Editorial and Reflections after Budapest – Brian Tasker
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Playback Theatre and the Trickster
“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” James Baldwin
“If you aren’t living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room.” T-shirt slogan
It was a pleasure to be in Budapest recently at the European Playback Theatre Gathering; a lovely opportunity to catch up with old friends and make some new ones. I was impressed by the Atelier that I visited and the others that I heard about that used Playback Theatre to support and integrate outsider populations into their own lives as a step into wider society. Until I retired, I worked with similar outsider populations affected by addiction and mental health issues. This kind of work is highly-absorbing and I had to remind myself at the end of the day that there was another world outside the world of Rehab, so immersed was I in the struggle alongside clients who were there to recover from addiction. Understanding emotional over-identification and its cost was a hard-won lesson for me. (See O’Neal in references on co-dependency)
While in Budapest, I was fortunate to attend a workshop on the Trickster with Igor Lyubitov. I say fortunate because it wasn’t the workshop I’d chosen, but as I’d lost my way, I hooked up with some passing Playbackers and went to Igor’s workshop instead. Since coming home, my experience led me to write a reflection on Playback Theatre and the Trickster. The intention in writing is not to denigrate any work that is being done but to look at Playback Theatre as an institution in general and its interaction with the world from another perspective and consider possible responses and risks.
The Trickster as an archetype has a place in history as a disruptive force acting as a catalyst to shake things up. Carl Jung described the Trickster as representing counter-tendencies in the unconscious and in that way the shadow could be a regulating factor – a positive function if brought into awareness or remaining as a negative influence if ignored.
In his workshop, Igor described the teller as the Trickster, through the stories that they bring to the chair. Of course, the Trickster is also the enactment and the way in which the actors respond. During Igor’s workshop, I told a story about my dilemma as editor of the IPTN Journal and how to approach the questions that interest me and the challenge that brings. The enactment of my story encouraged me to be honest with myself (acknowledging the inherent fear that accompanies the role) and to embrace the task of stimulating or even provoking a debate. There is so much in Playback Theatre that I love and there are some trends that I find disturbing. When the Trickster appears, the result can create a discomforting force and I wanted to find a way of befriending and utilising this dynamic rather then trying to avoid it. As Playback Theatre moves more and more into the political realm, there does seem to be a risk of an increasing polarization that needs to be explored. In doing so, I’m trying to approach this from a Playback Theatre perspective, a neutral storied place with an interest in generating dialogue between differences; to raise questions that are about Playback Theatre as an institution and culture and the direction that it might take.
On an affect level, Donald Trump and Brexit might be described as Tricksters shaking up the status quo. Both Trump and Brexit have stirred strong reactions that seem to have manifested as entrenched opposition instead of a creative response that takes the status quo as a starting point rather than as an end point.
Living in the UK as I do, it’s been disturbing to see the reactions of some of those opposed to Brexit, despising those who voted for it, describing them as ignorant and generally holding them in contempt. One example of this trend is that of demonising and blaming older people for Brexit. Ashton Applewhite reflects on this in her insightful blog (see references).
Similarly during the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton referred to certain Trump supporters as a ‘basket of deplorables’ a remark she later apologised for as a generalisation. Fighting prejudice with prejudice doesn’t seem to be particularly productive. It might be naïve to hold the view that humanity is essentially motivated by what Wendell Bell described as widely shared human values, including patience, truthfulness, responsibility, respect for life, granting dignity to all people, empathy for others, kindliness, generosity, compassion and forgiveness. It also might be prudent and more realistic to add when possible to these values and even then acknowledge that the negative-side of humanity looms large over us. Anyway, Wendell Bell’s list of human values match the values that Playback Theatre seeks to aspire to and work to show through performance.
Lewis Hyde in his Book Trickster Makes the World, How Disruptive Imagination Creates Culture writes “That trickster is a boundary-crosser is the standard line, but in the course of writing this book I realized that it needs to be modified in one important way, for there are also cases in which trickster creates a boundary, or brings to the surface a distinction previously hidden from sight.”
At the same time as the Budapest Gathering, the Australasian one was happening on the other side of the world in Hobart, Tasmania. One of the discussions that took place there was asking: is Playback Theatre stuck in the 70s? I don’t know what conclusion they came to if any, but looking back through the IPTN Journal archive since 1990, there has always been a focus on community, inclusion and social justice and this work has deepened through the decades. Playback Theatre can respond to identified need and a need to focus on a perceived priority with limited resources, so is there now more of a trend away from community in general and more towards specific communities? Is there a hierarchy of suffering? Is there a compassion bias in Playback Theatre that can manifest through the choice of some client groups over others?
In her book Invisible Forces II, Carol S. Pearson identifies and discusses the archetypes active in organisations. One of the archetypes that relates to Playback Theatre would be the Caregiver, another is the Creator which is less prone to corruption. Pearson describes the qualities of the Caregiver archetype as caring and empowering of others, often sacrificing to do so. The goal is one of seeking to be good and unselfish. The greatest fears are selfishness, callousness and indifference. Shadow caregivers are the co-dependent; the devouring mother, the controlling father and giving as a way of keeping others dependent.
