Act 3: 2020, Unrequited Love.

The CPT Code of Ethics and the Search for a Resolution

“We always come back to this; can’t we just cut to the part where you say sorry?” Kermit the Frog breaking up with Miss Piggy.

Back home having regained my mental composure, I was still troubled by the aftermath of the conference posting on Facebook. It had continued to resonate painfully with the four of us on the organising team and the others involved, post-conference. Something needed to be done to find a resolution and the Centre for Playback Theatre (CPT) was invited to comment.  I’ve long had an interest in a Code of Ethics for Playback Theatre and to blow my own trumpet, I had an article about ethics, Playback Theatre: An Ethical Challenge published in Interplay in 2006: https://iptn.info/wp-content/uploads/bsk-pdf-manager/2020/11/20150309_161854_tPxsM21l8l_f.pdf

I later wrote another article published in 2015 in the IPTN Journal: Where is Playback Theatre Going? – A Mindful Pause that discussed the Code and suggested that it feature as part of the core training can be found here: https://iptn.info/where-is-playback-theatre-going-a-mindful-pause-brian-tasker/

I believe that if we are responsible enough to listen to and enact a stranger’s story that we invite, we need to be accountable for our practice and our other related interventions. Playback Theatre exists in a constant state of jeopardy as the outcome of an enactment for example cannot be known. In that sense, we always tread a fine line and while we work with an attitude of confidence, that can easily become complacent or deflated to a point that it’s not easy to recover from, more so if an audience member has an agenda. Regarding what had occurred at the conference, it felt important to find a way of at least, of trying to ensure that a similar event doesn’t happen again.  The boundaries of our practice need to be skilfully held, so I initiated a campaign to get the CPT to add the use of social media to the Code of Ethics. 

I wrote: “My enquiry is to ask about the ethical use of social media within the Playback Theatre community and whether the existing CPT Code of Ethics should be extended to explicitly refer to social media. Under the existing Code, there would have been a breach under Respect and under Collegial Relationships.”

Respect: We interact with our audiences, students, tellers, company members, and colleagues with respect at all times. We acknowledge and affirm the integrity of the other party and behave in a way that does not seek to undermine or shame the other. 

Collegial relationships:  We strive to maintain respectful, cooperative, and supportive relationships within the Playback Theatre community.

Not that would make any difference if there had been a breach as the CPT Code of Ethics is a Code with no way of enforcement; a paper tiger with no teeth. 

The effect of the post had felt shaming and punishing and served to sow discord among the Playback Theatre community and served to undermine the integrity of the conference and the organisers in particular.  I wasn’t as affected as the others as I wasn’t there, but my colleagues were there and they had to bear the brunt.  Imagine what that might have been like for them? Two years of high stakes work in good faith and a major emotional investment by the many members of the Actor’s Collective in the outcome to honour the task they had undertaken. The work to build a close relationship with the university that was hosting the event for free and the pride in bringing the conference to India in the first place. Taking all of that into account, the disruption caused by the complainant’s post looks to be as deeply unkind as it was unnecessary. Look, the conference was a success overall as I’ve been told by many people but that doesn’t change the back story. The Facebook posting was not a sideshow that can be dismissed so easily – it was damaging and CPT you need to own it, not the act, but the remedy for future reference.

Although the complainant claimed to have later posted some positive comments at the conference, they have never apologised and were still insisting they were right even during the subsequent email exchange with CPT.

Social media was just the vehicle to get the most exposure from the conference and from those not there and of course the ubiquitous and much sought-after Facebook ‘Likes’. *** If it wasn’t so destructive, it would be childish, if it wasn’t so cynical, it would just be vindictive, but in the self-serving and twisted interest of social justice, someone’s got to take the projection.

It could be argued that I’m breaking the Code myself by undermining the integrity of the complainant. I deliberately haven’t identified anyone that I’m criticising. The stalker will remain anonymous to all but a select few – you are a bully and if you recognise yourself here, I would suggest that you reflect on your behaviour.

Regarding the wider issue, this is the flaw; the Code doesn’t have a complaints procedure to allow a breach to be addressed. If the action is dismissed, then so are those who were affected and we all become disempowered, including the CPT for that matter.

What it came down to was the suggestion of adding four words: We strive to maintain respectful, cooperative, and supportive relationships within the Playback Theatre community, including through social media. But this was too much to ask of CPT and they declined. The irony was that even the complainant agreed that the Code should now include a reference to social media. At the end of the email round, there was a something of a polite reconciliation with the complainant from both sides but it didn’t really bring the situation to a closure, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this in such a critical tone.

