Playback Theater & Cultural Competency

June 3rd, 2008

I have been taking an intensive 3 month workshop on Playback Theater, and it is blowing my mind. Playback theater is an improvisational performance format where an ensemble of trained actors act out live stories told by the audience. The purpose of playback is to provide the teller with colorful imagery and literally play back their own words in a series of stage pictures. A skilled playback ensemble will draw out the high and low points of emotionality in the story, search for the complexity of inner voices and the range of feelings the teller holds.

The amazing thing about playback is how therapeutic it can be for someone who has experienced something difficult that they need help processing. I saw a playback show as part of an “isms” conference at UC Berkeley, and it was astounding. It was by far the most profound experience of cultural competency or diversity training I have ever witnessed, because it captured the complexity of one person’s story of marginalization. Our stories of hurt are never as black and white as he-said-she-said. They are complicated, with many shades of gray. There are people to be educated, personal triggers to be dealt with, peace to be made, transcendence to be sought out. And playback theater allows for some of this work to take place with the teller, the audience, and the ensemble all together.

If you have the opportunity to witness a playback theater show, I highly recommend it. I am working on bringing playback theater into some of the organizational psychology projects I do. I think it will be a fascinating and informative experience.

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