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Playback Theatre in Social Movements - Ben Rivers

7 Jul 2015

EDUCATE, AGITATE AND ORGANIZE!  PLAYBACK THEATRE AND ITS ROLE IN SOCIAL MOVEMENTS 

 

Headshot of Ben Rivers

Ben Rivers[1], 2015

 

In 1999, as Playback Theatre approached its 25th anniversary, Jonathan Fox[2] noted that the form was reaching a range of sectors around the world.  In line with early objectives, it was being used at a local level to improve community relations.  Playback was also being applied within the fields of education, mental health and organizational development.  Most commonly though, practitioners were applying Playback Theatre within the social service sector, particularly in communities whose voices were viewed as marginal to mainstream society (Fox, 1999). 

 

From the outset, Playback was conceived as an effective tool for enabling “diverse voices to be heard in a context of empathy”.  In particular, it was viewed as a practice that “honors the people’s voice, be it joyful or ashamed, triumphant or oppressed.” (Fox 1999:119)  Jo Salas, commenting on the “idealism” of Playback, noted that, “this theatre was conceived as a theatre of gift.  It was to be offered to the world as a means of healing interaction […] We were committed to bringing this forum to the “unstoried” as well as to those who already knew the satisfaction of sharing stories.” (Salas 1999:134-135) 

 

As Jonathan looked towards the future, he shared his hope that Playback Theatre could also “play a part in healing some of the injustices and upheavals of the past that fester not only in individuals, but in whole societies”[3]. (Fox 1999:15) 

 

In line with the ideas expressed above, the Playback community has historically suggested that redemptive dialogue is a central feature in our contribution to social change.  Towards this end, the Playback performer has been encouraged to function as an empathic mirror, or impartial conduit in service to each and every story.  It is my sense however, that the emphasis on neutrality, therapeutic metaphor and charitable endeavour has helped to obscure the need for principled struggle against the structural roots of social injustice.

 

As we near the 40th year anniversary of Playback Theatre, we can see that an interest in its more overt political application is gathering momentum.  This can be evidenced through the growing demand for workshops and courses that explore the intersection between Playback Theatre and social action.  We can also point to many instances over the past decade where Playback has been used to address various social inequities, historical grievances and political demands.  Most recently, for example, Playback was used in the streets of Hong Kong to augment the 2014 Umbrella Movement and its call for the retention of locally based, democratic governance. 

 

Taken on the street of Hong Kong, three men and a woman doing fluid sculptures[October 2014: Members of Encounter Playback Theatre perform during the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. Photo courtesy of Encounter Playback Theatre.]

 

Also, in 2014, Playback was used in the Taiwanese Sunflower Student Movement to generate dialogue relating to the proposed, and highly controversial, Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement with China. In the same year, Palestinian activists were utilizing Playback Theatre to combat Israel’s continued practice of settler colonialism, military occupation and apartheid.  In 2011 and 2012, Playbackers in the Occupy Movement were using the form to amplify widespread public consternation regarding wealth inequality, political corruption and corporate influence over the USA government.  Today, numerous other initiatives around the world are using Playback Theatre within the context of social movements that address issues of poverty, racial discrimination, violence against women, homophobia, militarism, environmental degradation and climate change. 

 

One might wonder therefore whether the Playback Theatre community has moved into a new era – one that contains elements that are more politicized and more direct in their allegiance to particular causes.  Could it be that we are beginning to incorporate a more radical language of activism – one that moves beyond the lexicon of non-partisanship in our journey towards a better world? 

 

In this article, I will suggest that we must expand our praxis to include notions of critical thinking, political agitation, alliance building and joint struggle.  Where asymmetrical power relations exist, we must be especially prepared to engage in efforts that incite constructive conflict and disrupt (versus soothe) the oppressive status quo[4].  In the words of Frederick Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist leader, “the struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.” (Douglass 1857: vi) 

 

As cultural activists seeking to renovate the guiding assumptions and associated methods that constitute our Playback praxis, we must begin to ask:  What theories of change seem most appropriate to our endeavours? How can we be more strategic in our interventions?  How can artistry and ritual best serve our objectives?  And what limitations of form might require us to adopt other modes of social, cultural and political action?

 

EDUCATE, AGITATE!

In 1942, B.R. Ambedkar, iconic leader of the emerging Dalit[5] movement, exhorted his followers with the following statement:

My final words of advice to you are educate, agitate, and organize. Have faith in yourself. With justice on our side, I do not see how we can lose our battle. The battle to me is a matter of joy. The battle is in the fullest sense spiritual  […] For ours is a battle not for wealth or for power. It is a battle for freedom. It is a battle for the reclamation of the human personality. (Amdebkar in Keer, 1971:351)   

 

Throughout his life, Ambedkar fought to dismantle the caste system along with its oppressive social and economic features that relegated ‘untouchables’ to a despised position within Indian society.  As the above statement suggests however, Ambedkar believed that true emancipation would arise only after internalized compliance with the caste system had been firmly uprooted.  

 

Paulo Freire also spoke of the oppressed and their struggle against “domestication” in favour of a full humanity (Freire 1970).  His pedagogical approach featured the concept of “conscientization” - a route to liberation through which the learner sharpens their innate capacity for critical thinking and takes related action against the oppressive elements of reality (ibid:17).

 

            The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, also noted that hegemonic values and beliefs must be effectively countered before any revolutionary project can fully succeed (Gramsci 1971).  He proposed that the capitalist state is divided into two spheres:  A “political society” that rules through force, and a “civil society” that governs through the “manufacture of consent”.  Gramsci defined civil society as a domain where ideas, values and beliefs are shaped, and where consent to bourgeois “hegemony” is achieved through the cultural legitimatization provided by media, universities and religious institutes.  Gramsci warned that direct revolutionary struggle – a “war of attack” - would therefore be limited without a prior “war of position”, which he defined as the long battle over those perceptions, myths and ideologies that induce collaboration, submission and obedience to repressive structures.

 

If we accept the central importance of counter-hegemonic struggle, we must then ask whether Playback Theatre can contribute to this endeavour.  Unlike Theatre of the Oppressed, the Playback methodology does not contain robust mechanisms for the explicit identification and analysis of oppressive norms and conditions.  In contrast, Playback offers “a kind of community conversation through stories, and this conversation, even though it contains not one, but many themes, and is often indirect in making its points, gives scope for the expression of a popular truth.” (Fox 1999: 120)  Where the theme of a Playback event invites stories relating to a particular injustice, we might therefore hope that the “community conversation” will include expressions of dissent and resistance to the oppressive status quo. Through these expressions, a counter-hegemonic position is established – one that calls for the awakening and action of those gathered.

 

In February 2015, I facilitated a 5-day workshop with Adavu Kalai Kuzu, a group of Dalit cultural activists who use street theatre, Parai[6] drumming and Playback Theatre to address caste discrimination in Tamil Nadu, India.  In one of our conversations about the relevance of storytelling within the broader Dalit movement, a young man named Kumar noted the impact of hearing and witnessing the enactment of an account shared by his friend and comrade, Madhan. 

 

In Madhan’s story he narrated an event that occurred during his childhood.  One day the local landlord – a member of a dominant caste – approached Madhan and his friends as they were sitting together on the edge of a rice field.  According to established custom, it was required that the children – as “untouchables” - stand and withdraw in order to allow the landlord’s free (and hence “unpolluted”) passage.  Whilst his friends complied with this expectation, Madhan refused to move.  Instead he remained, sitting defiantly at the edge of the path.  In response, the dominant caste man, furious at this act of audacity, kicked him as he passed by.

 

Madhan’s story was not the most dramatic account of non-compliance that was shared during our 5 days together.  However, it moved Kumar and others precisely because it illustrated the everyday actions that undermine the caste system and its dehumanizing structures. 

 

In another story told during the same workshop, a man named Mari recounted an event that occurred in his home village. 

Every year there is a religious festival held in celebration of the rain goddess Maariamman.  During the festival, worshippers are surrounded by large crowds who drum and chant together as they move through the streets and into the temple grounds to celebrate.  The event is always filled with high spirits and intense emotion.  In accordance with caste divisions though, the temples are not open to Dalits.  From the days of my early youth, my friends and I would complain about these rules and plan that some day we would defy them.  It never happened though.  The elders would warn us, saying that our [Dalit] community would suffer violent retribution if we angered the dominant caste.  One year however, my friends and I disobeyed their order and joined the festival procession.  As we approached the temple, we were gripped by the emotion that surrounded us, and then suddenly, as we entered the temple grounds, we found ourselves chanting Jai Bhim[7]! Jai Bhim!  After a few moments, the temple authorities came rushing forwards, eventually managing to push us out.  This experience however, remains with me as a significant victory. 

