Belonging in Playback Theatre: The Greek “Playback Ψ” Theatre Company, edited by Lambros Yotis.Available in both kindle and paperback versions. 330 pages.
ISBN-10: 9606271390 / ISBN-13: 978-9606271397
Review by Brian Tasker.
Belonging in Playback Theatre tells the story of Playback “Ψ”or ‘Psy’, a Playback Theatre group based in Athens, Greece founded by Lambros Yotis in 2004.Lambros had been exposed to Playback Theatre while studying dramatherapy in the UK. What impressed me and continued to impress while reading through this text was the attention to detail, the thoroughness and dedication to create something worthwhile, a resource that could respond creatively and with depth to the stories that the group was to receive in their work. I should point out that I am writing this review through my own lens of experiencing Playback Theatre application and practice. While I share some of the contexts and applied knowledge, Playback ‘Psy’s application is much broader than most, given the range of experience and expertise contained within the group membership allowing for individual explorations and group collaboration. It’s also important to remember that this is the story of a Greek Playback group with its cultural baggage and painful recent history since at least the end of the Second World War to be taken into account as a back story. Playback Theatre can offer hope which is something that Playback ‘Psy’ try and build on, the moment of Anagnorisis,* the resolution, the homecoming we all long for. “Anagnorisis [from the Greek] is a moment in a plot or story, specifically a tragedy, wherein the main character either recognizes or identifies his/her true nature, recognizes the other character’s true identity, discovers the true nature of his situation, or that of the others – leading to the resolution of the story.” I admire their commitment and willingness to open up new opportunities to engage with Playback Theatre and then write about what they encountered and give deep thought to the processes involved. So this book is a very welcome and very comprehensive addition to the published literature on Playback Theatre as there is only a small coterie of practitioners that write reflectively about their work given the relative popularity of the form.
The book opens with a foreword by Jonathan Fox and a preface by Lambros Yotis, a background of the company, a list of members since 2004 and those who have passed through training at their CPT-affiliated school.There are also some coloured illustrations of posters that have been produced and a gallery of photographs.It’s a full history followed by the three main parts of the book. If only I could discuss every chapter, but for obvious reasons that’s not possible and rather than write a series of short summaries, I chose to focus mainly on those that particularly resonated with me: the spiritual aspects via Playback Theatre: A Theatre of a New Catharsis. A Spiritual Approach by DimitrisBegioglou and a number of other contributions.Anyway, the purpose of a review is to whet the appetite of a reader and there is much here to enjoy and learn from and to contrast with your own practice, so I would encourage you to buy a copy. Apologies to those authors whose chapters weren’t discussed; the treasures within are there to be discovered by future readers.
One small point that could be confusing for those new to Playback was the use of non-standard Playback terms. As Playback Theatre is now practiced worldwide, it seems helpful to use standard terms: Teller, Conductor and audience instead of the non-Playback terms of narrator, leader-mediator and spectators and as Playback Theatre is interactive, the term ‘spectators’ doesn’t really apply. I understand that Playback ‘Psy’ have their own reasons for varying the terms.
Part A: Under the Stage Lights
The “Playback Ψ” Theatre Company A Visit Through Time (L. Yotis) Playback Theatre Conference Day “Life Stories” (2015) (Photos) On Stage (Photos) Playback Theatre through the perspective of the Actor (M. Kastrinou, C. Theocharopoulos, S. Vasiliadis) On Stage (Photos) Music in Playback Theatre (K. Elositou, A. Misirliadis, P. Koukoutas) Visual Art in Playback Theatre (E. N. Gyra, E. Politopoulou, M. Horhocea, N. Theocharopoulos) Visual Art created during playback performances
Part A mainly serves as an account of the group’s developmental journey. I did find one criticism here when the internationally recognised forms that are used in Playback are listed in a table that most people involved in Playback would readily know.In a second table, the forms that the group themselves have created are listed but without description, so I didn’t know and would liked to have known what they were?Perhaps detailed descriptions could have been placed at the end of the book. As it stands, we have just a mysterious list of titles to ponder over. In the chapter on Playback Theatre through the perspective of the Actor, the authors offer a detailed and really helpful description of the journey to become an actor in Playback Theatre. Surely a goal of the actors in Playback Theatre is to work towards that time, when the intuition ripens into a deep insight into the teller’s story: “Through the years, there have been “magic moments”, as the company calls them. They are those moments when the action on stage reveals part of the story that was not actually voiced. Often there will be a narrator who before leaving the performance says: “What I saw is what actually happened, but I hadn’t told you about it”.
Lambros describes: ‘The second part (B) as presenting the relationship between Playback Theatre and psychotherapy: its ability for catharsis, its affinities to psychodrama and expressive psychotherapies. These articles are written by members of the company who are qualified psychotherapists and apply playback theatre techniques in their work.’ He goes on to say that ‘The third part (C) comprises articles that demonstrate Playback Theatre’s social or educational dimension in relevant contexts and articles based on original post-graduate university research accomplished by members of this company.’
