The Therapy Question1

Jonathan Fox


In this essay, playback theatre co-founder Jonathan Fox shares his evolving understanding of the relationship between pt and therapy through the exploration of two discrete juxtapositions — playback theatre with psychodrama, and the therapeutic application of playback theatre.


Theatre fans look at us suspiciously and challenge, "Is this therapy?" while despite our statements to the contrary, psychodramatists and drama therapists claim us as their own.


How to respond?


I have always felt that playback theatre‘s indefinability is positive. But it has stood in the way of many people, from audience-goers to funders, finding the right category for it. Playback theatre's roots in the oral tradition is one cause of their difficulty. Oral traditional cultures tend to be holistic. The story the griot tells is a history lesson as well as an entertainment. The mask worn by the dancer is a tool to aid a healing process as well as an artistic creation. Modern culture is more specialized. You practice art or you practice psychotherapy. If you do both, you certainly do them in different times and places.


A second problem has to do with the meaning of psychotherapy, which is in many ways too narrow to accommodate playback theatre. Again, pt does not fit into the 50-minute, quiet-voiced, one-on-one model widely practiced in the northern world. It also does not fit into the medical model of cure to which most psychotherapy adheres: it does not aim to solve mental problems; nor is it private and protected.


Let me deal with two related questions — the connection between playback and psychodrama; and the therapeutic practice of playback theatre.


Psychodrama informed and influenced playback theatre in its early development. But it does not define it. Moreno‘s philosophy has much to offer, especially the concepts of spontaneity and sociometry. In some regions many pt practitioners are also trained in psychodrama (including myself). But this influence does not make playback a child of psychodrama.


In some instances, psychodramatists, drama therapists, expressive therapists, and other psychotherapists make use of playback theatre as an adjunctive method in their clinical practice. This is a specialized application of playback that would rarely include performance and almost always involves some sort of adaptation to suit the particular therapeutic setting. In this usage, practiced by a therapist for therapeutic goals and in a therapeutic setting, it is fair to say that playback theatre is therapy.


By far and away the main use of playback theatre is in community settings. We speak of it as theatre; some also call it community cultural development; some, storytelling; some, education and training; some, communication. Most of us do not call it therapy.


Yet playback theatre is broadly therapeutic. Of this there is no doubt. How so? This is how I see it:


Identity-formation. The need to tell one‘s story is primal. Even more, it seems that telling our story helps greatly in defining ourselves to ourselves. This process is compatible with Boal’s concept of critical consciousness. The anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff talks about the value of „definitional ceremonies“. „Life histories“, she writes, „give people the opportunities to become visible and to enhance their reflexive consciousness“. So in being a teller, we become clearer about who we are; it is a vital act of affirmation.


Dialogue and reconciliation. In the sequence of stories told by any audience, a teller is always responding to what was told before. Tellers comment on previous stories in a complex pattern of alternative truth-telling (we call this linkage „the red thread“ of a performance). Thus playback theatre turns out to be a good format for a group to share different perspectives on an issue. Moreover, the context of respectful listening that is so central to the pt process is a crucial condition for lessening conflict. During the playback theatre performance, we hear the narrative of the other.


Recovery. Because of its gentleness, playback theatre is an effective way for an individual (and a group) to make the transition, to use the formulation of Judith Herman, from „traumatic memory“ to „narrative memory“. Of course trauma is a psychotherapeutic problem. But it is also a social problem. In fact, civic leaders are often at a loss when they need powerful tools for healing a community-wide crisis, such as a natural disaster, or war. The fallback solution is too often to just get on with it and cope. However, I strongly suspect that without finding way to heal from the past, a community cannot creatively face its future.


Moral imagination. This concept, defined by peace building professor John Paul Lederach, involves „the capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist." In other words, we need moral imagination to imagine our future when the present seems full of problems and even hopeless. According to Viktor Frankl, for instance, it was the equivalent of moral imagination that enabled him and others to survive the WWII camps, while others, unable to see beyond the bleak and hopeless present, succumbed. It required moral imagination for blacks and whites in South Africa to plan for a peaceful transition from apartheid. Playback theatre, with its spontaneous telling and enactment, invites and inspires such envisioning.


For the most part psychotherapy, focusing as it does on curing individuals, stays apolitical. However, when the focus is community-based, questions of social justice and historical oppression demand attention. Who has space to tell their story? Who listens? Who does not? The value pt places on providing access to anyone, even those traditionally silent, makes it a powerful tool for social change. One can say that playback theatre treats not (merely) the individual, but also the society. Thus while the framework of playback theatre is broader than psychotherapy, and it does not conform to some of its definitional guidelines, pt‘s effectiveness at ego-building, resolving conflict, working with trauma, and helping people make positive decisions about their future suggests that it can accomplish many of the objectives of psychotherapy.

There is so much that we do not yet know about how playback works. So far most of the evidence is anecdotal. Merely to know in our hearts how effective it can be is not enough. We need to develop language suitable for an approach that provides a community healing ritual. We need rich descriptions and detailed analyses of a process that is highly dynamic and ephemeral. What actually happens to the body of the teller seeing her story? What exactly are the processes of communication between audience members and performers? What kind of consciousness occurs among those present in a pt performance? What is the effect of witnessing the telling and enactment of personal stories? What role does the performance arc/structure/ritual/ceremony play in the creation of a lasting positive experience for the participants?

The Israeli playback actor Uri Alon, who is also a professor of molecular biology and physics of complex systems, has an interest in investigating how and why playback theatre works. Other scholars are writing dissertations on the same question from different angles. This is an exciting development. Meanwhile, we continue to argue that while playback heals, it is not therapy, and like the dance and drama of traditional societies, we defy the distinction between art and healing.



(1) This article was originally published in the Centre‘s Company Partner News in 2008


Jonathan Fox is the founder of Playback Theatre and director emeritus of the Centre for Playback Theatre. He was the artistic and executive director of the original Playback Theatre company from its inception in 1975. He is the author of Acts of Service: Spontaneity, Commitment, Tradition in the Nonscripted Theatre; the editor of The Essential Moreno: Writings on Spontaneity, Psychodrama and Group Method; and co-editor of Gathering Voices: Essays on Playback Theatre. In 2008 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Kassel in Germany for artistic and scholarly achievement in theatre.