Playback Theatre, “psychotherapy” and “therapy”

This is the THIRD 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” – this is the topic of this 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Note: In this LINK, you may see in pdf based on my yet unpublished book: Relational Playback Theatre in the PSP approach”.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)


[Α] Playback Theatre is not psychotherapy.

In PSP, the first thing that we may  note is that Playback Theatre, on its own, does not constitute any kind of “psychotherapy”.
This, because art alone, is not psychotherapy, despite the potential “therapeutic” effects of any aesthetic experience.

More specifically, to name some system of intervention “psychotherapy” it has absolutely to have concrete philosophy, goals, structure, methodology and practice.
For example, the words “cure” and “heal” do not cover the prerequisites (principles, structure and methodology) that are necessary to allow these words to connect in any way with “psychotherapy”.

So, anything that simply works “therapeutically” in a broad sense is not psychotherapy.

A good massage, artistic experience, holidays, good sex, swimming, yoga, reflexology, gymnastics can be “therapeutic” but in no way they are psychotherapy.
Similarly, art by itself, because its very nature, cannot fulfil the requirements of the term “psychotherapy”, no matter how therapeutic its effects might be.

Thus, I would say that Playback Theatre, as art, does potentially have amazing “therapeutic” (and NOT “psychotherapeutic”) effects. 

[Β] Playback Theatre as a supplementary tool in some kinds of the group psychotherapeutic process.

Playback Theatre, sometimes, can be connected as a supplementary tool intermediately with psychotherapy. 
I mean that it can be used as a way, like so many other ways, to support or stir the psychotherapeutic process, on a group level (as a warm-up, in supervision, as a closing process after a period of group life, etc).
The next few paragraphs are an example of such a use of Playback Theatre.

*** In Thessaloniki, with the groups T!NG and AquNa This, we experimented many times in various ways, regarding the complementary co-operation of Playback with the psychotherapeutic group process.
Playback supplemented the psychotherapeutic process functionally with excellent results, in specially arranged meetings with many closed psychotherapeutic and supervision groups.
*** We played with material emerging from personal issues of members of such groups, as well as issues that had to do with dynamics of group life. 
The Playback events were accompanied, by short of the enacted experience.
*** Furthermore, there was also great interest in the necessary co-operation of the psychotherapist – coordinating the group for which we were playing, with the conductor of the Playback group.
*** And, it was also very challenging to create the particular structure of the “performance”, which we designed each time with great care, depending on the each time specific conditions and needs.

It is not possible to remain here more on this topic, on the potential of Playback to function as a complementary tool in psychotherapeutic or also any other interventions. 
Just indicatively, and without wanting to be unfair to all the others who are involved systematically with this direction, I know that they already work with its various aspects:

E. Zadryazhskaya (2010; 2011-’13, personal contact), J. Paradi (2012, personal contact), the Italian group Meta Playback Theatre (and especially F. Radaelli – 2009; 2010-’13, personal contact), O. Sanachina (2012, personal contact), L. Giotis (2009-’13, personal contact), some members of the Greek group Hellenic Playback Theatre (2005, personal contact).

[C] “Opportunity – authenticity”, as the two general and basic therapeutic (not “psychotherapeutic”) aspects of Playback.

In this section we will deal with two general and invaluable therapeutic possibilities of Playback, always considering that Playback itself doesn’t constitute psychotherapy nor any form of “therapy through art”.
Personally, I believe that these two aspects of Playback form a diptych in which any other individual therapeutic function of Playback has its roots.

(C1) Playback Theatre – an opportunity for encounter.

One of these aspects is the unique opportunity for an intersubjective co-operation that Playback provides.
Actors and audience meet, and by building their common field of interaction (the “between” space of the performance), they produce a common intersubjective consciousness, through which we share and expand our explicit and mainly implicit knowledge about life (what we know about the world and is not consciously conveyed with words and logical patterns).

In the general consumer hypocrisy and technocratic sterility of our times, I find that the opportunity for an intersubjective encounter that offers the existentially dialogical, safe and caring context of Playback Theatre, is literally a priceless gift.
It is actually a gift, especially if we think of the simplicity, the depth and the power in which the experience of this encounter may reach.