 

Like Madhan’s story, Mari’s account highlights and opposes the self-disciplining modes of thought and behaviour that compel oppressed subjects to comply with oppressive norms.  Together, their stories give rise to a form of local knowledge or “popular wisdom” (Fox 1999:11) that challenges hegemonic values, and establishes instead a counter-narrative of dignity and resistance.

 

Elsewhere I have noted that Playback Theatre can enable the transmission of attitudes, ideals, histories and concrete strategies that undergird a popular struggle movement (Rivers, 2013a; 2013b; 2014; 2015a; 2015b).  In Palestine, for example, stories will often advocate for the adoption of samud (steadfastness) in the face of military violence and harassment.  Other stories communicate advice about specific tactics one can employ if threatened with land confiscation, home demolition, arrest and/or imprisonment.  Other Tellers pay tribute to the history of Palestinian freedom struggle by narrating their own participation in various actions, protests and uprisings (intifadas). 

 

In short, conscientization and political agitation occur through the exchange of fortifying and subversive stories.  At times, stories also help to “inoculate” younger members of the popular struggle movement by preparing them for violations they are likely to endure at the hands of the Israeli authorities[8].

 

In some cases though, the Teller’s impulse towards dissent is strengthened not by the validation of their current stance, nor by the inspiration gained from hearing of someone else’s resistance.  Instead, an awakening occurs through the recognition of one’s own normalized response to the status quo.  As an activist from At-tuwani[9] shared:

Unfortunately, adaptation is a common response to the perverse conditions under which we live.  It is easy to become accustomed to the daily realities of land confiscation, home demolitions, settler violence and military occupation.  However, when we see these realities represented through theatre, it causes us to look again and see our situation from another perspective – one that reveals its abnormality[10]

 

The community of Khan Al Ahmar is located approximately 4.5 miles east of Jerusalem in the West Bank of Occupied Palestine.  The people of this community are members of the Jahalin, a Bedouin tribe that once enjoyed relative prosperity in the land of historic Palestine.  With the establishment of the State of Israel however, the Jahalin were evicted from traditional tribal territory and forced to reside as refugees in the West Bank and Jordan.  Today the Jahalin live in impoverished, slum-like conditions alongside desert highways that cut through the occupied West Bank.  They are under almost constant threat of further eviction as the Israeli authorities seek to seize their current areas of residence for the construction of illegal Israeli settlements.

 

Taken in an open air outdoor space, people surround actors in a horse shoe shape[September 2013: A Playback Theatre performance in Occupied Palestine is stopped by the Israeli army and border police. Photo courtesy of Ben Rivers]

 

            In February 2012, a Playback performance occurred in Khan Al Ahmar’s community gathering space – a roughly built structure made from wooden planks, strips of plastic, worn carpet and corrugated iron.  The troupe consisted of Palestinian members of The Freedom Theatre’s Freedom Bus troupe together with myself as Conductor[11].  In this event, a Jahalin leader named Eid came forward to the Teller’s seat.  Eid is a university-educated member of his community.  He is also a prominent activist, representing the Jahalin case both locally and abroad.  In Eid’s story, he described a situation from his home life, where each morning his children would beg him for one shekel (about 25 cents).  He then spoke about the shame he felt at his inability to fulfil this simple request. 

 

After hearing Eid’s story, the actors shaped his experience into a sparse, essentialized enactment.  Eid appeared riveted.  Later he shared with me, that in witnessing the performance of his story, he fully realized – for the first time – that he was submerged in poverty. 

 

Eid’s story was not merely retold and repeated by the actors. It was translated into a language that attempted, through aesthetic means, to illuminate the core elements of his experience.  This task, of course, is a primary objective of the Playback performer.  In response to the enactment, a Teller must confirm, contradict or expand upon the meanings and events that appeared in the performers’ interpretation of his story.  In Eid’s case, he experienced something akin to Brecht’s concept of the “alienation effect” (verfremdungseffekt) (Brecht [1936] 1964:91) - a kind of critical distancing where the familiar is rendered as strange.  The enactment had shaken and aroused him to the painful and unjust reality of his economic situation - one that he had previously adapted to on an unconscious level.  From this position, he was thus called upon to make a choice.  As John Suresh, founder of Adavu Kalai Kuzu noted, ‘When we awaken to the reality of our oppressed condition, an inner conflict is stirred.  We must either accept, or resist, our oppression.’ (Suresh, 2015) 

 

So far I have suggested that Playback can support movement efforts that focus on conscientization and community mobilization within oppressed communities.  In some cases though, the sharing and enactment of personal stories can also help to raise the awareness of those who possess more power and privilege.  However, the task of sensitizing the dominant group should not rest alone with those who struggle under their discriminatory rule.  Allies can also play a role by engaging members of their own group in the examination of their own ingrained biases, taken-for-granted privileges and histories of perpetration.  An example of this can be seen in the race-relations project led by the Philadelphia-based group, Playback for Change.  The initiative involved a 3-part series of events: one that occurred in April 2003, for White People only, a second for People of Color only in November 2003, and the third, a mixed event for People of Color and White People in January of 2004 (Centre for Playback Theatre, 2015). 

 

In the White People only performance, participants were asked some of the following questions:

1.    Do you have a story about a time where you were aware of being White?

2.   Can you remember a time when you were clueless and did something you later realized was racist?

3.   Can you remember a time when you stood up against racism?

4.   Can you remember a time when you did not stand up against racism? (And maybe wished you had.)

5.    What stops you from interrupting racism or taking action against it?

6.   What are the costs of racism for you as a White person?

7.   How has being White been an asset to you?

In the People of Color event, people were asked some of these questions:

1.    How has internalized oppression affected you?

2.   What stories of racism have you not told?

3.   What are some of the burdens of being a Person of Color?

4.   Share a time where you stood up for a Person of Color.

5.    Share a time where you did not stand up for a Person of Color but wish you had.

6.   Share a time where you were told to “just get over racism”.

 

In the final mixed-race performance, people where invited to share whatever story they needed to tell.  In this event, the Conductor ensured that Tellers included People of Color, White People, men and women (Freeman, 2014).

 

Through this project White People were able to investigate their own racialized attitudes and behaviours without burdening People of Color with the task of “educating” them.  The series also provided a space for People of Color to address ways in which they themselves have internalized the normalizing discourses of a racist society.

 

Naturally, the emancipatory potential of Playback will be severely curtailed if the practitioners themselves are limited by poor knowledge, misconceptions, prejudices, paternalistic attitudes, or stereotypical readings of a story and its presenting issues.  Our actions will also be compromised without recognition of our own position within the dynamic we wish to address.  As Playback practitioners then, we must engage in processes that contribute towards our own education[12], self-awareness and capacity for critical thinking.  Without this prior work, it is possible that we will unwittingly comply with hegemonic discourse by enacting problematic typecasts (stereotypes) or by falling into psychologised renderings that negate the broader political dimensions of a story and its potential as a catalyst for social change. 

 

Indeed, the performance space itself can become a microcosm of the broader society – along with its patterns of blindness, discrimination and inequity.  As suggested above, this might occur where iniquitous worldviews are indulged and reproduced by the performing team.  We might also find that the Teller’s seat remains occupied by people who enjoy greater status in the world outside.  As proposed throughout this article, the Playback practitioner cannot remain impartial in the face of such phenomena.  If, for example, a certain demographic group dominates the event, it is the responsibility of the Conductor to ensure that other voices are also heard. 

 

Additionally, the Conductor must communicate their non-complicity in cases where the Teller’s story condones a worldview that is racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise oppressive in some way.  Actors can respond to such stories by recasting the oppressed party in a manner that questions the objectifying or stereotyped portrayals provided by the Teller.  The actors might also introduce a Narrator role that provides important contextual details (e.g. sociopolitical or historical information) within the enactment.  In addition, the performers may use certain aesthetic devices that encourage a reflective stance to the events on stage.  Using the alienation effect, for example, the actors might break the fourth wall and communicate directly with the audience, sharing their thoughts and feelings about a particular scenario.  They may also employ a deliberate use of tempo, repetition, space, gesture, movement, voice and linguistic register[13] to invoke critical distance and a feeling of estrangement from the oppressive worldview endorsed by the Teller in their original narrative. 

In this last section I have touched briefly on the subject of acting technique in anti-oppressive practice.  While a longer discussion is beyond the scope of this article, the topic is one that would benefit from further research and exploration. 
 

ORGANIZE!

