The Challenge of Men doing Playback Theatre in North America: A Workshop Case Study
Written for the 2014 Centre for Playback Theatre Leadership Course, Quote with proper citation.
I didn’t know what exhausted me emotionally until that moment…I realized that the experience of being a soldier, with unlimited license for excess, excessive violence, excessive sex, was a blueprint for self-destruction. Because then I began to wake up to the idea that manhood, as passed on to me by my father, my scoutmaster, my gym instructor, my army sergeant, that vision of manhood was a blueprint for self-destruction and a lie, and that was a burden that I was no longer able to carry.
Utah Phillips, “The Violence Within” (1992)
Where are all the men in Playback Theatre? Even in the arts generally? In June 2014, I invited ten men to help me explore this question through an interactive workshop using Playback Theatre-related modalities that I facilitated in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. They played. They told stories. They played stories. And while participants proffered insights into this question, the unfolding workshop process revealed its own set of answers…
Where are the men? This essay began with a practical and timely question. The Playback Theatre company I founded in South Central Pennsylvania seven years ago is now finally thriving and growing with nine committed core members. But apart from the musician and me, the rest were women. Our troupe wasn’t alone in this dynamic. Without a comprehensive survey, the majority of volunteer Playback Theatre troupes I know in North America seem to share this challenge. Like Pete Seeger did after the US-Korean War in 1955, I find myself lamenting, “where have all the young men gone?”
On June 5, 2014, I invited ten men to help me explore this question through an interactive workshop I facilitated in Lancaster, PA. (See Practicum) While participants proffered insights into this question, the unfolding workshop process revealed its own compelling set of answers. Neither the workshop or this essay offers definitive answers to “where are the Playback men?” But this combination of applied and researched exploration suggests a range of possibilities, each hopefully also suggesting a response to more purposefully invite men into the inherently inclusive and nonviolent work of Playback Theatre in North America.
Why Focus on Men?
Since the 1970s, the liberal academy has increasingly highlighted the stories and empowerment of groups on the margin of the patriarchic Western society: women, people of color, non-heterosexual and transgendered people, people with disabilities, indigenous peoples to name a few. This movement is important, but it’s also incomplete in my view. The skills and insights emerging in postmodern Western society may be empowering women, people of color, non-heterosexual folks, and more, but it does not seem to be having nearly such a positive effect on those with traditional patriarchic privilege, particularly white men in the United States. From hyper-violent imagery in sports or movies to the political rhetoric of “conservatism” centered on violence, ethno-centrism and misogyny, a new story of men clearly needs to be told.
In the 1980s, men like Robert Bly and Joseph Campbell began to write about a reckoning and empowerment for Euro-American men based on authentic reciprocal relationships not reliant on dominance. In his landmark mythopoetic New York Times bestseller Iron John, Bly uses an ancient mythical story about a boy coming of age to explore how men might become health-fully integrated into modern society. A major component of this integration involves a community of men initiating boys in rites of passage. The need for men to be involved in their own social integration became increasingly popularized in a PBS interview series and book with Bill Moyer and Joseph Campbell, and continued to gather steam in the 1990s from the likes of Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, both observing the practices of non-Western cultures. From movements as diverse as 12-step addiction recovery programs and the ManKind Project, more men are understanding the value of participating in their own “coming of age” in large part through telling their own stories. How else indeed to begin acknowledging the violence that we as men have historically wielded and the social privilege from which we continue to benefit?
The ethos of Playback Theatre, honoring every story, not just those from mainstream or marginal voices, has a unique role to play here. When men and other people with privilege can tell and watch their story unfold anew even simply as audience members, they can gain awareness and the space to shift prior oppressive patterns in ways that invariably humanize and equalize their new relationship with the world. For me, this is a promise of Playback Theatre and one of the reasons I practice it so passionately in a rural and conservative area like Central Pennsylvania where I grew up. When those in oppressor groups change heart, the potential for reducing violence changes even more.
In 1983, Ronald Reagan saw the film, The Day After about a Midwestern town experiencing a nuclear war, and wrote afterward of his desire “to see there is never a nuclear war,” a desire that led to diplomacy and eventually treaties with the Soviet Union. Similarly, we have great potential to see changes in oppression and violence when we who apparently benefit from oppression can detach ourselves from that story and begin telling a new kind of story.
