As the Year of the Ox drops you off at the corner, the Year of the Tiger meets you with a fearsome roar. Tiger energy offers a brave, competitive and confident attitude. The shadow-side can be a tendency to be impetuous and to abuse power. The tiger is dominant by nature and self-serving in pursuit of its own survival as it acts alone without the support of a pack. The challenge in the human realm is the need for Tiger energy to find a way to belong while maintaining a territorial integrity. The result can be an inner conflict between the need to dominate and the need to accept the humility of being just one part of the whole. To learn this is to learn the true nature of the tiger. A tiger’s roar does not precede an attack.
Happy New Year!
PS, The original painting above is by a Thai artist called Pattnapan who I’ve been unable to contact to seek permission to use. Should the artist read this please do contact me. There is no commercial gain for me from its use. Thank you.
Looking back on my time on the Board of the International Playback Theatre Network (IPTN), I served one term of four years after joining in Montreal at the IPTN conference in 2015 and stepped down in India at the next IPTN conference in 2019. Prior to joining the Board, I was IPTN UK Regional Representative for ten years and an IPTN member since I first trained in Playback in 2003. During my time on the Board, I looked after membership, edited the IPTN Journal (which is a separate role) and was co-organiser of the IPTN International Conference in Bengaluru (also known as Bangalore) with Board colleague Christian Faber (from Germany), Rajesh P.I. and Sunil Vijendra of the Actors Collective, a local Playback group that were hosting the conference. This led to two prior visits to India in 2017 and 2018 to meet and work with our Indian colleagues, Rajesh and Sunil supported by other members of the Actors Collective and Fr. Biju from the University. The Actors Collective won the bid in 2017 to host the conference which happens once in every four years. The event was hosted by Christ (Deemed to be)* University in Bengaluru without charge for the use of the venue. Christian and I stayed at the university during our planning visits. *(‘Deemed to be ‘means equivalent to.)
At the start of our first visit in December 2017, in my experience there’s no better way to get know each other than to offer a dance and movement workshop for everyone in the Actors Collective who could join us. We began by passing around a garland of scented jasmine from the flower seller at the nearby temple and then entered the dance and movement. You can get a feel for the experience of our first visit from the video below.
Attendance at the conference was to be capped at 350 delegates from all over the world. The two years of planning were quite something as apart from the participation; the task of organizing 16 Home groups (a Home group is a participant’s base with a different theme that meets each morning of the conference led by an experienced Playbacker) and around 64 different and varied workshops on each of the three days of the Conference was huge. In addition to the two visits, planning continued over regular Skype meetings and by ongoing emails – it was an intense and all-consuming process. It’s noteworthy that the interactions among our team were largely conflict-free. Obviously, there were differences of opinion at times but these were managed in the good-natured way that characterised our work together.
One of the difficulties that emerged once we had opened registration was due to over-subscription for places and we had to introduce a quota-system so that the conference wasn’t overwhelmed by higher numbers of some nationalities who were keen to attend. This led to objections from certain quarters and in fact, we came under fire from would-be participants over their demands on a number of issues. At times it seemed that everybody wanted a piece of us, which we took as a sign that we were creating something worth attending. The role of gatekeeper is always a difficult one and likely to generate conflict with the expectation of us being all things to all people, sympathetic, empathetic and supportive to one and all. In practice, it’s not so simple, when everyone has an opinion along with conflicting and competing desires and demands; a field we had to negotiate while holding true to the vision.
We did have one particular person (the shadow-side of an otherwise outwardly benevolent Playbacker) who felt that we should benefit from their guidance and continued to offer annoying, unsolicited and unwanted advice and demands throughout. They had appointed themselves as external supervisor to the organising team and conducted what might be described as regular ‘time and motion’ studies to check on our progress and confirm that this and that aspect were up to speed. What had started as an offer of support slowly became, overtly controlling and subtly undermining. I’ll come back to that later on.
Another issue was the economic differences noted between Playbackers on the Indian subcontinent perceiving the fee to be high in comparison to local income levels. While some could afford the fee, we were able to develop a graduated scholarship system managed by an international scholarship committee that enabled many local Playbackers and others to be supported to attend. Also Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas agreed to offer a one-day free event for Playbackers from the Indian subcontinent for those who weren’t able to attend the main event, and for some who did. We had a task to organise an international conference and despite feeling like we were being pulled in all directions at times, that’s what we did.