In any movement, the task of organizing consumes the lion’s share of time and energy.  For our work to be maximally effective though, we must be intentional and strategic in our planning of interventions.  At the same time, our organizing efforts must be grounded in a framework that is participatory and democratic.  Rather than situating ourselves as weekend dilettantes going in to do good deeds, we must instead acknowledge the value of sustained, cooperative endeavour.  From a benevolent attitude we must move instead towards an appreciation of reciprocal interests and shared struggle.  As Lilla Watson, the Indigenous Australian artist and activist stated, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”[14] (Watson, n.d.) From this paradigm we find ourselves developing mutually fulfilling alliances with individuals and groups whose work we can learn from, augment and amplify. 

 

Hasan Taha, a performer-activist with the Freedom Bus troupe, reflects on the two-way benefits that can flow from a deepened connection with partnering communities:

As a Palestinian who lives on the other side of Palestine, it was good for me to stay for extended periods of time in At-tuwani.  By spending many days and nights together - talking, eating, playing, working, and struggling side by side - I got a much better understanding for how my people live and resist in this part of the occupied West Bank […] In fact, in At-tuwani I didn’t feel like an actor coming to do his job. Instead, I felt like a family member and a part of the community […] We [members of the performing troupe] worked the land, demonstrated, shepherded and confronted the Israeli army.  Having these experiences - which At-tuwani people must face every day – allowed me to identify with them.  During a performance, this helped me as an actor.  When a Teller was sharing his story, I felt like it was my own, as if his experience had happened to me too.  I connected deeply and this, I hope, was reflected in the enactment.[15]

 

I propose that elements of Participatory Action Research (PAR) can be especially helpful in our attempts to adopt an organizational approach that emphasizes collective enquiry and joint action.  In particular PAR enables the involvement of community members, activists, artists and other parties in a cycle of analysis, planning, implementation and reflection[16].  Through such processes, organizers can ensure that knowledge and interventions remain connected to the core concerns of a movement.

 

            The Freedom Theatre’s Freedom Bus is one example of an initiative that utilizes a PAR approach.  From the outset The Freedom Theatre engaged with village councils, popular struggle committees and civil society organizations in the process of analysis and planning.  Locally based groups such as the Jordan Valley Solidarity Campaign, the At-tuwani Women’s Cooperative, the Popular Struggle Committee in Bili’in, and the South Hebron Hills Popular Struggle Committee have become key partners in the design and implementation of diverse initiatives.  Indeed, the shape and scope of our activities have evolved significantly through the input of individual community members and partnering groups.  For example, Playback Theatre performances now occur within multi-day events that include home stays, protests, solidarity walks, teach-ins, and civil disobedience. 

 

Through participatory action research, it has also become clear that Playback Theatre is not always the most appropriate form of cultural intervention.  In one case, for example, the people of Nabi Saleh noted that Playback Theatre produces a transitory phenomenon that cannot be replicated.  This conflicted with their hope for a form of storytelling that could export their model of unarmed, popular resistance to other Palestinian communities.  On the suggestion of people from Nabi Saleh, we therefore collected their stories and devised a scripted play that subsequently toured to villages and refugee camps throughout the West Bank.  Playback was used at the conclusion of each performance to elicit audience responses and invite sharing about other examples of resistance that were indigenous to each village.

 

Playback Theatre, through its ability to facilitate communication and relationship building, may also assist in the promotion of healthier organizations, and networking within a movement. The Bonded Labour Liberation Front Karnataka (Jeevika) is a grassroots, activist organization dedicated to the “eradication of bonded labour, caste-class-patriarchal structures and unequal globalisation processes in Karnataka, India”.  Its 250 members consist of former bonded labourers and their relatives.  Since 1993 Jeevika has engaged in “conscientization and training; organisation and unionisation; agitation and campaigning; lobbying and advocacy; networking and use of media; reflection, study, research and documentation.” (Jeevika, 2015)  Jeevika also includes 7 cultural groups each consisting of 12 – 15 activists.  These groups use street theatre and Dalit movement songs as vehicles to further their social, cultural and political objectives.  Since the year 2000, Jeevika has also used Playback Theatre within villages and inside the organization itself.  Kiran Prasad, overall Coordinator of Jeevika, noted that Playback has fulfilled a valuable function in helping to sustain meaningful and constructive relationships between members of the organization (Prasad 2015).  John Suresh from Adavu Kalai Kuzu made a similar point, “For a movement to be strong we must have strong relationships between us.  Playback Theatre can help with this […] When we come together to share and perform personal stories, we also challenge the fragmentation and divisions that a casteist society tries to impose upon us.” (Suresh, 2015)

 

In general, Playback Theatre deals only with the lived accounts of Tellers.  The form is not designed to accommodate the overt analysis of injustice, nor the interventions that might lead us towards a preferred reality.  How then can we imagine and portray that which has not yet appeared in the social realm?  As cultural activists, are we restricted only to the domain of truth telling, or can we also point towards the world we are working for?  These questions have led towards adaptations of the conventional Playback format.  Some Playback groups, for example, have developed practices that incorporate Forum Theatre and Playback Theatre processes within the same event[17].  Other Playbackers integrate more traditional methods of education and action planning.  For example, Hudson River Playback Theatre recently partnered with Drone Alert in a performance that focused on the stories of activists who are facing prison time for peacefully protesting US drone killings.  In addition to sharing information about US militarism and participation in drone warfare, the event also included a post-performance networking and planning session where audience members discussed concrete actions they themselves could take. (Salas, 2015)

 

Without doubt Playback Theatre is not a universal remedy.  There are times where other methods might better serve the needs at hand.  Playback does however, offer an opportunity for a radical form of pedagogy – one that does not depend on didactic instruction or consciousness raising imposed from the outside.  Instead, the process of political awakening occurs through the sharing and embodiment of real life stories – stories that are replete with examples of confusion and certainty, hardship and struggle, steadfastness and hope.  The Playback process itself also offers opportunity for the modelling of values and behaviours that counter systems of domination and discrimination.  Through our expressions of respect, deep listening, empathy, solidarity, and creativity, we embody a reality that directly contradicts the dehumanizing forces that act upon us all.

 

APPENDIX 1

PARTICIPATORY ACTION RESEARCH FOR PLAYBACK THEATRE AND SOCIAL ACTION
 

Participatory Action Research (PAR) emphasizes a spirit of collective enquiry and related action.  Participants are engaged as co-researchers in the investigation of questions and issues that hold significance for their community.  Through a jointly conducted process of analysis, planning, implementation and reflection, participants ensure that knowledge and intervention remain linked to commonly held values and objectives.  The following questions and considerations offer Playback practitioners a PAR framework through which to develop interventions with a social justice emphasis.  Maximal input from relevant organizations, groups and individuals should be sought for each stage of the PAR process.

 

OBSERVATION/ANALYSIS

 

When designing a Playback intervention for social or political change we must first analyse the issue/problem we wish to address.  In addition to using conventional modes of investigation we can also conduct mapping and analysis through various action methods including Image Theatre, Sociodrama and Playback Theatre.  Here are some questions that can guide our process:

·      What are the root causes of the issue/problem? (Consider various social, cultural, historical, economic and ideological factors.)

·      What are the consequences/impacts of this problem on people’s lives?

·      Who are the significant stakeholders in this issue?  (Who has power?  Who is adversely affected?  Who are the enablers of oppression?  Who are the allies of the oppressed party?  Where do we stand?) 

·      How is the current status quo maintained?  How does the privileged party “manufacture consent”?  How is the status quo challenged/resisted?

·      Where are the geographic and ideological sites of exploitation, production, consumption, destruction, indoctrination and resistance?

 

PLANNING

 

Once we better understand the history and dynamics of an issue, we can begin to consider our plan of action and the assumptions that underpin it.

·      What are our objectives?  What do we hope to shift/transform?  What aspects of this problem are within/beyond our scope of influence?

·      What is our “theory of change”?  What values, beliefs and assumptions underpin our approach?

·      Who do we wish to engage/join with in the coordination and implementation of this intervention? Who are our allies and strategic partners?  (Consider partnerships with fellow artists, activists, advocates, journalists, and policy makers.)

·      Are we intervening at the personal, relational, cultural and/or structural level? How can we link our efforts to others who are working with similar or different dimensions of the same issue?

·      What core and affiliated strategies will enable us to reach our defined objectives?  What methods/practices will we employ?

·      How do we include and prepare our team, the community and other stakeholders?

·      Who should we invite as audience to the Playback Theatre events?  Who can help in the transmission of stories and their issues?  Who holds influence at the structural level?  Consider policy makers, politicians, journalists, filmmakers and other activists.

·      What allied groups can help with networking, information sharing, and action planning within the event itself?

·      Have we planned for the promotion, documentation, sharing and evaluation of our intervention?

·      Is our intervention sustainable?  What resources are needed/available for its implementation and continuation?

·      What are the limitations of our plan?  What obstacles might we encounter?

·      Have we planned for the full range of logistical considerations? (e.g. translation, suitable venue, publicity, transport, technical needs, etc).

