Playback Theatre and Political Struggle – Who Owns the Story?



Brian Tasker

“The only silly question is the one not asked.” Ramon Bautista 



In April 2016, I published an article on this blog: “Has Playback Theatre reached a crossroads” [1] in response to Ben River’s proposal: “…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 political 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 towards a better world?” [2]  Ben’s proposal was at least in part inspired by his work using Playback Theatre in the occupied Palestinian Territories.  I use the term ‘occupied Palestinian Territories’ in keeping with the term used by the UK Government.  My point is not to be seen as taking a side on this issue and as I said in my previous article, I won’t be getting into a debate loop about it. My intention here is to look at the practice of Playback Theatre.

In examining the application of Playback Theatre in the Palestinian context, nothing I’ve written supports the Israeli occupation in the Palestinian territories or is intended to diminish the injustice of it from the Palestinian perspective, yet to deny the Israelis their vulnerability implies an omnipotent power that they don’t really have. If they were truly omnipotent, they wouldn’t be so reactive.

I’m writing as I’m interested in looking at the practice of Playback Theatre from the viewpoint of it becoming overtly politicised in the service of a cause. Ben is the focus as he is at the forefront of that proposal and subsequently Ben’s work is the focus because that’s where his viewpoint is practised, so this is something of a case study and a critique.  I’m just asking questions that come up from reading Ben’s well-documented descriptions of how he works and what occurs as a result.

To pause for a moment, it feels important to repeat what I’d said originally that I wasn’t decrying that Palestinians have access to Playback Theatre.  In fact, Ben’s efforts in making Playback Theatre available in the Arab world are to be applauded.

In my original article, I had questioned the validity of what seemed to be a one-sided approach to an enduring conflict (specifically Israel and Palestine) without recognising that both sides are affected and without taking that into account the polarization will entrench further.

Initially, my problem was not with the taking sides in general which of course, can happen in any conflict and is a choice, but with the use of Playback Theatre and the attempt to move it ‘beyond the lexicon of non-partisanship’ to reshape it as a political tool with the risk of creating just an echo chamber.  I got onto something of a mission to question the trajectory of Playback Theatre towards political affiliation and the loss of its neutrality and openness to all stories.

There is also the risk of reducing the Palestinians to a single narrative and the one-sidedness extends beyond the single-lens focus on the occupation that could be used to divert the Palestinians from other social concerns.  Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TED talk in 2009 called “The Danger of a Single Story” that feels relevant.  In this sense there is a risk of seeing the Palestinians solely as victims and ignoring or bypassing other issues where they have agency and where any intervention might be seen as an unwanted cultural or political intrusion.  This could be potentially collusive with other forms of oppression and structural issues in Palestinian society.

I wondered how the risk of more violence or trauma was managed and given the number of political factions and clans (or family groupings) in the Palestininan context, what provision is there for tellers to share a dissenting view or story?  By dissent, I mean dissenting from majority views among the Palestinians. I also said that “It’s likely that Post-traumatic stress disorder runs through both communities and although vastly different for both parties on a psychological level, siege conditions prevail.”  On reflection, I think it would better to remove the term ‘disorder’.  Ben had commented in an earlier article that ‘the Palestinian predicament cannot be described as “post-traumatic”.’ [3] This misses the point, post-traumatic stress doesn’t mean that the triggering event or incident is over; it means that it continues to have an effect such as hypervigilance for example.

As the notion of supervision is becoming more prevalent in Playback Theatre, I’d suggested a method of peer / self supervision (the dyad method) as another possible resource. The dyad method is a contemplative tool that can be used to examine beliefs, views, opinions and arguments that may otherwise become fixed and entrenched. My proposal was that this method could be useful in supporting ethical Playback practice in conflict zones and other complex contexts and even in general by examining the motivation and feelings behind the involvement – that was my point.

There was a strong reaction to my article by Jiwon Chung[4] on the blog: Playback Theatre Reflects among the comments on the article by Ben Rivers and Jiwon Chung: Playback Theatre and Social Change: Functions, Principles and Practices. The article is a well-considered reflection on the challenges of applying Playback Theatre in complex situations and I found many of the points mentioned helpful in general, although a number are contentious and would merit further discussion at another time.

However, it is in the comments section below the article, where the mood changes and caused me to reflect on my motives for writing the article in the first place, consider what I could have done differently or expressed more clearly and to find an appropriate response to Jiwon’s criticism that brings a further dimension to the debate.

The Road So Far

At the second anniversary of the original article’s publication I welcome the opportunity to review my assumptions, revisit what others have had to say and contribute to the debate in more detail than my original article. Jiwon’s comment, after taking a conciliatory tone with others reveals intolerance towards me and my article and other aspects of Playback practice and I would like to respond to those points.  After the reasonable tone of Ben’s and Jiwon’s article, I was surprised how easily Jiwon slipped into pejorative language.

I posted a brief response as soon as I saw Jiwon’s comment on my article which he didn’t reference or refer to me other than as a ‘playback practitioner’: “I mention, in passing, as an example, the pigeonholing of Ben’s work in Palestine into the [psycho-therapeutic] Karpman “drama triangle” by a playback practitioner. This misrecognizes [sic] and reduces years of high risk, high stakes, political and cultural work, done with care, conscientiousness, and heart to a simplistic psychological miniature, to be dealt with and discharged through a western-appropriated pseudo-Zen “mindfulness”. This encapsulates the irreflexive, reductive quality of the psychotherapeutic paradigm (and now its meditative derivatives) in a nutshell.”

Except the nutshell has only been encapsulated in Jiwon’s mind as without clarifying how the ’psychotherapeutic paradigm’ or ‘its meditative derivatives’ and so on are irreflexive etc in a bit more detail, it’s just a diatribe that adds nothing to the debate.

I was left wondering why Jiwon chose not to name me or provide a reference to what he was referring to thereby reductively dismissing my article and depriving others of making their own minds up. I’m still none the wiser as Jiwon hasn’t responded.

Now with the opportunity to reflect on what I had originally written and on what my contribution to generating such a strong response from Jiwon could be; I can see that I wasn’t clear enough in my original article. My intention wasn’t to dismiss Ben’s work although I can understand how it might look like that. I was questioning the clarity of his motives on a personal level based on what Ben had said in Amsterdam and pointing out the one-sided imbalance vis-à-vis Israel and the Palestinians as I have already mentioned. Although Ben describes how ‘Israeli activists connected with the Palestinian popular struggle are also an occasional presence’ (2) at the events he organises,  I’m not aware of any attempts to reach out to Israeli Playbackers in Israel as the focus in general seems to be more on treating the Israelis as ‘other’. This would seem to be in breach of the Centre for Playback Theatre’s Code of Ethics under “Human rights: We promote the human rights of all those present and not present.”  Idealising one side while demonising the other is disingenuous and doesn’t reflect reality which is rarely without nuance and it could viewed as a form of racism.

The Peer Supervision Method

I also didn’t separate out my comments on Ben’s approach and the Dyad method that I was proposing as a peer supervision method as these are really two separate things.  I wasn’t suggesting that Ben use the Dyad method as that seems highly unlikely to happen, in the sense of Ben trying it that is.

However, it’s dismissive to describe the Dyad method as a ‘western-appropriated pseudo-Zen “mindfulness” ‘as it’s well-established and not dissimilar to the Vipassana method that Jiwon practises. In both cases, they have been established in the west for more than 50 years.  Both methods emerged from the 1960s counter-cultural reaction to traditional Judeo-Christian spirituality and both have a purpose of seeking spiritual insight and enquiry into the nature of the self. Vipassana is an ancient mediation from the time of the Buddha that enquires deeply into the nature of physical sensations and recognises that conditioned responses become reinforced in the mind if not examined. Similarly, the Dyad method (with its origins in ancient China and old Japan) is a form of contemplation that enquires into the nature of thought and recognises that thought patterns become reinforced if not examined.

Both methods are non-sectarian (meaning anyone can practice them whatever their faith or otherwise) and in their different ways, both have their roots in Buddhist practice.  Neither could be fairly described as ‘western-appropriated’ as they have long been integrated along with other spiritual paths that originated in the east that have enriched western spiritual practice in our globalised world.

The Dyad method has another dimension for problem-solving / clarity-seeking in everyday life.  In my view, it’s always helpful to look at what’s driving an intention / underlying motive and that can apply to anything from getting emotionally involved with another person to getting emotionally involved with a cause or a conflict.

On Playback Theatre and Psychotherapy

One comment (via a later email discussion with a colleague) suggested that I was prioritising the psychotherapeutic over the socio-political in Playback Theatre which was not my intention.  I’m prioritising neutrality and openness to all stories over partisanship and political affiliation, which by its nature seeks to pursue its own agenda and despite being a psychotherapist, I’m not interested in the psychotherapeutic application of Playback Theatre.  Although in defence of my profession, I feel I need to respond to Jiwon’s diversionary comments about psychotherapy. Playback Theatre is a separate discipline, yet Jiwon finds a way of conflating them and attacks the value of psychotherapy, saying that he and Ben ‘have had a running debate on the problems of Western / North American psychotherapy, as an institution, practice, and ideology for years’. At last, there’s something that Ben and I could possibly agree on and I’d like to join in the debate if I may.  Although Jiwon seems to be attacking psychotherapy in general, he does have a point if he is referring to the application of psychotherapy in Arab societies.  The following quote is drawn from the work of Marwan Dwairy, a Clinical Psychologist and an Arab-Palestinian citizen of Israel who has conducted extensive research into multicultural psychology:

“Although Western psychotherapy can help to alleviate internal conflicts within the Arabic client, it will often result in greater conflict between the individual and society. In fact, many of the basic techniques of psychotherapy are at odds with core beliefs of the Arabic culture.” [5] (Dwairy, Van Sickle 1996)

While I feel some discomfort in writing about the inner life of an Arabic client as ‘other,’  differences do exist and cultural sensitivity is a cornerstone of Playback Theatre’s approach, which is an important and self-evident need. However much the same we are, people still think differently and consequently act and respond differently in different cultures, otherwise the world would be culturally homogenised and who would want that? Both Ben and Jiwon have emphasised the importance of research as preparation for a project.

The ‘psychological miniature’ Jiwon objected to was my use of the Drama Triangle (from transactional analysis) that has the victim, persecutor and rescuer on its three points.  To clarify, my original premise was that Ben’s description of his work suggested that the Palestinians are the victim (in need of outside help), Israel is the persecutor (the bad people) and Playback Theatre is the rescuer (in the form of the activist).  While Playback Theatre can be offered as an ‘intervention’ (which could sometimes be interpreted as ‘the rescuer’) to support progressive change in cultures other than our own and best practice would be to do this in a way that’s culturally sensitive.

But when does cultural sensitivity become a version of what Edward Saïd called cultural imperialism in our perception that we are needed? An activist can go there because they can and they can leave because they can – the local populace doesn’t have the choice. The activist can stir things up and it’s the local people that are left with the consequences and activism isn’t necessarily a benign force. The activist exercises privileges that the local populace doesn’t have and I’m including my own work in Sri Lanka in this argument.  Yet Playback Theatre can claim goodwill, a certain charm and a universal relevance that can possibly transcend these problems and in a reverse ‘exoticism’, local participants in a workshop in Sri Lanka were somewhat baffled when I revealed during a sociometric exercise that I didn’t have a religion.

