Conflict at Playback Theatre conferences:
A summary of a conversation between PT practitioners

Between June 3-20th, we facilitated on online exchange hub on conflict at conferences. During this time, there occurred a vigorous debate about maintaining neutrality vs. political and moral stand-taking. What is the responsibility of the playback practitioner in general? And how should conference conductors and group leaders behave? Is it important to have personal ties to a conflict in order to be authorized to use PT in the service of specific social movements? What is at stake when we take a stand or avoid doing so? We did not find consensus, but hopefully grew more aware of two things: 1) the subject is many-layered, and 2) there are strong differences of opinion on this fundamental aspect of playback theatre practice.

Related to this subject is the issue of what constitutes fairness and whether this is a desired value in PT practice. This is especially relevant when the desire for human-to-human encounter comes up against harmful imbalances of power in both in the society-at-large and within our own community. We held different opinions on what constitutes fairness in relation to current sociopolitical and humanitarian conflicts such as those which exist between Israel and Palestine and between Russia and Ukraine. We did not all agree on the nature of the oppression or the role of privilege in shaping our understanding of power. It was apparent that, in our growing and increasingly complex community, we will not all assess “fairness” in the same way.

We also discussed how imbalances of power within a given society may appear differently within our PT community or within the context of a specific performance (for example, men may be in a position of privilege in most of our communities, but we often make a special invitation for a male teller because they tend to be in a minority at our performances). Fairness was also discussed in the context of conference planning as the location, language of facilitation, and fees associated with attending inevitably create an imbalance of voices in the room. We are aware of the efforts that conference planning committees make to increase the accessibility of playback theatre gatherings but, nevertheless, these tensions remain. 

With regard to PT gatherings in particular, there were several guidelines offered. The idea of a circle of participants small enough for everyone to be heard was put forward as possibly fundamental to the playback approach. With such intimate circles at conferences, it was suggested, conflict could be more satisfactorily addressed and potentially transcended than in a large plenary group of two to four hundred people. One practical idea was in some way to expand the importance of home groups (and make them smaller). There was also some discussion about the potential pressure placed upon companies that provide the opening or closing performances at our gatherings. Some suggested avoiding opening and closing performances while others suggested having companies perform who are prepared to engage with diversity and the conflict.

Perhaps the biggest take-away of our discussion was the obvious: we can expect conflict at our conferences. Let us face this fact rather than avoid it–better to name conflicts that arise and leave time to air them. There were quite a few comments about conflict avoidance as an endemic playback theatre problem that is expressed not only at conferences but also in company life. Does the culture of our playback community allow room to make mistakes and acknowledge the incompleteness of our efforts or is there a certain pressure to tie up loose ends and solve conflict? Inviting differences and discovering ways of being with conflict within company life may not only be useful to company members but may also strengthen our collective capacity to attend to conflict as it arises in our gatherings.

Naturally strong differences were expressed during the exchange hub, and in fact, a point made by more than one member was how important it was to remain civil with each other and relate with a deep measure of authentic engagement, or what one person called “mindfulness.” In fact, about half of the 36 who signed up to participate remained silent, which must leave us with the question, why? Did they feel unsafe? Were they put off by some of the comments? Were they not invited in a sensitive enough way? Could they not find their words, either because of the demands of English or the complexity of the subject? This element of nonparticipation also leaves us with something to think about in its relation to conflict at conferences and who speaks up and who does not.

Finally, we recognize that there is much more to discuss and discover about this topic. For example, we did not explore how different expressions of leadership may aid us in attending to conflict at conferences. We did not explore the differing roles of the conductor, actors, musician, and audience members when conflicts arise. We also did not explore the overlaps between PT and other non-scripted forms such as Developmental Transformations or the Theatre of the Oppressed in relation to addressing conflict at conferences. We expect that some of you may wish to continue this conversation and we encourage you to self-organize around this or pursue this conversation within your own PT companies.

In closing, we wish to thank all of those who participated, Michele Chung for inviting us to facilitate this forum, and Jori Pitkänen for expertly managing the technical aspects of the exchange. We look forward to seeing all of you at a future gathering where there is sure to be both conflict and compassionate, artful, playback.

Jonathan Fox & Nisha Sajnani