 

IMPLEMENTATION/ACTION

 

The Playback event itself should remain congruent with our core values and objectives.  We must therefore strive to be fair and inclusive - modelling egalitarian principles within the planning and delivery of performances, workshops and other project activities.  Relatedly, we must be prepared to question and address patterns of domination and discrimination that arise within ourselves and other participants. 

While engaging with a Teller’s story, the Conductor and performers may wish to consider some of the following:

·      What contextual details (cultural, sociopolitical and historical) are important to the story?

·      If the story is one of oppression: How has the Teller been impacted by the inequity?  (Listen for the psychological, interpersonal, social, spiritual, cultural, economic and structural levels of impact.)

·      Have other members of the Teller’s community been impacted in similar or different ways?

·      How has the Teller and their community responded to the injustice/crisis?  What agency have they demonstrated? 

·      What values, principles, social movements, allies, or individual figures provide inspiration and/or support for the Teller?

·      Has the Teller internalized, or upheld, an oppressive worldview?  

·      What does the Teller hope for and desire?

·      As a member of the performing team:  How might my own interpretation of the story be conditioned by hegemonic/oppressive discourse?  How will I navigate these responses on stage?

 

REFLECTION/EVALUATION

 

The process of reflection and evaluation invites us to critically examine project activities and their impact.  Feedback, ideas and suggestions that are generated through the reflective process can be used to inform subsequent cycles of planning and implementation.  In designing reflective processes we might consider the following:

·      What criteria are used for the evaluation of our interventions? 

·      Who do we engage in the evaluation/reflective process?

·      How can we facilitate in-depth, critical reflection?  Consider for example the pros and cons of using focus groups, structured interviews, informal conversations, questionnaires and/or written evaluations.  Action methods (including Playback and Image Theatre) and other arts-based practices can also be used for generating feedback, analysis and suggestions.

·      Will the results of the evaluation process be shared with all partners?  If so, how?

The stages of PAR have been presented here in a consecutive order.  In reality however, the processes of analysis, planning, action and reflection will occur in a continuous, overlapping and non-linear fashion throughout the life of an initiative.

 

 

 

REFERENCES

Al Adraa, I.  (2014). Interview with the author.  At-tuwani, Occupied Palestine.  September, 17.

Brecht. B. (1936/1964). Brecht on Theatre.  Edited by J. Willett.  New York: Hill and Wang.

Centre for Playback Theatre (2015). Retrieved from  http://www.playbackcentre.org/playback-for-change on 4 March 2015.

Chung, J. (2015). Email communication with the author.  March, 3.

Douglass, F. (1857). West India Emancipation Speech. Delivered at Canandaigua New York, August 4, 1857.

Fox, J. (1999). A Ritual for Our Time. In Gathering Voices: Essays on Playback Theatre, Eds, J.Fox, and H. Dauber. New York: Tusitala Publishing.

Freeman, P. (2014).  Email communication with the author.  June, 10.

Freire, P. (1970/1993). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Penguin Books.

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. International Publishers.

Hutt, J. and Hosking, B. (2004). Playback Theatre: A Creative Resource For Reconciliation.  Retrieved from http://www.brandeis.edu/ethics/peacebuildingarts/pdfs/peacebuildingarts/Bev_Jenny_final_ALDEdit.pdf on 10 November 2010.

Jeevika. (2015).  Jeevika Vision Statement. Bangalore.

Keer, D. (1971).  Dr. Amdebdkar Life and Mission. 3rd ed. Bombay: Popular Prakashan.

Prasad, K. (2015).  Interview with the author. Bangalore, India. March 4.

Rivers, B. (2013a). Playback Theatre as a response to the impact of political violence in occupied Palestine.  Applied Theatre Research, 1.2, pp. 157-176.

Rivers, B. (2013b). The Freedom Bus and Playback Theatre:  Beyond Neo-colonial Approaches to Trauma Response in Occupied Palestine.  Journal of Practical Psychology, № 5, pp. 78-96. (Russian: Риверс Б. Автобус свободы и плейбэк театр: за пределами неоколониалистских подходов к реакции на травму в оккупированной Палестине.//Журнал практического психолога. - Москва. - 2013. - №5.- с.78-96). 

Rivers, B. (2014). Playback Theatre, Cultural Resistance and the Limits of Trauma Discourse.  Interplay. Vol XVIII, No. 2, pp. 15-18.

Rivers, B.  (2015a). Narrative Power:  Playback Theatre as cultural resistance in Occupied Palestine. Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance.  20:2, pp.155-172. DOI: 10.1080/13569783.2015.1022144

Rivers, B. (2015b). Cherry Theft Under Apartheid.  The Drama Review. 59:3 (T227), pp. 77-90.

Salas, J. (1993/1999). Improvising Real Life: Personal Story in Playback Theatre, 3rd Edition. New Paltz: Tusitala Publishing.

Salas, J. (2015).  Email communication with the author.  March 13.

Suresh, J. (2015).  Interview with the author.  Chennai, India.  February, 6.

Volkas, A. (2009). Healing the Wounds of History: Drama Therapy in Collective Trauma and Intercultural Conflict Resolution. In R. Emunah and D.R. Johnson (Eds), Current Approaches in Drama Therapy. Illinois: Charles C. Thomas Publishers.

Watson, L. and Aboriginal activist group. (n.d.).  Retrieved from http://unnecessaryevils.blogspot.in/2008/11/attributing-words.html on 14 February 2015.

Weinblatt, M. (2015).  Combining Theatre of the Oppressed and Playback Theatre: A Powerful and Delicate Marriage. Retrieved from http://www.mandalaforchange.com/resources/articles/combining-theatre-of-the-oppressed-and-playback-theatre-a-powerful-and-delicate-marriage/ on 14 March 2015.

 

 

 

 



[1] To correspond with the author, please email benjrivers@gmail.com

[2] Jonathan Fox founded Playback Theatre in 1975.  He developed the form along with Jo Salas and the original Playback Theatre Company based in Hudson Valley, USA.

[3] See Volkas (2009) for examples of Playback Theatre being used to address legacies of violent conflict and historical trauma. For a broader discussion about Playback Theatre and its role in peace building and conflict resolution, see Hutt and Hosking (2004).

[4] For a discussion about the role of Playback Theatre in asymmetrical conflict, see Rivers (2015a).

[5] Dalit is a term designated for a section of society traditionally regarded as “impure” and hence “untouchable” within the Hindu caste system.  While caste-based discrimination was officially prohibited under the Constitution of India, Dalit communities continue to suffer harassment, assault and inequity.

[6] The Parai is an ancient drum traditionally played by members of the Dalit community during funeral processions.  The instrument acquired negative connotations within caste society, however Dalit activists now celebrate the Parai as an important symbol of their identity and struggle.

[7] Jai Bhim literally means “Victory to Bhim” i.e. to Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar.  The term is often used as an expression of greeting or solidarity between members of the Dalit movement. 

[8] See for example Loai’s story in Rivers (2014).  

[9] The village of At-tuwani is located in the South Hebron Hills of Occupied Palestine.  The Freedom Theatre has been working in partnership with activists there since early 2012. For more information about this relationship, see Rivers (2015b).

[10] This interview excerpt appears in Rivers (2015b).

[11] The Freedom Bus initiative uses Playback Theatre and other forms of cultural activism to bear witness, raise awareness and build alliances throughout Occupied Palestine (see www.freedombus.ps).  I am a Co-founder of the Freedom Bus.  In the first few months of its establishment, I also conducted several Playback Theatre events.  From March 2012 onwards however, Playback events have been performed and conducted in Arabic by Palestinian members of the troupe.

[12] Jiwon Chung (2015 n.p.) notes that, “Just as an actor has to prepare for a role by doing research, a PT actor with integrity is obligated to do the same.  By reference, PT is very close to simultaneous interpretation.  A good interpreter has to have an enormous amount of topic specific knowledge in order to do the translation justice.  They have to be as close to an expert on the topic as the person speaking.”

[13]  In linguistics, the term “register” refers to a type of language used for a specific purpose or in a particular social setting.  For example, the register someone uses during a job interview will be different to the register they use during a conversation with a close friend.

[14] Although this quote is attributed to Lilla Watson, she has explained that the phrase was actually developed by an Aboriginal activist group that she was part of during the 1970’s.  She has therefore expressed her discomfort with being solely credited for something that was born of a collective process.  Read more here: http://unnecessaryevils.blogspot.in/2008/11/attributing-words.html

[15] This interview excerpt appears in Rivers (2015b).

[16] See appendix for questions and processes a Playback Theatre team might use within a PAR framework.

[17] See for example: Weinblatt, M. (2015). 

