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Summary of Playback Theatre Session at the 2004 NCDD Conference

On the morning of the third and final day of the 2004 NCDD conference in Denver, Colorado, we began the day with an interactive performance of National Playback Theatre, which turned out to be the most highly-rated and most talked-about feature of the 2004 conference. Playback Theatre is an innovative example of how the arts can foster and enhance dialogue. We utilized this improvisational form of theatre to reflect on our learnings and experiences over the weekend, encourage unresolved conflicts to emerge, and rejuvenate us for the trip home. Here is a summary of what took place…

Playback Theatre is practiced in hundreds of settings around the world, as both an art form and a means of generating community power and possibility. This improvisational form of communication was developed in 1975 by Jonathan Fox. The National Playback Theater ensemble was founded by Leilani Rashida Henry, also our Design Team facilitator for the conference, to integrate the principles of art, spontaneity, and authenticity to facilitate dialogue and enhance cohesion and transformation within organizations and communities.

National Playback Theater unites improvisational artists from around the United States. Using music, movement, and non-scripted theater, its performances create interactive dialogue and build community. In telling and then seeing their stories and their colleagues’ stories played back to them, people discover or reinforce their common humanity and shared experience. Boundaries and conflicts start to dissolve, trust is built, learning is supported and uncharted terrain becomes safe and exciting.

Actors included Lorenzo Aragon, Cat Callejas, Kevin Gray, Leilani Rashida Henry, Victor Waring, and Deb Witzel. Musician James Hoskins also contributed to the performance.

Our Playback Theatre session began with music. The actors initiated a rhythm, and then everyone in the room followed suit by clapping or playing percussion instruments that the actors handed out. Lorenzo began the session by telling us that Playback is about creating theatre together. People from the audience share moments and stories from their lives. Participants sit in the “teller’s chair” and the actors use movement, theater, and other forms of expression to “play back” that person’s story.

What happened in the next 90 minutes was magical for many people in the room. Here are a few people’s comments about the session from our satisfaction survey:

  • Playback Theater amplified how other-than-discursive communication is healthy and essential for real democracy to take root.
  • Playback Theatre certainly was a dynamic way to experience dialogue’s essence-listening, reflecting, hearing yourself in new ways, others hearing you and taking you in, being present and mindful.
  • Playback moved me to richer/fuller sorts of understanding.
  • It connected me to everyone and was very expressive.
  • Playback Theater tied my whole NCDD experience together for me and made me realize how powerful and deep our work is.
  • National Playback Theatre was a great way to bring us all together and process the difficult stuff.
  • National Playback Theatre went beyond words. It captured the power of both hope and despair.
  • Playback Theatre expressed what I could not bring myself to say.

People seemed encouraged by Playback, over the course of the session, to share more and more personal and emotional stories with everyone in the room. Themes seemed to emerge. Several times, people talked about recognizing one’s own experience in another person’s story and feeling heard as the other person’s story was heard. Another common theme seemed to be the renewed awareness of the power of movement and other forms of non-verbal expression. A third theme was that participants who had felt stifled before, by themselves or by others, were finally feeling free to express emotion and frustration and to be themselves. And several people expressed that they were starting to feel that we, as a community, are there for each other, and that we are developing the courage to stand for each other.

Lorenzo began by asking people to think about a moment of compassion that they had experienced at the conference. One person spoke of someone offering her a kind of retreat or sanctuary space when she spoke about how distressed she felt by the polarization in the country, and how she had actually considered leaving the country. The troupe played back how she had felt her despair lessen when she was cared for and empathized with.

Another person talked about something that happened during his workshop, after a Jew and a Palestinian shared their stories. A young Palestinian man in the workshop responded to the exchange saying “that was my father’s story.” His father had died, and his story had never been told. Seeing someone who was like his father being able to share his story brought the young man to tears. He told the group that this instance made him feel connected back to life again. For the workshop facilitator, “it was like helping people experience life, and it was beautiful for me” and this feeling was then played back.

Another participant talked about what happened to him the night before, when some Canadians invited him out to dinner and they happened upon the Diversity Team at a nearby Vietnamese restaurant. The new group was invited in, and they spoke openly and honestly about what it felt like for Canadians, for African Americans, and for other groups to be at this conference and in this country at this rather emotional time.

When the facilitator asked for stories about courageous incidents, an African American stood up and talked about how she had convinced another woman who was struggling around diversity issues at the conference to go in and talk to the Listeners. The woman protested, but our speaker convinced her. When the other woman was expressing herself to the Listeners, and the Listeners were leaning in towards her, saying “Yes…How can we help?” her heart “just grew. I was moved by her courage.”

Lorenzo asked the group to think about a moment during the conference when they saw “spirit” spark or come alive. One participant, Nancy Glock-Grueneich, called out “Right now!” and then she explained,

We talk, and we try in our talking and in our listening to express what’s in our hearts and to welcome each other in doing that, and to struggle through all the scary parts and conflict. And we keep trying to walk our talk and finding we’re not, and struggling with each other, saying ‘we all talk about dialogue and we don’t know how to do it’ and ‘we’re not doing it right’ and ‘we’re so human’ and getting really upset with each other, and then you come along and you’re able to bring out such clarity of those feelings, and honor them, and make them really alright for us to have. And we’ve talked about seeing the beauty in them, but what you’re doing is allowing us to really feel the beauty of each other’s feelings, and not be afraid of it.

Another participant spoke about feeling a sense of spirit during a workshop on dance and movement. She was amazed at how we could easily use our bodies instead of words to express ourselves collectively and individually.

After the actors introduced themselves (and their introductions, which described how they were feeling at the time-inspired, supported, thirsty-were played out), conference participants were asked to turn to each other to share a story from the conference. After they had time to briefly share with each other, one of the actors, Leilani Henry, asked for a young leader, a new practitioner, to come up and share their story.

An undergraduate student then shared a story from a workshop he had attended the previous day about scaling dialogue up to impact national and international issues. From the back of the room, “a bomb was dropped on the group”: someone from the back of the room interrupted the ambitious, excited conversation to challenge the group. “Prove to me that dialogue and deliberation are working,” he called, and everybody went silent. People were uncomfortable, and the young man broke the silence by acknowledging that the statement was coming from a place of love for this work, and that it’s important for us to ground ourselves in solid practice and solid theory. The American public is so cynical about democracy and about what’s possible that if we are to go to scale, and show that we’re creating change, people need to see it as a useful activity or it can make things worse. His sense of transforming an uncomfortable moment into a grounding one was then played back.

The most powerful story-and most powerful playback-was that of an Muslim woman. “I’m an American Muslim,” she began, “and I’ve walked around since 9/11 as two people, torn. I’m an American, and a Muslim, and supposedly Islam and America are at war, and my faith has been hijacked.” Courageously, she expressed to the group how afraid she was, and that she felt her fear of being mistreated in this country was justified.

“The happy conclusion,” she said, “is that I met all of you, and the energy and spirit I feel here gives me enormous hope and inspiration, and I want to thank you all, for all of the work you’re doing. Thank you.”

This Playback Theatre performance has since inspired similar performances at both the Study Circles Resource Center’s national conference and the 2005 Canadian Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation.

Learn more about Playback Theatre.

National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) (2005)

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