Combining Theatre of the Oppressed and Playback Theatre: A Powerful and Delicate Marriage

Combining Theatre of the Oppressed and Playback Theatre:
A Powerful and Delicate Marriage

 By Marc Weinblatt
June 2015


“Let’s Watch!” the Playback Theatre Conductor guided the actors into Fluid Sculptures, Pairs, and other Playback Theatre short forms reflecting audience members’ stories. So far, a typical Playback-style performance with individuals in the audience sharing their experiences, feelings, and more for a team of Playback actors to enact on stage through a variety of improvisational theatrical devices. The uniqueness of this situation was that it was happening at a Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed (PTO) Conference for an audience of TO practitioners, academics, and those interested in the field. Most had little, if any, experience of Playback Theatre – a related yet, in many ways, very different form of Applied Theatre. Very different.

After a number of short forms, the Conductor (Playback’s term for the facilitator or Master of Ceremonies, like TO’s Joker) invited someone to tell a longer story and to come on stage, sit in the Teller’s Chair, and share their experience.

After a long pause, a woman raised her hand and offered, “I have a story.” She sat in the Teller’s Chair and spoke of her pain and anger around the (at the time) recent killing by police of Oscar Grant in a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station. Oscar Grant was a young black male, unarmed, and the police officer was white – an alarmingly familiar pattern in the United States to this day. (This incident was later turned into the movie, “Fruitvale Station.”) The Teller was a woman of color. The conductor and most of the very accomplished Playback troupe members were white.

“Let’s Watch!” invited the Conductor. The actors enacted. And we watched. And, as is usual in the Playback ritual, the conductor then turned to the Teller and asked “Did we capture your experience?”

The specific details of what followed are not important to this chapter. What is important is that one audience member (not the Teller) was vividly upset with the representation onstage. He (a man of color) felt strongly that the violence of the incident and the rage felt and shared by the Teller was missing from the enactment. That it did a disservice to the story, to Oscar Grant, and to people of color’s experience of racism at the hands of police in general.

After some back and forth with the Conductor, the audience member offered, “I’d like to come on stage and show you my truth of this situation.” As the Conductor knew he was in a TO context, he decided to break Playback form and allow the audience member onstage to replay the scene – in what looked like TO Forum Theatre-style in order to adjust it as he desired it shown. The new “re-enactment” happened. The violence was displayed. The rage rang out loud and clear.

Exactly what happened after that, my memory is not clear on. What I do remember is that a very tense discussion followed with much anger, confusion, and defensiveness from people in the audience. Some were upset with the “whitewashing” of a painful story of racism. There was criticism of the performance and Playback in general. Others were trying to be supportive of the team onstage. Some looked to me as they knew I was a practitioner of both forms and comfortable with the difficult material at hand. But at that point, I felt there was nothing I could do without taking over and possibly undermining the facilitator. I chose to remain a thoughtful yet quiet spectator. It was now somewhat of an emotional disaster – for many in the audience as well as for the ensemble onstage. The session ran out of time with the issue unresolved and people left the room, disconcerted to say the least. I spent the next hour and a half at a picnic table with a group of fellow seasoned TO practitioners, trying to explain to them why Playback Theatre wasn’t a bad thing.

I tell this story to illustrate the difficulty in marrying TO and Playback Theatre. Ultimately, we were left with an event that had broken completely from the ritual of Playback and shifted into the (however unplanned) combining of the two forms. Granted, this was an unusual context – a conference, with the bulk of the audience being TO people loaded with the philosophical underpinning and political analysis as championed by Augusto Boal and Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed). This was not a normal audience. However, the emotions were real, the concerns were valid, and the inability of the process to hold the complexities of the situation was vivid. It was a failed moment.

So is it viable to combine Theatre of the Oppressed and Playback Theatre? After nearly 25 years of doing so, I believe yes and with great benefit. But not without great caution and a great deal of skill, in both bodies of work.

