applied theatre improv playback theatre

Let me talk about Playback Theatre

If you have been digging in this site probably you’ve read that I’m a playback theatre practitioner. Today I feel the need to talk about it. Of course, no better way to talk about playback theatre that disclosing what is it and how this “playback” thing works. Follow me.

The year is 1975, a very remarkable year in Spanish story because that’s the year the dictator Francisco Franco died. That same year the Vietnam war ended and the UK suffered many bombings by the IRA. Ah, the world has always been a turmoil. On the other hand, that year Steven Spielberg’s “JAWS” was released in the USA and a man named Jonathan Fox, very conscious about all the bad things going all over the world, thought “We’re going to need a bigger… theatre”. Of course, I’m dramatizing but it’s true that inside Fox’s mind something was cooking and the ingredients were Jacob Levy Moreno‘s psychodrama and Paolo Freire‘s approach to education. On top of that, sprinkle a touch of the oral tradition of storytelling and, of course, improvisation. He was ready to create something great but he wasn’t alone in that task, along with his partner Jo Salas, musician and activist, they came up with a theatre form along with other members. They created the first Playback Theatre company.

Judy Swallow, Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas. Picture from the Playback Centre website.

The purpose of that new company was to play back (now you’re getting it, right?) stories from members of the audience in a performative way in front of them with all the deserved respect. It was (and is) usually performed within communities with a common trait. They wanted to literally give voice to those who didn’t have and honour them while raising awareness of their situation.

Now that we have the when, who, and what let’s tackle how. A playback theatre session needs these things.

  • The conductor. Who acts not only as MC but also as a bridge between the teller and the actors, carrying the weight of developing and establish the pace of the session.
  • The actors. Self-explanatory, isn’t it? The ones building a performative representation of the teller’s story.
  • The musician. Who along the actors gives sound to the feelings and events lying within the teller’s story.
  • Chairs. The international playback theatre mascot. Although it can be stools, boxes, etc. Sitting and listening captures the most crucial part of the session. Everybody is sitting while the teller is sharing the story. Also the chairs can be used as a prop during the reenactment. Which brings me to…
  • Props. Usually it’s only fabrics, in different color and/or texture. Many playback groups use many props but there’s some value in the “less is more” motto and having too many props ties the story to a literal place leaving less room for symbolism.

In the following picture you can see the setup better. The conductor is sitting in a chair with an additional one reserved for the teller. At the back, the prop rack and stools for the actors. Finally, facing the conductor and teller is the musician.

Playback Theatre setup.

I could continue the lecture and give two cents about what happens inside a playback theatre session and how we perform, but I’ll leave it for another time.

I met Playback Theatre (from now on PT) in 2013 when I was studying the postgraduate on theatre in education at Valencia University. We went through a lot of styles and forms of applied theatre including all of the branches of Alberto Boal‘s tree representation of theatre of the oppressed. Tomás Motos, the creator and co-director of the postgraduate and the current applied theatre masters degree, is the main responsible for my involvement in PT. He’s been during decades one (if not THE one) of the main theorist about theatre applied to education in Spain and had been following and observing closely PT for many years. He came to me one day after class and he told me “I’ve heard you’re doing improv, would you like to try PT?” And I said yes.

That’s how Teatro Playback Inestable, the very first Valencian PT troupe, was born. We started doing a batch of shows at the local independent theatre espacio inestable that rose awareness of this kind of theatre and later we followed those shows performing in museums, high schools, civic centres, universities… A lot of shows, a lot of tellers. As a performer, it was challenging, especially when we had to reenact harsh stories involving illness, abuse or violence. Mind that PT is not therapy (and it doesn’t want or need to be) yet we had to be extra careful with everything we said or did. Oh, the responsibility! That’s when the importance of symbolism arise. Learning when we have to be literal and when make use of symbolism is one of the biggest challenges. We have to juggle while trying to be faithful and respectful both to the story and the teller. What’s not to love about that challenge?

Tomás Motos and a young teller enjoying a reenactment at espacio inestable

That pursuit of symbolism allows PT players to explore in order to find new ways and languages to express all the subtleties and feelings without having to care about the literal meaning of the story because the audience and the teller already know it. It’s all about how we, the actors, can shape that story into something new and beautiful. And yes, like in improv or any performance sometimes you can bomb. And that’s ok as long the teller is happy. You always can ask the teller for a redo!

