Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Anti-Slavery Campaign Interview Series. Roger Foster

The intersection of Art, Social Interaction and Ritual

For more than three decades, Roger Foster served as an actor, director, producer, stage manager, lighting designer or board member with the Coshocton (Ohio) Footlight Players. An Ohio Community Theatre Association (OCTA)-certified peer guide/responder, Roger consulted with theatre directors throughout central Ohio, and served as an excerpt responder at several regional OCTAfests. A recipient of a superior in directing award at the 2002 OCTA state festival, Roger also helped to establish OCTA’s festivals for children’s theatre.   
Roger received his master’s degree in conflict transformation from the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University, where he has served as Visiting Artist in the Theatre Department. Roger studied Playback Theatre with Ben Rivers, and was one of the founding members of the Inside Out Playback Theatre at EMU.

Yago: Roger, welcome to this blog where we are exploring different ways to name, own and deconstruct the energies of enslavement that keep dehumanizing today’s world. Enslavement, when internalized, creates a very narrow sense of identity; we feel unable to re-discover and re-invent ourselves. Our identities become attached to rigid narratives; there is a sense of inner imprisonment. In this interview we would like to explore with you the contribution of play-back theatre in liberating and expanding our narrow identities.

Roger: Thank you.

Yago: But first of all, we would like to know more about you. You have an experience of over 30 years in community theater organization as a director and as an actor. Could you share with us your beginnings on this field? What brought you to explore theater in your life?

Roger: I’d like to suggest that theatre in all its forms contains this essential element: it is a ritualized enactment of some sort of story.

Like everyone else, I became connected with stories long before I began participating in their enactment, or re-enactment, in anything resembling theatre. I remember my father reading Bible stories to us at family devotions, and I remember hearing stories of the biblical patriarchs and their families in Sunday school and in summertime Bible school. And I remember listening to my mother and father tell stories about their lives, with re-tellings of incidents from their childhoods, from their courtship and early married years, and also with re-tellings of many incidents involving me and my sibs. These story-telling situations taught me both the content contained in these narratives, as well as some rudimentary familiarity and experience with the process of actually telling stories.

One of the most powerful memories I have about stories is from my junior year in high school, when a small group of honor students in junior and senior class were gathered in a classroom, toward the beginning of the school year, to receive what turned out to be an invitation from a new faculty member, to participate in a newly approved and offered language course.

On the blackboard, Mr. Alan Lerner wrote out three lines of Attic Greek text:

μνιν ειδε θε
Πηληϊάδεω χιλος

The mysterious hieroglyphic characters stood in for an idea, and that idea was the opening of the Homeric invocation section of the Iliad: “Sing, muse, of the baneful wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles.” Mr. Lerner proposed to equip volunteers from the group with the linguistic tools to read and reason with the stories of Homer. And with the stories, ideas, theories and politics of Aeschylus, Plato, Menander, and Euclid, and Pericles while we were at it.

And for the next year, I was part of a small group of students who engaged in the linguistic and philosophical—if not yet theatrical—enterprise of wrestling with Achilles’ destructive wrath, Socrates’ questions on the nature of love, Euclid’s description of the congruence among geometric forms, and the flowering of the Golden Age of the Greek city-state.

Thus began a new chapter in the life-long journey of self-discovery, with Mr. Lerner and blind Homer as guides.

About the same time, I joined a high school thespian group and participated as an actor in productions of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” and “The Miracle Worker,” William Gibson’s adaptation of Helen Keller’s autobiography “The Story of My Life.”

As an actor with the group, I collaborated in both the enactment of a story fashioned by others, and the simultaneous creation of a new story, the “story” of my interactions with other cast members, our faculty director, and production crew members. For “Miracle Worker,” that second story included an unrequited crush on the actress playing Kate Keller.

Photo credit: https://www.eventbrite.com
In college, I was the student director of a production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” a series of performances that came off fairly well, due to the efforts of the actors, and in spite of my superficial engagement with the play.

In 1976 I moved with my very young family (a wife and two sons) to Coshocton, Ohio, where I was invited to join the local amateur community theatre group, the Footlight Players. For the next 30 years, I participated with the Footlight Players as an actor, director, producer, designer and critic, collaborating in both the enactment of stories fashioned by others and the simultaneous creation of many new stories of interactions with other Footlight Players members, audiences, my family, and the community.   