If we can leave the quandary posed by Saïd aside (while remaining mindful of it) because otherwise we are incapacitated, it would seem appropriate to work within the culture and values of the Palestinian context which means working with the collective (meeting them where they are) and in practice effectively reinforcing it – for better or worse.  The values of Playback Theatre are to be inclusive and to give the outsider a voice and a dilemma would be how to support the ‘outsider’ in the Palestinian or similar contexts?  By outsiders in the Palestinian context, I mean people who may have a different perspective on the occupation, people whose lifestyle or identity might not be acceptable or even those who are indifferent to the occupation or accepting of it, focussing instead on getting through daily life.  As an example, Ben quotes from an interview with an activist: “Unfortunately, adaptation is a common response to the perverse conditions under which we live.” and goes on to say that ‘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.’ (Rivers 2015)

This describes exactly why I value Playback Theatre as it can offer another perspective, but the above indicates an affirming response might be expected. That is not to lessen the impact of the occupation which is indeed highly abnormal, but just to allow for a range of human responses. The risk otherwise, is to fall into the trap of seeing any non-conformist view as ‘false consciousness’, anyone who doesn’t agree with the perspective being presented being wrong and therefore dangerous.  Humanity has been in that place many, many times before and it’s not gone well.  The other question is to ask what is being set up for the future, what kind of culture is being created when one oppression could give way to another? Can a vision of a compassionate and inclusive future be held alongside the need to sustain a resistance to the inequities of the status quo, even if that future cannot at this time be imagined?

It seems that to try and include outsiders would likely run counter to the majority view and might not be welcomed, yet not to do so, leaves us with an ethical concern if we are to get involved and offer Playback Theatre in contexts that are not our own?  At what point does a selective approach become collusive to other oppressions outside of the immediate and chosen focus? Can we be true to the values of Playback Theatre at all times and in all contexts?  Progressive values have always underpinned the culture of Playback Theatre but do they always have to be embraced if we are to work in conservative cultures?  If not, how these practice dilemmas might be navigated would be of interest in any subsequent description, specifically in the Palestinian context? Although it seems highly likely that Ben would have met these challenges in his work, he has yet to describe them, at least not in the literature that I have been able to access. Another notable absence in Ben’s description is the role of religion; Christianity and Islam are both deeply embedded in Palestinian society with Islam being in the majority but neither is mentioned at all. How does religion and Playback Theatre intersect?  Do the two religions have contact through Playback Theatre and have equal value?

Ben’s journey to find a way of working in the Palestinian context can be followed via his articles and unfortunately can sometimes have a disparaging tone. Ben writes “Rather than situating ourselves as weekend dilettantes going in to do good deeds, we must instead acknowledge the value of sustained, cooperative endeavour.”[2b]  This feels patronising as few people are privileged enough to be able to devote themselves to activism on the level that he suggests.

Ben questions the appropriateness of what he describes as a “Trauma Discourse” in the Palestinian context or other violated communities. He writes about the limits of a trauma discourse [3b] as he sees it: ‘a particular view that tends towards a parochial, apolitical and bio-medical model of assessment and intervention. Through this discourse, the sociopolitical factors that frame psychosocial distress are ignored or dismissed in favour of a highly psychologized and deficit-oriented depiction of oppressed people.”  This leads to a criticism of a ‘global trauma industry that uncritically beds itself in areas of conflict, upheaval and disaster.’  Ben goes on to say:

“The bio-medical model of trauma response proclaims political neutrality and frames psychopathology as a condition that can be overcome through adequate medical and psychotherapeutic treatment.  Playback practitioners who subscribe to this model may find themselves participating in an industry that obfuscates the economic and political determinants of psychosocial distress.” Ben says that “The sentiments expressed here are not indicative of fringe elements within the Playback Theatre or broader psychotherapeutic community.” meaning they are prevalent.

Except Playback Theatre isn’t a model of psychotherapy and onerous comparisons are rarely a good idea.  I’m not really sure who these errant Playback Theatre practitioners might be that Ben and Jiwon keep complaining about? It’s very difficult to live in isolation from other humans and I don’t recognise Ben’s description of this bio-medical model ‘that obfuscates the economic and political determinants of psychosocial distress’.  Most treatments that I’m aware of are far more holistic than that and pay attention to a client’s environment so what model or theory is being referred to exactly?  Psychotherapeutic treatments aren’t a form of solipsism and don’t just happen in isolation, they happen in a client’s life as does Playback Theatre and even more so.

Ben is looking for evidence that’s supportive of his case and goes on to quote from some research and says: “In the Palestinian context, it has been found that people who are actively engaged in some form of popular struggle are less at risk of developing psychopathology than those who are politically disengaged.”

This is the model that Ben applies because it reinforces his purpose and it’s not dissimilar from some other psychological models in that it diagnoses a condition via a particular theory and prescribes a treatment.  It’s just more directive and while I can see its efficacy from the outcomes that he mentions in the form of utilising ‘protective factors’, there is something subtly coercive about it: if you want to stay well, stay included, sign up to the cause that the model seeks to reinforce. The model works and it works best for those who agree with the position being promoted.  I wondered about the shame of being seen as not getting involved in the struggle in what is a conservative group-minded culture, rather than just a vague reference to those who are ‘politically disengaged’ which doesn’t provide enough information. Marwan Dwairy offers an insight into individuation in this context:

“Arab individuals possess a collective identity. The self is not completely individuated but rather the person continues to be enmeshed in the collective family identity.  Self-concept is very much a reflection of family approval, and self-esteem very much a reflection of the familial affiliation”  [6]

The quote from Dwairy suggests that the collective Arab identity continues throughout life and extends into wider society which would indicate that being an outsider / being out of step with the collective would come at a cost. Conservative Arab cultures can also run on a sense of obligation beyond personal needs and desires and a sense of obligation could potentially be exploited for political purposes.  In the context of the resistance to the occupation, anyone expressing a contrary view could also risk being ostracized or seen as a collaborator.  It also suggests that basis for Ben’s work as I’ve described it so far that has an element of bias confirmation as the point above seems to be ignored or avoided in the service of the cause.  Is there a space in Playback Theatre in the Palestinian context for those outsider voices whatever the level of dissent from the supposed norm of being explicitly opposed to the occupation?

In more neutral circumstances, Playback Theatre would welcome inner conflict and ambivalence that are usually portrayed through the short form of Pairs in the early stages of a performance. This models openness towards being conflicted, not needing to know where you stand on something or be decided on something and recognises that ambivalence is an eternal human dilemma.  In my experience of Playback, finding out what someone else is thinking is always an entertaining and relaxing part of a performance. Finding out what someone else is thinking, isn’t that something that we are always wondering about in our human insecurity?   Mark O’ Connell [7] expands on the point on the value of ambivalence: “There’s something to be said for not being convinced by your own conviction for having the courage of your own ambivalence.” Yet that would unlikely to be welcomed in a situation that is based on a collective view and would be an unfortunate loss of a valuable aspect of Playback Theatre. I can’t see how Ben accommodates this challenge from what I’ve read about his work.

Playback Theatre in Palestine would be fraught with difficulty; at risk of a inculcating a potentially violent escalation and an exposure of difference. I come back again to Ben’s disclosure in Amsterdam mentioned in my original article, that he is influenced by his reaction to the actions of his father and grandfather that could place his work in the realm of a family rebellion by proxy. It would be unfairly reductive to limit Ben’s work to be a result of a family dynamic but the point highlights a concern that inspired my original article. It’s an ethical question for us all, how do we keep our back-story and our emotional enmeshment in that and our opinions for that matter, backstage and not allow our work in Playback Theatre to be influenced?  It’s also noteworthy that Ben tends to only provides references that support his approach and doesn’t provide any identifying evidence or references for his criticisms of the ‘trauma discourse’.

Jiwon does a similar thing (although he seems to be speaking in general, so I’ll reply in general) and goes on to say that he sees ‘as problematic its [psychotherapy’s] instrumentality in palliating and depoliticizing structural violence by its emphasis on individual dynamics or pathology, its emphasis on “symbolic resolution” in “healing”, and its failure to understand its insertion, complicity, and facilitation of the wider injustices of a vast system of structural violence.’  Well, that’s psychotherapy despatched then in no uncertain terms – just discard it, no need for further explanation.

But I was left wondering what he meant by “symbolic resolution”. In the absence of any attempt by Jiwon to elaborate or explain his view, I’m left to speculate.  So he could have meant that if an event, action, or procedure is described as symbolic, it represents an important change, although with little practical effect. If that’s what he meant, the psychological efforts of people I’ve worked with to deal with their life-threatening addiction problems or to heal the consequences of childhood abuse to name but two examples of what clients can bring are swept aside with indifference.

It’s also possible, although more of a stretch, that he meant ‘symbolic’ from the viewpoint of Lacanian psychoanalysis[8] in that “The emergence of symbolic structures is an essential feature of the human transition from nature to culture.”, referring to the process of differentiation / separation that infants go through as they develop to eventually become part of society as an individual. There is a political / structural element to that depending on the class they are born into and some of Jiwon’s comments indicate that he sees individuality as a threat to solidarity as he says below. But without knowing for sure what he meant, we are left in the dark.  I don’t understand why he feels he needs to do it, but these kind of sweeping statements continue:

“Practitioners should also be mindful of the individualizing, psychologizing, pathologizing, palliating, and depoliticizing orientations of many styles of psychotherapy. Both in performance and follow up, practitioners should take care not [to] isolate or abstract individual “healing” away from community or structural justice. The personal, is, as ever, deeply political.”

Does everything have to be done in the service of proving a point, defending a position or of political agitation?  Since when do PT practitioners have the right to control what tellers do with their response to an enactment?  In the model we are discussing, the teller’s story seems to become the property of the collective struggle.  So much for the Marxist maxim that property is theft!

Although I agree that the personal is political that doesn’t detract in a general sense, from the fact that individuals have personal inner lives and many have a desire for and a right to privacy to discuss their concerns with a close friend, family member, a partner, a stranger or even on occasion with a psychotherapist.  In the West, and increasingly elsewhere, as traditional connections have declined and people seek recourse in individualism, self-expression and self-autonomy, psychotherapy offers the objective support of a neutral professional. Jonathan Fox once remarked words to the effect that Playback Theatre crystallizes identity.  The idea of depriving people of control over their individual lives by subsuming them into a political struggle for the ‘greater good’ is hardly empowering and devalues them. The concept of the class traitor comes to mind and makes for a rather unfortunate parallel. Jiwon’s attempt at manipulating the outcome would seem to also breach the CPT Code of Ethics according the extract below under “Emergence:  We allow the events of a performance to emerge out of the moment, without being preset or manipulated.” Controlling the outcome would be a distortion of natural emergence.  Even if the CPT Code of Ethics is supposed to only apply to accredited trainers, it does reflect the values of Playback Theatre. I have argued elsewhere that a discussion of the Code could be included in the early stages of training in Playback Theatre.

Psychotherapy can have a role in resourcing clients to free them of their internalized oppressions to live more consciously; that’s how I work anyway.  It’s an empowering process and is more likely to bring people into community rather than take them away from it. Or as Marxism [9] would have it: “The alienation from the self is a consequence of being a mechanistic part of a social class, the condition of which estranges a person from their humanity.” This is something which counselling and psychotherapy seeks to counter and to reinstate: ‘the ability to determine life and destiny, when deprived of the right to think (conceive) of themselves as the director of their own actions…’, although I’m probably twisting Marxism a bit here in the service of my argument.