I’m unable to reconcile the Facebook pile-on that occurred after the conference posting – it remains counter-intuitive to the Playback Theatre that I have known for all these years and still love. Hopefully we are talking about a minority within Playback Theatre in my experience at least, that’s why the conference Facebook pile-on came as such a shock. If you recognise yourself here as a participant in the pile-on, I have described what you were actually commenting on and I have described the negative effect that you contributed to and if that feels an admonishment so be it. I was spared the effect as I was elsewhere, but the others weren’t and their work and commitment was soured in the process – their place in the Playback community devalued.

It looks like time for a review of how social justice is managed within the Playback Theatre community, as it seems to be degenerating into a game of ‘Gotcha’ with the risk of ensnaring each other in a circular reversal of oppression that will inhibit the honest and open sharing of stories. The problem remains – who will dare to stick their head above the parapet and tell a story that doesn’t suit the narrative that’s being shaped? I’m caught up in this dynamic myself here and I don’t like it either and I’ve been trying to find a way out via the Code of Ethics to no avail so far. To repeat the point, a clear, transparent and functioning complaints procedure would have made all the difference instead of having to bang on CPT’s door trying to force the issue. What remains disturbing is that CPT seems to miss the complacency of their unthinking alignment with the originating issue. They just don’t seem to recognise the problem and by not recognising it, collude with it, unconsciously or otherwise. Whatever the rationale of their response, it indicates a lack of empathy. It feels like they are responding to a deep story with a quick fluid scuplt to get the teller off-stage as soon as possible – not this teller or these tellers, particularly those who were so affected at the conference.

The CPT Code of Ethics was revised, it just didn’t change that much and it was offered to the Playback community in general: “Accredited Playback Theatre Trainers are asked to explicitly adopt this code, and the Centre now suggests that all of us, accredited or not, use the Code to guide our practice.”  The revised Code can be found below:

http://www.playback.it/CodeOfEthicsPT2020.pdf

The revised Code also suggested developing a ‘calling in’ rather than ‘calling out’, culture as described by Loretta Ross in her article (link below) The difference between calling out which amounts to a public shaming and calling in is more of a quiet word, ‘done privately and with respect’. In the case we are discussing, the ‘calling in’ approach didn’t work in the first instance before the Facebook posting when the public shaming approach was taken, and later when we were trying to discreetly involve CPT to resolve the issue by revising the Code. Anyway, the complainant wasn’t listening. So what then, if the ‘quiet word’ doesn’t work? It feels like a CPT corporate response or a strap-line slogan: “Why call out when you can call in?” that sounds good on paper just unreliable in practice. The other problem is that complaints tend to sound somewhat pre-ordained and true by virtue of being called out or called in; the conviction being in the eye of the beholder so pernicious is social media and its hunger to be fed.

Playback Theatre doesn’t operate in a harmonious moral universe of its own, but maybe it thinks it does? This case exemplifies the risk of CPT getting into the realm of family secrets. Playback Theatre has a shadow, so let’s face it and deal with it. There is a middle ground between calling out and calling in should the CPT be interested in looking at that? I’m talking about mediation and no attempt here was made to mediate between parties, that is between CPT and the conference organisers and the wider team. As for social justice, that doesn’t seem extend to the Indians on the receiving end who were negatively affected at the conference and who in the spirit of Playback Theatre if it were to apply here, would be entitled to have their voices heard. It’s too late obviously, for the Facebook post to be rescinded and the effect does remain – it’s a stain, given the experiences of racism that followed in its wake. A simple change to the Code of Ethics would have been a healing gesture, a sign that the issue had been taken seriously and a sincere attempt to address future behaviour.

You can learn more about calling in at the link below, The link on the revised Code may be subject to a pay wall.

https://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2020/12/03/feminist-scholar-loretta-ross-is-calling-out-cancel-culture

Moving on, the following statement from the revised Code is quite baffling: We are a peer-led community: there is no official body that has power or control over our work. A peer-led community, well perhaps partially? But what’s the role, purpose, relevance, point of the CPT then? Who sets the standard for training? If someone on a core training showed a complete lack of empathy, was racist or destructive of the group dynamic or similar would they still be able to complete it if there’s no power or control?  Obviously power and control would be exercised with the authority of the CPT standing behind the decision to disallow the person to continue. While obviously peers have a view, the idea of being peer-led sounds like an anarchist approach yet is contradicted by what actually happens where power and control and hierarchy for that matter is exercised by the CPT on every level. From the acceptance to being an accredited trainer to the approval of affiliated schools to regulating training standards by the accredited trainers delivering the training etc – there’s a system in place. And of course, control over the Code of Ethics, not a lot of interest in peer input there! In fact, CPT seems to be run by a clique from my experience that pretends not to have control but actually does. There is an element of truth in the assertion that: We are a peer-led community: there is no official body that has power or control over our work. This is true in that the bottom line being that Playback Theatre is unregulated and has declined any further option of tightening up its Code of Ethics to ensure safe practice. That might be described as a cop-out.

