Using Playback Theatre in Development

“Can you describe a feeling you have right now?” I entered Prajwala Sangham for the first time five minutes ago, and there found my four colleagues intensely waiting for me to answer. At that moment, I felt calm, until they all started to act out my feeling. Then, I became confused, very confused, to what is going on as my project supervisor was laying on the floor, humming.

Coming into Prajwala Sangham, I knew that theatre played a significant role in their work. But I am not a theatre geek. I enjoy a good musical here and there – only if my friends are performing. I participated in a “Theatre of the Oppressed” workshop during my senior year of college, but I only focused on the chips and guacamole next to me throughout that 3-hour long session. 

Throughout my first few weeks as an AIF Clinton Fellow placed at Prajwala Sangham, I kept hearing Playback Theatre this, Playback Theatre that, etc. etc. My project supervisor, Sabrina Francis, mentioned it during our initial conversations before my arrival in Hyderabad, and I did research it plenty. Yet, I couldn’t help ask myself, what is Playback Theatre really?

My beautiful whiteboard describing the main concepts of Playback Theatre for our workshops held at the Telangana State Model School as part of our work in the schools.

As the name indicates, you hear someone’s story and then play it back to affirm that person’s personal experience; with that, there is healing. In other words, you aim to mirror back the story that is told. As an original form of improvisational theatre, it allows a member of the audience to tell a personal story and then watch as the story is immediately enacted by the performance of the troupe (Salas, 2010). 

Created in 1975 by Jonathon Fox and Jo Salas, Playback Theatre allows tellers to see and experience their personal story recreated into theatre, thus enabling them to view it in a different way (“What Is Playback Theatre?”). Though the Centre for Playback Theatre is based in New York, Playback Theatre is practiced all over the world from Cuba to Bangladesh to Finland. By demonstrating the universality of stories, Playback Theatre is able to connect people and create community. 

How does Playback Theatre actually work? There are many different roles that must be fulfilled:

  • The Teller. Usually, from the audience, this person tells the story that will be enacted.
  • The Conductor. As the main facilitator, this person helps the Teller find a story they want to tell and choose which actors to recreate that specific story. 
  • Actors. This group of individuals acts out the story told and always make sure the focus is always directed towards the Teller, not the audience. Their main job is to create an atmosphere of respect and empathy. 
  • Musician(s). This person, or persons, creates a sound that sets the tone for the story, moving both the actors and audience to a different time and emotional state. After all, Playback Theatre is all about reawakening memories, thoughts, and feelings for everyone involved. 

The entire performance is non-scripted. Though the troupe does practice, improvisation is what really happens during the performance on stage. What brings the performance together is the knowledge of Playback Theatre techniques, experience, and a healthy amount of faith. The real magic is how the group is able to dive into the depth of a story to experience its essence and to allow the audience to experience the same. 

Women acting out scenes depicting hardships with their mothers-in-law.

Though there are many different forms of Playback Theatre, the most common ones include fluid sculptures, pairs, and stories. Fluid sculptures are a non-narrative short form. A conductor usually asks a question, and the teller responds to it by describing a feeling. The actors come forward one by one, performing repeated sounds and movements to add on what is already there. They can use words, or not, to create an organic moving shape, expressing an aspect of the teller’s feelings while music plays in the background. Next, pairs reflect the experience of having two contrasting feelings at the same time. Actors stand two by two, each representing a feeling, and they act out the contrasting nature of these feelings. Lastly, stories happen when a story is enacted fully with the teller standing onstage with the conductor. 

At Prajwala Sangham, Playback Theatre is an important part of our work in the prisons, police departments, schools, NGOs, and corporates. For instance, we conducted an Identity and Self-Awareness Workshop with women beneficiaries of SAFA in Vattepally, Hyderabad. SAFA is a social venture committed to the socio-economic empowerment of underprivileged women. During this workshop, we used Playback Theatre to portray the story of a woman. Her husband stays in Saudi Arabia and doesn’t support the family at all. She is left alone with her two young children, and she can’t take care of them well. As a result, she feels pain and suffering. After we portrayed her feelings, the Teller and the audience became very emotional. 

To cope with these feelings, Sabrina took on the role of the Teller, and we asked the audience members to have a conversation with Sabrina as the Teller. Many women said words of comfort and encouragement, telling her that she can overcome this burden and she has their support. At the end of this activity, we encouraged the Teller to speak to Sabrina. She said, “I want to move forward and take care of my children.” The Teller gained strength from the solidarity of the group and the strength to move forward in order to overcome her struggle. 

Playback Theatre enforces how the message of the Teller deserves and is worthy of being shared with the public. It emphasizes the spontaneity, creativity, compassion, and the importance of the Teller’s message. Some stories are often lighthearted and humorous, while others are moving, inspirational, and powerful. Playback Theatre gives anyone an opportunity to share their past, present, and/or future stories, often providing healing and future hope.

I’ve seen it with my eyes repeatedly throughout my time with Prajwala Sangham. But if you are not convinced, believe the participants from the Vattepally workshop who came to us with tears in their eyes at the end, expressing their gratitude for us. Believe the woman who said, “If I met you 20 years back, I would’ve gotten married according to my wish and had a happy family.” Believe the Teller who has a new sense of hope for the future. 

The women from the Vattepally workshop only smiled after I told them we would be back in my broken Hindi.

References: 

  • “What Is Playback Theatre?” International Playback Theatre Network, 2018. Accessed at: https://www.iptn.info/?a=group&id=what_is_playback_theatre.
  • Salas, Jo. “What Is ‘Good’ Playback Theatre?” Gathering Voices: Essays on Playback Theatre. Ed. Jonathan Fox and Heinreich Dauber. Centre for Playback Theatre, 2010. Pp. 1-21. Accessed at: http://www.playbacktheatre.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/What-is-Good-PT.pdf.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Nithya graduated from Santa Clara University (SCU) in 2018 with a double major in Public Health Science and Psychology. While at SCU, she was awarded the Global Social Benefit Fellowship from the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Nithya and her research partner conducted action research to assess the social impact of Awaaz.De, a Gujarat-based social enterprise that created a mobile communication platform for other organizations in the development sector. They travelled to three Indian states, visited over 20 communities, and conducted 55 interviews over the span of two months. With that research, they developed social impact case studies detailing how clients use Awaaz.De's services, prepared recommendations to Awaaz.De, and created a mobile social impact assessment framework. Thrilled to return back to India as an AIF Clinton Fellow, Nithya can’t wait to return to Hyderabad, hone her Telugu speaking skills, and reconnect with family. In her spare time, she loves watching the Golden State Warriors, petting baby goats, and mastering the art of making dosas.

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