To concede a point, psychotherapy works better in a stable environment and as mentioned is not so straightforward in the situation that the Palestinians are living in or Arab culture in general.

Returning to Ben’s approach, it does have some advantages as a ‘collective trauma response’ as he puts it.  Some of the stories told are very moving and do have a unifying function to lessen isolation and suffering that’s usually related to the Occupation.  Beyond that and to reiterate my point: people everywhere have private concerns and experiences that cannot so easily be shared in a public or group setting or by identifying with a political cause or when they step out of the collective.

Anyway, Jiwon is still not finished:

“It’s not difficult in PT (especially companies that are psychodramatically inclined or trained) to create an emotional soup that removes the sharp outlines of critical fact, shades every nuance as subjectively equivalent, renders all viewpoints as understandable and equal perspectives; and in this ethical dusk–where all cats are gray, where dogs and wolves are indistinguishable–engender a false empathy that creates a superficial bonding or reconciliation, that will not stand the cold scrutiny of daylight or address the injustices that remain untouched and unchallenged.”

I wonder how many Playbackers ’psychodramatically inclined’ or otherwise would recognise the above as an apt description of what they do?  It hardly matters as in any case it’s just another intolerant sweeping generalisation.

I can understand Jiwon’s reaction to structural violence, the unfairness of the system that he sees as being reinforced on every level and in every way. I can understand Jiwon’s frustration and that he seems to want everyone to join him and share his definitions of oppression and how to respond. It’s not that I disagree, but I do object to the feeling of being co-opted, even more so when being shouted at.

There is something going on here with the strength of Jiwon’s dismissive reactions and his apparent disregard of any need to explain his reasoning.  There is an undercurrent of anger and he seems to want to pick a fight with his disparaging comments.  I have no idea why Jiwon has set himself up in this way. From my side, I felt attacked and I responded and hopefully have added something to the debate by doing so?  It also felt important to defend my profession of psychotherapy from Jiwon’s misrepresentation.  But I didn’t want to leave it there, I had to look for an antidote to Jiwon’s reactions and found one in the video interview ‘what is good playback?’ which shows a kinder, more relaxed side of Jiwon as he articulates a very profound understanding of Playback Theatre – do try and watch it.

Jiwon is also an exponent of Theatre of the Oppressed, a method much more suited to the kind of interventions that interest him. I did  a week-long training in Theatre of the Oppressed some years ago and while I enjoyed creating and performing the play, I often felt so politically manipulated by the facilitator that I have never used the training as a result.  This is in contrast to the trust in the process that Playback Theatre values and seeks to maintain, even as its applications broaden. Jonathan Fox [10] describes the difference between Playback Theatre and Theatre of the Oppressed (TO):  “Playback Theatre does not begin with any assumptions of what a particular audience’s “oppression” might be, but trusts that the members of a group through the medium of their personal stories will always raise issues of importance to them.”, and they might even share something else entirely different given the opportunity.

Jonathan goes on:” TO looks for solutions, Playback Theatre enactments do not. Playback stories instead become the vehicle for deep dialogue that does not demand an answer.”  Call me old-fashioned, but that’s my preference and I believe that it works, such is the mystery of change and that both tellers and audience can retain their sense of autonomy. I realise that I’m probably swimming against the tide here and Ben quotes many examples of Playback Theatre being used to ‘address various social inequities, historical grievances and political demands.’  I’m not questioning the validity of these concerns, but wondering about the risk of excluding a nuance of view that Playback Theatre values in the impatience for change and in that impatience, excluding the other to achieve it.

In my view, the idea of Playback Theatre being used for a political end or to reinforce a viewpoint, looks like a bad combination and isn’t something that I could personally support. Making a choice in the moment (choosing one story over another) from those who are under-represented, sidelined or less-visible) may be political even if it potentially smacks of the Victorian concept of the ‘deserving poor’ but it doesn’t usually lead to despising or ostracising the ‘other’ as routine which is my point. There does seem to be a class issue in Playback Theatre certainly in the west, leading to a potential risk of being patronising, but that will need to be a topic for another day.

Although the atmosphere is tense, the conversation difficult, the language emotive and the topic complex, this is in my view, an important debate on the interface of Playback Theatre and the society and systems that we inhabit – a debate that Jiwon and Ben among others have instigated through their work and their focus on the socio-political.  As Playback Theatre is applied in ways that challenge its original intention in complex contexts through a partisan approach, this must at times mean that there will be criticism and hopefully a debate and that can’t be cancelled out by the imperative for change or an attempt to manipulate outcomes to stay on message.  I hope in future that the criticism won’t happen ‘in passing’ but will be open and fully referenced. I hope too, that Playback Theatre can maintain its original trust in the mystery of the process, a process that Jiwon describes so well in his video, even as it is applied in challenging settings. As the Sufi saying goes: “When the road comes to an end, a hidden path opens up.”

Brian Tasker May 2018

This is a work in progress and a contribution to the debate on the topic of the politicisation of Playback Theatre.  Please comment below or let me know if I have missed anything or misunderstood something. Please note that comments will be reasonably moderated.

All quotes by Jiwon Chung are from Playback Theatre Reflects.  For another side of Jiwon Chung, see the video interview: What is good playback?

The photograph was taken at the Butterfly Peace Garden at Batticaloa, Sri Lanka.



[2] Rivers B. (2015) Educate, Agitate and Organize!  Playback Theatre and its Role in Social Movements.  International Playback Theatre Journal. pp. 19-37

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


[5] Dwairy 1997






Rivers, B. (2015) Cherry Theft Under Apartheid , Playback Theatre in the South Hebron Hills of Occupied Palestine.  TDR: The Drama Review 59:3 (T227) Fall 2015

For the CPT Code of Ethics, visit:

For more on the drama triangle:

For more on the dyad method, visit:

For an excerpt from the book, Orientalism by Edward Said, go to:

For an interesting insight into the lives of Palestinian women in the West Bank, see:

For a film that illustrates the challenges that Arab women living in Israel who go against their culture face:

For an overview of the situation regarding Palestinian refugees see:



Shrapnel – My Father’s War Memoir

dad crop

Bill Tasker, Royal Fusilier No. 6459970


Shrapnel could be described as a war memoir.  It is the story of my father’s experiences in the Second World War.  The transcripts of the counselling sessions that my father was to eventually have that form the basis of this account were originally typed up by my sister Brenda. Shortly before my father died, he gave me permission to use these transcripts as I wished.  While my father’s story is uniquely his, I’m certain that there are many similar stories that remain untold right up to the present day.

I initially chose to publish these stories as a hand-made book with some slight editing as my creative project for the Leadership course that I undertook at the School of Playback Theatre in New York, USA in 2008.  At that time, it felt important that the book should be a beautiful and artistic object to counter the horror of the stories told therein.  Playback Theatre is an improvised form of theatre that invites personal stories from audience members which are then re-enacted on the spot. Although deep and painful stories can be told in Playback Theatre performances, stories such as these would be very difficult and even unhelpful to re-enact, so perhaps the focus would be on the parallel life: the survival and the post-trauma achievements of the ordinary and the everyday of which there were many for my parent’s generation.  The difficulty is in the telling of these stories and the speaking of painful truths in the first place – something that my father eventually found the courage to do. I dedicate the retelling here to those who may never be able to speak of their difficult experiences and tell their stories. Should they ever feel able to speak of these experiences may someone be there to listen.

I have chosen to re-publish this memoir online to give it a wider exposure on the tenth anniversary of the original publication in 2008.

My father’s story begins in 1919, just after the First World War when my paternal grandparents met and married.  My father, William Henry Tasker, otherwise known as Bill was born into poverty on 11th June 1920 in Bramley Mews, Kensington, West London which at that time was a notorious slum.  He was the oldest of eight children, four boys and four girls. My grandfather was away in the army and to make a living, my grandmother sold flowers outside Gloucester Road Underground station. Bill’s grandmother lived next door and she brought him up until he was eight years old.  The family later moved to a social housing scheme in Burnt Oak, North London and Bill used to bring one of his younger sisters across London to the flower stall to be breast-fed.

When my grandfather left the army, he pursued a succession of jobs, including hiring a barrel organ and monkey for the day and later became a milkman.  Bill had several jobs, working as an errand boy, shining shoes in a hotel and in a factory making gramophone needles, but eventually decided to join the army.  Just before this, the family went on holiday to Kent to pick hops, which was a working-class tradition in those days.

Bill’s mother was sad to see him go because he had been such a help to her bringing up his siblings.

There is a twist to this story as my father was to fight the Italians during the war and my mother Josephine, whom my father was to meet in London in 1944 was half-Italian and had an Italian family name.  My mother’s paternal grandparents had come to England in the middle of the 19th century as refugees fleeing from the disruption caused by the unification of Italy at the time of Garibaldi.  Nothing is known of the circumstances surrounding their departure from Italy as my maternal grandfather was much older than my English/Irish grandmother and died in 1933. My great-grandparents had already died by the time my grandparents met and the Italian connection and language was long lost.  My mother lived in London throughout the war and when I asked her about it, she said that had never experienced any problems due to her name, although Britain was at war with Italy.

To return to my father’s story, what follows now, is an account of my his traumatic experiences in the Second World War that were to have such a disruptive effect on our family life. As a consequence of a head-wound, my father struggled with alcohol during my childhood until he was forced to stop drinking through illness and his depression was life-long.  Apparently he received electric shock treatment on one occasion but it didn’t appear to have made any difference.  He needed to talk, but felt unable to until much later.

These accounts are taken from taped transcripts of counselling sessions that my father was to eventually have, some fifty years after the end of the war.  I like to think that I was instrumental in these sessions taking place.  Not just because I wanted to find a way of helping my father, but because this was my story too and I had reached the stage in my life when I was searching for a resolution.

My own life had been disrupted by the breakdown of my marriage and the loss of my business in the recession at the end of 1990 and being unemployed, I was undertaking voluntary work at a local hospice. My values had changed, I had started training to be a counsellor and I was interested living life differently to the way that I had been living it.  As my father had grown older, he could be quite a challenge to my mother and as a respite for them both; he used to spend periods at a residential facility for traumatised soldiers. This would give my mother a break and provide him with an opportunity to perhaps begin to speak about his wartime experiences.

In the spring of 1994, on a Sunday visit to my parents, just prior to one of my father’s periods of respite, I asked him if he ever attended any of the therapy groups that were provided there.  He replied that he found it too painful and when I pressed the point, he began to cry and described how he had once shot an Italian soldier. It wasn’t appropriate to continue the conversation at that time and I decided that I would visit him while he was away from home and see if he wanted to talk more about it.

I arrived at the residential unit the following weekend and sought my father out, we soon moved to his room to talk.  I sat squarely opposite my father and reminded him of what he’d mentioned last time we’d met and invited him to share his story with me.

He warned me that there things that he’d never told anyone before and that he’d quite likely cry.  I said that was all right with me and he began to speak.  We spent about an hour, while he recounted the events that had so troubled him, sometimes squirming in his chair and crying with obvious mental anguish, while I held eye-contact, listened and occasionally encouraged him to continue. What he did tell me could only be described as horrific.  He explained that all of that, coupled with the effects of his head-wound had driven him to drink and that he’d been carrying these memories for fifty years.  I was able to say that I could now begin to understand all the difficulties that we’d had as a family during my childhood. I was able to gain a fresh perspective on my relationship with my father and just listened while he spoke.