On an archetypal level, there would seem to be a natural aversion towards those who evoke the caregiver’s worst fears associated with the prejudice of Trump and the selfishness of Brexit; could this result in a bias against these groups? Binna Kandola addresses this general point in his book: The Value of Difference, Eliminating Bias in Organisations, He writes “Unconscious bias is part of the human condition. It’s something that we all share. And because of that, none of us can stand in judgement over anyone else’s bias. That’s not to say we cannot judge people’s actions.” He goes on to say “If we condemn people for holding prejudices, we are categorising them as ‘bad’: in doing so we place ourselves in the category of ‘good’.
Kandola offers a further insight, when he says “In the first place, prejudice is very deeply seated within us all, and reinforced by unconscious habits, especially our social habits – in other words those we spend time with.” Does Playback Theatre lack a diversity of views and if so, does that reinforce separation between communities?
In Playback Theatre, it would certainly be challenging to work with Clinton’s so-called ‘Deplorables’ or the so-called Brexiteers (or whoever your local equivalent is) with their uncomfortable stories of disenfranchisement and blame and find a creative way of playing those stories back to offer a new perspective; a perspective according to their critics that they would likely be too stupid to see. So why even bother when there are far more agreeable tellers to work with? But who are the marginalized groups, if not the obvious ones of refugees, immigrants, ethnic minorities and others? It seems to me that marginalized groups in our society can be found at any edge of our society and there are minority groups within the majority that feel ignored.
The referendum on Brexit revealed a wide polarisation that David Goodhart described in his book The Road to Somewhere, The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics as a value divide between ‘Anywhere’ people, educated and mobile and ‘Somewhere’ people, generally less educated, more rooted in one place and who prioritise group attachments and security. ‘Anywhere’ people have greater flexibility and are better resourced through education and background so have more options. ‘Somewhere’ people are likely to be less resourced and consequently would feel more threatened by change. This is an interesting reframing of class and of course, there are always shades in between as Goodhart says. However, the above can be a point of departure as to how we and they view difference: a polarization that needs to be acknowledged. I say ‘we’ the anywhere people of Playback Theatre and ‘they’ the somewhere people even though my background is from the somewhere tribe. Although I have long moved away from the somewhere tribe, I still feel protective and feel the need to promote an understanding of their group psychology.
Vamik D. Volkan takes up this point in his book: Immigrants and Refugees, Trauma, Perennial Mourning and Border Psychology. He says: “Shared prejudices are utilized in the service of maintaining and protecting large-group identity, [somewhere people] which in turn also helps to maintain and protect individual identity.” He goes on to say: “Those [anywhere people] who are able to keep their individual identities from the impact of large-group sentiments become more willing to open the tent’s door and accept the huge number of newcomers.” Paradoxically, many migrants and refugees could fairly be described as ‘somewhere’ people contained as they are within their families, culture and religion and conservative with a small ‘c’ even if they are on the move. There is much of value to be gleaned from Volkan’s book which is written from a psychoanalytical perspective. Volkan’s concept of large-group identity and large-group sentiments led me to wonder how these ideas might relate to Playback Theatre as a community.
One role of Playback Theatre as I understand it is the dissolving of psychological borders through the sharing of stories; something that becomes difficult or even impossible if different groups aren’t or can’t be brought together and to do so surely remains an aspiration. Volkan writes about the linking objects, linking phenomena and nostalgia that keeps migrants and refugees in relationship with their origins as symbols of perennial mourning. I have a fantasy about a themed performance that would involve migrants, refugees and host communities based on sharing stories of their linking objects. Think of it this way, if you had to leave suddenly, what three objects would you take with you and why?
The Budapest Gathering was brought to a close with a fine performance by a troupe of international players. The performance finished with a spontaneous anthemic song with the refrain, ‘We can change the world’ and one of the actors, a young woman from Bulgaria had the last word ending the song with ‘by starting with ourselves’. The Trickster is still at large.
Applewhite, Ashton (2016): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ashton-applewhite/age-takes-center-stage-ar_b_10896874.html
Bell, Wendell (2004) Humanity's Common Values: Seeking a Positive Future
Goodhart D. (2017) The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, Hurst & Co, London, UK
Hyde, Lewis (2017) Trickster Makes This World, How Disruptive Imagination Creates Culture, Canongate Books, Edinburgh, UK
Jung C.G. (1972) Four Archetypes: Mother, Rebirth, Spirit, Trickster, Ark, London, UK
Kandola Binna (2009) The Value of Difference, Eliminating Bias in Organisations, Peam Kandola Publishing, Oxford, UK
Mamet, David (1998) Three Uses of the Knife, On the Nature and Purpose of Drama, Vintage, New York
O’Neal. S.H. (2011) Codependency among health care professionals, Journal of Addictive Disorders. http://m.breining.edu/JAD11bHSO.pdf
Pearson, Carol S. (1997) Invisible Forces II, Type & Archetype Press, Charleston, USA
Volkan, Vamik D. (2016) Immigrants and Refugees, Trauma, Perennial Mourning and Border Psychology, Karnac Press, London, UK
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