“Faith without doubt, soon becomes dogma.” Elif Shafak
In April 2016, I published an article on this blog: “Has Playback Theatre reached a crossroads”  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?”  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”.’  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 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.”  (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” 
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  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 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  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  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.
 Rivers B. (2015) Educate, Agitate and Organize! Playback Theatre and its Role in Social Movements. International Playback Theatre Journal. pp. 19-37
 Rivers, B. (2014) Playback Theatre, Cultural Resistance and the Limits of Trauma Discourse, Interplay, Vol XVIII, No. 2, pp. 15-18
 Dwairy 1997 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272735896000116
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: http://www.playbackcentre.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Accredited-trainer-Code-of-Ethics.pdf
For more on the drama triangle: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karpman_drama_triangle
For more on the dyad method, visit: http://www.makeshifttheatre.co.uk/dyad-communication/
For an excerpt from the book, Orientalism by Edward Said, go to: https://sites.evergreen.edu/politicalshakespeares/wp-content/uploads/sites/33/2014/12/Said_full.pdf
For an interesting insight into the lives of Palestinian women in the West Bank, see:https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/palestinian-metoo-yasmeen-mjalli-not-your-habibti-woman-west-bank-palestine-israel-a8192841.html
For a film that illustrates the challenges that Arab women living in Israel who go against their culture face: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/sep/24/in-between-review-maysaloun-hamoud-female-muslim-flatmates-tel-aviv
For an overview of the situation regarding Palestinian refugees see: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/no-way-home-the-tragedy-of-the-palestinian-diaspora-1806790.html