In each step of the improvisational development of the performance, the present state of its intersubjective field is “challenged”.
What is happening now, in some way is “shaken”, as it becomes ground for the next step, which is unplanned and happens exclusively through the developing dynamics of the performance.
The “order” of the performance is continuously restructured, alternating with moments of doubt and uncertainty.
And as the performance evolves, the more the relational web of the performance becomes more compact and more coherent.

Playback Theatre functions therapeutically by definition, because building the intersubjective field of the Playback Theatre performance has by itself important beneficial effects (developing intersubjectivity is nowadays recognised as a basic human need).
Spectators and actors learn that they can work together and to explicitly and implicitly create the “between” space of their encounter, exploring ways to actively coexist in the context that Playback Theatre offers for this purpose.

Of course in every performance, there are definitely moments that seem like this co-operation “stumbles”.
That actor didn’t seize the great opportunity that the other two gave him. That narrator, despite the efforts of the conductor, insists on not bringing something personal.
Or, it seems that the entire group is not able to tune with the pulse of the spectators, etc.

However, these moments are simply some of the natural states of the intersubjective field of the performance.
They are part of the course of the performance; a course that has been engraved between all the other potentially possible ones, and is only “good” or “bad” according to the meaning we each attribute to it.

(C2) Authenticity – spontaneity of a game in Playback Theatre.

Now, as far as the second more general therapeutic aspect of Playback Theatre is concerned, I see it in HOW Playback Theatre offers us the opportunity of meeting:
in Playback Theatre we meet the Other through the pleasure of the authentic non-programmed “game”.

Not only in the sense of fun (of having “good time”) – doing Playback Theatre is for sure fun.
Mainly in the sense of the joyful surrendering in the process of the “game”, which is a feature of the spontaneous encounter with the Other (much similar to the authentic and deep pleasure of children who meet to play, fully present and engaged  in the process of their game).

In Playback Theatre, actors and spectators are called to enjoy “playing” with each other.
We simply don’t have dolls, little houses and cars.
We “play” by co-creating personal experience on a collective level, whereas our game takes place in the relational space of our safe contact and communication.

Regarding the explicit material of our game in Playback Theatre, I would say that it is our macro-stories.
And its implicit material is the invisible micro-processes stories of our live interactions during the whole of the performance.
I say this because as the performance unfolds, what happens between the interacting human beings, whether they are actors or spectators, can be seen as a long chain of processes forming “micro-stories” on an emotional and non-conscious level. 
These “micro-stories” do not have any plot mentally understood but the sense of “plot” is created by the non-conscious micro-fluctuations of their emotional charge.

[D] Some more distinct therapeutic (not psychotherapeutic) aspects of Playback Theatre.

For PSP, as we have already noted, any distinct therapeutic functions of Playback Theatre we can imagine, emanate from the above more general core that constitutes the diptych “opportunity – authenticity”.
Here, indicatively, I mention such distinct functions that I find important.

(D1) Playback Theatre and the importance of the micro-scale of our meetings.

I see a therapeutic function of Playback Theatre in how it brings us a deep sense of life through simple processes.
It reminds us that this sense is probably found in the authenticity with which we actively “live” and experience in the simple events of our life, instead of the contents of these events.
It reminds us to honour the economy, the importance and the truth in the liveliness of our encounters in our present flowing time.

The Playback Theatre performance, in its authenticity, is minimal, it is not grandiose.
It does not construct theories about life, it does not attempt to philosophically label any big truth, it does not draw conclusions; it only touches the processes of life experientially.
And this is therapeutic because it takes us out from our mental labyrinths and our complex concerns, reminding us of the importance of just sensing alive, of simply “living”.

The Playback Theatre performance evolves with simplicity, but through the many small performance events, we taste that distinct bitter-sweet sense of flowing life, irrelevant of how life manifests to each one of us, irrelevant of how we occasionally colour it with our eyes.

(D2) Playback Theatre and the need for universal meanings.

The life events of a human existence are a drop in the ocean, a grain of sand in the unlimited size of other universal events.
And yet, by honouring in Playback this unique drop, its glow sometimes touches more inclusive and universal meanings.
However, this does not mean that Playback reveals meanings common to all of us.

It means that Playback Theatre probably touches upon our shared need in all of us to somehow personally colour, in our individual reality, meanings that are important and existential in nature concerning all humans – this is why such meanings may be characterised as “universal”.
At the same time, the space that Playback Theatre provides to all the “voices” of the performance, shows us that our common point is not the kind of shape we see together in life, but rather our mutual need for each of us to discover it for oneself.