My father’s story from the Transcripts

(First Tape)

I joined the army in 1937, aged 17; I told them I was 18.  That is something that a lot of people did.  Straight away, without boasting, I was always popular with the blokes – I was always popular with everybody.  I was always happy except that I was always hard up as all I received was 14 shillings a week and I had to send 5 shillings home. I wasn’t left with very much.

I was sent to one Depot and then to another Depot, a place called Grand Shaft Barracks which was in Dover.  From there, before the war started, I was sent to India.  I wasn’t there for very long and then I think, just as war was declared, we left India and sailed for Egypt.  We spent a lot of time in Egypt, because Italy had not yet declared war, we were waiting for something to happen. We did a lot of training in the desert at a place called Mena near the Pyramids.

Italy declared war and straight away we were sent up to the desert in Wavell’s army. Everybody knew that he only had about 60,000 troops.  We went to Mersa Matruh on the Libyan border and waited until we attacked. When we did attack all we could see was the Libyans – only young kids they were, 14, 15, 16 years of age. The Italians were all behind the Libyans.  As a matter of fact, we never saw many Italians as they just ran away.  We did capture the Pay Master and he had a lot of money on him. We did not realise the value of the money so we were just giving it away.  We were only there for about four days and that was that battle over. Very few of us got killed, as we weren’t there for long, before being pulled back to Cairo, where we did some more training. From there we went up the Nile to Sudan. I can remember it very well because it was one of those old paddle steamers with big wheels on it.  From there we went to Eritrea.

There were a few skirmishes going on in Agadat and then we had orders to take Agadat. It is a Battle Honour; it’s in all the books.   They never had any drinking water so they gave us half a bottle of sweet tea each and of course, drinking sweet tea makes you very thirsty. I still had this sweet tea left and then we attacked. A lot of mates got killed.  I was lucky enough to reach wherever we were going and there were Eritreans there.  There were no Italians about as they’d all retreated.  I saw an Eritrean with a big bottle of water and I was sensible enough to know that I was going to go short of water if I had only this sweet tea.  So I thought to myself – this is the terrible thing – I killed that bloke for his water and for no other reason.  The bullet went through the bloke and some of the flesh from his body went on the cork of the bottle and of course it put me off the water.  Then somebody else came along and shot his companion. The poor bastard had already surrendered. I didn’t think anything of it.  I thought I was a hero. In those days you were a hero if you killed somebody.  I was only 19 and I left the water and carried on with my sweet tea.

I went along a bit and found this very short trench, I was drinking this sweet tea and it was getting less and less and I was getting thirstier.  The sun was beating down and I though the best thing to do was to go back and see if I get that water.  It was either that or die. So I went back to see if I could find this water but it had gone.  Somebody else had nicked it – the thieving bastards – they wouldn’t mind about the bloody flesh on the cork.   I went back and did a silly thing, as I say I was only 19 and I tried to drink my own water.  I never actually did drink my own water, but I moistened my lips with it.  It did no good of course, we had to wait until night before they could get water up to us – I don’t know how long we had to wait for water.  I had already drunk my tea.  It is so clear to me all these details.

Anyway we couldn’t go and sort the dead out, my dead mates, because there were snipers in front.  So we had to get rid of these snipers.  The only tank I ever saw was the one that came and got rid of all these snipers.  That was the only tank I ever saw in the Eritrean war – I never saw another tank.  So wherever they were I don’t know, come to that, the only plane I ever saw was Italian.

So we waited until all the snipers were cleared away and I thought to myself the best thing I can do now is go around and see where my mate Ernie was.  He didn’t make it and I thought I knew exactly the spot where he got killed because he was right beside me, but I wasn’t one hundred percent sure.  Then I found him.  I can remember this so clearly – he had been lying in the sun for two or three days and he had swollen up to unbelievable proportions – it was terrible to see and describe really.  I had never seen a body like it before, it was so swollen with the heat of the sun– it had swollen his body up just terrible.

I wanted to be sure it was Ernie so I pulled hold of his hair, he never had his hat on funny enough – I can’t understand why he never had that on.  Anyway all his hair came out in my hand and I thought, “Well I don’t know.” Anyway I recognised him by his tattoos; he had a lot of modern tattoos. I remember them on his arms.

We never buried anyone. Anyway I found it was Ernie, that was one of many, but he was my best mate.  I carried on and we buried the dead enemy, we could bury them, but not our own.   What we used to do was we used to just pick up our dead and dump them in one of our own trenches for their protection.  It is a terrible thing. I know it is a terrible thing to say these things, but we used to leave our dead for our people to bury, but their dead we just pulled them along so that they wouldn’t smell and we just covered them over with a bit of dirt which wasn’t very good really.  Anyway we couldn’t be bothered with their dead. We were out to kill them and that’s what we did.

We went on to our next battle, the battle of Keren, and to cut a long story short, we went right through and for some reason or other this Sergeant said to me, “Tasker, I want you to go as lookout.”  He gave me a pair of binoculars and I looked up and could see these three, or maybe five, aeroplanes.  Anyway they were right above us and they started dropping bombs, they dropped so many bombs it was unbelievable and the bombs were actually going down the trenches that our blokes had dug for themselves for protection.  Anyway a piece of shrapnel hit me in the head but it never knocked me out.   All I could see was the smoke from the bombs.  I’d lost my field dressing or used it on somebody else, I don’t know. I forget now.

Then a bloke called Lofty Coates, another mate of mine gave me his field dressing to put around my head.  I could see all these tin hats up in the trees; legs, arms etc, other blokes lying dead where the bombs had gone down the trenches.  The stretcher bearers came along and took me to where all the other wounded were.  You see I can remember it so well, that’s what I can’t understand and I’ve not said this to anybody, at least to my knowledge, I don’t know.  I can remember it so well – why is that? Why is that I can remember?  I just don’t know.

Anyway we had to lie there; they couldn’t move us, although we were very badly wounded.  They couldn’t move us because the Italians were shelling the road where our trucks had to go. There was only one road out and the Italians were shelling this road and we could not get by.  I laid there for – I don’t know how long – the memory goes.  Then the ambulance managed to get to us I was still on the same stretcher. Then we managed to get back; it took three days, the field dressing was on my head for three days without it coming off.  We then got to a place called Khartoum in the Sudan, obviously my head was seen to then, but I can’t really remember – my mind goes blank there.  I went into hospital in Cairo. I was in hospital for three months.

I was sent back to a transit camp and how long I was at this transit camp I don’t know.  No convalescence – no nothing and an officer said to me, “you have now been designated to the Czechoslovakian army.” So I was put into the Czechoslovakian army as an Officer’s Batman after that.  We went on some naval ship to Tobruk.  We went into Tobruk by boat as this was the only way you could get into Tobruk.  We were in the Czechoslovakian army for six months and then we got transferred to the Polish army.  I suppose the officer I was with spoke better Polish than Czech, I’m not sure but that is what I imagine. And of course, wherever that officer went I had to go because of the alliance between the Polish and the British.  So wherever he went I had to go.

We were sent there to relieve the Australians because they had been there quite a while.  I was with the Czechoslovakian army for about six months.  Perhaps one or two could speak English and one could speak broken English, but I don’t know about the others.   The Officer I was with was no company to me.   The funny thing about it is I remember a sergeant there in Czechoslovakian army. An English Sergeant and we made friends, being there was nobody else who spoke English. Nobody could speak English, I was just isolated. There was nobody I could turn to for any help.

I remember on one occasion, where there was eight, I’m not sure about this, I’m not sure how many, but I was told that there were eight.  I was on my way back and I just saw a mine go up – a land mine go up.  It just blew these eight Poles up, just killed them outright.  That never upset me funny enough.  But when we were advancing, not that we could advance far in Tobruk, because you couldn’t go too far, you just did little skirmishes.  I saw this grenade come over and it went into this Polish chap’s trench and blew him up. I still advanced though or done whatever I was supposed to do.

I looked around and I must have been shell-shocked or something and for some reason or another I just couldn’t take any more.  An Escort came and escorted me back to Base.  I was in this place for about one or two days.  Then I was interviewed by this doctor or psychiatrist or somebody – I don’t know.  He gave me a letter, but I had opened it and I didn’t really understand the contents.  It said “feeble-minded”, I thought to myself, I wonder what feeble meant?  I was not educated.  I was that naïve, I didn’t even know what feeble meant.  Anyway I gave this letter to this officer and he just sent me back to the front line again.  Of course, I carried on for a long time after that.

One particular time, the Corporal said to me “Tasker.” – because it was very, very cold in the desert as everybody knows at night, “Go and get the blankets for the Platoon.” There were only nine in the Platoon, so only nine blankets.  I went and got the nine blankets from wherever you got them, and a sandstorm blew up.   I had these blankets around my head and my head was down to dodge the sandstorm. Anyway I was walking around and I got bloody lost.  I was wandering around for a long time. I thought “Sod this.”, so I got bedded down for the night with all the blokes’ blankets.   When I woke up I could see the bloody Germans, I was more on the German territory than I was ours.  So I had to find my way back to my own lines with these blankets.

There were so many things that went on. I mean in Tobruk we used to go out on these patrols with the Polish army, and as I say, I couldn’t speak bloody Polish and they couldn’t speak English and I didn’t know what was to be done or not to be done.  All I was interested in was looking after my Officer. I think I was a good Batman really, because I looked after him really well. You see with the Polish there were no English to interfere with them, they could just go their own way.  They just did what they wanted to do – whatever General was in charge.

I remember getting pulled up by a General once and he said “Who are you then?”  I said, “I’m with you lot.” He said “I don’t know who you are.”  This Polish General said that.  The Polish they weren’t bad really.  All I know is that I was very unhappy with them. I mean when we used to come back from the Front line and go on leave I was always the odd one out.  I couldn’t mix with them and they couldn’t mix with me.  I mean I went down to the brothel area and there was nobody.  Sometimes I found an Englishman to talk to but not very often.  They didn’t have any particular culture or different food, but then we didn’t have any bloody food.  All that we had was corn beef and biscuits. Never had any food. They couldn’t get any food up.  I remember an Australian, because we did relieve the Australians, when he opened up a tin of bacon, I thought “Bloody hell, a tin of bacon.” It was something that we never saw.  And the bread was full of fleas, thousands and millions of fleas in the bread. But I didn’t take any notice of that, when I used to get the bread, I used to soak it in paraffin to kill them.

Then there was the Battle of Alamein and we broke out of Tobruk and carried on to Benghazi. Wherever that Officer went I had to go.  After leaving the desert, we went onto the Syrian campaign that came next.  We went to Syria to sort out the Vichy French. I was still with the Polish army and we cleared all the Vichy French out of Syria

The Polish Commander let me and my officer go back to our Base.  On our way back, we sat down for a rest on the side of the road and I took all my ammunition off. I don’t know what the Officer did.  Then we heard all this machine gun fire – we were being attacked by these Kurdish people.  We got behind this rock and I said shall I go back and get some help?  He said “No, you stop where you are.” He said “If I’m going to get killed you are going to go with me.”  Anyway I saw all these Kurds so the next thing I did, without asking, I just surrendered.  I just waved a white handkerchief. It’s a good job I did because we would never have got back to base without this Kurd who escorted us.