Part B: Therapeutic Approaches
Playback Theatre: A Theatre of a New Catharsis. A Spiritual Approach
World Playback Week, New Diorama Theatre, London (2012) (Photos)
Psychodrama and Playback Theater: Two stages for the action of the soul
3rd European Playback Theatre Gathering Budapest (2017) (Photos)
Therapeutic Processes in Dramatherapy and Playback Theatre (C. Fragiadaki)
Relations on stage (Photos)
Playback Theatre meets Expressive Arts Therapy A comparative presentation of how the art of Playback meets psychotherapy (M. Maragopoulou)
Relations on stage (Photos)
As I mentioned earlier I’m very drawn to discuss the first chapter in Part B by Dimitris Begioglou, Playback Theatre: A Theatre of a New Catharsis, A Spiritual Approach as the focus of this chapter. The topic resonates deeply with me. The chapter begins by referencing the work of transpersonal psychologist Ken Wilber alongside Aristotle. Dimitris goes on to say that “Playback Theatre certainly contains therapeutic and artistic qualities within the cathartic ritual. The tellers share their story, a meaningful part [of] life, and then watch it enacted. During this process, they embark on a journey passing through deep acceptance to conscious rebirth and eventually leading to the awareness of Unity.”I think that statement would need to be qualified with ‘possibly’ as an enactment could lead to an awareness of unity at the level that’s implied, but can be often more mundane; a reflection of the everyday, of the teller’s lived experience being revisited rather than specifically reaching beyond it and potentially going over the teller’s head. It does depend on the moment, the teller, their story and the actors grasp of it. I agree that the teller can perhaps experience that witnessing as an acceptance of the mundane as a re-valuing which could be a kind of catharsis in itself, a deepening of the relationship with self and the story being enacted with the audience sharing that in their own way. It’s quite an expectation to elevate the outcomes of Playback Theatre to the level described. But I understand Dimitris’s motive in doing so as a poetic vision of Playback’s possibilities and as an aspiration even if at first sight it seems idealised.
The section on catharsis during the Playback Theatre training process is particularly interesting as it describes the process that a group could go through if it followed the transcendent approach. I was challenged by the quote from Grotowski that goes: ‘…before attempting to create the necessary conditions for a performance that will lead to a transcendent experience it is essential that the separate egos be dispersed.’Dimitris later clarifies that “Building a communal consciousness within the playback group means setting aside our personal egos, beliefs, knowledge and ambitions. This initial cathartic process is what precedes any spiritual theatrical experience.” It seems that the dispersal of egos is also to do with the development of a collective intuition. My own approach would be to retain the tension that different egos bring and encourage group members to manage the tension by being open about what’s happening with them. Then the tension can be drawn on to inform the enactment. But I’m more used to working with groups that are not so long established or are composed of people from varied backgrounds that might have less access to the concepts being described.
Dimitris makes an important point above about this transcendent approach and I would interpret it another way, thinking about the mindful observer as the core of the actor; the emptiness that the Buddhists call Sunyata out of which all apparent entities, distinctions, and dualities arise coupled with the archetypes that populate the human realm. So the actors empty themselves out after each story by simply returning to the breath to ready themselves to receive the next set of archetypes as the story is told.
Dimitris goes on say that “A personal story acquires a collective character and thus leads the narrator [teller] to distance themselves from their own unique narrative. Thus the narrator accepts the partial loss, death, and surrenders it to the Whole. The first part of that statement is true in my view and it’s difficult to say what the narrator actually accepts or otherwise making the second part of the statement debatable. The first part is a description of the transcendent that feels more realistic and grounded in the everyday habitat of most stories and can occur over the arc of a performance, rather than in the moment.
What I enjoyed about reading this chapter on catharsis was that it sets up a creative tension between reader and the author to bring the topic into debate and could easily accommodate an extended commentary – it felt like having a conversation with an old friend. I have lingered on this chapter because I found Dimitris’s ideas to be both challenging and inspiring. While I have offered some criticisms, that doesn’t detract from the rich wisdom and insights to be found in this chapter.I’ll give the last word to Dimitris: “Your story is my story, your wounds are also mine, and the therapy is to read or revise the past on a playback screen and transcend the inner conflicts, accepting the meaning of this as it is. This kind of acceptance through the playback perspective leads to the acceptance of the Present.”
Part C: Social Action and Research
Playback Theatre in Adult Education (C. Theocharopoulos, V. Lardi)
Performances in institutions and facilities (Photos)
Playback Performances as a tool within a social framework (A. Chatziargyriou, C. Webster) 243
Playback Theatre as a Means of Improving the Level of Self-efficacy in the Elderly5 (M. Kastrinou)
The Effect of Playback Theatre on the Personal Narrative of the Teller (C . Fragiadaki)
Catherine Webster and Artemis Chatziargyriou’s chapter on Playback Performances as a tool within a social framework looks at what makes Playback Theatre an ‘interactive social event’ and describes the effects of a Playback Theatre performance on a community held on a Greek island for a facility providing mental health support.The authors relate that as “The evening progressed and local authority officials present abandoned their official roles and joined in the experience. The local priest spoke like a civilian, as did the mayor, both contributing with stories that were honest and at one with the rest of the audience.”