 

 

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Ben Rivers

Playback Theatre in Social Movements - Ben Rivers

7 Jul 2015

EDUCATE, AGITATE AND ORGANIZE!  PLAYBACK THEATRE AND ITS ROLE IN SOCIAL MOVEMENTS 

 

Headshot of Ben Rivers

Ben Rivers[1], 2015

 

In 1999, as Playback Theatre approached its 25th anniversary, Jonathan Fox[2] noted that the form was reaching a range of sectors around the world.  In line with early objectives, it was being used at a local level to improve community relations.  Playback was also being applied within the fields of education, mental health and organizational development.  Most commonly though, practitioners were applying Playback Theatre within the social service sector, particularly in communities whose voices were viewed as marginal to mainstream society (Fox, 1999). 

 

From the outset, Playback was conceived as an effective tool for enabling “diverse voices to be heard in a context of empathy”.  In particular, it was viewed as a practice that “honors the people’s voice, be it joyful or ashamed, triumphant or oppressed.” (Fox 1999:119)  Jo Salas, commenting on the “idealism” of Playback, noted that, “this theatre was conceived as a theatre of gift.  It was to be offered to the world as a means of healing interaction […] We were committed to bringing this forum to the “unstoried” as well as to those who already knew the satisfaction of sharing stories.” (Salas 1999:134-135) 

 

As Jonathan looked towards the future, he shared his hope that Playback Theatre could also “play a part in healing some of the injustices and upheavals of the past that fester not only in individuals, but in whole societies”[3]. (Fox 1999:15) 

 

In line with the ideas expressed above, the Playback community has historically suggested that redemptive dialogue is a central feature in our contribution to social change.  Towards this end, the Playback performer has been encouraged to function as an empathic mirror, or impartial conduit in service to each and every story.  It is my sense however, that the emphasis on neutrality, therapeutic metaphor and charitable endeavour has helped to obscure the need for principled struggle against the structural roots of social injustice.

 

As we near the 40th year anniversary of Playback Theatre, we can see that an interest in its more overt political application is gathering momentum.  This can be evidenced through the growing demand for workshops and courses that explore the intersection between Playback Theatre and social action.  We can also point to many instances over the past decade where Playback has been used to address various social inequities, historical grievances and political demands.  Most recently, for example, Playback was used in the streets of Hong Kong to augment the 2014 Umbrella Movement and its call for the retention of locally based, democratic governance. 

 

Taken on the street of Hong Kong, three men and a woman doing fluid sculptures[October 2014: Members of Encounter Playback Theatre perform during the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. Photo courtesy of Encounter Playback Theatre.]

 

Also, in 2014, Playback was used in the Taiwanese Sunflower Student Movement to generate dialogue relating to the proposed, and highly controversial, Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement with China. In the same year, Palestinian activists were utilizing Playback Theatre to combat Israel’s continued practice of settler colonialism, military occupation and apartheid.  In 2011 and 2012, Playbackers in the Occupy Movement were using the form to amplify widespread public consternation regarding wealth inequality, political corruption and corporate influence over the USA government.  Today, numerous other initiatives around the world are using Playback Theatre within the context of social movements that address issues of poverty, racial discrimination, violence against women, homophobia, militarism, environmental degradation and climate change. 

 

One might wonder therefore whether the Playback Theatre community has moved into a new era – one that contains elements that are more politicized and more direct in their allegiance to particular causes.  Could it be that we are beginning to incorporate a more radical language of activism – one that moves beyond the lexicon of non-partisanship in our journey towards a better world? 

 

In this article, I will suggest that we must expand our praxis to include notions of critical thinking, political agitation, alliance building and joint struggle.  Where asymmetrical power relations exist, we must be especially prepared to engage in efforts that incite constructive conflict and disrupt (versus soothe) the oppressive status quo[4].  In the words of Frederick Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist leader, “the struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.” (Douglass 1857: vi) 

 

As cultural activists seeking to renovate the guiding assumptions and associated methods that constitute our Playback praxis, we must begin to ask:  What theories of change seem most appropriate to our endeavours? How can we be more strategic in our interventions?  How can artistry and ritual best serve our objectives?  And what limitations of form might require us to adopt other modes of social, cultural and political action?

 

EDUCATE, AGITATE!

In 1942, B.R. Ambedkar, iconic leader of the emerging Dalit[5] movement, exhorted his followers with the following statement:

My final words of advice to you are educate, agitate, and organize. Have faith in yourself. With justice on our side, I do not see how we can lose our battle. The battle to me is a matter of joy. The battle is in the fullest sense spiritual  […] For ours is a battle not for wealth or for power. It is a battle for freedom. It is a battle for the reclamation of the human personality. (Amdebkar in Keer, 1971:351)   

 

Throughout his life, Ambedkar fought to dismantle the caste system along with its oppressive social and economic features that relegated ‘untouchables’ to a despised position within Indian society.  As the above statement suggests however, Ambedkar believed that true emancipation would arise only after internalized compliance with the caste system had been firmly uprooted.  

 

Paulo Freire also spoke of the oppressed and their struggle against “domestication” in favour of a full humanity (Freire 1970).  His pedagogical approach featured the concept of “conscientization” - a route to liberation through which the learner sharpens their innate capacity for critical thinking and takes related action against the oppressive elements of reality (ibid:17).

 

            The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, also noted that hegemonic values and beliefs must be effectively countered before any revolutionary project can fully succeed (Gramsci 1971).  He proposed that the capitalist state is divided into two spheres:  A “political society” that rules through force, and a “civil society” that governs through the “manufacture of consent”.  Gramsci defined civil society as a domain where ideas, values and beliefs are shaped, and where consent to bourgeois “hegemony” is achieved through the cultural legitimatization provided by media, universities and religious institutes.  Gramsci warned that direct revolutionary struggle – a “war of attack” - would therefore be limited without a prior “war of position”, which he defined as the long battle over those perceptions, myths and ideologies that induce collaboration, submission and obedience to repressive structures.

 

If we accept the central importance of counter-hegemonic struggle, we must then ask whether Playback Theatre can contribute to this endeavour.  Unlike Theatre of the Oppressed, the Playback methodology does not contain robust mechanisms for the explicit identification and analysis of oppressive norms and conditions.  In contrast, Playback offers “a kind of community conversation through stories, and this conversation, even though it contains not one, but many themes, and is often indirect in making its points, gives scope for the expression of a popular truth.” (Fox 1999: 120)  Where the theme of a Playback event invites stories relating to a particular injustice, we might therefore hope that the “community conversation” will include expressions of dissent and resistance to the oppressive status quo. Through these expressions, a counter-hegemonic position is established – one that calls for the awakening and action of those gathered.

 

In February 2015, I facilitated a 5-day workshop with Adavu Kalai Kuzu, a group of Dalit cultural activists who use street theatre, Parai[6] drumming and Playback Theatre to address caste discrimination in Tamil Nadu, India.  In one of our conversations about the relevance of storytelling within the broader Dalit movement, a young man named Kumar noted the impact of hearing and witnessing the enactment of an account shared by his friend and comrade, Madhan. 

 

In Madhan’s story he narrated an event that occurred during his childhood.  One day the local landlord – a member of a dominant caste – approached Madhan and his friends as they were sitting together on the edge of a rice field.  According to established custom, it was required that the children – as “untouchables” - stand and withdraw in order to allow the landlord’s free (and hence “unpolluted”) passage.  Whilst his friends complied with this expectation, Madhan refused to move.  Instead he remained, sitting defiantly at the edge of the path.  In response, the dominant caste man, furious at this act of audacity, kicked him as he passed by.

 

Madhan’s story was not the most dramatic account of non-compliance that was shared during our 5 days together.  However, it moved Kumar and others precisely because it illustrated the everyday actions that undermine the caste system and its dehumanizing structures. 

 

In another story told during the same workshop, a man named Mari recounted an event that occurred in his home village. 

Every year there is a religious festival held in celebration of the rain goddess Maariamman.  During the festival, worshippers are surrounded by large crowds who drum and chant together as they move through the streets and into the temple grounds to celebrate.  The event is always filled with high spirits and intense emotion.  In accordance with caste divisions though, the temples are not open to Dalits.  From the days of my early youth, my friends and I would complain about these rules and plan that some day we would defy them.  It never happened though.  The elders would warn us, saying that our [Dalit] community would suffer violent retribution if we angered the dominant caste.  One year however, my friends and I disobeyed their order and joined the festival procession.  As we approached the temple, we were gripped by the emotion that surrounded us, and then suddenly, as we entered the temple grounds, we found ourselves chanting Jai Bhim[7]! Jai Bhim!  After a few moments, the temple authorities came rushing forwards, eventually managing to push us out.  This experience however, remains with me as a significant victory. 