Thus, this therapeutic function of Playback Theatre involves a beneficial sense resulting from our encounter.
A sense produced as we experientially ascertain that it is not just us that seek shape, a purpose in life.

(D3) Playback Theatre and the trust in the processes of life.  

In Playback Theatre, the human encounter doesn’t follow any preexisting plan.
And as we are mutually “moving along” from moment to moment of the enactments, we collaborate in the building of our contact channel itself.
Through the improvisational – sequential character of each enactment and of the entire performance, we co-create our course until the end of the performance.

Thus, in the framework of the performance, we have the chance to experience an “analogue” of the improvised patterns of all the small and large processes of life naturally – of course on another scale, and in a symbolic way.

And all of these need a basic catalyst to become fertile elements of our course: our trust in the evolvement of things.
I’m not speaking about the faith in their “positive” aspects or about the naive faith in some parental universe that will offer to me something just because Ι very strongly desire to have it.
This is simply the trust in the fact that things in any case change.
Perhaps not always and immediately for the better, but they do change. Even if the scenarios of my life seem in my mind unchanged (a chronic illness, a “stuck” situation, etc), the way I experience them, moment by moment, changes.

So, even if the performance events seem bogged down, my total experience of these events chained between them always evolves, proceeds, even if this happens implicitly, on non-conscious levels.
Thus, in Playback Theatre we have the chance to directly experience the preciousness of the trust in this type of non cognitive processes, to see how things move, precisely when we allow them to proceed without control.

I would say that one more reason that Playback functions therapeutically is because it teaches us this deep existential trust in the process of change itself.
And at the same time, we remember the fundamental vitality, the psychically nourishing discomfort and vitalising tension of the spontaneous participation in the events of our life.

(D4) Acceptance, confirmation, differentiation: the “partial” and the whole; the story is carried by the person.

From its conception, PlaybackTheatre is clearly characterised by the dialogic element of acceptance (what I am) and the confirmation (acceptance of what I can potentially become).
Nevertheless, there are and there will always be disappointed and pleased spectators and actors.

Because, Playback Theatre is not to superficially ”entertain” the spectators or to make them agree with each other.

In PSP, Playback Theatre is designed by nature to primarily hold and contain the multiple phenomenological (personal) experiences in the collectively created unified field of the performance.
However, these experiences do not at all have to agree with each other, exactly because they are unique.

And this feeling, that I am unconditionally accepted in a space larger than my individuality, is a rare luxury in our days, an extremely therapeutic caress that our being accepts with relief during the performance.     

This  function makes Playback unique and special among other similar approaches.
Such similar approaches of stage improvisation, on the one hand are also primarily interested in rediscovering the importance of the personal story; but on the other hand, while they emphasize the personal story, neglect the person, the carrier of the story.

Conversely, Playback Theatre underlines not only the story but also the person expressing it, seeing each narrator as a unique, differentiated and changing organic component of the field.

(D5)  Playback Theatre in its “horizontal” dimension and broader “social” therapeutic function.

Jonathan Fox notes that today where human rights are all the more acceptable, it is especially important to listen to one another, to listen to the daily experiences of violence, oppression, sexism, racism, prejudice, especially those of us that can not imagine that they exist.

Especially since, Fox continues, if we consider that our story is written altered, as it is “rinsed” in accordance with the interests of the powerful.
And even more, for Fox, Playback Theatre courageously opens the widely untold “secrets” of the collective historic past, which are well kept in each country, colouring its present and limiting its future.

So it is very important for some space to exist that provides the chance also for the “unofficial story” to be written, especially of all those that are powerless and without the ability to be heard (in other words, a space to be created so that even the powers of the field that remain constrained in the background become figural).

From this perspective, we see a kind of “horizontal” dimension of Playback Theatre (in which each person is considered dynamically interrelated with the other persons of the performance), extending beyond the boundaries of the performance, reaching the broader collective reality.

So we could say that Playback Theatre acquires one more therapeutic function: as a space in which the individual mirrors and explores his/her identity towards several social variables.

(D6) Playback Theatre and “refreshing” the Self’s aspects.

Playback Theatre, if we are not afraid of authenticity (to insert personal elements in our experience), various aspects of our Self converse and are rearranged, as our stories speak to each other.