(Second Tape)

I can remember one instance after I was wounded.  What we must remember was that I was always alright, but I was obviously very ill after I got wounded. In as much as my depression or illness started after I got wounded. I remember another time where there was this Italian soldier and he came towards us shouting ”Aqua, Aqua.” which means water. There were three of us in this trench, just a hole in the sand.   I wasn’t involved in it, but to be quite honest, I would have been if I could have got there before the other two.  There was a pair of binoculars dangling from this Italian’s neck.  He had a bayonet wound in his neck, and of course, these two blokes were grabbing at the binoculars to try and get them first.  They were tugging and as they were tugging the strap was going into this Italian bloke’s neck. Anyway one of them got it.  I’ve got to be honest and say, I would have done exactly the same thing.  It’s just one of those things that happen. I wanted a pair of binoculars anyway.

One of the blokes got the binoculars and while they were looking at them, the Italian was lying on the ground and I’ve got to say it, the three of us never bothered really. We weren’t even wondering if he was dead or not, he just looked dead.  So we were pleased to get these binoculars and we just dug a blooming hole. Well we slung some sand over him.  But to this day I’ll be honest and say it; I just don’t know whether that bloke was dead or not.  So we could say that we buried a bloke who we didn’t care if he was dead or not.

Another time, my Officer – he was a bloke who always wanted to be in the picture – as I said before, everywhere he went I had to go.  We went out on a patrol one day and we saw a load of Italians in a truck just driving along.  The Officer pulled out his revolver and they stopped and surrendered. The Officer got in the driver’s seat and we drove these Italians back with all their machine guns and just handed them over as captured prisoners.  He was a proper, bloody VC bloke he was. I don’t know if he got any medals after.

I was another Officer’s Batman. I don’t know what happened to the other Officer.  We were in Baghdad by then.  Now there was no fighting in that place, no trouble at all really. Bearing in mind I was still suffering from severe depression – although not knowing what depression was then, I didn’t go sick although I was suffering very badly.  All I know is from there we went to Bombay and from there to South Africa, this was in 1944.  Mind you, I got wounded in 1941 and I carried on until 1944.  I was in hospital in South Africa and from there we came back to Southampton. When we arrived back in England I was sent straight to a hospital and from there we went to another hospital, Mill Hill School it was actually. I remember it so well.

I can honestly say this that I have never told anybody about me getting this feeble-minded letter.  I can’t remember ever talking about the war. Maybe I have done many, many years ago when I just came home – boasted I suppose, if you’d like to call it that. But other than that, when I realised what a mistake I’d made, I can’t remember talking about the war.  Until the counsellor came around and he opened me up and made me talk about it.  I managed to tell my son on Sunday without a tear in my eye which I have never done before.  I could tell him nearly everything – without a tear coming to my eye.

Third Tape (a joint interview with Bill’s eldest sister, Nellie)

Bill: “It so happened that when the counsellor came around to see me, my sister had arrived to visit and this is what was said.  What I want to do is for you to tell me and the counsellor what it was like when I first came home. It has been in the back of my mind what I really was like.”

Nellie:  “I think it would be best to start with how he was before.  He was a happy fellow, very kind.  He was very close to mum and well-liked.  He went off to war and I remember we had letters from him and we knew he was fighting in Abyssinia and then they sent us a telegram. He was wounded and missing. I don’t know how long it was before we got the telegram to say that he was found and he was in a hospital.

I remember going to Mum and round the corner there was a chap in a khaki overcoat and a cap that was too big for him.  I remember saying to Mum “I think that that’s my brother.” and it was my brother.  I was about 17 years old and didn’t realise the significance of what it was all about.

Anyway, that night – it might have been the same night – or maybe a couple of nights afterwards, Bill was out and Dad wasn’t in. I heard a noise downstairs outside.  I got up and went down and it was my brother, he was absolutely drunk, terribly drunk.  I got him in and wasn’t talking much sense really; it does not dawn on you so you think it’s one big joke. So I got him undressed, took off his heavy army boots and eventually got him upstairs and got him to bed. He shared a room with my brother who was deaf. I woke my brother and took him to Bill’s bedside so he would understand that Bill was safe. So I got back to bed and in the middle of the night I was woken by the sounds of screaming and shouting “The bloody Germans are coming, the bloody Germans are coming.”  Poor old Harry was screaming blue murder, Bill was having a nightmare.  He was trying to protect Harry from the enemy and he was in a very bad state.  Mum was very worried.

Bill went to a Military Sanatorium in Mill Hill and he was there for a long time.  Because of the blood vessels in his head caused by the wound, he got severe headaches and when he got those headaches, he was terrible to look at because his eyes used to bulge – really bulge.  He came home eventually and one day he got hold of me and took me into the front room and locked the door.  He made me sit down and listen and he told me the most terrible scene he had found in the whole war was fighting against a fourteen-year old.  That was so terrible, that was the one that he thought about.  He told me in another period, of having to leave the chaps he’d fought with who’d got killed.  He couldn’t even bury them and if they did bury them they couldn’t bury them deep enough. They were all his friends that he’d fought with along the way.

He also told me of an experience; that he knows what it is to be dying and that it is a wonderful experience and he is ready to go.  Anyway, he went into recuperation and they got him back on his feet and sent him back to the Front. He was in the North African war.  He had lots of trouble not only with his wound, but also with the drink because when he did drink, he couldn’t keep up with it and used to get terrible headaches.  They had no time to give him individual attention of course because they were on the run.  He got that medal which I think he deserved.

These are all the stories that I heard and then I said “Oh Bill, I don’t want to hear any more.”  He got hold of me and he shook me and he laughed – he had a terrible laugh – it was horrible, I was really young and it terrified me.  My mother did call out to us to open the door.  Mother never realised how ill Bill was and it wasn’t her fault, it really wasn’t.  In the back of Bill’s mind he didn’t like that but he couldn’t do anything about it.  When Bill came back from the war he was a wreck – it was horrible. I can only tell you this, what my brother was like before the war and how he came back.  He was very sadistic to people who irritated him and he was very, very cruel. He couldn’t help himself and he would get a guilty conscience, but he couldn’t do anything about it, he was absolutely helpless.

You could see it in his eyes – but he couldn’t help it.  His eyes would be bulging and he couldn’t help it because of those severe headaches.  The doctor said that eventually the shrapnel would settle down in the bone and the headaches would eventually get better. But he had to keep away from alcohol. That’s very difficult for someone who’s tasted it like my brother has.  I mean what was said in that room – those gruesome stories, but what it was about was actually too hard to imagine.  Just imagine he was eighteen or nineteen when he was fighting against those fourteen-year old boys.

So all right, don’t keep blaming yourself Bill, because my brother is inclined to tie himself in knots with a guilty conscience.  But you have got to realise the circumstances, that tiny little house with three bedrooms. Every bedroom was full, we never had one place that we could call our own, someone who comes home from the War like that needs room – he couldn’t even breathe. There was only one little room that was warm. It was during the War and so many people were in the same circumstances.  He wasn’t normal. He wasn’t thinking normal and he never got a chance to get back to normal.”

Bill:  “I was saying that I can talk about it now.  I saw a shell land on a bloke and blow him to smithereens and we just carried on, and as I say, we were still marching.  We were advancing really and of course I had my Officer there, and in the end, I just collapsed and they escorted me away. This happened after I got wounded.  I remember when I came out [from hospital] they put a rifle in my hand and said “there we are, there’s a rifle.” and my head’s still in plaster. But then I couldn’t go on and got escorted back to base. I suppose you would say, a coward in a way. I mean I’d already seen these eight Polish soldiers blown to bits by a landmine. To see this bloke, this Polish soldier – I just gave in.

So I was escorted back to Base and they put me in hospital for a day and I was seen by a psychiatrist and he gave me a letter.  I opened it and you know what it had in it: ‘feeble-minded.’ What I am trying to say is, that I had to go back to the front line and carry on for another couple of years or however long it was. I didn’t even know what feeble meant. It wasn’t until later that I realised what feeble meant. It was weak, weak-minded.”

Nellie: “It’s a sad word. It’s a large word; it can mean so many things.  But they shouldn’t have put you back. They should have sent you right back home.”

Bill: ‘They said, “Give this letter to your M.O.” and that was it. I got sent back to the front.”


My father was eventually diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and having at last been able to talk about his experiences did eventually seem to be more at peace as he got older.  He died on August 14th 2002 of heart failure aged 82.  I really don’t think he expected to live that long.

My memories of him during my childhood are confused as I always got mixed-messages and was never really sure if he actually liked me or not, I experienced some of that cruelty that my aunt spoke of.  At the same time, I was fascinated by the Second World War and my father’s part in it.  He  had a hole in his skull from the head wound, which as the skin had grown over it, formed a little dip that I used to touch with my finger . On a material level, my father always worked and did his best to provide for us.  In many ways he adapted well to life after the war and tried to keep the memories pushed down in common with many ex-soldiers who’d had similar experiences.  Some of the events that he spoke of could be called war crimes, but I think that he was punished enough by fifty years of being unable to talk about what had happened – such was his conscience.  He kept his secret until he could bear it no longer. I am glad to be one of the witnesses to my father’s story.  It seems such an obvious thing to do – to invite another human being to tell their story.  It helped my father and healed our relationship and that made being a father myself a little easier.

As my father told his story on that afternoon back in 1994, I could see that many of the difficulties that I had always felt as being so much a part of ‘me’ simply fell into place. These events were no longer something personally directed at me, but as a part of history and of life and the circumstances that shaped my life, my father’s life, the lives of those that he fought and killed in the war and the lives of his mates – who fought and died alongside him.  I have a link to them all and by telling my father’s story here; their stories have been told too.


My parents on their Wedding Day October 7th 1944

In Gratitude

Brian Tasker


The Trauma-informed Application of Playback Theatre

by Brian Tasker

“The pursuit of resonance is more important than the pursuit of novelty.”  Ian Page, Artistic Director of Classical Opera

The unpredictable nature of Playback Theatre means that much learning occurs literally, on the spot.  The improvisational nature of playback theatre means that mistakes can be made understood and corrected within the space of a performance, particularly with regard to a particular understanding of the audience and how to engage and how to adjust to them, or failing that, can be reflected on at a post-performance that is recommended to take place on a different day as the performance and is an opportunity to enjoy what went well and to consider what can be learned from whatever didn’t go well.  Once again, the improvisational nature of Playback requires developing a culture that allows for imperfection. Imperfection can generate dialogue and dialogue can generate risk. It’s potentially inspiring and affirming for a Playback audience to see risk managed well, which then could encourage further dialogue and so on.

Honesty and openness are core values in Playback Theatre – without them Playback Theatre just wouldn’t work. What soon becomes apparent when scanning related literature is the openness and willingness of playback practitioners to give honest accounts of their experiences and share their mistakes and learning.  This can be the culture of the Playback Theatre group who as a matter of course, review and give feedback to each other that reflects the close bonds that develop from working together over time. The emotional intimacy and trust that can be generated within a Playback group who know each other well can create an environment that fosters the open inclusion of negative feelings like shame and guilt. If shame is allowed to go underground in the group, it is likely to go toxic and re-emerge inappropriately and if triggered during a performance could be disruptive. Mistakes being made and openly shared within the group instead of being hidden, creates a resource for learning and the promotion of good practice and similar mistakes can be avoided in the future.