 

Like Madhan’s story, Mari’s account highlights and opposes the self-disciplining modes of thought and behaviour that compel oppressed subjects to comply with oppressive norms.  Together, their stories give rise to a form of local knowledge or “popular wisdom” (Fox 1999:11) that challenges hegemonic values, and establishes instead a counter-narrative of dignity and resistance.

 

Elsewhere I have noted that Playback Theatre can enable the transmission of attitudes, ideals, histories and concrete strategies that undergird a popular struggle movement (Rivers, 2013a; 2013b; 2014; 2015a; 2015b).  In Palestine, for example, stories will often advocate for the adoption of samud (steadfastness) in the face of military violence and harassment.  Other stories communicate advice about specific tactics one can employ if threatened with land confiscation, home demolition, arrest and/or imprisonment.  Other Tellers pay tribute to the history of Palestinian freedom struggle by narrating their own participation in various actions, protests and uprisings (intifadas). 

 

In short, conscientization and political agitation occur through the exchange of fortifying and subversive stories.  At times, stories also help to “inoculate” younger members of the popular struggle movement by preparing them for violations they are likely to endure at the hands of the Israeli authorities[8].

 

In some cases though, the Teller’s impulse towards dissent is strengthened not by the validation of their current stance, nor by the inspiration gained from hearing of someone else’s resistance.  Instead, an awakening occurs through the recognition of one’s own normalized response to the status quo.  As an activist from At-tuwani[9] shared:

Unfortunately, adaptation is a common response to the perverse conditions under which we live.  It is easy to become accustomed to the daily realities of land confiscation, home demolitions, settler violence and military occupation.  However, when we see these realities represented through theatre, it causes us to look again and see our situation from another perspective – one that reveals its abnormality[10]

 

The community of Khan Al Ahmar is located approximately 4.5 miles east of Jerusalem in the West Bank of Occupied Palestine.  The people of this community are members of the Jahalin, a Bedouin tribe that once enjoyed relative prosperity in the land of historic Palestine.  With the establishment of the State of Israel however, the Jahalin were evicted from traditional tribal territory and forced to reside as refugees in the West Bank and Jordan.  Today the Jahalin live in impoverished, slum-like conditions alongside desert highways that cut through the occupied West Bank.  They are under almost constant threat of further eviction as the Israeli authorities seek to seize their current areas of residence for the construction of illegal Israeli settlements.

 

Taken in an open air outdoor space, people surround actors in a horse shoe shape[September 2013: A Playback Theatre performance in Occupied Palestine is stopped by the Israeli army and border police. Photo courtesy of Ben Rivers]

 

            In February 2012, a Playback performance occurred in Khan Al Ahmar’s community gathering space – a roughly built structure made from wooden planks, strips of plastic, worn carpet and corrugated iron.  The troupe consisted of Palestinian members of The Freedom Theatre’s Freedom Bus troupe together with myself as Conductor[11].  In this event, a Jahalin leader named Eid came forward to the Teller’s seat.  Eid is a university-educated member of his community.  He is also a prominent activist, representing the Jahalin case both locally and abroad.  In Eid’s story, he described a situation from his home life, where each morning his children would beg him for one shekel (about 25 cents).  He then spoke about the shame he felt at his inability to fulfil this simple request. 

 

After hearing Eid’s story, the actors shaped his experience into a sparse, essentialized enactment.  Eid appeared riveted.  Later he shared with me, that in witnessing the performance of his story, he fully realized – for the first time – that he was submerged in poverty. 

 

Eid’s story was not merely retold and repeated by the actors. It was translated into a language that attempted, through aesthetic means, to illuminate the core elements of his experience.  This task, of course, is a primary objective of the Playback performer.  In response to the enactment, a Teller must confirm, contradict or expand upon the meanings and events that appeared in the performers’ interpretation of his story.  In Eid’s case, he experienced something akin to Brecht’s concept of the “alienation effect” (verfremdungseffekt) (Brecht [1936] 1964:91) - a kind of critical distancing where the familiar is rendered as strange.  The enactment had shaken and aroused him to the painful and unjust reality of his economic situation - one that he had previously adapted to on an unconscious level.  From this position, he was thus called upon to make a choice.  As John Suresh, founder of Adavu Kalai Kuzu noted, ‘When we awaken to the reality of our oppressed condition, an inner conflict is stirred.  We must either accept, or resist, our oppression.’ (Suresh, 2015) 

 

So far I have suggested that Playback can support movement efforts that focus on conscientization and community mobilization within oppressed communities.  In some cases though, the sharing and enactment of personal stories can also help to raise the awareness of those who possess more power and privilege.  However, the task of sensitizing the dominant group should not rest alone with those who struggle under their discriminatory rule.  Allies can also play a role by engaging members of their own group in the examination of their own ingrained biases, taken-for-granted privileges and histories of perpetration.  An example of this can be seen in the race-relations project led by the Philadelphia-based group, Playback for Change.  The initiative involved a 3-part series of events: one that occurred in April 2003, for White People only, a second for People of Color only in November 2003, and the third, a mixed event for People of Color and White People in January of 2004 (Centre for Playback Theatre, 2015). 

 

In the White People only performance, participants were asked some of the following questions:

1.    Do you have a story about a time where you were aware of being White?

2.   Can you remember a time when you were clueless and did something you later realized was racist?

3.   Can you remember a time when you stood up against racism?

4.   Can you remember a time when you did not stand up against racism? (And maybe wished you had.)

5.    What stops you from interrupting racism or taking action against it?

6.   What are the costs of racism for you as a White person?

7.   How has being White been an asset to you?

In the People of Color event, people were asked some of these questions:

1.    How has internalized oppression affected you?

2.   What stories of racism have you not told?

3.   What are some of the burdens of being a Person of Color?

4.   Share a time where you stood up for a Person of Color.

5.    Share a time where you did not stand up for a Person of Color but wish you had.

6.   Share a time where you were told to “just get over racism”.

 

In the final mixed-race performance, people where invited to share whatever story they needed to tell.  In this event, the Conductor ensured that Tellers included People of Color, White People, men and women (Freeman, 2014).

 

Through this project White People were able to investigate their own racialized attitudes and behaviours without burdening People of Color with the task of “educating” them.  The series also provided a space for People of Color to address ways in which they themselves have internalized the normalizing discourses of a racist society.

 

Naturally, the emancipatory potential of Playback will be severely curtailed if the practitioners themselves are limited by poor knowledge, misconceptions, prejudices, paternalistic attitudes, or stereotypical readings of a story and its presenting issues.  Our actions will also be compromised without recognition of our own position within the dynamic we wish to address.  As Playback practitioners then, we must engage in processes that contribute towards our own education[12], self-awareness and capacity for critical thinking.  Without this prior work, it is possible that we will unwittingly comply with hegemonic discourse by enacting problematic typecasts (stereotypes) or by falling into psychologised renderings that negate the broader political dimensions of a story and its potential as a catalyst for social change. 

 

Indeed, the performance space itself can become a microcosm of the broader society – along with its patterns of blindness, discrimination and inequity.  As suggested above, this might occur where iniquitous worldviews are indulged and reproduced by the performing team.  We might also find that the Teller’s seat remains occupied by people who enjoy greater status in the world outside.  As proposed throughout this article, the Playback practitioner cannot remain impartial in the face of such phenomena.  If, for example, a certain demographic group dominates the event, it is the responsibility of the Conductor to ensure that other voices are also heard. 

 

Additionally, the Conductor must communicate their non-complicity in cases where the Teller’s story condones a worldview that is racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise oppressive in some way.  Actors can respond to such stories by recasting the oppressed party in a manner that questions the objectifying or stereotyped portrayals provided by the Teller.  The actors might also introduce a Narrator role that provides important contextual details (e.g. sociopolitical or historical information) within the enactment.  In addition, the performers may use certain aesthetic devices that encourage a reflective stance to the events on stage.  Using the alienation effect, for example, the actors might break the fourth wall and communicate directly with the audience, sharing their thoughts and feelings about a particular scenario.  They may also employ a deliberate use of tempo, repetition, space, gesture, movement, voice and linguistic register[13] to invoke critical distance and a feeling of estrangement from the oppressive worldview endorsed by the Teller in their original narrative. 

In this last section I have touched briefly on the subject of acting technique in anti-oppressive practice.  While a longer discussion is beyond the scope of this article, the topic is one that would benefit from further research and exploration. 
 

ORGANIZE!