Just about at the time when I’d decided to write up the account of my experiences of organising the conference after more than a year had passed, Rajesh mentioned that he’d been invited to write a report for the IPTN Journal which has now become a multi-authored report from a number of us involved. Further, a copy of the research that I’d participated in at Montreal re-arrived in my inbox as part of an intended online discussion. The published paper, The “lived” experience of Playback Theatre practitioners in post-war Sri Lanka: naivety, altruism, reciprocal caring, and psychological growth by Lynne McCormack & Evelyn Henry relates to The Theatre of Friendship post-war project IN Sri Lanka initiated by Australian Playbacker Cymbeline Buhler and the Sri Lankan Jesuit Priest Fr. Benny. My participation in this project was peripheral to the main focus on reconciliation and post-war trauma as during my four visits I worked with a group of young people that I had trained who lived on tea plantations and who told me they were largely unaffected by the civil war.
I mention this because the timely arrival of the research paper led me to return to reflecting on my work teaching Playback Theatre in other cultures, and the impact of negative perceptions on the conference and to reflect on my wider work in India. In the case of the conference, neo-colonialism manifesting as oppressive economic differences as well as a lack of access to training resources due to Western hegemony etc. In practice, it means rich westerners perceived as coming in to run the show and disenfranchising the locals in the process. Although in practice, this issue didn’t emerge in our collaborative work between Christian, myself and the Indian team but was at times, applied to us by others.
At this point, I need to pause and divert to consider the implications of what might be described as neo-colonialism. For example, there was some pressure at one point for the conference to be free to Playbackers based on the Indian subcontinent which wasn’t economically viable and couldn’t be offered. While acknowledging these tensions, the intention was that the conference would be a global one and offer an exposure to international Playback for those that could attend. It’s always the case that delegates who can attend a conference return to their groups at home with new skills and knowledge gained at the event. One reason for choosing India was the ease of obtaining a visa which had been a problem with the Montreal conference when many delegates from developing economies were unable to attend. Another reason of course, was that the conference had not been hosted in south Asia before and India sat in the middle of the region, and of course, made the winning offer.
In a situation like this, understanding and responding to the effects of economic differences as well as psychologically and emotionally (in terms of shame and feelings of inadequacy as well as anger and resentment) and what can be described as neo-colonialism remains a challenge for us all. The issue of neo-colonialism remains a complex one, whether or not any of this is an adequate response to the issue can be debated, but it’s how we managed the situation and was our response, one that we were at peace with.
One important point that McCormack and Henry make in their paper is that good intentions are not enough (relating to trauma and easily transferable to other contexts when working in other cultures) and we found ourselves negotiating across myriad cross-cultural realities. Perhaps one naiveté was expecting an element of goodwill towards the conference, when in some respects we had opened a can of worms. We had a choice which was to either stay focused on the best conference outcome within our means or be diverted to any number of dead-ends if we followed every criticism. Our approach would have generated some feelings of rejection for some no doubt, and judging by some of the comments I was shown on Facebook continued to rankle before, alongside and after the conference. I’d long ago chosen not to do Facebook and could see why from the screenshots I was shown – Facebook provides an easy way to magnify a grievance.
In our core team of four: two Indians and two Europeans (delegated by the IPTN Board, one intended female Board member had resigned just before we started) we were all men; something we had no control over due to the long-term non-availability of women on the Indian side (not due to domestic issues, by the way). Women from the Actors Collective were involved in the the organisation as and when they could be. It will become clear later on why I’m explaining the gender spilt in the team. Altogether we had a wealth of experience. Rajesh was the lead person to negotiate with the university and Sunil looked after finances. Christian’s organisational skills were second to none and he was a whizz with excel spreadsheets. For my part, I’d organised four UK National Playback Gatherings and have a long-standing relationship with India. I’ve been travelling to India for fifty years, initially on the overland hippy trail, then coming to India to buy gemstones when I was in the jewellery business to stay with my friend’s Jain family (10-12 visits) and since, probably some 15 or more visits in all, immersing myself in Indian culture on various levels None of the other IPTN Board members were involved in the conference organising and received regular updates, but otherwise thankfully left us to it.
Being in India means drinking chai and when we had time to ourselves, Christian and I would repair to the Malabar Cafe for a brew. (Leave the campus by the back gate and turn left, you can’t miss it)
On reflection, what is interesting now is the belated awareness of the effect of the unconscious psychological process that was set in motion by our need to defend our decisions and to hold at bay, the negative criticism that was coming at us. I can’t speak for the others, but this had a major effect on me that didn’t fully surface until later.
