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:
- Tell me what you like about Playback Theatre?
- Tell me what you dislike about Playback Theatre?
- Tell me about your vision for your work?
- Tell me what’s going well in your work?
- Tell me what you find difficult in your work?
- Tell me about your privilege?
- Tell me about what you lack?
- Tell me the impulses that you act on?
- Tell me what makes you angry?
- Tell me how you avoid pain and discomfort?
- Tell me how you avoid conflict?
- Tell me what you censor?
- Tell me about your prejudices?
- Tell me what outrages you?
- Tell me what you are defensive about?
- Tell me who you make exceptions for?
- Tell me about your shame?
- Tell me how the issue with …. affects you?
- Tell me how you maintain your authenticity?
- Tell me how you’re compassionate?
- 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. www.makeshifttheatre.co.uk
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: http://www.iptn.info/?a=doc&id=384
Fox, J. Closing Reflections and Responses:http://www.iptn.info/uploads/iptn/201503/20150309_140358_GFaJBfjYSf_f.pdf
Rivers, B. (2015) Playback Theatre and Social Movements, IPTN Journal July 2015http://www.iptn.info/?a=doc&id=296&lang=[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: http://www.co-counselling.org.uk/
For more on the drama triangle: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karpman_drama_triangle
If you try out the method and need support, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org Similarly, if you devise questions, please let me know so we can continue to co-create this resource.