In any movement, the task of organizing consumes the lion’s share of time and energy.  For our work to be maximally effective though, we must be intentional and strategic in our planning of interventions.  At the same time, our organizing efforts must be grounded in a framework that is participatory and democratic.  Rather than situating ourselves as weekend dilettantes going in to do good deeds, we must instead acknowledge the value of sustained, cooperative endeavour.  From a benevolent attitude we must move instead towards an appreciation of reciprocal interests and shared struggle.  As Lilla Watson, the Indigenous Australian artist and activist stated, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”[14] (Watson, n.d.) From this paradigm we find ourselves developing mutually fulfilling alliances with individuals and groups whose work we can learn from, augment and amplify. 

 

Hasan Taha, a performer-activist with the Freedom Bus troupe, reflects on the two-way benefits that can flow from a deepened connection with partnering communities:

As a Palestinian who lives on the other side of Palestine, it was good for me to stay for extended periods of time in At-tuwani.  By spending many days and nights together - talking, eating, playing, working, and struggling side by side - I got a much better understanding for how my people live and resist in this part of the occupied West Bank […] In fact, in At-tuwani I didn’t feel like an actor coming to do his job. Instead, I felt like a family member and a part of the community […] We [members of the performing troupe] worked the land, demonstrated, shepherded and confronted the Israeli army.  Having these experiences - which At-tuwani people must face every day – allowed me to identify with them.  During a performance, this helped me as an actor.  When a Teller was sharing his story, I felt like it was my own, as if his experience had happened to me too.  I connected deeply and this, I hope, was reflected in the enactment.[15]

 

I propose that elements of Participatory Action Research (PAR) can be especially helpful in our attempts to adopt an organizational approach that emphasizes collective enquiry and joint action.  In particular PAR enables the involvement of community members, activists, artists and other parties in a cycle of analysis, planning, implementation and reflection[16].  Through such processes, organizers can ensure that knowledge and interventions remain connected to the core concerns of a movement.

 

            The Freedom Theatre’s Freedom Bus is one example of an initiative that utilizes a PAR approach.  From the outset The Freedom Theatre engaged with village councils, popular struggle committees and civil society organizations in the process of analysis and planning.  Locally based groups such as the Jordan Valley Solidarity Campaign, the At-tuwani Women’s Cooperative, the Popular Struggle Committee in Bili’in, and the South Hebron Hills Popular Struggle Committee have become key partners in the design and implementation of diverse initiatives.  Indeed, the shape and scope of our activities have evolved significantly through the input of individual community members and partnering groups.  For example, Playback Theatre performances now occur within multi-day events that include home stays, protests, solidarity walks, teach-ins, and civil disobedience. 

 

Through participatory action research, it has also become clear that Playback Theatre is not always the most appropriate form of cultural intervention.  In one case, for example, the people of Nabi Saleh noted that Playback Theatre produces a transitory phenomenon that cannot be replicated.  This conflicted with their hope for a form of storytelling that could export their model of unarmed, popular resistance to other Palestinian communities.  On the suggestion of people from Nabi Saleh, we therefore collected their stories and devised a scripted play that subsequently toured to villages and refugee camps throughout the West Bank.  Playback was used at the conclusion of each performance to elicit audience responses and invite sharing about other examples of resistance that were indigenous to each village.

 

Playback Theatre, through its ability to facilitate communication and relationship building, may also assist in the promotion of healthier organizations, and networking within a movement. The Bonded Labour Liberation Front Karnataka (Jeevika) is a grassroots, activist organization dedicated to the “eradication of bonded labour, caste-class-patriarchal structures and unequal globalisation processes in Karnataka, India”.  Its 250 members consist of former bonded labourers and their relatives.  Since 1993 Jeevika has engaged in “conscientization and training; organisation and unionisation; agitation and campaigning; lobbying and advocacy; networking and use of media; reflection, study, research and documentation.” (Jeevika, 2015)  Jeevika also includes 7 cultural groups each consisting of 12 – 15 activists.  These groups use street theatre and Dalit movement songs as vehicles to further their social, cultural and political objectives.  Since the year 2000, Jeevika has also used Playback Theatre within villages and inside the organization itself.  Kiran Prasad, overall Coordinator of Jeevika, noted that Playback has fulfilled a valuable function in helping to sustain meaningful and constructive relationships between members of the organization (Prasad 2015).  John Suresh from Adavu Kalai Kuzu made a similar point, “For a movement to be strong we must have strong relationships between us.  Playback Theatre can help with this […] When we come together to share and perform personal stories, we also challenge the fragmentation and divisions that a casteist society tries to impose upon us.” (Suresh, 2015)

 

In general, Playback Theatre deals only with the lived accounts of Tellers.  The form is not designed to accommodate the overt analysis of injustice, nor the interventions that might lead us towards a preferred reality.  How then can we imagine and portray that which has not yet appeared in the social realm?  As cultural activists, are we restricted only to the domain of truth telling, or can we also point towards the world we are working for?  These questions have led towards adaptations of the conventional Playback format.  Some Playback groups, for example, have developed practices that incorporate Forum Theatre and Playback Theatre processes within the same event[17].  Other Playbackers integrate more traditional methods of education and action planning.  For example, Hudson River Playback Theatre recently partnered with Drone Alert in a performance that focused on the stories of activists who are facing prison time for peacefully protesting US drone killings.  In addition to sharing information about US militarism and participation in drone warfare, the event also included a post-performance networking and planning session where audience members discussed concrete actions they themselves could take. (Salas, 2015)

 

Without doubt Playback Theatre is not a universal remedy.  There are times where other methods might better serve the needs at hand.  Playback does however, offer an opportunity for a radical form of pedagogy – one that does not depend on didactic instruction or consciousness raising imposed from the outside.  Instead, the process of political awakening occurs through the sharing and embodiment of real life stories – stories that are replete with examples of confusion and certainty, hardship and struggle, steadfastness and hope.  The Playback process itself also offers opportunity for the modelling of values and behaviours that counter systems of domination and discrimination.  Through our expressions of respect, deep listening, empathy, solidarity, and creativity, we embody a reality that directly contradicts the dehumanizing forces that act upon us all.

 

APPENDIX 1

PARTICIPATORY ACTION RESEARCH FOR PLAYBACK THEATRE AND SOCIAL ACTION
 

Participatory Action Research (PAR) emphasizes a spirit of collective enquiry and related action.  Participants are engaged as co-researchers in the investigation of questions and issues that hold significance for their community.  Through a jointly conducted process of analysis, planning, implementation and reflection, participants ensure that knowledge and intervention remain linked to commonly held values and objectives.  The following questions and considerations offer Playback practitioners a PAR framework through which to develop interventions with a social justice emphasis.  Maximal input from relevant organizations, groups and individuals should be sought for each stage of the PAR process.

 

OBSERVATION/ANALYSIS

 

When designing a Playback intervention for social or political change we must first analyse the issue/problem we wish to address.  In addition to using conventional modes of investigation we can also conduct mapping and analysis through various action methods including Image Theatre, Sociodrama and Playback Theatre.  Here are some questions that can guide our process:

·      What are the root causes of the issue/problem? (Consider various social, cultural, historical, economic and ideological factors.)

·      What are the consequences/impacts of this problem on people’s lives?

·      Who are the significant stakeholders in this issue?  (Who has power?  Who is adversely affected?  Who are the enablers of oppression?  Who are the allies of the oppressed party?  Where do we stand?) 

·      How is the current status quo maintained?  How does the privileged party “manufacture consent”?  How is the status quo challenged/resisted?

·      Where are the geographic and ideological sites of exploitation, production, consumption, destruction, indoctrination and resistance?

 

PLANNING

 

Once we better understand the history and dynamics of an issue, we can begin to consider our plan of action and the assumptions that underpin it.

·      What are our objectives?  What do we hope to shift/transform?  What aspects of this problem are within/beyond our scope of influence?

·      What is our “theory of change”?  What values, beliefs and assumptions underpin our approach?

·      Who do we wish to engage/join with in the coordination and implementation of this intervention? Who are our allies and strategic partners?  (Consider partnerships with fellow artists, activists, advocates, journalists, and policy makers.)

·      Are we intervening at the personal, relational, cultural and/or structural level? How can we link our efforts to others who are working with similar or different dimensions of the same issue?

·      What core and affiliated strategies will enable us to reach our defined objectives?  What methods/practices will we employ?

·      How do we include and prepare our team, the community and other stakeholders?

·      Who should we invite as audience to the Playback Theatre events?  Who can help in the transmission of stories and their issues?  Who holds influence at the structural level?  Consider policy makers, politicians, journalists, filmmakers and other activists.

·      What allied groups can help with networking, information sharing, and action planning within the event itself?

·      Have we planned for the promotion, documentation, sharing and evaluation of our intervention?

·      Is our intervention sustainable?  What resources are needed/available for its implementation and continuation?

·      What are the limitations of our plan?  What obstacles might we encounter?

·      Have we planned for the full range of logistical considerations? (e.g. translation, suitable venue, publicity, transport, technical needs, etc).