Yago: Thanks for sharing your background on this field! Roger, theatre can be understood as a process where people create stories. Why is so important for humanity to create stories? How does theatre help us to become more human?

Roger: Actually, my sense is that most of the work of theatre folk involves the enactment of stories, rather than their creation. Certainly, playwrights may be understood to fashion “new” stories that provide the repertoire for companies who enact them in an unfolding process of presentation and refinement. We might, however, have stimulating and interesting discussions about the extent to which a new script is actually the creation of a new story, and the extent to which it is rather the encoding and recording of a story that has already been created in the playwright’s experience. And I’ve suggested that the pragmatic collaboration of theatre folk that moves toward the presentation of a story could itself be considered the creation of a new story, a story about the process of collaboration and working with other humans to create something of beauty.

At the heart of these stories, whether a dramatic or comic tale or the narrative of the collaborative process, is the drive to satisfy the basic human need of meaning—making. We humans appear to be the species which seeks, relentlessly, to make meaning of our existence and of our experiences. In the theatre, we continue the tradition begun by our ancestors around the primordial campfires at the end of day. Telling stories in the theatre is akin to the energetic re-enactment of the hunt; we tell these stories to help our listeners understand what it means to be human on the planet. The stories help us to be more human by providing examples of heroes and buffoons, failures and successes, to inform, to illumine, to challenge, and to inspire us as we reflect on our human condition and journey.   

Yago: It looks to me that life itself is a theatre, a performance where we are all actors and spectators at the same time; unfortunately there are also the oppressors and the oppressed. In the 1960’s Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal created a new theatrical form described as the Theatre of the Oppressed. Could you share with us what this theatrical form is all about? How is it connected to the work of Paulo Freire and the Pedagogy of the Oppressed?

Roger: Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) explores and describes theatrical techniques that theatre practitioners use as means of promoting social and political change. In the Theatre of the Oppressed, the audience becomes active, such that as "spect-actors" they explore, show, analyse and transform the reality in which they are living. (Source Wikipedia)

Augusto Boal presenting his workshop on the Theatre of the Oppressed.
Riverside Church. Source: Wikipedia
Paulo Freire’s influence on Boal’s theatrical work is evidenced in the dialogic nature of forms in the TO. The interactive forms are living embodiments of Freire’s understanding that “…to enter into dialogue presupposes equality amongst participants. Each must trust the others; there must be mutual respect and love (care and commitment). Each one must question what he or she knows and realizes that through dialogue existing thoughts will change and new knowledge will be created.”

Yago: I am especially intrigued by Augusto Boal’s term “spect-actor”? What does he mean by that? How does it challenge the conventional understanding of a spectator?

Roger: One of the critiques of traditional theatre is that it is organized and implemented primarily for the benefit of society’s elites. The various forms of TO seek to empower disadvantaged members of society through a number of means, principally by re-organizing the content of theatrical productions and by using processes that intentionally blur the distinction between actor and spectator.

The term “spect-actor” is technically connected to the specific TO form designated “Forum Theatre,” where those involved in the process serve the dual role of being both spectator and actor, as they both observe and create dramatic meaning and action in any performance.

Boal emphasizes the critical need to prevent the marginalization of the audience. The term "spectator" brands the participants as less than human; hence, is necessary to humanize them, to restore to them their capacity for action in all its fullness. They must also be a subject, an actor on equal plane with those accepted as actors, who in turn must also be spectators. This will eliminate any notions of the ruling class and the theatre solely portraying their ideals while the audience being the passive victims of those images. This way the spectators no longer delegates power to the characters either to think or act in their place. They free themselves; they think and act for themselves (Source: Wikipedia).

Yago: In 1975 Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas founded the first Playback Theatre company. Could you share with us the meaning and purpose of this theatrical form? How is it connected to the Theater of the Oppressed?

Jonathan Fox
Roger: Playback theatre lives at what Jonathan Fox describes as the intersection of art, social interaction, and ritual. It is an improvisational form of interactive theatre where, with the guidance of a facilitator (called the conductor), volunteer members of the audience share moments or stories from their life experience. Using a variety of improvisational forms, a group of three to six actors and musicians “play back” or enact the stories for the audience. The conductor leads the group in a brief discussion of the story, and the responses of the volunteer and the audience to the story that has been “played back.”