Other chapters include The Effect of Playback Theatre on the Personal Narrative of the Teller by Christina Fragiadaki which describes and discusses the similarities of Playback Theatre and Narrative Therapy. Playback Theatre as a Means of Improving the Level of Self-efficacy in the Elderly by Margarita Kastrinou that explores the importance of personal story as a tool to improve self-efficacy in older people and describes a series of Playback Theatre workshops conducted with a group of older people who attended the same day centre. The project was successful on many levels and helped to re-create a contact with lost past traditions (the way things were) as well as strengthen and reinforce their place in the present, a revitalisation of old age as a time of connection rather than isolation. Margarita writes:“The old people’s contact with Playback Theatre to a great degree increased their sense of self-efficacy. The wealth of their experience, their generosity, the deep feelings and authenticity – attributes they attained by travelling through time – met the core of Playback, the deep conversation of the Ego with the collective ‘We’. The narrating of stories in Playback’s circle of trust acted, for many of the participants, like a memory of older times when people sat in villages under the moonlight and told stories, a memory that they associated with happiness. It created a hearth for them to sit around and share their truth.” This outcome goes a long way to affirming the role of Playback Theatre as a means of creating or re-creating a homecoming, a return to a place and time when community was or seemed to be less-fractured than it is today.
To return to the topic of the social framework by Catherine and Artemis that echoes the above point: “This is where the essence of Playback Theatre lies and how it differs from other theatrical forms. Playback creates a safe environment that is defined by respect and communication, and allows the time and space for diverse voices to be heard. Within this environment, one is free to share stories and experiences without the fear of being judged, where both darker and lighter sides are equally acceptable.” As much as I longed for that homecoming and agree or would like to agree with the above statement that continues the theme in this book of a glowing tribute to the power of Playback Theatre to bring us together. I wondered about the shadow, the human shadow in particular that is not so welcoming to the divergent voice that can be found sitting at the back of the audience. It can’t all be this good and even Playback Theatre has its limits and has its shadow and if there is one flaw in this text, is the seeming absence of an acknowledgement of that. I’m not questioning the positive reception of audiences to Playback ‘Psy’ and the group’s skilful response to the stories that were told.Also I do not want to project my own lately-acquired disenchantment with Playback Theatre on to Playback ‘Psy’ either, because I’ve always had a doubt about the power of Playback to do ‘good’, when doing good becomes a cause. That doubt also relates to the next step of that: my personal aversion to belonging to a partisan political position which seems to be the direction that Playback Theatre is beginning to move in at least in part. To be fair to the authors of this book, partisan politics isn’t really something that they do. So while the idealisation at times might relate to a need to be positive in a desire to heal, perhaps the authors of these chapters have also shown me something that can be unfamiliar, a place beyond the shadows. If I ever have the opportunity maybe I’ll tell them my own story on that topic.
Getting back to the early days when the group was forming, Lambros writes: “In creating a playback group, it is necessary to identify the core underlying aim – be it artistic expression, psychic contact within the group or a political stance and says that all three aspects should concern a playback group.”Other than a broad commitment to social justice and an inclusive attitude to diversity, a specific political stance sounds like it could risk slipping into a politically partisan view and exclude those stories that don’t follow a favoured narrative.However, in describing the initial trajectory of the group, Lambros says that ‘The group did not identify with a particular political stance – much to the dismay of some group members who would have preferred to – but was open to a wider social discussion. In addition, the group did not set particular therapeutic aims, despite members of the group bringing personal dilemmas and shifts to be explored during rehearsals. What clearly defined us was the artistic and expressive identity of the group, which acted as a web that was spun with imagination, social awareness and each member’s inner needs.’ It seems that over time space was created for individual members of the group to bring and develop their own themes and interests.This inclusive and all-embracing approach allowed Playback ‘Psy’ to develop in the way that they have; being open to all stories and all contexts, the group members have demonstrated that they were able (with perhaps the odd exception) to set aside their own political standpoints to enable them to reach out far across the spectrum of stories without prejudice. Surely this is approaching an ideal model of Playback Theatre as it invites all comers to tell in a warm atmosphere of compassion that creates a space for the insight into self and others that Playback Theatre provides. Many groups do this, but few write about their collective experience in the way that the individual members of Playback ‘Psy’ do; it indicates the deep bond that they share together.
The richness of playback theatre is expounded here through the multi-faceted lens of group members’ experiences and skills as this book takes the reader on a journey around Greece and further afield during the 16 years of the groups existence. At one point, Lambros quotes Erich Fromm “The only way of full knowledge lies in the act of love; this act transcends thought, it transcends words. It is the daring plunge into the experience of union.” This neatly sums up the work of Playback ‘Psy’ and their unique gift to the development of Playback Theatre through their collective wisdom and experience.If you are new to Playback Theatre, then this book shows some of the extensive possibilities of the form and if you are already involved, it offers a reflective pause to review what others have achieved, a portal to view another group’s work and plenty of food for thought and much to digest. Thank you for sharing your work with us.