Suppositions & Methodology
Why don’t more men in North America participate in Playback Theatre compared to women? A classic supposition is that men lack the desire for “touchy feely” experiences and perhaps also lack the understanding, skill or disposition to invest in such an emotion-laden artistic discipline. Based on the unfolding of this particular men’s workshop this June and feedback offered by participants, this essay challenges those assumptions. It posits that in fact men have significant desire and aptitude to tell their vulnerable personal stories and to engage in embodied play, two essential elements for any Playback Theatre practitioner. While training and/or skills may have been lacking in this case, the need for success arose as the most prominent factor in developing positive experiences for men in Playback Theatre as will be shown below.
This essay rests on some important assumptions, at least theoretically, if not in practice. It takes particular expressions of “man-ness” as cultural production in this moment in time, shaped by socialization in a specific collective context. In doing so, it avoids attributing specific biological factors or major historical narratives to man-ness. While biological and macro-historical factors play roles in shaping male behavior, I hope to avoid wading into a morass of banal untenable blanket statements or complex historical questions about such a large demographic group while still acknowledging that biological and large-scale historical and cultural influences effect every one of us—men, women and post-gendered.
This essay avoids questions of marketing, branding and getting men “in the door” of a Playback Theatre workshop and/or training, a topic worthy of its own paper. While I was tempted to explore this question as a professional marketer, both the paucity of available research and need to narrow the essay’s focus led me to set external factors aside. The fact is participating men in my June workshop came through a personal invitation from me, so how men find their way to a Playback Theatre opportunity is a question outside the scope of this paper’s methods.
The essay is rooted in a participant-observation case study of a particular men’s workshop using Playback Theatre and related methodologies with ten men in a suburban-rural area of South Central Pennsylvania, United States. While I expect that the insights herein can apply to other men and other workshops, they must be understood within their context and an understanding of their unscientific sample size.
Finally, the observation and analysis of this workshop builds on Appreciative Inquiry (AI) rather than a scientific method, focusing on what was there and what worked, rather than a classic problem-solving analysis about what went wrong or what should have been. The AI choice helpfully frames the resulting suggestions for adapting Playback Theatre work to welcome more men.
These methods and assumptions limit the otherwise overwhelming scope of the essay while also slicing through several layers of participant-facilitator dynamics to reveal several key factors which a men-only workshop seemed to highlight. Overall, the focus and methods of this paper implicitly suggest that a range of other insights and potential responses exist beyond it. That remains a subject for others to access and act on.
Revelations of an Unraveling Workshop
The workshop that served as the participant-observation study happened June 4, 2014 from 9 AM to 1 PM. It was free of charge. Ten other men attended, four with prior Playback Theatre acting training, another with InterPlay experience, and all but two who’d seen a full Playback Theatre performance. Men were ages 26 to 70 (estimated), all US citizens with college education. One was born outside the US (South America), the rest being Euro-Americans. Perhaps most important was that I personally knew each attendee (and each attendee knew at least one other person) and that trust was a major reason for their attendance.
Participants signed up for an experience of “men in play” not a Playback Theatre training. Since many were new to embodied improvisation, I devoted an entire hour to warm ups in the form of individual journaling, solo body awareness and pair check ins. By the time we began InterPlay-style group warm ups leading to sound-motion introductions, inhibitions were lowered and everyone seemed ready to play.
At 10:45, the second section consisted of spectrograms around two
- How do you feel as a man? (great <————> terrible)
- What is your experience of support from other men in your life
(positive – negative – absent using a triangle-spectrum)
Participants responded enthusiastically to the spectrograms, especially the second question where many talked about their relationships (or lack thereof) with their fathers. Sensing energy around these stories, I faced a crucial decision about how to spend the final hour. I decided to give an opportunity for participants to tell stories and play them back for each other. It proved to be a leap that exposed telling vulnerabilities and insights about men in Playback Theatre.
To tell and play the stories, I invited stories from men using a circular format in which one person told his story, three men played across the circle and one accompanied as a musician. The roles then rotated counter-clockwise. The form I suggested was an adaptation of Fluid Sculptures, focusing on the “emotional essence” of the story. Actors could take different roles in the story (with at least one person playing the teller’s character). The training in the form proved to be a complicating factor. The first story told was about the teller helping his mother force a pivotal life choice ultimatum on his father. This story set a precedent of intensity and vulnerability that continued through the rest of the exercise.