Getting back to the theme of the conference: ‘Celebrating Diversity. Encouraging Diversity’, chosen by the Indian team, part of the attraction was that it could include and welcome a diversity of views and opinions, something that we wished to encourage in a constructive and hopefully transformative way. Other Playback gatherings have been marked by elements of conflict that were left unresolved, particularly the European gathering in Amsterdam in 2014 and the International conference that followed in Montreal in 2015, through no particular fault of the organisers. On both occasions, the conflict related, at least in part, to the enduring situation between Israel and the Palestinians. We wanted to learn from these experiences, rather than risk repeating them and going round in yet another familiar circle. We considered how this might be addressed by offering an opportunity to bring representatives of both sides together at the conference and not just Arabs and Israelis, but other historically-conflicted parties as well.
A little research led us to Armand Volkas of the Living Arts Playback Theatre Ensemble based in Oakland, California and their long-standing work in conflict transformation. See https://www.healingthewoundsofhistory.org/ I contacted Armand and we had a number of Skype calls to work towards him and his group attending the conference. The plan we developed was for a pre-conference workshop for those who identified as being in historical conflict with another group separately from the main event. This was to be followed by the option to sign up for a three-day Home group on the theme. In Armand’s case the intention was to culminate in a performance although the performance didn’t happen in the end as the space was given over to another group. I don’t know who finally participated in Armand’s group.
Returning to the pre-conference visits in 2017 and 2018, once the business of planning the conference was concluded and Christian had returned home to his job, being retired, I was able to stay on longer. In 2017, I only stayed for 10 days and was unwell for a period. Actually, Christian and I were both unwell with digestive issues and we were both invited to the University’s Sports Day, fortunately Christian was well enough to attend and won the 100 metre dash to the toilet.
After Christian had gone home, I did manage a side trip to the attractive small town of Mysuru (previously known as Mysore). The flower market is shown below. I didn’t visit Mysore Palace or other sites as I prefer to just hang out.
After my trip to Mysuru, I returned to Christ University briefly before leaving for home for Christmas
In the following year 2018, I stayed for a month and was able offer some training to local Playback groups including a creative workshop at the university with the drama students.
And later that day I had a lot of fun teaching an afternoon of Improv skills to a group of teachers.
As much as I love teaching Playback, sometimes just loosening up with being playfully creative and teaching some Improv skills without any responsibility for anything more than crazy enjoyment offers a respite from needing to get it right.
Later, another enjoyable day was spent with First Drop Theatre led by Radhika Jain and Bejoy Balagopal. You can read about the work of First Drop Theatre here: http://firstdroptheatre.com/
In contrast, another day was spent with the JeeVika organisation (a quote follows from their website https://jeevikafree.wixsite.com/karnataka : “JeeViKa-Jeeta Vimukti Karnataka, as the name suggests, is a major Movement that has begun to liberate the state of Karnataka from human rights violation system of bonded labour. Led by a great humanitarian, Dr. Kiran Kamal Prasad, the Founder and Overall Coordinator, the organization since 1987 has been consistently fighting for the implementation of the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act 1976 and the only organization in the country to raise awareness among bonded labourers and introduce their leadership qualities for the welfare of the community.”
This highly-committed group visits outlying villages to work with communities affected by the restraints of bonded labour that can run through generations. My work with them consisted of a review of their playback skills and replaying some of their enactments that had been problematic and considering alternative responses. It was a privilege for me to have an insight into the work of this organisation and meet some of their workers.
It was time to move on and I travelled by overnight bus across India to to the hill town of Ooty in Tamil Nadu (356 kms.) before offering three days of training in Playback Theatre in the nearby hill town of Coonoor for Jatin Vakharia and his theatre group. The training took place at the Gymkhana Club in Coonoor where I stayed, an old-fashioned club in the tradition of the British Raj complete with mounted hunting trophies and a dress code for dinner.
Jatin was a member of the Actors Collective and regularly travelled to Bangalore to participate in their Playback and in addition had a local group in his home town who performed scripted plays in the tradition of amateur dramatics. Training in Playback Theatre was a departure for this group and we were joined by some young female students from a local college who belonged to one of the local Niligri hill tribes. The differences in age and cultures in the training group made for a rich mix and our sociometry exercises revealed some surprising and unique disclosures as well as in the stories that were shared. This was particularly striking coming from the young tribal women who are from a reserved and secluded culture. I appreciated that they felt confident enough to share some details from their lives and found warmth in our group. We all had our cultural / social conditioning to manage and if it was challenged, it was done through the medium of honesty and the stories told in our group.