Like most of the forms of Theatre of the Oppressed (TO), playback theatre is improvisational, and is often used in the service of promoting social change. Like Boal, Jonathan Fox was influenced by his study of Paulo Freire. Playback theatre however, is not a form of TO, nor is it connected structurally or historically to TO.

Yago: Could you go more in-depth explaining the relationship between playback theatre and ritual?

Roger: The processes and forms of playback theatre include a number of small rituals that help create a shape and container for the experience. For example, at the conclusion of an enactment, the actors always face the teller and acknowledge the teller’s contribution before returning to their seats. 

Yago: Ritual can be disconnected from life. How does playback theatre challenges repetitive and life-less ritual?

Roger: Most of the rituals embodied in the processes and forms of playback theatre are invisible to most of the participants. Some of the rituals are little more than pre-meditated but unspoken agreements among the actors about how the “performance” will proceed. For example, when the conductor indicates the actors will enact the teller’s story using the short form called “pairs,” the first actor to perform is the actor in the downstage right position. In other forms, the actor designated as the “teller’s actor” sets the stage and begins the enactment. Other rituals involve the order and locations from which actors enter and exit the playing space.

The net effect of these rituals is a smoothly flowing, connected performance that communicates to the audience a sense of the expertise of the performing group, a sense that enhances the notion of the dignity of the audience and its volunteer tellers. (“Imagine; a group this professional thinks enough of me and my story to give it their full attention and their best creative efforts!”) The perception of dignity is strengthened by the rituals (as noted above) that intentionally acknowledge the contribution of the volunteer teller.

Yago: How would you describe the underlying values, beliefs and attitudes in playback theatre?

Roger: These thoughts from co-founder Jonathan Fox, recounting his theatrical quest in the early 1970s, are instructive:

“I had discovered my métier in the theatre. It was theatre of a particular kind—without scripts, personal, informal… with all sorts of groups, including very young children, the handicapped, the elderly, and people on the street. The iconoclasm and anti-elitism fueling the experimental theatre movement fueled me, too.

From my university studies in oral epics, I understood that stories in pre-literate societies were always more than mere entertainment: they contained the knowledge of the tribe, both historical and ethical… If we could only get hold of that!

Thus Playback Theatre was grounded in an espousal of modern populist ethos, dramatic improvisation, and the ancient oral tradition.

We came on stage with nothing but our readiness to enact the thoughts, feelings, memories and experiences of whoever wanted to tell.

Our first five years of practice and performance enabled us to learn that indeed peoples’ everyday experiences could be dramatized with power.”

New members contributed ideas from the own particular arenas of expertise, including a Rogerian emphasis on acceptance and mutual respect.

“What we felt but could not in those early years articulate was the deep satisfaction of enabling these people’s stories to be heard, first by the tellers themselves, then by their peers, their helpers, and not least by us… we responded to the popular wisdom voiced in these stories and the healing power of empathy.”

Yago: Jonathan Fox wrote that one of his aims in creating playback theatre was always to make a theatre that was as good for the actors as it was for the audience. What did he mean by that?

Roger: For Fox, the underlying commitment to process (more than to a completed product) means creating an atmosphere suitable to the performers’ sharing their own stories, prior to asking audiences to share theirs. That means striving for what he describes as “a genuinely positive group life, as well as working to enchant audiences.”

As a consequence, playback theatre creates an environment of collaboration and collective work that is embodied, secondly, in the way the actors, musicians, and conductor work with the volunteer teller to create an enactment. But that environment of collaboration is developed first in the preparatory work of the troupe, where relationships of trust allow the deepening of creative skills, a situation that is as good for the actors as for the audience.

Many playback theatre actors would report that their time in a playback troupe counts among the most joyful and fulfilling work they have done in the theatre.    

Yago: Before we talked about story-telling, playback theatre is understood as a primal connection to the human storytelling tradition. How? Why do tellers tell?

Roger: Playback theatre, from its inception, has been grounded in improvisational theatre, storytelling, and psychodrama. Note that founder Jonathan Fox considers the grounding in the oral tradition as essential for gathering “the knowledge of the tribe, both historical and ethical…”

One could easily picture a playback storytelling event taking place at a contemporary version of the primordial end-of-day campfires of our ancestors, where a traveling bard invokes the spirit of a muse in the enactment of stories of the heroes and gods. At a playback event, however, the “heroes and gods” of the narrative are the volunteer tellers who—for the sake of momentary glory, for the edification of the group, or for the comforting validation the group will bestow upon them—share a moment or story from their very ordinary, everyday lives.
People at a playback storytelling event are sometimes surprised at the extraordinary content or meaning of the stories that people carry, even in their ordinariness. As playback theatre engages with the stories of everyday folk, the process accesses and promotes the dignity of the tellers, and in their listening participation, of the rest of the audience.

