Playback theatre – a tool for trainers

In the world today, it is increasingly difficult to find new and meaningful ways to relate to others and build meaningful relationships. Playback theatre, form of psychodrama, is a unique tool to achieve that.

playback theatre
Photo by Monica Silvestre on

Imagine this:

The venue – Acclaimed painter, MF Husain’s, bungalow in Bangalore, India. A beautiful large space with an inbuilt stage and surrounded by works of art that transform the space from the ordinary to the magical.

The actors – The Tangents: the only all-women Playback theatre group in India

The audience – 40 women from different walks of life: professionals toiling in the corporate world, doctors, engineers, race car drivers, artists, home makers, mothers and mothers-to-be, wives, sisters, teachers, friends…

The subject of the play – Audience life stories: celebrating women

The performance – The performance takes place in 3 segments. Fluids, stories and conflicts.

Fluids are basically a dynamic tableau of audience responses enacted by the actors. Let me give you an example: The conductor (who is effectively a ‘sutradhar’) leads the audience to the theme of say – being a woman in the corporate environment and what the frustrations they feel at times. Women in the audience responded with various emotions such as being left out at times from the boy’s network, some responded that they felt more cared for, some felt that they had to work harder to get the same credit, some felt that their male subordinates found it difficult to cope while some others felt that being a woman manager gave them an edge vis-à-vis relating to their team. The 5 actors, with the help of props and music represent each of these audience responses in interesting and unique ways.

Stories are basically audience life stories that they feel like sharing with the group. In this particular performance, there was a lady who wanted to share the story of how she met her husband. It was obviously something that was important to her and top-of-mind for her when triggered by comments made by the conductor. It was a happy memory that she wanted others to be part of and she wanted to relive the moment. The actors enacted the same in a refreshingly humourous and high energy manner reflecting her happiness and energy rather than just the story itself. This brought about an amazing reinforcing realisation for her as to how happy and positive she really was!

Conflicts are basically choices that people face in everyday life – to exercise in the morning or sleep a little longer, to join Job A or B, tiff with the boss – to tell him or not to tell him what the impact has been…. We are faced with innumerable choices every moment of our lives… some simple ones, some tough ones with very high cost to ourselves…. This is a way of sometimes getting an external perspective on our conflicts and at times creative solutions!

I am sure this seems quite unconventional and bizarre. But to me, as one of the actors, it was the most beautiful experience of sharing experiences and lives with a few amazing other people, whom I would never have met in the normal course of life.

In today’s world it is increasingly difficult to relate to others. The constant challenge is to find new and meaningful means of relating to others and playback theatre provides a unique way to achieve that.

The birth of this form of theatre is said to have been through a need to connect with the audience, to make a play interactive and about ‘real’ people and ‘real’ situations.

What is playback theatre?

Playback Theatre (PT) is an instinctive form of theatre that uses audience real life stories to be enacted on the spot without prior preparation. PT was developed by an American couple Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas in 1975 in New York. PT is about enacting real life stories of individuals who comprise an audience. These stories may be sad, funny, heroic, tragic or inspirational. By enacting the story impromptu before an audience, actors get an opportunity to experience the story for themselves. A lot of times the person who has narrated the story, is able to objectively watch his experience for the first time. This is a cathartic process both for the narrator as well as the Playback actor.

How do 5 actors with no theatre experience produce extraordinary impromptu performances?

The answer lies in the workshop that actors undergo as part of their training. I have personally found the workshop experience to be a very eye-opening one. A typical workshop is spread over 12-16 sessions with each session lasting 2 hours. Through theatre exercises, participants learn to work in a group, empathise with others, enhance their creativity and build on their confidence.

Playback theatre as a training tool

In my opinion, for whatever its worth, playback theatre is a phenomenal tool for trainers and teachers alike. Its power to influence and transform people is beyond description. Here are some positives for playback as a training tool:

It helps you understand what it is to be part of a team – To me the biggest revelation of playback is in terms of understanding your role in a team. The most successful actor in playback is not the one who has produced the most laughs or stood out from the rest by his over-the-top acting, but the one who has represented the narrator’s story as best as he possibly could and has given the audience a little something to think about that they will take home with them after the performance. The only thing on every actor’s mind is how to make the overall performance better. This is true teaming.

The Bonding as a team – The challenge of performing a cohesive and comprehensive story without being able to discuss or plan or script it is phenomenal. The exercises that the team goes through together in the workshops brings them closer together and more tuned to each others’ frequencies in a mysterious way, so much so, that in a performance they are able to demand as well as respond to each others’ leads in paying back the story.

Builds Confidence – It takes guts to be on stage in front of people. I have seen people totally transform from shy wallflowers to confident individuals staking a claim to their space on the stage and in a story. I see PT as something that makes you think on your feet, and gives you a certain assertiveness to claim your space and hence a must for every school, educational institution as well as corporate.

Sensitivity training + listening skills – Playback is all about enacting real life stories. The essence is to capture the soul of the stories narrated…There isn’t much else that can compare to relating to people and being sensitive to them in this manner.

It helps you enhance your understanding of yourself – The foundation of all relationships comes from knowing yourself. If u really evaluate it, the Johari window, the outbound exercises and PAPI dominate our lives by making us think more about what we are, what triggers our behaviour and what people around us percieve. That is exactly what Playback Theatre does.

Enhances creativity – It is also related to competencies like innovation because it encourages spontaneity, voicing of thoughts, expressing your opinions without fear and last but not the least creativity since Playback is all about creating an experience, about performing without any prior preparation whatsoever. It also creates a “Ridicule-free zone!!!” which is essential for trust building and co-operation among team members.

I have moved away from the group and am settled in a different place, but, am addicted for life … that’s what playback does to you!

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