To come back to the shadow of neocolonialism, the way that I teach Playback in different cultures is to teach the Frame: the structure, ritual, skills and roles. Then to allow the particpants to fill the Frame with their responses and stories on their own terms.
For example, when I conducted Playback performances in Sri Lanka in English, we had translators, sometimes two for Tamil and Sinhala, and a narrator echoing the story to the audience if the teller was softly-spoken. As soon as I’d said ‘Let’s watch’, the enactment took place in Tamil. I had to learn to follow the story by observing the action and expression etc.
With the mixed group in Coonoor, the existing members of the theatre group who might be described as from the comfortable professional classes contrasted with the young women from traditional tribal backgrounds and me, a Western Playbacker from the UK. The workshop was conducted in English without the need for translation – education in English is common with 121 regional languages in India and English has an important role as a ‘link’ language.
All the same, we had a cultural triangle to negotiate. The key element of our emotional bonding was the dance and movement session that we started the three days with. Jatin had experienced my dance and movement session on my first visit in 2017 and had requested it at this training. I use mostly western music with strong rhythms which are stirring or a soft tempo that relaxes giving rise to more flowing and fluid movements. To relate the group back to the Indian context, A.R. Rahman’s well-known ‘Bombay’ theme was used to evoke a deep connection with the heart.
Otherwise, most of the music was new to the participants so brought them into a new place of activity and interest. My dance work is based on Biodanza (that began in Chile) so when I was training in the form, the exposure to unfamiliar music was part of my experience too. In my adaption of Biodanza, the dance and movement exercises relate to specific emotions suggested by the music so they can embody a different emotional interpretation from usual (in this particular cultural context). The cross-cultural ‘strangeness’ of the music at times supporting the imagination of a deeper improvisation. It’s also fun and disinhibiting to dance freely in a group and a great way to warm-up and get into the dramatic realm through movement.
While I don’t entirely dismiss the potential intrusion of neocolonialism as I might represent it, the responses of the participants in this workshop indicated that it wasn’t an issue. At the end of the three days training, the group performed for some local friends with Jatin conducting, which was well received by the audience and as a success by the participants. It would have been good to have invited the College Principal to have seen their students performing, but they were in another town and it wouldn’t have been possible.
The feedback was that the workshop was enjoyable, liberating from some old patterns and uplifting, somewhat outside of the usual comfort zone while learning new skills in a non-threatening way and a place to share personal stories that otherwise might have remained untold. It was an insightful cultural exchange for all of us and one that resonates with me still to this day. In the paradox of Playback Theatre workshops, it provided an opportunity for us all to meet and to get to know each other deeply a little.
It was time to move on by overnight train across to the other side of Tamil Nadu to the coastal city of Chennai (540 kms.).
First I took the miniature Niligri Mountain Railway from Coonoor to Coimbatore to catch the overnight sleeper arriving in Chennai at about 5 am. I took an auto-rickshaw to my pre-booked hotel which had looked appealing in the photos in an old-fashioned way on the internet but when I arrived had no functioning electrical sockets, no hot water (essential for me) and rickety slatted windows with no glass permitting all and sundry insects free ingress. I slept there until 8 am and then moved to the hotel next door. My purpose in visiting Chennai was to meet up with Cyril Alexander of the Sterling School of Playback Theatre and we spent an enjoyable day together. I’d hoped to offer a workshop but the group had closed for the Christmas holidays.
After a few days in Chennai, it was time to move on to Tiruvannamalai (184 kms) where I was booked to stay at the Singing Heart Ashram in a couple of days time. I took an Uber instead of the bus with a somewhat reckless driver, who at one point, was overtaking a car that was overtaking a truck, so for a moment there were three vehicles in a line … somewhat unorthodox driving!
Anyway I arrived safely in Tiruvannmalai and paid the driver (he’d blown his tip) but the hotel I had booked unknowingly was on the wrong side of town to the Ramana Ashram area where all the hippy action is. The Ramana Ashram was home to modern sage and Advaita Vedanta master Ramana Maharshi from 1922 until his death in 1950 and draws many spiritual seekers.