By creating the appropriately safe, welcoming and nurturing environment for such storytelling, and by facilitating the group in the storytelling processes, the playback troupe of actors, musicians, and conductor perform significantly valuable acts of service for the individuals who share their stories (either by telling or listening), as well as for the gathered community.

Yago: In playback theatre people are more interested in the process than in the result. You say that the skills are important but the goal is to do a good job with the process. It looks to me that playback theatre can be understood as a process-oriented activity. Could you explain more about this?

Roger: Folks in playback theatre are very interested in the results of the playback process, but they understand the results in ways that differ from the results one expects in traditional script-oriented performance-driven theatre. In that theatre form, the final performance is the sought-after result, with the collaborative efforts of all participants directed primarily toward reaching that goal.

Playback practitioners focus their efforts on the collaborative, improvisational process, with the understanding that the performance outcomes and the social outcomes will vary from event to event.

What they seek in addressing the process over the product is to establish an environment where participants feel safe, empowered, and validated as they work collaboratively to tell and enact the stories the group, in its collective wisdom, brings forward for examination and celebration.
In this context, typical theatrical skills such as acting, directing, set design, lighting and sound design, choreography, and the like are not considered essential components of the success of the process. It does help to have good acting skills, and playback musicians need to be able to improvise as well as the actors. But individuals can be successful and valuable playback practitioners even with limited experience in acting, musicianship, or group facilitation.

Yago: Play-back is also an embodied presentation of the tellers’ stories. What role the body plays in playback theatre?

Roger: Because playback theatre creates enactments, the stories “leave” the reflective brain of the person who carries the story, and “enter” the visible, auditory, and kinesthetic realm of the shared playing space. In an enactment, actors move through space, they hang their heads in despair, they hug a friend or family member, they shout or scream their frustration or anger, and they ask questions and give answers to others in the stories they are enacting. In this environment, the tellers and audience move past a merely cognitive engagement with the story elements, and share in the embodiment of those elements. As mirror neurons in the cortex engage in the hearing/seeing of the experience, (I believe) the non-acting participants (especially the volunteer tellers) experience some of the cathartic value of the storytelling process along with the actors. 

Yago: Trauma is stored in our bodies. You say that playback theatre is not always a good idea for people who have been severely traumatised. Can playback theatre misguide people and create unnecessary harm?

Roger: Practitioners who work with people whose personal history includes some severely traumatizing events, or whose personal narratives contain elements that keep them “stuck” in or “enslaved” to unhelpful processes or behaviors, often intuit—correctly, I believe—that a theatrical exploration of the clients’ stories might help them develop insight and resilience or break the bondage of an unhelpful narrative.

And this can be a good thing. But it can create some problems.

As an art form, theatre is one of the most accessible of all creative expressions, and can be practiced well with much less “professional” preparation than many other art forms. This is both a blessing and a curse: creative folks can begin to become adept practitioners of the theatre arts—at some level—quickly and with just a little training. But, although few people would consider themselves proficient as a violinist, or sculptor, or portrait artist after only a few lessons, people who want to use theatre as a therapeutic tool are not always so cautious.

Theatrical performances, in general, effectively engage many of the bodily senses as mediators of the story. Because sensory experiences serve as trigger mechanisms for our emotions, theatrical performances—even without the excess stimuli of spectacular lighting splayed along intricate set pieces, intricate choreography, lush orchestration, and a highly polished script—are consequently capable of engaging participants at a very deep emotional level. 

People whose personal story contains some recent or unresolved conflict or trauma experiences are vulnerable—in these moments of stimulation—to sometimes disturbing and sometimes disabling memories or reflections of their traumatogenic or conflict-generating experiences. In these cases, the “cure” can be as bad as, or worse than, the “disease. 

In these situations, well-intentioned people can be misguided, and their actions can cause significant and unnecessary harm.

People often speak of this experience as something that is “re-traumatizing” the one whose story is told. I believe it is one of the most significant drawbacks to the practice of using theatre techniques to engage difficult narratives, and I have been horrified to see the evidence of such misuse.