Combining TO and Playback Theatre – the Early Years

I love Theatre of the Oppressed. I love Playback Theatre.
I started out as a TO practitioner in 1991 on staff at the Seattle Public Theatre (SPT) but very soon was exposed to Playback via a performance I attended by another local group, Threshold Ensemble. I was immediately struck by the elegance, sensitivity, and aesthetic beauty of the form as well as its ability to touch the heart of people in the room. When I held auditions for SPT’s new TO-based team of actor/activists, the “Theatre of Liberation Ensemble” in 1992, a highly skilled member of Threshold, David Michael Monasch, auditioned and I hungrily cast him. We had a Playbacker in our midst. Though we certainly focused on and trained in TO, David gradually introduced us to a few Playback techniques – short forms referred to above. We began to use them in some of our performances to draw out stories or reflections from the audience and, quickly, the use of Playback short forms to help create “on-the-spot” short Forum Theatre plays became part of our performance repertoire. In the early ‘90’s, we were one of the first groups to practice TO on a grassroots level in the United States and likely the only group to mix it with Playback. It was exciting, it was alive, and it was current – addressing real struggles of the people in the room at that very moment. But it also had its pitfalls.

By the mid-1990’s, we expanded our Playback work to include a variation of Open Story, the long form in which an audience member offers a longer story from the onstage Teller’s Chair. We would only solicit stories, which spoke of an unsolved oppression or struggle on the topic at hand. (This was already a break from classic Playback where all stories are welcome.) We would then replay this story and begin TO’s Forum Theatre. At one open public performance, a woman came to the Teller’s Chair and volunteered a story about family dynamics back in Mexico. We then enacted the scene and followed with the Forum to explore possible solutions to a situation like hers. As with any good Forum, many audience spect-actors yelled stop, came up onstage, and offered possible solutions to the original protagonist’s (in this case, the Teller’s) struggle. On the surface, it was a good solid and classic Forum with a variety of alternatives proposed for the protagonist character. After the performance the Teller, who was a friend and colleague of mine (and a Playback artist as well), confided in me that the evening was a very painful experience for her. Although the Playback enactment of her story felt more or less accurate, the Forum, with an almost entirely white U.S. audience, did not take into consideration her experience as Mexican-American nor the cultural realities from which the story arose. People were trying to “solve the problem” without including her Mexican specific context and constraints. In short, she felt misrepresented and misunderstood, her culture invisible. Even though we had announced in advance (as we always did when combining the forms in this manner) that a volunteer Teller would be “donating their story to the collective audience” and that we were not “psychoanalyzing” the Teller nor correcting and instructing what the Teller should have done but instead exploring what WE might do in a situation like this, our Teller that evening left upset and un-served. “Wow, we blew that one,” I thought to myself. I apologized and left thinking about how to address this level of complexity in the future.

TO and Playback – Similarities and Differences

To the lay person, TO and Playback can look similar. Both forms were, in part, inspired by the work of J.L. Moreno, the father of psychodrama. Both use improvisational, interactive, participatory (Applied) Theatre as a tool for transformation. Both use an arsenal of community building games and exercises, which also serve to dynamize and bring the body, voice, and emotions alive. Both use physical imagery, human sculptures, to represent and/or express people’s truths – their stories, experiences, dreams, ideas, and more. As Hannah Fox, the daughter of Playback founders, Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas, and my frequent collaborator in developing the union of the two forms, writes, “There is little difference between a Playback fluid sculpture and the sculpting of images used throughout the TO techniques.” (Interplay, Aug. 2000.) In practice, both can be and often are used for a vast array of social issues as both seek to connect the personal to the social. Hannah continues, “I see each form as coming into the house from a different door but meeting in a common living room.” But those two doors, that Hannah refers to, materialize from some significant differences in ideology and practice.

Though aspects of both TO and Playback Theatre techniques have drawn from Moreno, Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas’s Playback grew out of a U.S. psychotherapeutic context and Boal’s TO grew out of a Latin American socio-political reform context. The original needs addressed by those bodies of work were very different — TO, in Brazil, to invite the possibilities of a systemic or external revolution; Playback in the U.S. to invite the possibilities of a personal or internal revolution. As now practiced all over the world in a wide variety of contexts for nearly 50 years, my observation and personal experience is that both forms can and do contribute to both — however the focus, strength, and primary intention still tends to be different.

One way I sometimes describe the difference between TO and Playback Theatre is very simple:
Playback Theatre serves the Teller.
Theatre of the Oppressed uses the Teller’s story for the collective exploration.