There were hardly any places to eat near my hotel and I had to negotiate a pack of aggressive street dogs who didn’t appreciate my incursion into their territory, having smelled a foreigner. I did find a temple area by asking a auto-rickshaw driver to show me around, but didn’t find the Ramana Ashram area until later, which is surprising as it wasn’t that far…
I grew up in a strictly atheist family so have a healthy aversion to organised religion and politics (much the same thing in my view). But since first visiting India in 1971, I have been drawn to Eastern spirituality in a non-committal way. Therefore I didn’t feel compelled to spend any time at the Ramana Ashram or circumbulate the nearby sacred Mount Arunachala barefoot. Never a joiner, always an observer, I imbibe the transcendent and the transpersonal through the atmosphere as a spiritual tourist; something I’ve been doing for 50 years. Spiritual butterfly might be a better term – seeking a home beyond home that’s not on the map or in theatrical terms perhaps, a spiritual plot twist.
The Singing Heart Ashram was founded by English-born (now living in Denmark) Spiritual Teacher and Astrologer Jacqueline Maria Longstaff. Rajesh had suggested that I visit over Christmas and New Year. It was very welcoming and didn’t impose at all. I was there for an unobtrusive spiritual experience and that was gracefully provided without being defined as such and I did find Jacqueline’s talks uplifting. Singing Heart is a peaceful, laid back place to stay with the expectation of attendance at morning chanting and meditation and the occasional satsang, but otherwise time to relax, hang out, spend time reading or go for local walks with the mainly Danish, other western and some Indian visitors. There are also retreats which are more structured. I enjoyed staying there for ten days and offered a dance and movement session to the group. You can get a feel for the morning Gayatri chant at Singing Heart here: https://vimeo.com/48928264
The Gayatri chant is dedicated to the Mother of the Vedas and the Goddess of the five elements.
Otherwise, shopping and lunch trips into town featured to the Ramana Ashram area on Chengam Road about 7 kms away from the Ashram (200 rupees by the in-house auto-rickshaw or 10 rupees by the occasional bus by the gate.)
Lunch at the German Bakery in town is recommended. It’s near the Agni Lingam. The German Bakery serve a cosmopolitan menu and do a particularly fine cheesecake. I’m sharing my love of cheesecake and an appreciation of the ambience and good service. If you need a travel agent, visit the Sh@nti Internet Cafe just around the corner at 115-A Chengam Road, they are extremely helpful. The actual Shanti Cafe situated upstairs is another good place to eat.
After a spiritually nourishing and restful stay at Singing Heart, I left on New Year’s Day on the boneshaker bus to Bangalore (220 kms) to stay with Rajesh and his mother before flying home. Rajesh’s mother (auntie) made me a fine potato curry for breakfast to set me on my way to the airport to fly back to the UK to get dumped at Heathrow airport at 6am in the morning, feeling the cold already. There was much more work to do, and in my role as IPTN Journal editor, I had taken on a project to co-edit a book of research articles on Playback Theatre with Dr. Baiju Gopal, Associate Professor at the university that would be published for the conference. Total distance travelled around India 1340 kms.
“If hate eats chilli, love gets heartburn.” Nick Booth
“If you wake up in the morning, you’ve got options.” Jessica Butcher
In early December 2019, I arrived back in India to meet with the rest of the IPTN Board to attend some pre-planned workshops led by Board members and a Board meeting before the conference. The book of research articles now called Playback Theatre Around the World: Diversity of Application had been completed and featured eleven accounts of Playback Theatre in action. It was due to be launched at the conference opening ceremony.
Then something happened that I wasn’t expecting, I checked my emails that first morning in India to see yet another email from the shadow-person mentioned earlier who had been stalking the organising team since the beginning (from now on to be known as the stalker). I reacted to it with a sharp email and then immediately realising that it wasn’t within my remit to respond in that manner, I quickly wrote to apologise. When I received the acknowledgement of my apology by return, something in me snapped. I realised that I was trapped in a role, I had no right of reply, at least not how I had framed it. A shop assistant is required to be polite even with the rudest customer and the same rule applied to me. Not only was I trapped in a role, I was trapped in an abusive relationship with this manipulative perpetrator – we all were, and had been for the duration. We had endured this behaviour without reacting to it for two years. What had begun under the guise of support became a subtle power play following a classic abusive pattern of gas-lighting – working to undermine our confidence. It’s as if we were in a professional organisers’ trance* and as I mentioned earlier, we had been trying to balance all the demands and had forgotten that we had the autonomy to respond to this person and ask them to stop. Although we complained about their behaviour among ourselves, we didn’t do anything about it and had allowed it to run. On later reflection on my mental collapse, I had confronted my own shadow; that of being seemingly invincible and my fear of being defenceless. While I’m grateful for the insight and hate to shoot the messenger, the behaviour of the stalker remains wholly inappropriate, deeply unacceptable and disturbing, and quite remarkable in the context of Playback Theatre that it should have happened at all.