Yago: So, could playback theatre be used in a way that is not ethical? 

Roger: I suppose that hypothetically, this kind of thing could happen. People who are inclined to behave outside of the constraints and wisdom of good ethics will find a justification for behaviors that I would consider improper.

But I think that kind of behavior is extremely unlikely from practitioners who have completed an accredited program of training in playback theatre, where ethics and a sensitivity to conflict and trauma are part of the rigour of the training. If playback or any other form of theatre were to be used in an unethical situation, I believe that would be much more likely to occur when a “practitioner,” through either neglect or arrogance, took up some techniques without appropriate training in those techniques.

From Jonathan Fox: “With experience we have learned that playback theatre can command great power. This power can be utilized for good or ill. Undertaking a playback event takes an unusual collection of skills—thus the need for training.”

Yago: In the same line, you say that play-back people are not therapists, but the process can be very therapeutic itself. How?

Roger: Although some playback theatre practitioners have training or experience in psychodrama, a Playback event is not conducted by psychotherapists, and it is not structured as a therapy session. The process of participating in a Playback event, however, can be quite therapeutic. Participants often gain insight, catharsis, and connection to an empathetic audience of persons with similar experience. Further, the self-expression of telling one’s story, mirrored in the actors’ enactments, provides an affirmation of the innate dignity of the storyteller.

Yago: You are now in the process of marrying together playback theatre technique and Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR). Could you explain to us how beneficial can be this marrying process?

Roger: In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, faculty members at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding developed a training program for first responders; the curriculum encompassed and integrated concepts from trauma awareness, conflict transformation, restorative justice, human security, and spirituality. Titled STAR (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience), the program has developed and expanded over the years, both in terms of its offerings and its audiences.

Members of Inside Out Playback Theatre performing at EMU

Many of the members of the playback theatre troupe with which I am associated, the Inside Out Playback Theatre at Eastern Mennonite University, have taken various levels of STAR training. We believe that becoming more trauma-sensitive and more resilience-oriented in our personal lives is helping us to become better playback actors, conductors, and musicians. We believe we have a heightened awareness of trauma- or resilience-driven story elements that help us to better understand and enact a teller’s story, especially when that story contains some trauma or resilience elements.

Largely as a consequence of this training and our connection to the STAR program, we have expanded our audience as groups have invited us to work with specialized audiences such as people who are incarcerated or people who are survivors of childhood and sexual abuse.  

Yago: In the context of Eastern Mennonite University playback theatre is being used as a way to debrief the cross-cultural experience of the students. You say that “this is not about conflict but about trauma. The student needs to process a lot of stuff, they have had an experience that challenges some of their foundational assumptions about life…” Could you explain to us how beneficial playback theatre can be in this debriefing process?

Roger: The Cross-Cultural study program at EMU is unique in that it is a requirement for graduation for all undergraduates. For more than 30 years, most EMU students have completed their cross-cultural study in semester-long deep engagement (not just studies at a foreign university) in cultures outside North America, often in situations of conflict or unrest.

Alumna Liz Gannaway, graduate student Bridget Mullins, 
Theatre Department Chair Heidi Winters Vogel, 
and Senior Isaac Tice performing one student’s story.
Almost without exception, folks from North America who engage deeply in other cultures find that the experience challenges many of the foundational assumptions they carry about life. Add to this baseline that some of the students from EMU may have experienced some trauma, or secondary trauma, beyond normal culture shock, as a part of their travels.

In this circumstance, sharing stories at a playback theatre storytelling event can help students, as well as their faculty advisors, process their feelings and insights related to their cross-cultural experience. Shared stories of everyday experiences in the new culture, of re-entry to the home culture, of trauma events, and of resilience, allow the volunteer tellers (and the rest of the audience) to collaborate in the embodiment of their communal and individual experience.

Further, sharing with an audience composed of other members of their travel group allows participants to feel connected with others on the same or similar journey, often at a time when their normal support system of family and friends has grown weary of “hearing your stories again,” and is pressuring the traveler to discontinue their reflections and “get on with life here.”

In cases where student participants are dealing, successfully or unsuccessfully, with some lingering impacts of trauma, the shared storytelling in a playback event can help the students deal with their own trauma effects, as well as become informed allies with others who are processing their experiences.  