The Code specifies supervision but not how much or from whom for the wider Playback community? Are accredited trainers the only ones to provide supervision? There are very many experienced Playback practitioners who aren’t accredited and have chosen not to be – can they offer supervision? What about insurance?  My UK Playback work is insured by my obligatory counselling practice insurance, I added it and paid for it, but otherwise insurance isn’t specified in the Code. Why not?

Coincidentally, this suggested reduction to being peer-led matches the recent change in IPTN membership that has dropped practitioner membership in favour of, well, just one flat basic level of membership.  This decision was apparently based on the dubious rationale that the IPTN didn’t confer certification, something that it has never done anyway.** In the past, IPTN recognised the value of a certain level of external training for the benefit of all and created a membership category of practitioner to reflect that – so anyone enquiring had an idea of who to approach locally. There is no longer a visible IPTN membership directory so no capacity of networking between members if it can’t be known who they are, and without qualifying memberships, that’s probably just as well.

This means that IPTN membership no longer has a substance, making itself largely irrelevant if members can’t know who they are as it’s no longer a network. The lack of open membership information (like on the previous website) is probably a ploy to get around data protection, when instead they could have sought consent to share and created a log-in private members section, but chose not to. *(See link below in references)

Overall, this double reduction seems to lack coherence and authority – a flight into generality and vagueness as to its actual implementation. Is this the outcome that anybody actually wants? Sounds like a licence to go broke for woke and we’ve seen where that path leads with knee jerk reactions and dog-whistle politics or just plain old going to hell in a handcart as the proverb would have it.

Of course, Playback practitioners have autonomy, but that’s best exercised as a mindful autonomy, as we represent something that’s bigger than just the individual practitioner doing their own thing – the peer-led concept undermines the unity and makes it random, at least to my mind.  I could go on. 

I attempted to get some clarity about this new interpretation of being peer-led and there being ‘no power or control’ but didn’t get a response.

Getting back to our ill-fated attempt to get the CPT to add a simple clause to the Code that seemed eminently logical to us but beyond the wit of them.  There would have been no cost in adding the four words to the Code, it would have acknowledged the hurt caused in India and would have created the possibility of a mindful pause when considering the use of social media in future – one final repetition of the point before I close.

I’ve chosen to write this account as I believe the seriousness of events at the conference warrants it. It hasn’t been possible to find a resolution otherwise and this story of so many cannot remain untold, and those young people were not protected and remain so.  For me, it feels like emerging from an abusive relationship and by doing so, re-entering into the world by sharing my story. This is a classic pattern in recovering from abuse, sharing a story is healing and countervails the shame, while it is my story, it also echoes the story of my colleagues on the organising team and the wider group. After all, that’s the point of Playback Theatre.

This last part, Act III, has been the most difficult and painful to write because it ended in failure – in unrequited love. What had begun in celebration had ended in disappointment. Despite the claim that Playback Theatre is a peer-led community, which as I have argued above is at best, a half-truth.  As an institution, as an ethical and empathic form of theatre (therefore essentially loving) it is diminished by this outcome not to expand the Code of Ethics, a decision made by an anonymous sub-committee without the courage to be identified.  As Rajesh had pointed out, this failure has legitimised the toxicity of the original post, and to what good end is that? And beware, this toxicity is not a spent force and now emboldened, it will return in forms and from directions as yet unknown.

So what now after all this pandemonium? Of course, I shall continue with Playback Theatre but on a smaller scale and I shall continue to travel. In the meantime, I’m left with my feet on the ground and my head in the clouds dreaming of a better future and as the Sufi saying goes: “When the road comes to an end, a hidden path opens up.”

Thank you for reading.

Brian Tasker, CPT Graduate 2008

Sunlight breaking through during a walk in the Cotswolds near where I live

References:

Lynne McCormack & Evelyn Henry: The “lived” experience of Playback Theatre practitioners in post-war Sri Lanka: naivety, altruism, reciprocal caring, and psychological growth.

*For more on Trance, see https://arielsheen.com/index.php/2014/06/04/review-of-trances-people-live-healing-approaches-in-quantum-psychology/

https://iptn.info/presidents-letter-3/  **”While updating the website, we also updated our whole membership system – IPTN practitioner status is history now! The reason is simple: we are not a school that gives certificates or “statuses” but a network providing a means of connecting and networking. Therefore, in the future, we will just have members, group members, and school members.”

***Article on the risks of seeking social media likes: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/may/01/addicted-to-high-being-accidental-influencer-nearly-broke-me-bella-younger

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