What is Playback Theatre?

Photo of Playback TheatrePlayback Theatre is an interactive form of improvisational theatre in which audience members tell stories from their lives and watch them enacted on the spot. Playback Theatre was founded in 1975 by Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas. It has spread around the globe and Playback companies now exist on six continents. Playback Theatre is used in a range of contexts including public performances, community arts, social dialogue, peace building, conflict resolution, eduaction, change management and celebrations. There are regular Playback gatherings and festivals in different parts of the world.



Brief History of Playback Theatre

Jonathon Fox wrote “I believe in immediate theatre. I believe in a theatre that could take place everywhere. I believe in theatre for anybody and everybody” It was this passion that was the source of Playback Theatre.


Jonathon Fox had long been interested in improvisational theatre. Having attended the Psychodrama Conference in New York in 1973 his vision for a dynamic and immediate form of theatre continued to develop and gain momentum.


The original Playback Theatre Company came together in 1975, when Jonathon Fox and his partner Jo Salas gathered a group of actors and began rehearsing. This was in the mid-Hudson valley of upstate New York. 


Early performances were for family and friends as this new form of theatre emerged. “Fluid sculptures” and “Pairs” were developed to reflect brief moments developed. Music was introduced and enhanced the enactments. Stories were re-enacted.  This group, while developing the basis of the Playback form, took it to schools, prisons, centres for the elderly, conferences, and festivals in an effort to encourage individuals from all walks of society to let their stories be heard. They also performed monthly for the general public.


In 1980 Playback Theatre moved beyond the shores of the United States of America. A team from the original Playback Company was invited to bring Playback Theatre to Australia and New Zealand. In 1981, Mary Good from Melbourne Playback Theatre travelled to New York and spent month training with Jonathon Fox and the original Playback Theatre Company.


During the 1980’s Playback Theatre companies began in Australia and New Zealand: In 1980 Sydney Playback was established:  in 1981 Melbourne Playback: in 1982 Auckland, Wellington and Perth and in 1984 Christchurch Playback started.


Jonathon Fox travelled to Japan in 1984. In 1986 the first Playback Theatre began in Switzerland.  Companies continued to emerge around the world.


In 1990 Jonathon Fox, Jo Salas, Judy Swallow and Mary Good established the International Playback Theatre Network. The original board members were Jonathon Fox, Jo Salas, Judy Swallow, Dianne Blumenthall, Julie Craven, Marc Weiss, Tim Van Ness (from the USA), Mary Good and Deborah Pearson (Australia), Bev Hosking and Martin Sutcliffe (New Zealand) Annette Henne (Switzerland) and Christina Hagelthorn (Sweden).  


The original mission statement of the IPTN stated "the purpose of this association is to further the development of Playback Theatre among practitioners worldwide by affirming and bringing forth our individuality and shared vision. We seek to enrich, strengthen and inspire on another, and to maintain the aliveness of the Playback Theatre process."


The IPTN has supported International Conferences since 1991. The IPTN supports the International Conferences with organisational support, a financial seeding grant, guidelines, marketing and scholarships. The first International Conference was in Sydney, Australia in 1992. Conferences have also been held in the following countries:


  • 1993 Rautalampi, Finland
  • 1994 Seattle, USA
  • 1995 Olympia, USA
  • 1997 Perth, Australia
  • 1999 York, England
  • 2003 Shizuoka, Japan
  • 2007 Sao Paolo, Brazil
  • 2011 Frankfurt, Germany
  • 2015 Montreal, Canada.

The next IPTN Conference will be held in Bangalore, India in 2019.


In 1993 the School of Playback Theatre as formed. Many practitioners from around the work have attended various courses with Jonathon Fox and other trainers. In 2006 this expanded to become the Centre for Playback Theatre.


Along with the international conferences there are many regional and local conferences that continue to support the development of skills and relationships. 


Playback Theatre companies are active on 6 continents and in numerous countries. The International Playback Theatre Networks supports the global growth and development of Playback Theatre. Our mission statement says the “IPTN provides and independent, inclusive global platform that strengthens Playback Theatre practice through connection and mutual influence".


  • Interplay 1990 the International Playback Theatre Network; an Association of Teachers and Practitioners
  • Interplay 1990; 3 Australian Playback Groups, Judy Murphy
  • Gathering Voices
  • Essays on Playback Theatre, Introduction by Jonathan Fox. Edited by Jonathan Fox, M.A. and Heinrich Dauber,Ph.D
  • The Beginnings: Reflecting on 25 years of Playback Theatre by Hannah Fox
  • IPTN web page