I hadn’t been that vulnerable for a very long time and thought that I was super-resilient as I had survived and recovered from the loss of my jewellery business in the 1990s recession that had left me virtually destitute and the breakdown of a marriage at the same time. I went on to volunteer in a local hospice and worked with dying people in a number of roles including as an auxiliary nurse on the ward – often laying out the bodies of the dead with the nurses. I had learned to witness and negotiate patients dying on a regular basis and did that for five years before starting to train as a counsellor / psychotherapist in complete contrast to being a jeweller. I went on to work in the substance misuse field for twenty years before retiring. I was an experienced group facilitator with addicts in early recovery – and could hold that space effectively. Yet here I was in tears and fluctuating between the states of vulnerability and coping. I knew I still had to function. Christian, Rajesh and Sunil were shocked at this sudden change and were very supportive as was one Board member which I appreciated. I was burned out having taken myself for granted and while I don’t know how much the conference stalker knew or expected about the effect of their behaviour, that last email was the final straw.
This was combined with what had been an on-going frustration with the lack of an appropriate work ethic from some of the other Board members – in other areas they were inactive. This led me to the realisation that I needed to resign to look after myself, something that I had already been thinking about and that’s what I eventually did. Before formally stepping down, I attended the pre-planned workshops led by some of the other Board members and led my own pre-planned dance and movement workshop for both the Board and the members of the Actors Collective together which was designed to deepen our emotional connection and an experience of being supported. So I had ended with the Actors Collective as I had started – in the dance, and I had ended my time on the IPTN Board.
I was fluctuating between being hopelessly vulnerable and managing to cope when I decided that I wouldn’t remain for the conference and would leave – it just didn’t feel safe to stay and I didn’t have a public face to share. Many of my Playback friends wanted me to stay but I just couldn’t do it. I was eventually persuaded to stay for the opening ceremony and leave after that on the overnight bus to Kochi.
Did I mention one plot twist? Well, there were two, one for me and another for the team. The opening ceremony was about two hours long and part of it was managed by the university, including the book launch.
The keynote speech was given by Armand Volkas with members of his team illustrating key points with fluid sculpts and the ceremony overall was confidently conducted by Honey Raza from the Actors Collective. Other roles were looked after by Board members Nastya and Andrea, in his role as IPTN President, Jori had a speech and performed a song he’d written specially. Jonathan and Jo were on stage and we also had a little mixed choir singing the Leonard Cohen song ‘Come Healing’which I had suggested.
This was followed by a refreshment break and I was running around delivering copies of the book to the authors who were present and feeling a little better in the knowledge that I was leaving later on. The final event of the evening was the opening performance by the Actors Collective. At the end of the performance as Rajesh was conducting and was inviting final moments, one person shared that Playback Theatre was their family and now they wanted to leave following the opening ceremony in which women had been marginalised. In the spirit of contagion, a ripple of murmuring in agreement went around the back of the room. The comment was included in the closing giant collage and as I had a bus to catch, I left shortly after the end of the performance.
In the morning while still on the bus, I opened my phone to an email saying that one of my oldest friends had died in Toronto after a short illness and also some screenshots from Facebook. If losing one of my best friends wasn’t bad enough, the screenshots were shocking. The complainant at the performance had decided to post their complaint on Facebook that women had been marginalised in the opening ceremony. As is the way of Facebook, a long list of Playbackers, most of whom hadn’t been there, piled on in agreement creating a lynch mob and souring the conference for the team and the many volunteers (both from the Actor’s Collective and from the university) who were working hard to make the conference a success. As the journalist Amol Rajan once remarked “Social media is where nuance goes to die.”
The complainant had plenty of opportunity to check with the members of the organising team after the performance before running to Facebook, but chose to nurse the greivance for their own benefit. Had they chosen to enquire, they would have learned that the part of the ceremony that annoyed them so much was managed by the university and was outside of the organisers’ (our) control.