Yago: You say that one of the concerns in the cross-cultural playback theatre is how safe people feel in telling their stories. Are we talking here about the danger of re-traumatization? Could you share more about this?

Roger: At Inside Out, when we talk about safety we mean a couple of things. Playback theatre, in general, seeks to create an environment where people who are often strangers to one another feel comfortable sharing some details or moments of their lives that often turn out to be fairly intimate or confidential, stories they may have never shared in another setting or with other people. Part of the role of the conductor is to help the troupe establish this sense of safety with the whole audience, and especially with the volunteer tellers. The conductor’s demeanor is accepting and welcoming; the troupe typically begins by sharing (briefly) some moment from their own lives, both to establish some connection with the audience and to demonstrate some of the theatrical forms the audience might expect to see throughout the performance.

Because we often deal with situations where tellers may be vulnerable to “re-traumatization,” we employ a few helpful safeguards. First, we follow two tried-and-true rules of Playback procedure: tellers are informed volunteers—no one is forced or compelled to tell a story—and tellers are limited to telling their own story, and are not telling a story on behalf or in place of someone else. Nearly all cases of re-traumatizing happen when a story sharer is not in control of the telling of their story, and Playback procedures in general don’t go there.

Second, because we have some connection to the members and leaders of the cross-cultural study groups, we are usually aware in advance of existing issues that could be areas of potential difficulty. The same applies when we are dealing with specialized audiences: our pre-event preparation includes discussions with the sponsoring group’s leaders about the same kinds of issues.

Third, when we know we are dealing with an audience whose members may be carrying some stories or narratives of trauma, we ensure there is at least one mental health professional in the audience.

Yago: Let us talk about identity. You say that “what we have learnt as peace-builders is that often the conflict people have is related to identity issues. Very often peace-builders are engaged in an activity that is inviting people to re-story their lives, to expand their story. What is the contribution of playback theatre in helping to re-examine and expand people’s stories?

Roger: One of the most notable benefits of the enactment process is that volunteer tellers experience their stories as portrayed by the actors. The expression of the story is no longer limited to the continuous self-referencing loop that runs through the teller’s mind with its emotionally freighted meaning systems and self-perpetuating feedback loops. This process makes it possible, though not guaranteed, to allow the teller to perceive elements in the narrative that might seem different to another person, to see the limits of meaning the teller’s original narrative may be perpetuating. When a teller becomes an audience member listening to and watching the actors’ enactment of a similar story from a different volunteer teller, it is possible for tellers to see how incorporating elements from the story of the other could expand or revise their own narrative. These are small steps, but they can lead to large changes. 

Yago: It seems to me that one of the ways we begin to heal is when we start to lose identification with our trauma becoming objective observant of it. In play-back the spectator (teller) becomes the observer of his/her own story. Is like stepping outside yourself and looking at your own story from a different perspective. You say that people have used play-back as a way to generate dialogue between people of opposing groups. Could you give us examples? How successful has it been?

Armand Volkas
Roger: Playback practitioners have conducted storytelling sessions that included volunteer tellers from Israel and Arab countries near Israel. Notable efforts in this regard have been led by psychotherapist Armand Volkas, a child of Jewish Holocaust survivors and resistance fighters, who uses techniques of ritual and drama in his workshops, Healing the Wounds of History, which bring together groups with a history of collective trauma between them.

Yago: You say that when our narrative is under attack then our tendency is to strengthen it, then we take the risk of becoming enslaved of what we want to protect, it becomes a limited and dysfunctional narrative. Could you explain more about this?

Roger: Most of us react defensively to what we experience as attacks on our narrative systems, particularly our identity narratives. We perceive such attacks as violations of our essential dignity. And most of us respond to such attacks by a shoring up of our defenses; we meet attacks which are aimed at “weaknesses” in our narrative systems by reinforcing our belief or our working commitment to those elements of the narrative. From this defensive posture, it is almost impossible to see that there actually might be some weaknesses or deficiencies in the logic, or validity, or the application of our narrative. And this inability to dispassionately assess our narratives leads us to stubbornly hold to them, even if they are not helpful. They can become limiting and dysfunctional, causing us to harm ourselves or fail to see ways to help ourselves. 

Yago: You say that one of the most important teachings you have received in the peacebuilding studies is that the greatest and more transformative intervention is simply listening to someone. Why is so transformative?