It would be unreasonable to expect Playback performers to be familiar with every human experience, every strata of society, every sub-culture and every issue. So when Playback Theatre is being used with specialised audiences that share a specific issue or focus that we might be unfamiliar with, a good strategy could be to undertake some background research beforehand to gain some insight into what might be expected with the willingness to adapt as we go along. The level of pre-performance preparation required probably depends on the level of anxiety within the Playback group.  In The Geese Theatre Handbook, Drama with Offenders and People at Risk, the authors suggest learning from the audience through an open and interactive conversation. Being congruent with the audience and honest about what you might know or not know about them is an invitation for them to tell you about themselves and build a relationship.

A classic analogy of a performance would be the ritual of the first date with someone that you like. A good date is characterised by a mutual interest or potential to develop a mutual interest in each other and not about seduction, which would be more about manipulation. It’s a tentative exploration hopefully combined with some bold moves. You want it to go well, you want to give them space and at the same time you want to move it forward – a constant shifting of boundaries on both sides as more is revealed and decisions are made.

Like a good date, a Playback Theatre performance is a collaborative affair that allows itself to unfold organically without feeling forced. In her book, Improvising Real Life, Jo Salas writes about the Playback actors’ secret desire to ask questions, to get more information, than the conductor is eliciting.  Jo says: “But you keep your silence, because you know how undramatic it would be to break into the delicate web of anticipation that is being woven.” She goes on to say that ‘in the end there is really no such thing as enough information and that you are thrown onto your empathy, your intuition and your creativity’ and it’s the resulting intimacy and trust and reaps dividends and leaves you wanting more.

There are few books about Playback Theatre and a major source of literature is the Playback Theatre journal Interplay. Two accounts of practice published in Interplay that stand out as examples of learning in action[1]: Small Successes: transforming stories of violence and abuse by Hannah Fox with Erica Eigenberg and Mario Palma and Shame and Addiction, a PT performance in an anger management class for Hispanic immigrants by Ramiro Salas.  Salas writes about the cultural sensitivity of working with Hispanic immigrants, particularly Mexicans who have a cultural taboo against men showing their vulnerability. Salas explains how he constructed his Mexican stereotype from a poem by Octavio Paz : “…a Mexican male can never “rajarse”. The very meaning of the word rajarse is different in Mexico than anywhere else in the Hispanic world. It literally means “to crack oneself open”, but for a Mexican it means both to show your feelings and to be a coward. This rajadura, this crack, means you have no protection, you are vulnerable, and for a Mexican male to “rajarse” is totally forbidden.” For another translation, I tried google-translate for ‘rajarse’and got ‘back down’. The idea of backing down reminded me of the Hollywood stereotype of the ‘Mexican stand-off’ and led me to wonder about stereotypes? What if anything can we learn from them? Stereotypes tend to be generalised shorthand versions that reflect a cultural norm and a predictable expectation. When stereotypes are applied across the board, we get a reduced version of individuals and can start to think that everyone is the same.  Similarly, when we apply ‘cultural sensitivity’ across the board, we can get the same reductive result and fail to serve those who don’t fit the assumption. Both approaches can be oppressive.

However, I’m not questioning the value and authenticity of the work undertaken and described by Ramiro Salas who writes about his own presumptions and stereotypes in a cheerfully self-forgiving way, especially when he describes applying his own Mexican stereotype inappropriately to somebody from El Salvador. The reason why his account was so striking was that despite the cultural sensitivity, he was able to work at the edge of the performance as it unfolded and by doing so, find out what was needed as he went along. Paradoxically, there is both bravery and vulnerability in what he did and what he modeled by doing it that enabled the audience members to tell their stories that may have remained untold otherwise.  Another aspect of his work seemed to be that the ‘rajarse’ happened by proxy with the Playback team fulfilling that one step removed on stage.

In my former work-setting of a residential addictions treatment centre, my approach to the Men’s group that I facilitated or co-facilitated during that time, much of the work was around creatively getting the men to move beyond the usual male defences of pride, anger, aggression and non-communication (sometimes viewed as emotional absence) or at least talk about these issues (and how they might reinforce addiction) – a kind of meta-group. In fact, the most successes that I had in the men’s group, is exactly when I have showed my vulnerability by admitting to the group that I make mistakes or being seen as visibly struggling with the men in the group to collaboratively find a way forward and inviting them to help me. The value was in being congruent about mistakes with the mistake being the point of departure. I’ve included this anecdote as another example of working with men and with mistakes.

In the case of Small Successes, which partly describes a Playback Theatre project set in a refuge for women affected by domestic violence, an initial assumption was made that the women who were living there knew each other, when apparently many of them didn’t even know each other’s names. The fact that these women lived in a refuge would have indicated that they shared similar experiences to each other, but they seemed to be caught up in a need to hide away from the world and that continued even behind closed doors. If that was the culture of the place, then it’s easy to see why that information wouldn’t have been handed over and not to mention it, would simply have mirrored the way things were.  Perhaps on an unconscious level, this could be seen as a measure of the level of trauma experienced by this client group and as a sign that reluctance to tell their stories would be expected. The conventions of domestic violence can be characterised by threats of violence and actual violence, humiliation, shame, secrecy, disempowerment and low-self-esteem and that implies that nobody is expected to / or likely to intervene and to ask for help is to risk retaliation and further abuse.  Disassociation and freezing are common effects of trauma.  Playback Theatre works at the opposite end of this spectrum and by encouraging the sharing of stories is highly likely to meet with resistance in this kind of setting.

In the foreword to Pat Ogden’s book ‘Trauma and the body’[2], van der Kolk writes that “Working with trauma is as much about the person remembering how he or she survived as it is about addressing what was broken.” So from that very basic premise, and as long as the enactment was done sensitively (with regard to the violent aspect) it would seem that playback might well have a role in bringing someone through a traumatic event as a witness to their own survival. Although there are likely to be many other factors affecting traumatised people that could potentially complicate any intervention.  At this point, it’s necessary to re-state that Playback Theatre isn’t therapy per se, it’s theatre.  While Playback has been used successfully in specific therapeutic settings, Jo Salas[3] points out that ‘Playback’s healing power may actually be undercut by such adaptations. Something is lost.’ She goes on to describe an example where the conductor directs a story in a particular psychodynamic direction that deprives it of the richness of its full context. Playback Theatre doesn’t seek to isolate a teller and their story but allows the story to be told in the context of everyone present and on a number of levels, not confined to the personal. For example, a participant at a workshop told of a family dispute about an inheritance between siblings.  The story was played back for the teller as a personal story: how it affected the teller. It could also have been played at a social level, how it affected everyone involved, not just from the teller’s perspective and also on an archetypal, fairy tale level: how the archetypal forces of greed, punishment and victimhood were being played out.

One role aspect that is similar to that of a therapist is the impartiality of the conductor and actors, their lack of judgment and culture of acceptance that supports and can empower an audience to feel safe enough to share.  A sensitivity and lightness of touch enable a conductor to reach their audience and disciplined listening by the actors displaying neutral body language when not acting suggests a motivated interest in both teller and audience.

Another important difference is that while there may be a focus, topic or theme to a performance, there isn’t a specific therapeutic contract that you would find with a therapy group or workshop, just a group of people gathered with an invitation to tell a personal story.  Many of the moments and stories told wouldn’t require a therapeutic intervention in any case and Playback Theatre doesn’t operate as fishing expedition: stories are told just as they are.  Also, no opportunity is provided for tellers to process what has happened within the performance, the belief being that the next story will take care of the one before; that the overall frame and ritual of the performance will hold the audience. While that belief may be hit and miss in practice, there is something to be said for the trust and willingness to share personal stories in public that can be evoked in a Playback performance. Perhaps it’s not so much about the alchemical mystery of the Playback performance that is so effective, but finding out how other people think and about what they do and what happens in their lives; more a debunking of mystery than mystery that brings people together. Another value is that of promoting community building through mutual identification and understanding.

Returning to small successes, in her account, Hannah Fox describes how it took a good half hour to establish enough rapport with this group so they felt comfortable enough to begin to tell their stories.  That demonstrates a belief in what is being offered and the potential of what can be delivered.  What is particularly striking is that all parties had arrived at a mutual starting point – that of not knowing each other and the role of Playback Theatre at that moment was to bring that culture out into the open and rectify it. A core aspect of Playback Theatre is that it can be playful (even in serious situations) and doesn’t necessarily require the level of self-exposure that therapy might and is less threatening.  Playback Theatre can be presented as more of an enacted conversation rather than a search for painful issues and a need to move through those issues to a resolution.

What I found so useful in reading Small Successes, was the honesty in including that initial assumption in the account.  It opened a train of thought for me that may not have occurred otherwise; reading Small Successes has provided me with some valuable insights and a possible model for future practice.

The account describes how the trust and belief in the teller in playback can also be combined with theatre games and exercises that work with the participant’s experiences.  As Mario Palma describes: “There are specific moments that I feel really show the success of the work that we do. Like the act of taking a negative situation from the past and being able not only to retell it, but also re-enact it and change the ending to a more proactive outcome can be quite profound and cathartic.” Small Successes provides a good model of combining Playback and theatre games and using them differently in a challenging setting. The initial honouring of the stories through Playback and then working with the stories using a workshop format to suggest alternatives: from one original outcome to a range of constructive outcomes. As a staff worker at the venue reportedly commented, the whole house has changed since the playback work began: “Now”, she said, “it is a community that lives here”.        .

The value of reading the above account was to later inform my work with Mountain Flower Playback Theatre based in the town of Hatton, Sri Lanka, a group that I trained over four annual visits between 2010 and 2013.  Mountain Flower Playback Theatre is a group of young Tamil people who live in the tea plantations that surround Hatton in the central hills. In Sri Lanka, Tamil people who live on tea plantation tend to be described disparagingly as being Indian-origin Tamils, relating to the original British importation of labour from India to pick tea during colonial times and are seen as different from the Tamils who inhabit the north of the island who, at least consider themselves to be indigenous, a dispute that was at the root of the Sri Lankan civil conflict.  How ever the tea plantation inhabitants might view themselves, they can be treated as outsiders when it comes to citizens’ rights. This marginalisation combined with systemic difficulties that make accessing education and other services difficult has had an effect of reinforcing low self-esteem and educational under-achievement can be commonplace. One risk that arises from this sociological viewpoint is to see the entire community as victims of oppression by the dominant population.  The next step on from this could be to place this community in the Victim place on the Drama (or Karpman) Triangle from Transactional Analysis, with the dominant / majority community in the Persecutor place and the intervention in this specific case, Playback Theatre, in the Rescuer place. Being aware of this, I tried to see my work in Sri Lanka as an offer of a resource with a continuing set of operating instructions being provided until the recipients can operate the resource by themselves and by doing so make it their own.  In practice, this meant us working together to find the best practice and the best application.

The development of Playback Theatre in Sri Lanka has become a positive force in community building. The work was initiated by Australian Playback Practitioner Cymbeline Buhler who made her first visit in 2006 and now exists under the umbrella of the Theatre of Friendship which she continues to support and develop as Artistic Director. At the time of writing, there were six Playback groups in Sri Lanka and while they operate in their local areas, an important focus of the work has been the bringing together of Sinhalese and Tamil groups at national gatherings to hear and perform each others’ stories.