This is an example of neo-colonialism. India is a patriarchal society. Christ University is a Catholic unversity which is run by a male hierarchy as is the Catholic Church. Whipping up a hate mob on Facebook will not make a difference to anything. Going to another country and expecting it to fit your model is neo-colonialism of the worst kind, both arrogant and ignorant; the complainant’s act just created bad feeling and other than that – nothing. Well, not quite nothing, it put the complainant centre-stage with everyone who piled on in support, a number of whom I knew as Playbackers. It just seems such a questionable intention not to check with the organisers before posting. The need to be centre-stage transcends every other need and as Abraham Maslow put it: “It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer to treat everything as if it’s a nail” especially when social justice becomes a a problem that needs to be fixed on the spot. Is the threshold of tolerance so low that someone just can’t bear it a moment longer? So in rides the rescuer with instant-gratification – shooting first and not even asking questions later.
A Western approach to social justice that crushes the context and those who inhabit it isn’t going to be helpful. An alternative from a Western perspective could have been (apart from checking with the organisers before posting of course) to work with the host context, the volunteers and non-Western participants to allow their stories to emerge organically along with the stories of the other participants. Thereby, creating a fertile cross-cultural, cross-listening environment. I’m sure that happened to a degree and would have subtly challenged this male-dominated culture simply by demonstrating the number of female Home group and workshop leaders participating in contrast to the status quo – without getting into anyone’s face. But what also happened at least in part, was an attempted coup by one person and their external supporters of imposing a Western ‘liberal’ mindset on the context, that succeeded enough to undermine the balance and exposed some of the volunteers to a racist backlash.
The author Louis de Bernières ( of Captain Correlli’s Mandolin fame) in a recent comment about cancel culture, brings us up to date: “The whole world is construed not as an empirical shared reality but as a text whose reality is dependent upon the standpoint of the ‘reader”.
In a situation like this, someone sees what they want to see and they get what they want. It became a self-serving betrayal of the conference, while positioning themselves as the victim of the piece. Elsewhere, Armand Volkas was referred to by the complainant as an ‘elderly white man’. This comment is both ageist and racist as Armand was simply the person that delivered the keynote speech – age and ethnicity not being relevant.
What troubled me and questioned my belief in Playback Theatre so much was the lynch mob, especially the ones who weren’t there, who so readily jumped on the bandwagon without any evidence other than a selective photograph and a caption designed to provoke. That’s what made the betrayal by the complainant so hideous – all for the sake of Facebook ‘Likes’. It was a deeply selfish act that disregarded the effect on the Indian volunteers in particular and left them vulnerable. If you come from a background of wealth and privilege, then disregarding the ‘servants’ is par for the course. As for the absent Facebook commentators who relished getting involved remotely, “The hardest audience to please is the one that hasn’t paid” as comedian Ken Dodd said, so the best they could do was add to the bad feeling and in the service of what exactly?
By the time some of this was becoming apparent to the conference participants I was 550 kms away in Kochi. I wasn’t fully aware of the complexity of the complainant’s intervention as I have described above until much later. I was still recovering from my mental collapse and needed to rest and did manage a look around Kochi. Apart from the old Jewish area known as ‘Jew Town’ with its 16th century synagogue, a few craft shops and arty places to eat; it was too far from my hotel to revisit. I wasn’t drawn to stay in Kochi – too much of a mega-city and I needed to breathe.
As I was booked to stay at Singing Heart later in the month and had been able to bring forward my stay, I headed to Puducherry which was in the general direction and a smaller town. I took another overnight bus travelling across India from coast to coast, west to east – a distance of 563 kms to Puducherry (formerly the French colony of Pondichery). I was still spaced out and didn’t really appreciate the town and didn’t visit the promenade beach or nearby Auroville, I just stayed in the area around my hotel.
After a few days, I took another bus for the short journey (106 kms.) to Tiruvannmalai to stay in the town for a couple of days before going to Singing Heart. I stayed at the Arunachala Ramana Home at 70, Ramana Nagar, very clean and cheap. At the top of Ramana Nagar, turn left onto Chengham Road for a funky pop-up restaurant open in the evenings. Getting back to Singing Heart was a relief as I felt protected and could truly rest there and soon fell ill (not from food, but from the accumulated stress).
With the community chanting for my health at the morning gathering, it felt like I was shaking something off and I re-emerged feeling a lot lighter three days later, having exorcised at least some of the demons.
