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Volunteers discover power of playback theater to shift painful stories toward path of healing

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When volunteers were solicited, nobody immediately stepped forward. It was a tough request: tell a painful personal story before an audience of maybe 40, many of them strangers to each other, and watch seven people trained in playback theater re-tell it through an impromptu performance.

Yet Muhammad Afdillah—a visiting scholar with Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding—chose this moment, just a week before he returned to his home in Indonesia, to begin to heal himself. He recounted a story involving physical and psychological injury.

Then he watched as Inside Out, EMU’s resident playback theater troupe, improvised a tense narrative of violence, friendship, loss, physical and emotional scarring, and finally, hope of reconciliation. Afdillah wasn’t the only watcher who had wet eyes by the end.

Empathy from the audience

It may have helped that other storytellers had shared before—some with halting speech and others interspersing laughter with words—of surviving cancer, of stitching a wedding dress for a beloved stepdaughter, of making friends and enduring goodbyes.

It may have helped that he knew some of the actors— all EMU students, faculty or graduates—and even some of the audience, most of whom were participating in the Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) or the Strategies for Trauma Awareness & Resilience (STAR) training.

“That might have helped,” Afdillah said later. “But it was for me. It was the right time. I was trembling, but my heart was telling me this.”

Though Inside Out has “played back” stories from a variety of audiences, including sexual abuse survivors and college students recently returned from cross-cultural experiences, the May 21 event was the first time the troupe hosted a storytelling session for this particular group.

Playback theater helps its participants understand and reflect upon their experiences, says EMU theater professor Heidi Winters Vogel, who co-founded Inside Out in 2011. “That simple act of sharing stories and seeing them played back, seeing it out there, allows processing. It is harder to work for healing when it’s all in your head. In addition, there’s a tremendous connection between people in the audience who see that story and have a similar experience to share.”

A “conductor” facilitates the process

Making those connections is the role of an actor called the conductor, who facilitates the storytelling of a volunteer audience member, gathers more information through questions, and then helps to “shape” the story before turning it over to the actors with the invitation, “Let’s watch.”

At this event, Bridget Mullins was the conductor, and the actors included fellow CJP students Fabrice Guerrier and Matt Carlson; EMU alumni Liz Gannaway, Brandon Waggy, and Tonya Osinkosky; and troupe co-founder Roger Foster. Vogel, who also participated, said most of the actors had participated in STAR training or were familiar with concepts related to trauma awareness, resilience, and peacebuilding.

“This is applied theater,” Vogel said, “not theater for entertainment. It’s theater for social justice and understanding. A lot of people don’t understand playback theater until they attend a storytelling session, and when they see it, they realize the big possibilities.”

Afdillah had no idea of its life-changing potential when he was invited by a fellow SPI participant to attend the performance. “I don’t really like theater,” he said with a laugh later.

A faculty member at Universitas Islam Negeri (UIN) Sunan Ampel in Indonesia, Afdillah researches and lectures on socio-religious conflict and politics. He collects data, supervises graduate students, collaborates with other peacebuilders and policy-makers, and admits that, like many others in his field, he rarely takes the time for himself.

For the last six months on campus, during spring semester classes and courses at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute, Afdillah began to “meditate and think about my life,” he said. “In my work, I tell people to deal with their trauma, to let it go. But I have my own trauma, my own problems. At the end, watching the story was almost the same as what I experienced, the tragedy. I feel the pain. I don’t know how this story ends, but this is starting to be ready for an ending.”

Seven-day course offered through SPI

The potential for healing dialogue through playback theater will be highlighted in a seven-day SPI course, “Playback Theater for Conflict Transformation,” from June 5-13. The course will be taught by two pioneers of playback theater, Jo Salas and Ben Rivers.

This is not the first time applied theater for this purpose has been taught at SPI: Rivers attended in 2011 to take courses and facilitate informal workshops and in 2012, Armand Volkas, a playback theater and dramatherapy practitioner from California, led a course.

“Many people, including Ben Rivers, have used playback theater in communities that have experienced violence and trauma,” said Jayne Docherty, Center for Justice and Peacebuilding program director. “SPI provides a space for people to learn these techniques for working with communities and a place for practitioners to reflect on what works and what does not work when using applied theater tools in conflict situations.”

Farshid Hakimyar, a CJP graduate, is enrolled in the upcoming course. He plans to explore the potential of playback theater for his work in his native Afghanistan. Telling a story to the Inside Out troupe was his first personal experience with the technique.

“I told a story of hearing a traumatic story about domestic violence, and in hearing it, I experienced secondary trauma,” Hakimyar said. “I could not breathe, I could not think, I went from sharing with my friends about music and light and the good of humanity, to hearing this story of this father losing his child in this horrible way.”

On stage that night, three actors portrayed the trajectory of Hakimyar’s emotions as he struggled to understand “the lightness and darkness inside each of us.”

“To feel such relief”

“It was a really powerful experience to watch this and to feel such relief,” Hakimyar said. “Playback theater and generally arts play a key role in any peacebuilding efforts. I think it can engage more people in how they can express their feelings in peaceful and non-violent ways about corruption, lack of transparency, and their government, and how they dream for the future.”

Docherty says SPI is committed to the continued exploration of applied theater tools like playback theater to situations of conflict, violence and trauma.

“We see this as a growing focus of our program,” she said, adding that at least one course in theater and one in media is planned at SPI in 2015.

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