In this capstone activity, the cohesiveness and compliance of the group began to fray, with men increasingly showing reluctance to play back stories (though only one showed reluctance to tell his story) and stepping out to snack and go to the bathroom. As the exercise evolved, several dynamics became apparent: a) the complexity and intensity of the story was not adequately answered by the short form, b) participants’ minimal training and/or acting skill was not adequate to the complexity of the story or form, and c) participants began to experience failure, including “letting the teller down” and began to lose enthusiasm. Overall, the intensity of the stories contrasted sharply with the diminishing energy around using Playback Theatre for them.
What Happened and What Worked
Several observations are pertinent here which shed light on the question of men in Playback Theatre. First, in the arc of this warmed-up, playful group development, men were eager to tell their stories and be vulnerable in their telling. This goes against a stereotypical assumption that men wouldn’t want to tell vulnerable stories to each other. On the contrary, especially evident from the spectrograms on, everyone was “in” and eager to share, usually stories that had come up during the workshop (as opposed to consciously pre-told stories). This shows a desire to be vulnerable that fits well in a Playback Theatre context.
Secondly, playing and honoring a story using Playback Theatre is an innately understood process—and also inherently difficult. When it works, everyone understands, including men in this workshop. But without specific training and skills for listening and expression, especially for emotionally intense and/or complicated stories, playing the essence of a story is very difficult. Four men expressed a sense of ineptitude and anxiety at the end of the workshop which simultaneously showed an understanding of the form and its potential success. So despite stereotypical expectations of men being handicapped to understand an interactive emotion-laden embodied creative process, these men showed real sensitivity to the demands and potential failure of performing Playback Theatre.
Finally, men want to deeply recognize and serve each other’s stories. At the workshop’s conclusion, participants shared a tremendous respect for the stories told by others. Indeed, I sensed that participants’ desire to serve each other’s stories combined with a sense of inevitable failure caused the final story-form activity to unravel. The high stakes of serving (or failing to serve) significant stories of fellow participants proved to be a staggering weight. But underneath the apparent paralysis was a desire and respect to honor fellow participants’ stories.
There are other critical dynamics that heavily influenced this workshop’s breaking point: a) the lack of training given, b) lack of specific expressive and/or listening skills of participants, or c) the facilitators’ mistakes in not structuring the workshop with more incremental success, among others. My overall assessment is that these critical factors relate more to the workshop itself than to insights into men in Playback Theatre. Nevertheless, after years of leadings workshops with women and/or mix-gender groups, I perceive that they were heightened in an all-men’s workshop which lacked a more internally cohesive participation dynamic that I’ve often found among women’s groups.
Bringing More Men in Playback Theatre: More More More
Two years ago, I faced a critical juncture as our Playback Theatre troupe grew—how often to hold practices? Faced with the challenge of needing more rehearsals members’ but with competing members’ schedules, I was afraid to make a decision that would alienate some of the enthusiastic new membership that had grown our troupe from four to nine members. After our weekly classes, we toyed with meeting twice a month or less depending on the frequency of performances. Meanwhile, my wife was involved in a growing volunteer community choir that met weekly, performed several times a month and attracted new members seemingly every week. Their members genuinely enjoyed it, invited each other to parties, even weddings. They came to weekly practices because of the community they found there. So why not in Playback Theatre?
I took the comparison to insist on weekly rehearsals for our troupe. And it yielded fruit, solidifying our group community and our skills. My lesson: people will meet not their deeper needs unless offered the right space and encouragement. In effect, when it appears that people are hesitant to commit, they often desperately want to be even more connected.
My experience from this men’s workshop speaks to this same lesson: men seek opportunities to go deeper, play together and tell their stories. If I were to suggest one general response to cultivate more men in Playback Theatre it would be to offer more opportunities for just men to simply play and to tell their stories. This does not mean more Playback Theatre trainings for men, though it could. But the core needs of men playing and telling stories could also be accomplished in simpler and more incrementally successful ways than learning Playback Theatre. From this particular workshop, two participants became intrigued about taking Playback Theatre training. Still another, a therapist, told me that he would gladly refer clients to such a workshop if I were to offer it more. This confirms a general sense that men need more opportunities like this, and once awakened, I surmise that these opportunities could lead more men to Playback Theatre.
Adjusting Playback Theatre for Men: Engendering Safety and Success
Men want a forum to play, to tell and to listen to their stories. The two additional observations suggest two adjustments worth considering when inviting men into Playback Theatre, creating: a) safe space and b) opportunities for success.
On one hand, the workshop highlighted how important safety is to any process of play and telling stories—meaning, the establishment of a space without judgment or other criticism. From my evaluative material and faculties, this seems to have been achieved. Mutual appreciation was evident, but it’s not a given. In particular, judgment and criticism can erode the sense of safety in both telling and expressing stories, and these elements are sometimes required to train people in relevant expressive and listening skills.