Mountain Flower Playback Theatre is part of the Theatre of Friendship and serves the population in the tea plantation sector and is based at the Centre for Social Concern in the town of Hatton, a activist project intended to promote social emancipation locally run by a Jesuit priest, (a Sri Lankan version of a social worker), at the time I visited, it was Father Benny.  The core activities of the Centre for Social Concern are focused on worker’s rights and have a broader remit than the Playback group which supports the work of the Centre.  In my experience and in what I had been told about the between-visit performances, was that Mountain Flower has served as a kind of informal field research. The stories that have been told reveal something of the social problems in the area: alcohol abuse, domestic violence and trauma of the women and children who experienced or witnessed these incidents.  The more these stories are told, the less these tellers live in the shadow of their experiences, the less shame and the more empowerment. These stories have been encountered in performances and by all accounts Mountain Flower has tried to play them in a responsible and contained way and not re-create the chaos or repeat the trauma.

However, a training need was identified when they told me that they had struggled with the somewhat abstract nature of the introductory short forms, fluid sculpts in particular, so tended to not use them and miss out the warm-up phase of the performance by going straight to story.  I was also made aware that there were often children present at their performance which placed them at risk of being re-traumatised. When this was reported to me, additional training was provided to underpin performances and ensure that the essential ritual was adhered to a safety framework for both group and audience.

The ritual of Playback Theatre is contained by the arc of a performance: a clear beginning when the actors introduce themselves with a brief personal anecdote and then step back to see it played. This demonstrates the importance and value of the small details in our lives: an interest or hobby being revealed, perhaps a meeting with an old friend or an anticipated event.  These personal disclosures show the actors to be just like anyone else and set the stage to invite the audience to share similar brief moments which are then physically expressed by a fluid sculpt or other short non-narratives forms to get things started.  If an inner conflict, indecision or ambivalence comes to the surface, it can be physically expressed by a Pair who embody an inner conflict as one with two opposing moving parts.  The focus in the early part of a performance is usually on the subjective moment and is non-narrative before moving on to brief stories that can be played while the teller is still seated in the audience.

In Sri Lanka, this early part of the performance tends to be directed at the whole audience’s collective experience rather than the individual as would be usual in other cultures where the notion of the individual is more prominent. All of this works towards the point when a teller is invited to sit in the teller’s chair and become visible to the audience. The story is told when the launches the enactment with “Let’s watch”. The actors take a few moments to set the scene and create a still tableau before the story comes to life and after the enactment, the actors stand and look at the teller in acknowledgement to bring the theatrical trance of that story to a close so as to move on to the next story.  Sometimes when there are complex feelings after a difficult or deep story has been told, when the audience might feel stuck or frozen, it can helpful to offer a fluid sculpt that reflects those immediate feelings to relieve them and then move on. Performances are usually ended with some kind of artistic physical summary of what has occurred by way of a closure.

While most Playback performances tend to be open to all and any stories, the idea of Mountain Flower having a theme for the performance was introduced to ensure that performances were safe and appropriate and enabled the group to have a modicum of audience management.  A theme doesn’t necessarily preclude any story being told, but does offer the audience a direction.  This both concurs and conflicts with the Playback Theatre Code of Ethics under the heading of inclusiveness: “We are open to any story and also ready to engage with the ethical complexities within a story.” To engage with the ethical complexities within a particular story may well be beyond the capacity of the Playback performers present.  As conductor and trainer, it was my responsibility to work within the capacity of the team and to introduce that concept as a responsible approach that would keep everyone safe and allow Mountain Flower to grow within their limitations. As the group’s trainer, it was also my responsibility to look after them as well as ensure that Playback Theatre was held within its ritual frame and boundaries and not brought into disrepute.  While holding the above in my awareness, I had a strong faith in Mountain Flower; after all, I had come to know them well and had grown with them on my training visits.  On each of my training visits, they were able to celebrate what had gone well and identify many of their training needs and acted autonomously as Playback group.

On an occasion during one of my visits, we performed at a hostel for women and children run by Catholic nuns in the town.  The women were there because they had to leave home due to domestic violence or alcoholism or other reasons and the children were either accompanying them or were separated from their parents or had to leave their families or may have been orphans.

The nature of the hostel and its occupants gave us an idea of what to expect and we decided in advance, that we would have a theme of Struggles and Achievements. This theme would allow the possibility of difficult stories being told within the framework of the memory of having had the courage to leave.

To provide a teller with the opportunity to witness, is to provide them with an opportunity to re-visit in some way, the impulse to leave their violent situation that got them to the refuge. It might only be the smallest of windows, but it means trusting the teller and their internal life, and in the case of domestic violence, it means trusting that part of the teller that eventually, despite everything, caused them to pick themselves up from the floor and leave the situation. To remind them of that part of themselves in an enactment is to empower them to nourish and sustain that part. It is that part that will keep them going long after the playback is over and the actors have gone home.

There were many children present in the audience which made the performance more sensitive as we knew that any child present at the hostel would be likely to be carrying unprocessed trauma.  The situation was further complicated by the presence of both Tamil and Sinhalese speakers and the diffidence of the tellers to speak their story at a discernible volume. As I was conducting and don’t speak the local languages, I also needed translation. In addition to the usual pair of conductor’s and teller’s chairs, we had two chairs behind for the two translators and a standing narrator to speak the story to the audience.  The role of Conductor is to manage and hold the overall performance; to mediate between audience and actors; to draw the responses and stories from the audience and to ensure that the story is told in a way that the actors can follow it; choose the forms, to launch the story with a brief summary and check back with the teller after the enactment and respond accordingly. There is also a sociometric purpose in ensuring that as wide a range of voices are heard as possible. The Conductor also models the exercise of responsible authority.

What was challenging for me as conductor in this case was once I’d said “Let’s Watch” and the actors began to play the story, I had no idea of what was going on.  It’s usual for the conductor to cede control of the story to the actors once the enactment begins, but not understanding a word added a further dimension to my powerlessness. A number of stories were told during the performance, the last being one of the nuns who told of her decision to leave her family and take the vows. After the performance had ended and as were talking with members of the audience, we became aware of a young girl aged about eight who was desperately crying for her mother having been reminded in some way of her absence.  One of the nuns brought the girl to meet me as if that might placate her, but of course it didn’t and this young girl provided a poignant reminder of the pain of separation and the sensitivity of children being present when deep stories are told and also a child’s difficulty in processing their difficult experiences.  It also reminds us of the untold stories and those who carry them and that an unintended consequence of a performance is that these stories and the affects of them can come to the surface later when the opportunity to tell them in the performance has passed.

The learning from this experience highlights the need for the work to be trauma-informed and supportive of both hosting community and Playback group. To be trauma-informed means to hold an awareness of what may be present in the group or audience, acknowledged or unacknowledged, probably unprocessed and may surface or re-surface at any moment. With the exception of children in general and the young girl in particular who taught us a lesson, the task is to model containment by keeping to the ritual framework that contains a performance.

The learning from that performance would be to ensure that there is provision both during and after the performance to take appropriate care of any reactions that may be triggered by planning for it with the host community in advance. This hadn’t happened in this case and was a mistake. I wasn’t aware of the invitation to perform at the hostel until the day and was unfamiliar with the host community. Further, the opportunity to sit down and consider the demands of the context in advance wasn’t available as group members need to travel to the Centre from their homes, often a long journey by local buses. There was also inadequate opportunity for the Mountain Flower actors to de-brief post-performance as everyone had to get home. As the performance had been arranged and would have been difficult to cancel, we went and performed with the conditions as they were and overall, the performance was positively received. Our visit offered the model of outsiders visiting the hostel, listening and responding empathically and importantly, an experience outside the narrow confines and all-consuming reality of an abusive relationship. The audience offered the opportunity for our group to listen, to be empathic and to respond in a way that honours the story and its teller and in that way; we met each other and learned from each other. This performance and the one that followed soon after at a nearby teacher training college were milestones for this group and listening to them singing in the van on the way back from the college was an affirmation of our work together.


Ogden P et al (2006) Trauma and the Body, London, Norton

Salas J (1993) Improvising Real Life, Personal Story in Playback Theatre, New Paltz, Tusitala

Baim C, Brookes S and Mountford A ( 2002 ) The Geese Theatre Handbook, Drama with Offenders and People at Risk

Interplay, Volume XII. No. 1, December 2007:

Shame and Addiction, a PT performance in an anger management class for Hispanic immigrants, Ramiro Salas

Small Successes: transforming stories of violence and abuse, Hannah Fox with Erica Eigenberg and Mario Palma.

Brian Tasker is the founder of Makeshift Theatre, a Playback Theatre practitioner and graduate of The School of Playback Theatre (2008) and has been involved with Playback Theatre since 2003. He is also a counsellor with senior accreditation and works in the field of substance misuse and previously with the terminally ill and their families and mental health.  See:







[1]              Interplay, Vol. XII. No 1, December 2007

[2]              Trauma and the Body, pg xxv

[3]              Improvising Real Life, pg 127

Has Playback Theatre reached a crossroads?

By Brian Tasker

“The past is a curious thing. It’s with you all the time.” George Orwell

I was interested to read Jonathon Fox’s letter on the topic of conflict at conferences (see references) and by extension, through to the wider world into which Playback Theatre now reaches. Jonathon goes on to say: “In my view we are often unprepared for them [conflicts in our community]. In fact, I would say that in general playback performers and conductors are not well trained to handle contentious stories.”  Is that because of the myth that we all agree with each other at least when we are all together? Well, the myth that we all agree was busted during the closing ceremony at the conference in Montreal in 2015 which felt like a breath of fresh air! It’s not that I relish conflict, just that I value honesty at those rare occasions when we are all together.

Is there a tendency to view the world through a particular lens of social justice which makes assumptions about the world at large that supports that view? In his article Playback Theatre and Social Movements, Ben Rivers wonders “…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 political 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 towards a better world?”

Thinking about it, my response to the above statement is to propose that there isn’t really such a thing as the Playback Theatre community after all at least not in sense that everyone involved thinks in the same way.  I’m thankful for that; otherwise Playback Theatre would risk being subdued to the equivalent of a political party or a campaigning tool.  The risk is of polarising into supporting this side or that side, instead of working towards facilitating a dialogue through story while holding our own private opinions. Should our opinions be allowed to intrude into our work and if they do, will they corrupt it? As a colleague once remarked, Playback Theatre can provide a vehicle for change, not a platform for opinion and I like to think of that as one of its strengths.

While the values of seeking social justice predominate, to my knowledge, Playback Theatre hasn’t performed this task by aggressively seeking to isolate one sector of society in order to elevate another sector or by replacing one oppression with another.  Well, maybe not until now.

Ben has made a proposal for an application of Playback Theatre as a model that extends beyond the work that he does in the Palestinian territories which he refers to as the west bank of Occupied Palestine without clarifying what is meant by that.  Anyway, Ben’s proposal merits consideration and his current work which he has described fully in a number of places can stand as a case study. Ben made a proposal and I’m offering a critique and a counter-proposal.