A thematic motif of a story that I hear, stimulates a life motif of mine that was set aside.
This forgotten motif of my life corresponds to a potential aspect of Self, which was just beyond the edge of awareness.
Now this aspect of me enters a more central part of my awareness, in a manner dependent on how I participate in the performance (if I am a spectator, narrator, member of the group).

The experience flows live, and the Self reorganises itself as it spontaneously participates in the narrative process.
As a spectator, I am flooded with senses and feelings that touch my being in a variety of ways.
In our normal daily life we don’t often have this chance, and especially in such a large scale and in a protected, safe, framework such as that which Playback Theatre offers.

So, Playback Theatre is therapeutic also because “we become”, we are refreshed and revived by the performance process itself.
Not so much because we learn something from the Others’ stories; but because we place their narrations side by side with our own stories.
Thus, our being gets stirred and we we get in contact with even “distant” aspects of our own Self – aspects that are unknown to us or neglected.

In any case, however we see the stories being bridged together as we co-create the performance, however we may consider them dancing in us and between us weaving their red thread, and whatever it is that flows in their intersecting channels, it revitalises us, it pushes us to go beyond the usual, daily sense of our Self.

This central, for me, therapeutic function of Playback Theatre may not happen as it happens in the structured methodology and the framework of psychotherapy.
It is however, a critical energetic contribution in personal development, in the renewal of our awareness, in the deeper hearing of our own precious and unique story as we write our journeys in life.

(D7) Playback and the “solutions”.

Occasionally, some support that Playback Theatre is therapeutic because the narrator, by watching his story, sees sides of it he has never thought about.
And, it is a fact that sometimes the spectator states: “that has never crossed my mind…”.
Indeed, some narrators also even ask for proposals – “solutions” to dead ends in the events of their narrations.
And after the enactment, they frequently thank the actors because they saw a way out that they had not imagined.

However, all of these, in my opinion, although do occur, are NOT therapeutic by their mental content as “ways out” – and of course DO NOT turn Playback Theatre  into psychotherapy, or even counselling.
The emergence of a sudden revealing perspective of one “dead end” through Playback Theatre enactments (or through a friendly conversation) is something undoubtedly important.
But not because the content of this new revealing perspective is on its own therapeutic.

What is important (and therapeutic) is the interest, the care we receive during the processes of human interaction.
And mainly, the event itself of such a genuine encounter is important: our awareness in some way “opens” since it is not just us in the between space of the encounter.
And as we move “with” the Other in the enhanced field of our mutual intersubjective consciousness, we “see” (we become aware of) the new possibilities.

In field theory of the Gestalt perspective, everything is part of the field. Everything is involved in the field’s structure.
Therefore “in” the field, exist also the “solutions” to what seems to be a dead end.
Each problem, each difficulty, corresponds to some re-organisation of my life-field – by “re-organisation” I mean some way to see differently the events and the elements of this field.

What happens is that through the enlarged intersubjective consciousness of the meeting with the Other, I actually intuitively sense another horizon in the possible structures of the field.
And so, a way out from where I thought I was trapped is now becoming visible.

This means that before, it was my view of the world and my choices that blocked the free flow of developments of the field organisation, creating my subjective feeling of a dead end. For example:
“I’m desperate… I don’t know what to do…” (= the dead-end).
“I’m tired of taking care of my brother, but again… What can you say?… It’s my brother… How can I abandon him…”  = (my personal belief system creating the dead end, preventing me from discerning any solution, any other possibility of organising my life-field).

The enlarged intersubjective consciousness in Playback Theatre works especially intensely due to the Playback Theatre dialogical framework, which protects the between space of the meetings during the performance.

However, in Playback Theatre no solutions and no advice is given.
Essentially, Playback Theatre is therapeutic not because it “shows” anything, but just because it offers someone the possibility to see how she/he himself possibly restricts his/her perspective regarding that which concerns him/her.
We would say that Playback Theatre “allows”, encourages the change, does not direct it. 
Playback therefore, does not point out truths, but is a space, a chance for processes to be created that at some moment may lead to personal and collective truths.

(D8) Playback Theatre and the supposedly healing “rewriting” of the experience – a VERY delicate issue…    

It is often claimed that Playback Theatre is raised to a healing – therapeutic intervention when the narrator sees or requests another end to his story, thus “erasing” the effects that the events of her/his story had to his/her life.