Indeed, my own attempts to insert training elements into the main activity had a subtle chilling effect. According to one participant later, it was even difficult when the conductor (I) asked the teller, “How was that to watch?” He reflected, “it felt intimidating to have (my) playing judged by someone, especially knowing it was their story.” This insights points to the care that a facilitator must take in their language and facilitation of perceived criticism that could erode safety at a time of formative exposure. It also suggests the need for awareness around which the activities are “training” and which are simply “playing” or “telling our stories,” and being clear with participants’ expectations for any of these three activities.
The workshop also highlighted the importance of success in any process of playing and telling stories. This is of course is true for everyone. But it may be especially true for people whose socially-reinforced identities are based on success and in North America that’s especially evident in men. Several years ago in therapy, I noticed how automatically I identified with areas of competency in a variety of environments, whether work, hobbies, relationships or even therapy itself. I began to notice how men all around me were also heavily identified and invested in their own competencies and how they would gravitate toward activities or knowledge-fields where they could relatively easily master, control or at least exhibit competency.
At the same time, I have noticed how I and other men were completely at a loss in environments in which we had little skill or knowledge. In effect, North American men seem to require heavy doses of positive reinforcement in order to motivate their learning completely new skills and/or knowledge such as that required for a discipline like Playback Theatre.
The element of success was a key missing ingredient in my workshop and I think, a key missing element in Playback Theatre training among participants with vastly different skills levels. Being honest and vulnerable has its own rewards. In an all-women’s group, the inherent reward of honest sharing and risk-taking play might be enough of its own motivating incentive. In my experience, it often is.
In this group, vulnerability combined with a sense of incompetence (or lack of “success”) to yield a slightly demoralizing result. This suggests that there is no shortcut for incremental training activities, especially among newcomers with less developed dramatic skills and confidence where the intent exists to train them in Playback Theatre. Here we find Playback Theatre lacking a developed canon of simple, easy-to-learn story forms for training and perhaps also limited performance purposes.
To personally connect, to have safety and experience success, these are not uniquely male desires or needs. Any workshop or training experience in Playback Theatre requires mindfulness around these three elements. But my experience leading a workshop with all men, having previously run more than thirty mix-gender workshops, suggests a heightened need for attending to these elements.
In contrast to the expectation that men can approach Playback Theatre with a classically professional, goal-oriented training, this experience showed that men want and even need to have a meaningful personally-invested process. What may be stereotypically male is the need for incremental success in that process, and here, we are challenged as Playback trainers and practitioners to develop a canon of more incremental activities and forms in which participants can successfully honor their tellers’ stories.
The range of forms used in InterPlay, a trademarked improvisational toolset developed by Cythia Winton-Henry and Phil Porter, may offer some helpful intermediate options for trainers seeking simpler ways to work with stories successfully. One memorable InterPlay form, called DT3 (Dance-Talk x3), involves the player first dancing, then speaking the story, three times. The simple structure offers new improvisers a form in which to create something new but with clear guidelines. In prior iterations of this workshop for mixed genders, I have used a three-part solo form that requires just three movements or shapes from a single actor witnessed by just one or two in a small group.
In both cases (DT3 and three-movement stories), the smaller audiences and simplified structures lower the risk to a new player and raise the probability of success. Although we have tended to view Playback Theatre as a performing art, a complimentary canon of workshop-based forms would greatly expand its applicability and impact with people who don’t naturally imagine themselves learning and performing Playback Theatre—like most men in North America.
Pete Seeger lamented in 1955 that young men had “gone to soldiers, every one,” as he noted the cycle of men’s roles in societal destruction in the song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Storyteller Utah Phillips, quoted above, was one of those U.S. soldiers in Korea who escaped the war and found in the Catholic Worker movement a way to address “the blueprint for self-destruction he’d been handed as a man.” Playback Theatre, with its emphasis on honest vulnerability and supportive play, also offers a counter-blueprint. It’s a blueprint for clear co-creation rather than self-destruction. Forty years after its inception in 1975, Playback Theatre still has room to evolve. Indeed, to empower more participants (especially men) to incremental success in this co-creation, we must continue that evolution.