TO sometimes takes one person’s personal story, particularly common in the Rainbow of Desire category of structures, then invites the workshop group or audience to deconstruct it, to blow it apart, to use it as a springboard as they explore similar oppressions or struggles in their own lives. It quickly becomes the “property” of the collective. In many ways this is antithetical to Playback, which is designed with the goal to simply honor the Teller and their story.

To that end, pure Playback has a clear, tight, ritualized aesthetic structure. One can quickly recognize an almost identical physical stage layout and ritual arc practiced by Playback companies all over the world, with minor variations. We see four actors, a Conductor, and a musician. There are four theatre boxes, a music table with a selection of instruments, and some colored fabrics. The performance includes some form of introduction then short forms, longer stories from the Teller’s Chair, and a closing. This highly intentional ritual focuses our attention to the relationship between the Teller and the Conductor whose job it is to draw the story out. And the relationship between the Teller and the actors who have the formidable task of deep listening then accurately conveying, through the enactment, the Teller’s experience. “Let’s Watch!” Those classic words ring out in dozens of languages across the globe. The actors, even brilliant ones, may not perform exact details of the story to perfection but they aim to at least capture the heart and spirit of the story, as shared by the vulnerable Teller. In Playback, the rest of the audience is simply witness to the process. 

Of course, they may relate and benefit greatly from baring witness but it is still about the Teller and the pressure for “success” is on the actors. In TO, it is really about the audience and, as I tell nervous new Forum actors, the pressure is really on them (the audience.) In TO, once we invite spectators onstage to become spect-actors and also to verbally analyze tactics from their seats, the collective wisdom in the room takes over and actively drives the narrative and content of the event.

Another way I describe the difference comes from many years of combining the two forms in performance. It took me a long time to be able to name this but one day it became very clear. Using the metaphor of eastern medicine, TO feels very “yang” to me and Playback feels very “yin”. I literally feel the difference in my body when I’m facilitating.

When Joking TO’s Forum, I’m active – doing, thinking, moving around, watching a multitude of elements and looking out for potential problems. My adrenaline is pumping and, even though I feel quite grounded, there is a quality that resembles a “fight or flight” response. It has what might be described as a masculine quality or aspect – yang.

When Conducting Playback, I’m more reflective – quiet, still, taking in, listening, less doing and more feeling. It has a more feminine quality or aspect – yin. I notice this difference particularly when, within one performance, I’m bouncing between the two forms. The sensation of the shift within me can be quite dramatic.

While both draw on the physical body, Playback, in particular, demands comfort and facility with the emotional body (feelings) while TO demands comfort and facility with the intellectual body (critical thinking.) Playback continuously invites me into my heart and spirit and to nurture empathy without a need for concrete outcomes. TO continuously invites me to look at the state of the world, to analyze, to seek solutions, and ultimately to take real actions. One of the beauties for me of using both TO and Playback is that I get to fully embody and embrace both/all those aspects of myself. I feel more whole. I am in constant practice with my own internal revolution and I am more conscious and confident with my role in the external revolution. In part because of that, I can also genuinely say that Playback has made me a better Joker and TO has made me a better Conductor. The gifts of both have helped and continue to make me a better person.

Combining TO and Playback Theatre – The Blend and The Weave

Seven years of running SPT’s Theatre of Liberation Ensemble along with five multi-day workshops and trainings combining the forms, co-led with Hannah Fox, helped me move beyond experimentation and into a crafted practice in which I trust and comfortably use both TO and Playback together. I am now in my fourteenth season guiding the Poetic Justice Theatre Ensemble (PJTE), the local community service wing of our Mandala Center for Change in Port Townsend, WA. I now co-direct with my wife and partner, Zhaleh Almaee Weinblatt, an accomplished Playback artist and trainer. (A literal marriage of TO and Playback.) Poetic Justice trains in and actively uses a combination of TO and Playback. Sometimes we use what Hannah and I once named the “Weave”, in which strands from both forms are still clearly recognizable. Sometimes we use what Hannah and I named the “Blend” in which the structure is no longer clearly recognizable as either Playback or TO but has become something else entirely. There are four major ways that we “weave” the forms together in performance:

(1) Playback as setup to Forum – PB short forms to help the audience connect to and personalize the issues at hand before we do a Forum.