The situation between Israel and the Palestinians is complex and it would be unhelpful to enter into a yet another debate loop about it here; suffice to say that both sides are locked into an enduring dispute / conflict in a highly volatile region. To get into a debate would trap us in an argument and miss the point which is to examine the methods that Ben describes and see whether they offer a model of trauma-informed PT practice, given that the area in which Ben practices is a conflict zone.  Are these methods and practices beneficial and if so, to whom and to what?  Will they as currently practiced risk creating more violence or trauma? How is risk managed?  What provision is there for tellers to dissent from the established view?

Jonathon Fox has stated the importance of hearing both sides of the story (Interplay Vol. XV1 No. 2, Pg 31) which conflicts with the partisan approach suggested by Ben: “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.”  I would suggest the function of Playback Theatre is not to soothe or to disrupt but to accept stories as they come otherwise we are manipulating the outcome which would breach the PT Code of Ethics under ‘Emergence’.  Also it’s not clear what is meant by ‘constructive conflict’?  But it does seem that healing is not on Ben’s agenda especially when ‘Tellers pay tribute to the history of Palestinian freedom struggle by narrating their own participation in various actions, protests and uprisings (intifadas)’. It’s important to note that it’s the Tellers prerogative to tell the stories that they bring to the chair and I’m not questioning that or decrying that Palestinians have access to Playback Theatre which I welcome.

But I was wondering about the affect of Tellers narrating their participation in uprisings and how that can be managed safely which is the responsibility of the conductor and actors. The intifadas (1987 – 1993 and 2000 – 2003) were violent on both sides and much more costly in the loss of life on the Palestinian side which would suggest they are more a source of bitterness than triumph or perhaps the concept of martyrdom overrides the loss of life?

On that note, let’s consider the effects of trauma and how PT can support healing or re-traumatise through re-enactment.  In his book on trauma, Bessel van der Kolk (pg 33) describes the addiction to trauma and the compulsion to repeat.  He writes about some research undertaken with combat veterans watching a clip from Oliver Stone’s film Platoon and then a clip from a non-violent film measuring how long the veterans could keep their hands in a bucket of iced water.  It was then calculated that the amount of analgesia produced by watching 15 minutes of a combat movie was equivalent to receiving eight milligrams of morphine – a substantial dose.  This implies that Playback Theatre used in the way that Ben describes could potentially reinforce an attraction to violence and risks putting this client group in harm’s way. When Playback Theatre becomes weaponised, if that is what’s happening here, through resentment, anger or bitterness, it loses its balance and just adds to the problem it’s trying to address. The foremost question in Playback Theatre to my mind, is to always be asking: what’s it in the service of?

The Drama Triangle (from transactional analysis) has the victim, persecutor and rescuer on its three points.  Ben’s description of his work suggests that the Palestinians are the victim, Israel is the persecutor and Playback Theatre is the rescuer.  This is one dimensional.  While it’s true that Israel is in a much stronger position of power and Israelis have a much higher standard of living, Israelis are still vulnerable to attack (as per the recent spate of random stabbings) and vulnerable to a background anxiety.  Children on both sides have grown up in a conflict zone since the establishment of Israel in 1948.  It’s likely that Post-traumatic stress disorder runs through both communities and although vastly different for both parties on a psychological level, siege conditions prevail.  It’s seems almost impossible to bring the two sides together in any meaningful way and Ben seems to have no interest in being an intermediary in reconciliation however small the scale. To demonise the Israelis while positioning the Palestinians solely as victims infantilises them, is hugely reductive and shuts down any possibility of dialogue, however remote that might seem.

I’m troubled by Ben’s statement: “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.”  He goes on to say: “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, self-awareness and capacity for critical thinking.” and finally: “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.”  While the last sentence is somewhat opaque, all of the above is tantamount to giving advice that Ben doesn’t follow himself which is what I find troubling.

Ben clarified his motivation / bias for working with the Palestinians in the way that he does in a public statement at the opening plenary at the European Playback Theatre Gathering in Amsterdam in 2014 (the event that Jonathon refers to). I also attended and I remember Ben saying words to the effect of that his work was a reaction to his grandfather who purchased land in then Palestine on behalf of the Jewish National Fund and his father who served in the Israel Defence Forces.  It was noted that the Israelis who were sat nearby didn’t get an opportunity to reply despite raising hands.

Jonathon Fox, who was conducting at that point in the opening plenary, reflects in his letter Conflict at Conferences on the complexities of that experience overall and the challenge it presented and offered some possible future strategies. Jonathon didn’t offer any specifics in his letter which I believe the above to be one instance; another was the presence of both Ukrainians and Russians.  Jonathon remarks (varying from his earlier view): “Should the conductor be sure to give the “other side” a voice when a contentious narrative emerges? Not necessarily. This is a very complex question. While it is true that we want to promote fairness as well as respect, a number of factors enter the picture. There is not time at an opening adequately to hear from both sides in what may be a highly complex, generations-old conflict. The opening has other purposes.”

He goes on to say: “Furthermore, we must also honor our commitment to hearing from the voice with less access, less traditional power. Justice may demand hearing from those tellers, where acceding to a demand for equal time will only perpetuate the presence of the dominant voice.”  I believe this refers to the differences between Ben and the Israelis; I don’t remember anything similar occurring between the Russians and the Ukrainians at least not at the plenary.   Whether I have that right or not, my response is that it would be a conceit to think that Ben represented anyone but himself at that event and in any case his statement was a personal one.

The important thing here was that Ben had openly revealed his motivation and it became clear that a family dynamic influences his work which returns us to what Ben said in his article: “Our actions will also be compromised without recognition of our own position within the dynamic we wish to address.”  So how might we apply Ben’s suggestion that: “As Playback practitioners then, we must engage in processes that contribute towards our own education, self-awareness and capacity for critical thinking.”

I would like to propose a method of reflective peer supervision that would support Playbackers who work in sensitive areas and on themes that give rise to a strong emotional reaction or just to support the work in general.  As Playback Theatre continues to develop and expand, it seems more likely that we will encounter complexity both in the context of the work that we do and in the reactions that are engendered in ourselves by our contact with it. This method could complement balanced research into the context that could be undertaken which in itself is likely to generate an internal conflict or bias as we are affected by what we read or hear. I think it’s important to work towards keeping these feelings backstage, so the method I’m suggesting could help to process them and help us to arrive at a kind of equanimity.

This method is adapted from the Dyads used in Enlightenment Intensives (EI), from Co-Counselling and from the little book by Ursula Fausset called Ordinary Truth. Enlightenment Intensives were devised by Charles Berner in the late 1960s and have their roots in the Kōan tradition of Rinzai Zen. Kōan practice involves a question (paradoxical with no logical answer) being set and then contemplated to the point of bringing the mind to a standstill. The purpose of which is to force the mind to suspend its linear progress or abandon its fixed position as every answer is at best provisional or intuitively wrong.  The affect among other things is a multi-faceted response as we journey through the question. The answer, if indeed there is an answer at all, lies beyond. Enlightenment Intensives use four basic questions: Who am I?, What am I?, What is another?, What is life?  These four questions are focused on transcendent truth.

In this peer supervision model version, the intention is still on seeking the truth as it reveals itself to you but on a more subjective, personal level. It has the potential to help participants move beyond assumption, bias and belief to a place of clarity as above but related to a topic.

A question is chosen from a list or devised by each participant taking turns in dyads. Prior to beginning the dyads, each participant spends some time silently contemplating their chosen question.  In a dyad, one person contemplates the question they have chosen and communicates what they come up with and the partner simply listens without responding for five minutes and then they change over.  In an EI, there is also a monitor (or witness) who just holds participants to the process, by listening in and brings attention back to the question.

At the beginning of each dyad, the listener asks the question (always preceded with ‘Tell me…’) and then listens with free attention, avoiding responding by smiling or nodding as that could imply agreement, and repeats the question when the enquirer stalls.  A referee is needed to keep time and call change and a monitor possibly as well.   It’s a combination of the Listener providing the Rogerian conditions of worth as they listen and the Enquirer maintaining perseverance, applying discipline and keeping an openness of mind as they contemplate the question and communicate what comes up?  It’s a discipline that focuses the enquirer on the question in hand.  The process requires honesty and discipline to facilitate that. It can’t be run in an offhand way as it has the potential to go deep. The process requires respect for the speaker to express themselves without fear of judgement on the understanding that there isn’t an endpoint that can be pointed to as a fixed position (the compassionate view).  Run the process for an hour (six turns each) and then do Playback on the experience.

The format for a group experience is to have participants sitting in a row facing each other as in Enlightenment Intensives.  The facilitator sits at the end of the row: timing the dyads, giving instructions and able to monitor from a vantage point.  There are a number of reasons for using this format including the essential need for the facilitator be able to see what’s going on and keeping participants together avoids a pair getting too cosy and potentially collusive. Having participants sitting in rows conveys a group culture of everyone doing the same thing and helps participants to focus.

Sample graded questions:

  1. Tell me what you like about Playback Theatre?
  2. Tell me what you dislike about Playback Theatre?
  3. Tell me about your vision for your work?
  4. Tell me what’s going well in your work?
  5. Tell me what you find difficult in your work?
  6. Tell me about your privilege?
  7. Tell me about what you lack?
  8. Tell me the impulses that you act on?
  9. Tell me what makes you angry?
  10. Tell me how you avoid pain and discomfort?
  11. Tell me how you avoid conflict?
  12. Tell me what you censor?
  13. Tell me about your prejudices?
  14. Tell me what outrages you?
  15. Tell me what you are defensive about?
  16. Tell me who you make exceptions for?
  17. Tell me about your shame?
  18. Tell me how the issue with ….  affects you?
  19. Tell me how you maintain your authenticity?
  20. Tell me how you’re compassionate?
  21. Tell me why you aren’t a Buddha?
    • Set up the session and appoint a referee (and a monitor if needed).
    • Choose a question from the list or devise one relevant to your topic. Remember it always begins with the command: Tell me…
    • Agree to silence outside of the dyads and spend some time in silent contemplation on your question, preferably walking around the space.
    • Stay with the same question throughout the session –be patient with it, there’s always more to be revealed.
    • Pair up into dyads.
    • Sit in dyads and choose who will go first.
    • Listener asks the questions and listens in silence, impassively with free attention.
    • Speaker contemplates and then communicates what is coming up.
    • When necessary the Listener repeats the question e.g. when speaker stalls or when requested.
    • Keep with the same dyad throughout, changing over after five minutes, switching roles and repeating the process.
    • A session is 60 minutes long giving six times each.
    • Afterwards, do Playback on the experience.

Brian Tasker, April 2016

Brian Tasker is an IPTN registered Practitioner and PT Leadership Graduate (2008). He is also a counsellor with senior BACP accreditation with a background in end of life care, mental health and substance misuse.


Van der Kolk, Bessel, 2014, The Body Keeps the Score, Penguin, London

Fausset, U. (Undated). Ordinary Truth (out of print).

A Letter from Jonathon: Conflict at Conferences:

Fox, J. Closing Reflections and Responses:

Rivers, B. (2015) Playback Theatre and Social Movements, IPTN Journal July 2015[mb_lang]

Rivers, B. (2014). Playback Theatre, Cultural Resistance and the Limits of Trauma Discourse.  Interplay. Vol XVIII, No. 2, pp.  (not quoted)

For more guidance on the dyad technique and other information, visit:

Information on Co-Counselling can be found here:

For more on the drama triangle:

If you try out the method and need support, please email me at Similarly, if you devise questions, please let me know so we can continue to co-create this resource.