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Combating Stigma Through Playback Theatre

Hope Jennings-Grounds explains how playback theatre is offering audiences a new platform for self-expression

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Image Credit: Aude Vanlathem

There are many examples of times where the arts have stepped in to make a stand against all the different social inequalities we face in society. Sadly, there are people all over the world who harbour stigma towards certain groups of people - often simply due to a lack of diverse and engaging education or simply due to having grown up in negative environments in which hate was potentially recognised as normal.
Theatre in recent decades has become a lot more free and accepting towards different sorts of shows due to this recent surge in voices speaking out for those who have faced injustice. There are a lot of people in the world with horrific stories to tell and it is easy to forget just how many people have had negative experiences due to hate and stigma or just generally horrific people who have caused them injustice. Telling these stories can be difficult due to the often embarrassing or negative connotations that surround them. However, to end the vicious cycle of repeated hate crimes and offences, it is important to speak out. There are many ways that theatre can do this, either through plays themselves or through things such as drama therapy. One of the answers that theatre can offer is something called Playback Theatre. This offers the audience a place to express their experiences of certain aspects of life, often difficult scenarios.It functions around a group of improvisational actors who will often work with a leader so as to be quick and effective. The group of practitioners will then take a story from an audience member and present it on stage in whatever form they see fit. The idea is that they can work from any amount of information, whether that be one descriptive word or a sentence by sentence retelling of a conversation. Their performances can vary between freeze frames and full-blown sketches.
By offering performance based on real stories, it gives audience members a platform in which they can express themselves as detailed or as vaguely as they wish. It could potentially allow audience members to express stories they struggle to tell themselves. There are dangers, however, that the performance may not give the audience’s stories the justice they deserve. It could potentially be very easy to misinterpret information or, on such short notice, not be able to give the stories the amount of detail and emotion required so as to live up to the retelling expectations of the audience members. This raises questions about whether it is simply a great way to tell normal stories or whether it really is the sort of space in which an audience member could free themselves of a negative story. There is a Greek Playback Theatre company titled “Playback Ψ”, founded not only by theatre practitioners but also by psychotherapists. Their aim was to combat stigma based around mental illnesses by retelling the experiences faced by audience members. This company was not only highly trained as a group in improvisational theatre and with techniques used in psychodrama and drama therapy but they were also trained to know specific issues linked with mental disorders and the stigma that can be faced due to those issues. Considering the psychological research behind the stories that are being told could be the key to being able to properly respect someone’s experience. It could also be argued, however, that by signing up to partake in something like Playback Theatre you are accepting that what you are watching will simply be a version of your story which you have given permission to be recreated.
Playback Theatre could be explored incredibly expressively and emotionally and be less about the story and instead about recreating the emotions and energy felt at the moment of the story. However, this could make retelling stories about stigma more difficult and instead function better as an emotional release. Playback Theatre has huge potential, especially when considering the huge positive impact expression and art is proven to have on society, including for those with difficult backgrounds and experiences. When done correctly, it could be incredibly engaging and powerful. Although, it also has the power to be damaging and painful to watch. It is simply a case of making sure that people are suitably trained depending on the sorts of challenges they would like to take on. Playback Theatre takes a huge amount of work and training as well as knowledge leading into the fields you wish to perform about, but when this is all done correctly it can be incredibly successful for raising awareness about all sorts of personal and commonly encountered issues in regards to stigma and other matters.

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1 Comment

Anonymous Posted on Sunday 16 Feb 2020

Playback Theatre sounds like a laugh a minute. Thanks, but no thanks!