process, by the Playback group.
It is no more a simple sequence of events and words lying asleep or selectively filtered in memory.
It is not anymore a lifeless “dried” statement of facts, squeezed in a mental space.

The narration gets a multidimensional aspect as what has happened “then” gets an emotional basis in “now” through the actors.
It becomes a live experiential figure, acquiring a new present meaning, because the narrator has the chance to attribute to his/her story the integrity that is at best meaningful for him/her right now.
A “new” experience is emerging out of “old” material.

At the same time the rest of the audience may sense analogies to their own life-events.
As they are all sharing a common aesthetic experience, springs up the common basis of existentially similar human issues underlying any individual life-event.

Playback Theatre may be functional in a variety of settings and with multiple goals.

It may be just a special kind of a theatrical performance, as well as a professional service to several areas (the Organisational and educational ones, or to several other aspects of the broader social field).

Playback as practice is addressed and open to anybody.
There are no ages or stage “skills” absolutely necessary.
Of course, to practice Playback there is a lot of serious training required, and any pre-existing skills in any aspect of stage interaction consist a significant basis for the Playback actor and conductor.

Still, it is important to note that anyone may be involved with Playback in one’s own way.
Suffice it to wish:
to interact and share with Others, to open to them one’s inner personal reality, to respectfully relate it with the reality of the narrators and of the other actors, to “listen” in a special way to other people getting responsibly in contact with them, to “play” with a child’s like authenticity, earnestness and enthusiasm, to develop systematically one’s expressive tools and skills, to work one’s relational awareness along with one’s growth.

“Do you have a story to tell? … Meaning is at the core of the creative process and of storytelling. When it is our own life story we are telling or a story from our lives, we become aware that we are not the victims of random and chaotic circumstances, that we, too, despite our grief or feelings of insignificance, are living meaningfully in a meaningful universe. And, again, the response to our own story, as well to the stories of others, is ‘Yes. Yes, I have a story. Yes, I exist’…”

[The quoted text is by Deena Metzger, “Writing for Your Life”, included in the book “Improvising Real Life”, by Jo Salas, 1993, Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company]

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