(2) Playback as debrief of Forum – PB short forms to help the audience process and integrate after a particularly intense Forum.

(3) Short Forms to Forum – PB short forms to collect true “moments of struggle” on the specific theme at hand. We then create a Forum play “on-the-spot” based on and linking the collection of stories shared.

(4) Open Story to Forum – A longer story of oppression or struggle told by one audience member from the Teller’s Chair. The story becomes the Forum anti-model and is replayed with audience spect-actors exploring alternative solutions. Sometimes we take 2 or 3 stories and invite the audience to choose which one to Forum.

We also sometimes use a “blend” structure I developed back in the early ‘90’s which I call a Rainbow Fluid – a short amalgamation resembling a Playback fluid sculpture in which the actors deconstruct and name emotions and driving forces that may be happening inside a character in the play, much like Boal’s Rainbow of Desire. Audience members are invited onstage to help build that living, breathing, fluid sculpture. We also usually close performances with a Rainbow Fluid of the audience’s collective experience and/or learnings from the performance.

None of this is easy and there are many pitfalls in combining these two bodies of work. Deviating from the tight artistic ritual of Playback and going to the wide-open style of TO’s Forum can get messy. A Teller can feel misunderstood. A Teller’s story may not have a concrete problematized narrative and so just won’t work for Forum. The actors may do a beautiful enactment but it does not have clear spect-actor entry points and so sets up a muddy, and hard to Joke, Forum play. Do we then reject this and go for another story?

In addition, learning to do both forms effectively takes a great degree of skill and the particular skills tend to be very different. Playback acting calls for emotional maturity, highly developed deep listening skills, and just plain amazing acting in order to meet the high artistic aim of Playback. Forum acting is easier but only if one understands the truth and reality of the particular story and characters at hand. So are the actors skilled and trained well enough to consistently do a strong Playback enactment and then handle the Forum in a good way? Then there is the Joker/Conductor. I have already described some of the difference in my experience of these two roles. Doing one well is challenging enough. Doing both well? This also calls for a vast skill set and while more and more companies and practitioners dabble in using both forms, I know of very few who do both in any regular context.

So why attempt this?

A few years back, Poetic Justice responded to a call from our local community after a swastika was found carved into the counter at the Boiler Room, Port Townsend’s youth-driven coffee house and community center. Many people were upset to say the least and there was much controversy as to how to handle this incident. Poetic Justice’s charge is, in part, like an “emergency response team” — ready to go in at a moment’s notice and support a deep dialogue around a burning local issue. We did a public performance at the Boiler Room with very little notice. No time to create an appropriate Forum play, no time to research the issue. We came, we listened, we enacted on-the-spot, and we did a Forum. People needed their stories and feelings to be heard. And people needed ideas for action. Because we had TO and Playback options available, we were able to provide a space for both. Quickly and efficiently. In the United States, there is not always time nor the funding to work with a group or community for an extended period of time. In this case, we got two hours. Despite the limited time, it was powerful and deeply appreciated by the community. People got to hear stories of local incidents many did not know (or even believe) happened in our small town and they got to practice ways they could activate themselves for change in their own community.

In October 2014, Poetic Justice did a performance on activism – what gets in our way of taking action in the community. We used TO’s Image Theatre, PT short forms, Open Story to Forum including TO’s Cop-in-the-Head, plus Rainbow Fluids. We needed no preparation. We came in cold aiming to address a growing concern within our community. A complex story of allyship to war veterans, grassroots community organizing, and sexism, was offered, enacted, and richly explored. I trust the ability of our current team to handle whatever an audience throws at them. Our rehearsals are aimed at developing the vast array of skills required to do both forms well. We have the acting chops for Playback and we have the knowledge of Forum. We have the emotional sensitivity and deep listening skills and we have the political analysis. Perhaps most importantly, we have the humility to acknowledge what we don’t know. Combining TO and Playback is not easy and it is not perfect. But the payoff and versatility of application can lead to profound outcomes. It is possible to both support healing and to engage action.