Roger: I’m not sure of all the dynamics involved, but this is what I believe: violations of dignity, whether intentional or unintentional, and whether small and every-day or large and acutely disruptive, form and feed most of conflicts in the world today. And that goes for conflicts at every level, from the interpersonal to organizational to community to societal. The fundamental act of listening—really listening—to someone, whether friend or foe, enemy or ally, begins the process of reversing and lifting the whole accumulated weight of the many dignity violations that reinforce the destructive narratives so many of us are carrying. Many more steps will be needed to complete the process, yes. But I believe it often begins with this fundamental intervention: listening.

That is the core of the many forms of qualitative research; it is central to narrative reconstruction; and it is the heart of playback theatre. And it’s one reason I have such great hopes for playback theatre as a force in the world.  
Yago: You say that in the “peacebuilding industrial complex” there are people who are not sensitive enough in understanding how difficult is to change people’s narratives, especially those narratives which are formed by suffering. You say that this is very arrogant on our side. What are the risks we face on this regard?

Roger: Some members of the helping professions, including many in the “peacebuilding industrial complex,” have surprisingly little experience or skill in the process of revising one’s personal narrative, particularly narratives that are rooted in intergenerational suffering or trauma. Some of these people are amazingly arrogant in their expectation that individuals and communities with whom they work can revise their self-referencing, self-reinforcing and unhelpful narratives quickly, efficiently, and without anguish. The failure of these “helpers” to recognize the systemic nature of these personal and community identity narratives prevents them from being empathetic, from being patient enough to stay with an enduring conflict long enough, and from avoiding doing more harm in the short term.

Fundamental to the process of “walking alongside” suffering masses of folk through history is the sensitivity of one who has worked through the process—what Henri Nouwen calls a “wounded healer”—and consequently has an empathic and a long view of the road to wholeness. That’s one reason why Moses, for example, was an important leader in the journey of his people out of slavery.

Yago: Also, the capacity of observing one’s story as performed by the actors looks to me like a mirroring phenomenon. In this regard, you say that play-back is a methodology that is congruent with discoveries in the field of neurobiology, especially about the function of “mirror neurons.” Could you expand on this?

Roger: This is a part of our emphasis on process over product, or results.

Contemporary research in the field of neurobiology suggests there are specific physiological mechanisms that contribute to learning from the stories of others. The so-called “mirror neurons” are believed to fire both when an individual acts and when the individual observes the same action performed by another [see this article by Rizzolatti, Giacomo, and Craighero, Laila. (2004). "The mirror-neuron system". Annual Review of Neuroscience 27: 169–192.]  Thus, the neuron "mirrors" the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.

Many researchers in cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology consider that this system provides the physiological mechanism for the coupling of perception and action; they argue that mirror neurons may be important for understanding the actions of other people, and for learning new skills by imitation.

What this suggests is that one reason people find playback theatre fulfilling is that they are able to learn effective expressions of emotions like anger, or sadness, or other forms of resilience, from the “mirrored” experience of the shared stories they witness. It helps explain why audience members often say, after a performance, “I felt like those were my stories, even though I wasn’t one of the volunteer tellers. It helped me so much just to see the story acted out.”

Yago: It looks to me that another important dimension in healing is the capacity to live in the now. Could we say that in playback theatre we are honoring the here and now of people?

Roger: Even when playback tellers share a story or moment from their long-ago past, they and the rest of the audience experience the enactment in the present moment. Thus, they see, hear, and feel the story from their present reality, which often includes a more mature or nuanced skill set to help them deal with the story and learn from it. 

Yago: To end the interview, could you share with us how meaningful and useful playback theatre has been in the healing of your own journey?

Roger: I was raised in a fairly complex and dysfunctional family system where dignity violations and trauma generated by physical and emotional harm were the norm for many members, reaching across multiple generations. A significant part of my healing journey has involved the ability to re-shape and expand my personal and family narrative. One of the many gifts the Universe has provided me for this task is the opportunity to be a part of the Inside Out Playback Theatre at EMU, where I have performed as a collaborative co-creator in the processes of story, and where I have watched some of my own stories enacted for my nurture and learning. 

Yago: Roger, I am very grateful for your sharing. This interview is a great contribution to this blog. Playback theatre is a living example of the new emerging areas of investigation in the peacebuilding field; a field that is becoming more and more integral.  

Roger: You're very welcome!