Playback Theatre

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Playback Theatre is an original form of improvisational theatre in which audience or group members tell stories from their lives and watch them enacted on the spot. Playback Theatre is sometimes considered a modality of drama therapy.


Founded in 1975 by Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas. Fox was a student of improvisational theatre, oral traditional storytelling, psychodrama and the work of Paulo Freire.

The original Playback Theatre Company made its home in the Dutchess and Ulster Counties of New York State, just north of New York City, USA. This group, while developing the basis of the Playback form, took it to schools, prisons, centers for the elderly, conferences, and festivals in an effort to encourage individuals from all walks of society to let their stories be heard. They also performed monthly for the public-at-large.

The Playback theatre idea has inspired many people. As an immediate result of a teaching and performing tour by some of the members of the original Playback Theatre Company to Australasia, i.e. Australia and New Zealand, in 1980, companies were founded in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth in Australia, and Wellington, New Zealand. All four companies still exist, and are now the oldest extant companies in the world.

Since that time the form has spread throughout the world and Playback companies now exist on all five populated continents. The International Playback Theatre Network was founded in 1990 to support Playback activity throughout the world. As of 2004, the IPTN has 100 company and 300 individual members from 40 countries.

To meet the demand for training which this level of growth has created, Jonathan Fox, Jo Salas and guest faculty run the School of Playback Theatre, which has provided beginning, intermediate and advanced levels of training in Playback Theatre since 1993.

Theatrical form

The Playback 'form' as developed by Fox and Salas utilises component theatrical forms or pieces, developed from its sources in improvisational theatre, storytelling, and psychodrama. These components include:

  • the 'Conductor': a key role combining elements of a Master of Ceremonies, Theatre Director, Interviewer and Group therapy leader
  • vignettes
  • oppositional pairs
  • the 'oracle'

In a playback event, someone in the audience tells a moment or story from their life, chooses the actors to play the different roles, and then all those present watch the enactment, as the story "comes to life" with artistic shape and nuance. The re-creation of stories is often non-naturalistic; actors often use metaphor, narration, chorus, genre, movement and song.

Playback performers tend to specialise in one of several roles - conductor, actor, or musician. Some companies also have members who specialise in other roles, such as lighting. For audiences, the active performers can seem preternaturally gifted, as they create their performances without a script or score. However this is not true in almost all cases. Indeed, in some playback performances the actors are chosen for their various roles, wait some moments while the musician improvises an introduction, and then begin performing without any consultation among themselves prior to beginning the story.

The role of conductor, by contrast, can seem relatively easy, involving as it does conversing with the audience as a group or individually, and generally involving no acting. However it is recognised within the community of playback performers as perhaps the most difficult role to fill successfully.

The purpose of Playback Theatre is to honour the story of the teller, and to "do it to make it possible for others to tell their story and to make the world a more peaceful place." (Fox, Jonathan)