 

IMPLEMENTATION/ACTION

 

The Playback event itself should remain congruent with our core values and objectives.  We must therefore strive to be fair and inclusive - modelling egalitarian principles within the planning and delivery of performances, workshops and other project activities.  Relatedly, we must be prepared to question and address patterns of domination and discrimination that arise within ourselves and other participants. 

While engaging with a Teller’s story, the Conductor and performers may wish to consider some of the following:

·      What contextual details (cultural, sociopolitical and historical) are important to the story?

·      If the story is one of oppression: How has the Teller been impacted by the inequity?  (Listen for the psychological, interpersonal, social, spiritual, cultural, economic and structural levels of impact.)

·      Have other members of the Teller’s community been impacted in similar or different ways?

·      How has the Teller and their community responded to the injustice/crisis?  What agency have they demonstrated? 

·      What values, principles, social movements, allies, or individual figures provide inspiration and/or support for the Teller?

·      Has the Teller internalized, or upheld, an oppressive worldview?  

·      What does the Teller hope for and desire?

·      As a member of the performing team:  How might my own interpretation of the story be conditioned by hegemonic/oppressive discourse?  How will I navigate these responses on stage?

 

REFLECTION/EVALUATION

 

The process of reflection and evaluation invites us to critically examine project activities and their impact.  Feedback, ideas and suggestions that are generated through the reflective process can be used to inform subsequent cycles of planning and implementation.  In designing reflective processes we might consider the following:

·      What criteria are used for the evaluation of our interventions? 

·      Who do we engage in the evaluation/reflective process?

·      How can we facilitate in-depth, critical reflection?  Consider for example the pros and cons of using focus groups, structured interviews, informal conversations, questionnaires and/or written evaluations.  Action methods (including Playback and Image Theatre) and other arts-based practices can also be used for generating feedback, analysis and suggestions.

·      Will the results of the evaluation process be shared with all partners?  If so, how?

The stages of PAR have been presented here in a consecutive order.  In reality however, the processes of analysis, planning, action and reflection will occur in a continuous, overlapping and non-linear fashion throughout the life of an initiative.

 

 

 

REFERENCES

Al Adraa, I.  (2014). Interview with the author.  At-tuwani, Occupied Palestine.  September, 17.

Brecht. B. (1936/1964). Brecht on Theatre.  Edited by J. Willett.  New York: Hill and Wang.

Centre for Playback Theatre (2015). Retrieved from  http://www.playbackcentre.org/playback-for-change on 4 March 2015.

Chung, J. (2015). Email communication with the author.  March, 3.

Douglass, F. (1857). West India Emancipation Speech. Delivered at Canandaigua New York, August 4, 1857.

Fox, J. (1999). A Ritual for Our Time. In Gathering Voices: Essays on Playback Theatre, Eds, J.Fox, and H. Dauber. New York: Tusitala Publishing.

Freeman, P. (2014).  Email communication with the author.  June, 10.

Freire, P. (1970/1993). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Penguin Books.

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. International Publishers.

Hutt, J. and Hosking, B. (2004). Playback Theatre: A Creative Resource For Reconciliation.  Retrieved from http://www.brandeis.edu/ethics/peacebuildingarts/pdfs/peacebuildingarts/Bev_Jenny_final_ALDEdit.pdf on 10 November 2010.

Jeevika. (2015).  Jeevika Vision Statement. Bangalore.

Keer, D. (1971).  Dr. Amdebdkar Life and Mission. 3rd ed. Bombay: Popular Prakashan.

Prasad, K. (2015).  Interview with the author. Bangalore, India. March 4.

Rivers, B. (2013a). Playback Theatre as a response to the impact of political violence in occupied Palestine.  Applied Theatre Research, 1.2, pp. 157-176.

Rivers, B. (2013b). The Freedom Bus and Playback Theatre:  Beyond Neo-colonial Approaches to Trauma Response in Occupied Palestine.  Journal of Practical Psychology, № 5, pp. 78-96. (Russian: Риверс Б. Автобус свободы и плейбэк театр: за пределами неоколониалистских подходов к реакции на травму в оккупированной Палестине.//Журнал практического психолога. - Москва. - 2013. - №5.- с.78-96). 

Rivers, B. (2014). Playback Theatre, Cultural Resistance and the Limits of Trauma Discourse.  Interplay. Vol XVIII, No. 2, pp. 15-18.

Rivers, B.  (2015a). Narrative Power:  Playback Theatre as cultural resistance in Occupied Palestine. Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance.  20:2, pp.155-172. DOI: 10.1080/13569783.2015.1022144

Rivers, B. (2015b). Cherry Theft Under Apartheid.  The Drama Review. 59:3 (T227), pp. 77-90.

Salas, J. (1993/1999). Improvising Real Life: Personal Story in Playback Theatre, 3rd Edition. New Paltz: Tusitala Publishing.

Salas, J. (2015).  Email communication with the author.  March 13.

Suresh, J. (2015).  Interview with the author.  Chennai, India.  February, 6.

Volkas, A. (2009). Healing the Wounds of History: Drama Therapy in Collective Trauma and Intercultural Conflict Resolution. In R. Emunah and D.R. Johnson (Eds), Current Approaches in Drama Therapy. Illinois: Charles C. Thomas Publishers.

Watson, L. and Aboriginal activist group. (n.d.).  Retrieved from http://unnecessaryevils.blogspot.in/2008/11/attributing-words.html on 14 February 2015.

Weinblatt, M. (2015).  Combining Theatre of the Oppressed and Playback Theatre: A Powerful and Delicate Marriage. Retrieved from http://www.mandalaforchange.com/resources/articles/combining-theatre-of-the-oppressed-and-playback-theatre-a-powerful-and-delicate-marriage/ on 14 March 2015.

 

 

 

 



[1] To correspond with the author, please email benjrivers@gmail.com

[2] Jonathan Fox founded Playback Theatre in 1975.  He developed the form along with Jo Salas and the original Playback Theatre Company based in Hudson Valley, USA.

[3] See Volkas (2009) for examples of Playback Theatre being used to address legacies of violent conflict and historical trauma. For a broader discussion about Playback Theatre and its role in peace building and conflict resolution, see Hutt and Hosking (2004).

[4] For a discussion about the role of Playback Theatre in asymmetrical conflict, see Rivers (2015a).

[5] Dalit is a term designated for a section of society traditionally regarded as “impure” and hence “untouchable” within the Hindu caste system.  While caste-based discrimination was officially prohibited under the Constitution of India, Dalit communities continue to suffer harassment, assault and inequity.

[6] The Parai is an ancient drum traditionally played by members of the Dalit community during funeral processions.  The instrument acquired negative connotations within caste society, however Dalit activists now celebrate the Parai as an important symbol of their identity and struggle.

[7] Jai Bhim literally means “Victory to Bhim” i.e. to Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar.  The term is often used as an expression of greeting or solidarity between members of the Dalit movement. 

[8] See for example Loai’s story in Rivers (2014).  

[9] The village of At-tuwani is located in the South Hebron Hills of Occupied Palestine.  The Freedom Theatre has been working in partnership with activists there since early 2012. For more information about this relationship, see Rivers (2015b).

[10] This interview excerpt appears in Rivers (2015b).

[11] The Freedom Bus initiative uses Playback Theatre and other forms of cultural activism to bear witness, raise awareness and build alliances throughout Occupied Palestine (see www.freedombus.ps).  I am a Co-founder of the Freedom Bus.  In the first few months of its establishment, I also conducted several Playback Theatre events.  From March 2012 onwards however, Playback events have been performed and conducted in Arabic by Palestinian members of the troupe.

[12] Jiwon Chung (2015 n.p.) notes that, “Just as an actor has to prepare for a role by doing research, a PT actor with integrity is obligated to do the same.  By reference, PT is very close to simultaneous interpretation.  A good interpreter has to have an enormous amount of topic specific knowledge in order to do the translation justice.  They have to be as close to an expert on the topic as the person speaking.”

[13]  In linguistics, the term “register” refers to a type of language used for a specific purpose or in a particular social setting.  For example, the register someone uses during a job interview will be different to the register they use during a conversation with a close friend.

[14] Although this quote is attributed to Lilla Watson, she has explained that the phrase was actually developed by an Aboriginal activist group that she was part of during the 1970’s.  She has therefore expressed her discomfort with being solely credited for something that was born of a collective process.  Read more here: http://unnecessaryevils.blogspot.in/2008/11/attributing-words.html

[15] This interview excerpt appears in Rivers (2015b).

[16] See appendix for questions and processes a Playback Theatre team might use within a PAR framework.

[17] See for example: Weinblatt, M. (2015). 

 

 

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Ben Rivers