After a couple of years of performing in Valencia, I started to crave growth. I don’t know if it’s a virtue or a defect, but when I found something that I love I tend to over-commit. I started to expand my research and participating in gatherings about PT and Latin-American spontaneous theatre. I met Ana Fernández, from Salamanca, which I consider the true pioneer in performing PT actively in Spain with her troupe Teatro Entrespejos and founder of the, certified by the CPT, Iberian School of PT alongside José Marques and António Vicente from the Portuguese Teatro Imediato. At a gathering of theatre for social change in Madrid, I met Diana Calvo from Zaragoza whom I helped build a troupe in that city which is now called Teatro Imprevisto. Later I met Nadia Zúñiga from Mexico who now leads the powerful PT Troupe El Ensamble in Barcelona. This is not casual name dropping since we now are forming a nicely consolidated net.

I’m quite happy (and, sure, proud) to be linked to these years where the PT presence in Spain has gone from zero to several companies and a quite healthy circle that works together with our Portuguese neighbours under the wing of the Iberian School organizing annual Iberian PT gatherings and providing during the COVID pandemic several performances for the Latinamerican community.

Ana Fernández, Ferran Luengo, António Vicente, Nadia Zúñiga and Diana Calvo stressed about organizing an online Iberian Playback Theatre Gathering.

But my hunger of PT brought me even further to attend international gatherings. Back in 2017, I had the opportunity to meet with the Asian community at their Asia Pacific Playback Theatre Gathering, held in the beautiful Japanese town of Mihara in the Hiroshima prefecture, where I held a poster session about the PT situation in Spain. There I understood the true meaning of PT beyond words or boundaries being able to play with people from many countries (not just Asian) just assessing the feelings within the stories told and flowing together. Turns out PT is also a mean of communication! I’ve learnt a lot from Aki Komori, Mizuho Kanazawa, Yasushi Sakurai, Naohiro Takahashi, Josephin Lin and many others through hours of conversation, sharing space in the little and lovely island of Sagishima. When I came back to Spain I wasn’t the same and also my view of PT had evolved and still doing it now that I’m beginning new stages of my PT journey here in the UK thanks to True Heart Theatre.

I spoke a lot of my journey and little about what PT means to me. There’s a saying stating that one of the best ways of learning is teaching others. I’d say that it could apply to performative arts. Showing our work to others makes an impact on our own mental health, usually positively because that’s what drives us. Applied theatre goes beyond, it craves for social health because, like Augusto Boal used to say, theatre is a very efficient weapon for social change. And that purpose, the one that applied theatre gave me, is the ammunition for that weapon. That is what PT means to me. I’ve loved doing theatre since I stepped into the college extracurricular drama course 20 years ago and it helped me to shape myself the same way I try to use it to shape society. “But who are you to try to shape society?” some might say. I’m a romantic. I’m an idealist. I want equality. I want everybody to be able to raise awareness of injustice, oppression and discrimination. At the end of the day, we share the same society and if we don’t communicate with each other we are doomed.

At the APPTC 2017 in Mihara, Japan.

The background of PT practitioners is usually the same. I made a survey among them for my master’s degree final thesis and the majority were teachers, mental health professionals, social workers and artists. We can definitely see the profile of “shapers of society”. All of them are people brought to PT because of certain awareness and it works the other way around. Artists got to PT pursuing putting their craft in good use. To put it in a simple way: Applied theatre practitioners are people who care. Mind that I say “applied theatre” because PT is not the only way. I deeply encourage you to read the work of Augusto Boal regarding theatre of the oppressed. And of course, the same recommendation with the PT work of Jo Salas and Jonathan Fox.

For PT practitioners this pandemic caught us like a deer in the middle of the road, paralyzed by the car headlights heading into us. Like to everyone else I guess. Now we are doing our best to perform online, with the perks of having a global stage. I know the world won’t change easily. I know inequality will continue strutting. When all of this is over and we can work together face to face, we’ll be there to reenact once again the struggles ahead of us due to the economic crisis. We’ll have to endure. We’ll be there to continue giving voice to those who need it. We’ll be there working with the communities. We’ll be there to make art from the tragedy and to shape it into hope.

The Iberian Ensamble in the 2019 Iberian PT Gathering

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