As I wrote this essay, I happened to be spending time with an old male friend, a talented improvisational actor who had tried Playback Theatre in his town for nine months. We got to talking about why it didn’t work out for him to continue in that troupe. “I just wasn’t feeling it,” was a response he used multiple times. I asked about this. Though I’ve never seen him in Playback Theatre, I know him as a highly gifted actor. He recounted:
“Everyone in the troupe seemed to be so in love with the form, and I just wasn’t feeling the magic. One guy who joined when I did, had just gotten a divorce and was in a hard time in his life. After one session, he was sold….I think that people find Playback Theatre at a time in their life when they need something like that. I guess I just didn’t need that.”
My friend’s words erase any fantasy that this essay is in any way comprehensive. So many elements are at play in someone (a man) finding (his) way into a Playback Theatre troupe. Regardless of the highly marginal position of Playback Theatre in an atomized, technologized, conservative suburban-rural North American culture, a host of personal and group dynamics contribute to why people participate or don’t participate in this inherently emotion-laden, risky, low-paying, culturally foreign discipline. Hopefully though, this essay has isolated aspects of this dynamic that can help us as a community of practitioners to welcome more men—as well as women—into that circle.
Appendix: Evaluative Workshop Feedback
Why don’t more men do Playback?
Fear of ridicule and criticism by the father’s voie or the father’s voice coming out of a “girlfriend’s” mouth
Fear to share the father’s ego
First of all, thank you! I feel like you re-energized my creative spirit, activities were heart-felt and meaningful.
I think men (and most people) have a great fear of failure, making a “fool” or themselves and showing vulnerabilities to other men.
Connection between storytelling, acting, and improvisation is very raw and emotionally. For men who have a difficult time expressing emotions this may be too powerful.
Like any group that is mostly women, it can be hard for MEN to break into.
WOMEN tell stories differently from men. Perhaps a separate group (events like this for men).
Thanks for hosting this!
Playback is not really manly, most men have a hard time accessing their emotions to perform Playback. It’s a challenge to access and vocalize thoughts and feelings.
I usually feel more feminine after Playback. Likewise, I feel more manly after I workout at the gym.
Playback is also a lot of honesty and that’s hard for some men.
I enjoyed the blend of physicality and talking. It flowed smoothly. The group was a great mix and I felt like we were all open. Great experience.
The physical was harder for me and the talking easier. The centering warm-ups were very helpful.
Why not more men in Playback? I don’t know the answer. Stereotypically women are taught to pay attention to others needs and feelings. Men are not.
The challenge of intimacy seems to be a critical thread. Choosing to do a harder Playback form at the end brought that out, both the intimacy of sharing stories but especially, the intimacy of playing them.
I found the morning to be very moving and meaningful. The other men were an amazing collection, each distinctive. I haven’t been around such a group before and was awed by the breadth of your circles. The exercises were deep and interesting., as were the discussions of what came up. I found the sociometric one went on a bit long, and probably made for a truncated story section. I always find that I plan for more than I can actually accomplish, especially when one exercise captures attention, but that’s the improv aspect that is exciting.
I was honestly surprised at the resistance to the playback model expressed at the end of the session. I actually thought with the exception of one attendee most were getting into it. I wonder if having the playback portion of the workshop towards the end of the morning was pretty taxing on the attendees. They were already pretty tired and lunch was nigh. I find that people’s impressions of art are often skewed when they are tired or overstimulated/tired/hungry.
There is also the phenomenon that I have named after an old Genesis song from the 70s: “I Know What I Like (And I Like What I Know)”. Some of the other activities on that Saturday were things that may have been more familiar to the men. Discussion, light theater play, movement, games were thing they might have experienced. Since the playback model wasn’t as familiar; it could be harder to get into.
 Robert Bly, Iron John: A Book About Men (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1990).
 Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth (New York: Doubleday, 1988).
 Richard Rohr, Wild Man’s Journey: Reflections on Male Spirituality (Saint Anthony Messenger Press, 1986).
 While 12-Step programs are explicitly gender neutral, meetings do exist for men (or women) only. Both Utah Phillips and Richard Rohr refer to the 12-Step process as a fundamentally nonviolent structure helpful for men to acknowledge their participation in violence in the world. See Utah Phillips and Ani DiFranco, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere (CD format, 1996). Richard Rohr, Men and Grief (lecture).
 See Will Bunch, “Tearing Down the Reagan Myth,” Huffington Post (1/31/2013). http://www.huffingtonpost.com/will-bunch/tearing-down-the-reagan-m_b_443914.html
 Case Western Reserve University, Appreciative Inquiry Commons; http://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu/intro/whatisai.cfm