But generally, a new experience, when it is brief and when it is limited to the cognitive level can NEVER “erase” previous experiences.
And this happens because our experiences are holistic phenomena, in which the mental part is only 12% (!)
So, only some cognitive rewriting of an experience is not able to change the emotional part of this experience.

Furthermore, today, we know that for new neural pathways to be created and for the present to reframe the past, continuous and holistic rewritings of the experience are needed for a very long time.
We also know that new current experiences around problematic issues as well as structured psychotherapeutic work with the awareness of these experiences are needed.

“But Playback Theatre functions intensely on the direct experience beyond the cognitive dimension…” someone may claim.
Yes, but this intense experiential dimension of Playback Theatre involves only something very limited: the brief experience of the enactment.
This experience is not psychotherapeutic, because it is only a very short acquaintance of the spectator with what is threatening or traumatic for him/her.
And above all it is NOT long term and structured work with her/his basic and conscious awareness.

Even if we make the tragic assumption that all the on stage actors are experienced psychotherapists with the noble aim of “treating” the narrator, the on stage construction of a “healing scenario” would be totally useless and potentially abusive.

Any psychotherapeutic result is not just in the contents of only one session.
it is NOT in something that the psychotherapist “recommends.
It is based on all that happens during the development of the whole therapeutic relationship.
Thus, any “on stage healing scenario” by the “conductor/actor – supposed psychotherapist” would depend on interpretative assumptions and fortune telling as to what a till now unknown person, the narrator, “truly” needs to see, or even worse, on assumptions as to what is better for him to see.
This immediately downgrades the narrator to a child that gets advice, objectifying and directing her/him.

For all the above reasons, I strongly believe that any consideration of alternative scenarios suggested in Playback Theatre enactments as “psychotherapy”, is a consideration by axiom unfounded, and dramatically diverts Playback Theatre from its dialogical framework, its vision and its mission.    

When a story is replayed with a change to its events, something healing or therapeutic may not happen because the narrator “corrects” or emotionally discharges something.
Besides, today, catharsis is not believed to offer anything essential especially if not being part of a larger psychotherapeutic framework – conversely, it may be extremely dangerous.

However, what definitely functions therapeutically in Playback Theatre in such cases of “changing” the story’s scenario, is the relational event of the repeated enactment itself – irrelevant of any catharsis, or the changing of the events in their new stage version.
The narrator, first of all receives the availability and presence of the conductor, the actors and the entire hall.
She/he feels the performance’s intersubjective space “holding” him, accepting his/her need.
She/he feels visible, important, respected by the Others.
Even more, he/she feels that yes, in fact, there is the possibility to sometimes rewrite an experience, to give it another meaning, yet only from the present.

And so, yes, indeed, Playback Theatre may function therapeutically through its relational nature and NOT because something is corrected in the script of the enactments.


Even if someone does not accept any of the above therapeutic functions of Playback Theatre, one can not deny the fact that for many, when the Playback Theatre performance evolves in its natural flow, after its end, sometimes a sense of very beneficial “wholeness” and “belonging” comes.

I believe that this sense originates from the feeling of being part of something larger, a “womb” that does not judge, but simply provides safety and space, while simultaneously holding and containing.
It is actually a sense of dynamic harmony, that everything became even just for now differently explicit and “in” place (not necessarily “good – pleasant” or peaceful).
It is a snapshot of the entire picture of being in the field, of the Self that is “grounded” in what happens here and now.

On the scale of the unified performance-organism (consisting of all the present persons in the hall), perhaps this sense is an echo of their co-created intersubjective consciousness.
Or, an echo of the pulse, the glow of the overall potential of all the people that gathered and “conversed” with their mind and heart through the stories which were narrated, heard, enacted, and watched.

And at the same time, on the scale of each one person’s aspects of Self, something from what Yontef (1993*) defines as “core”, “The True Self, ”that it gives each person a deep sense of identity”, is probably tuned and resonates after the performance.

Or, perhaps, in the feeling that is activated for a while after the performance in each person, resonates an echo of what is deeply true for the person him/herself – if we see him/her as a potentially integral whole in the vastness of ”everything”…

*Yontef, G. (1993). Awareness, Dialogue and Process. Essays in Gestalt Therapy. Highland, New York: The Gestalt Journal Press, Inc.

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