I have deep gratitude for the community at Singing Heart and much enjoyed their company (some of whom I knew from the year before) both socially and spiritually and I gave another dance and movement workshop plus the occasional trips into town to the German Bakery for lunch. I celebrated the turning of the New Year with them again and left early the following morning for Bangalore on the boneshaker bus to stay with Rajesh and his mother. Once back in Bangalore, Rajesh and I met up with Sunil for a farewell dinner.
In the morning, I enjoyed another of auntie’s fine potato curries for breakfast before leaving for the railway station. I was booked to take a train to Mumbai (987 kms) to visit an old jeweller friend before flying home. The train journey was 24 hours and a laid-back, gentle journey trundling along at an average speed of about 50 kms an hour. I read my book, napped, listened to music on my iPod, wrote some wistful love poems to a wayward muse and had food and chai as it appeared at timely intervals. After a short visit with my friend in another town, 120 kms from Mumbai, I flew home and was back in the UK, once again dumped at Heathrow airport at 6 am in the morning and again feeling the cold…. Distance travelled around India 2,466 kms.
Not that long after I’d returned home, the Corona virus manifested and began to bring normality to a close. By March, I had shut down my Playback group, the country went into lock down and I was isolating at home in a state of suspended animation. The faraway chant of Singing Heart and the lunches at the German Bakery a comfort to remember.
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 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:
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.
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
Lynne McCormack & Evelyn Henry: The “lived” experience of Playback Theatre practitioners in post-war Sri Lanka: naivety, altruism, reciprocal caring, and psychological growth.
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.”
PLAYBACK THEATRE AROUND THE WORLD Diversity of Application
Edited by Brian Tasker and Baiju Gopal
Published by Christ University Press, Bengaluru, India
Available from amazon.co.uk: Kindle version £3.01 / Paperback £7.62 ISBN 978-93-82305-99-6
Playback Theatre Around The World: Diversity of Application was conceived to commemorate the 44th IPTN International Conference held in Bengaluru, India generously hosted by Christ deemed to be University.
Submissions were invited and out of those that responded, eleven authors were chosen as contributors from Brazil, Cuba, France, Hungary, Greece, India, Israel, Lebanon and Ukraine.
The topics range from working with women as mothers, professionals impacted by violence, caregivers, children in conflict with law, chorus, education, conflict zones and mental health among others; altogether a comprehensive study of Playback Theatre in action.
Happy New Year 2021, The Year of the Ox (February 12th)
As the chaos of the Year of the Rat begins to fade, the image of the humble Ox emerging from the apocalyptic haze provides a welcome sight. The Ox, a beast of burden and servant to humankind since being domesticated about 4000B.C. offers a symbol of hope and support. We no longer have to do this alone. But this is not yet the time to be complacent and the pace is slow and determined. The load will need to be adjusted to take account of the difficult road ahead. We can return to our ancestral memory and the many, many times, the Ox has served us through millennia and resting for a moment, know that at long last, the reliability of the Ox is with us.
The Year of the Rat (January 25th) The Rat, a symbol for our times. Rats are inveterate consumers and along with mice, consume or spoil up to 20% of the world’s food. They need to chew constantly as their teeth never stop growing. They can survive being flushed down a toilet and can re-enter the building the same way. They are socially organised with distinct hierarchies and they can multiply endlessly. We may dislike the parallel but we are both inveterate consumers. Rats are intuitive and can sense imminent disaster, hence the old proverb of rats leaving a sinking ship. Rats will adapt to survive. So what can humans learn from the Year of the Rat?
You are invited to the inaugural performance of Bittersweet Playback Theatre: a unique form of improvised theatre that invites a true moment or story from the audience which is then enacted on the spot. Do join us at the British School Hall on Gloucester Street, Stroud on Friday October 11th. 8 pm. Doors 7.30 pm Tickets on the door £6 / £5
See elsewhere on this site for more information about Playback Theatre.
As we move on from the Year of the Dog with its opportunity to prioritise what we needed to follow, so the Year of the Pig invites us to root for nourishment. Pigs have both panoramic and binocular vision yet they cannot focus. To support our quest, we need to retain the focus of the dog gained last year otherwise we may well get lost in the pig’s inquisitiveness. The humble pig is much maligned, yet are clean (they have no sweat glands, so need to wallow) and intelligent although they are often misunderstood.
The pig can teach us to wallow to keep cool, finding refuge in our natural instincts rather than in what we have been told. Most importantly, the Year of the Pig invites us to root and to root deeply.
In doing so, may you unearth your deepest treasure and may that be in your own heart…