Tension Between the TO and Playback Communities

Despite the deep love and respect I have for both bodies of work, the two communities of practitioners have historically tended to be very separate – operating in almost completely different fields. For years and with little exception, I found myself as the only TO practitioner at Playback conferences and also the only Playback practitioner at TO Conferences. This has slowly started to change in the last 10 years. As time goes by, there is more and more crossover and practitioners from both fields are finding value and appreciation for what the other has to offer. Some groups and individuals occasionally include a little TO in their Playback practices and visa versa. But there has been a noticeable tension between the two as well. Why the gap?

Some things I have heard via many conversations I have had with people in both circles:

(From the perspective of some TO folks)
There is no political analysis in Playback.
It’s bourgeois – white and middle class – and serves mostly people with privilege.
It’s too soft, too touchy feely, no edge.
It’s not enough just to listen to people’s stories. We need to take action!

(From the perspective of some Playback folks)
TO is too political, too divisive.
It’s messy. No (emotional) container.
Not enough heart, not enough considering of people’s feelings.
It’s all about problem solving; sometimes we just need to hear each other’s stories.

These are not my opinions nor are they necessarily true statements. But they capture the spirit of some of the opinions, judgments, assumptions, even perhaps rumors or myths I have heard from some about the other. And perhaps there is some truth embedded in these sentiments. As noted in my opening anecdotes, things can get messy (though no doubt things can get messy in pure TO and even pure Playback as well.) And perhaps that is not such a bad thing. Even Augusto Boal sometimes referred to himself as a “Difficultator” rather than a facilitator. Sometimes with Playback performances, there is no political analysis. But has that to do with Playback by definition or how individual practitioners or groups approach their work?

Given the lineage and traditional application of the two bodies of work, the tension makes sense. From its Marxist revolutionary roots, TO is first and foremost about combatting oppression. Some might argue, class oppression. Playback with its therapeutic and artistic roots, has (historically, not inherently) served and attracted a more middle class population. But Boal sub-titled his “Rainbow of Desire” book “The Boal Method of Theatre and Therapy.” And the Playback community has very intentionally been moving more and more into the realm of grassroots social justice work and including that political analysis. I have had several personal conversations with Jonathan Fox on this topic and have been struck by his thoughtfulness around the schism and his intention for Playback’s trajectory in that realm. In 2005, the Center for Playback Theatre supported a project, which brought Playback artists to work with lower income victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, including the training of a local Playback troupe. The Center has also offered formal courses and actively invited anti-oppression dialogue since at least 2007. There are many other examples – both at the Playback Center and within individual companies around the world.

For me, it is a “yes, and…” I see that both TO and Playback have profound strengths and depending on the context and needs of the moment, I might choose to use one or the other or both combined. I along with other leaders from the Playback community have brought deep discussion on diversity and other social justice topics to the table at Playback conferences as well as in our own practices. Some Playback companies, such as Big Apple Playback in New York City, focus the bulk of their programming around justice related issues and serving marginalized populations. Clearly, it does not have to be one thing or the other.

Even Augusto Boal was open to Playback Theatre and its potential relationship with TO. Two months before he died, he wrote to me via e-mail:

“Your mail made me very curious about the link, TO-Playback…. I was tremendously curious to know what kind of techniques, or whatever, are you putting together. It sounds interesting as a proposition. If you can give me details, I will be extremely happy.”
(Augusto Boal – personal correspondence, March 11, 2009.)

I did write back to him with details and, of course, we lost him in May of that year.

The Future of TO and Playback

Given the pitfalls of combining TO and Playback, the tensions between the two communities of practitioners, and Boal’s passing, a lot has happened since TO was born in the mid-1960’s and Playback in the mid-1970’s. A whole new generation of practitioners is emerging and, in many cases, taking leadership roles in the field. Particularly in the world of TO, in the spirit of Boal who reinvented himself and his work regularly, there are a growing number of adaptations, experiments, and fusions with other techniques. It appears that many people see the value of having and using a large toolbox to address the needs of an ever-changing world. The future of the work feels bright and open. I am no longer the only TO guy or Playback guy in the room. There is still a lot of work to do in the world, of course. That work may never end. But thanks to the pioneering work of Augusto Boal, Jonathan Fox, and Jo Salas, we have two beautiful and powerful bodies of work that, on their own, have transformed many lives for the better. Bringing the two together provides us with yet another tool for social change and the possibility, as we say at Poetic Justice, of a more just and joyous world for all people.