Playback Theatre expert Ben Rivers is coming to teach at SPI 2014 from the Jenin refugee camp in Palestine where he leads a group consisting of theater artists from occupied Palestinian territories and current-day Israel. In this 2011 photo, he is pictured in Amman, Jordan, where he has led workshops. (Photo by Jon Styer)

Two pioneers of Playback Theatre – evoking understanding, empathy and change – will be teaching at SPI 2014

Imagine a theatrical performance with no starting script. Several actors listen intently to a volunteer from the audience tell a first-person story. On the cue, “Let’s watch,” the actors interpret the just-told story, playing it back to the storyteller and the audience.

In its simplest form, these are the building blocks of Playback Theatre. And done well, it is theater with a purpose – to build dialogue, understanding, empathy and change.

Two pioneers of this innovative form of dramatic storytelling will arrive on EMU’s campus in early June 2014 to teach a seven-day course at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI).

Jo Salas will arrive from her New York base as artistic director of the Hudson River Playback Theatre. As a member of the original group that developed Playback Theatre in the mid-1970s, she is often cited as a co-founder of the movement that has now spread to 60 countries. She is the author of two books on the subject and the TEDx speaker of an online talk, “Everyone has a story.”

Jo Salas
Jo Salas helped develop Playback Theatre in the mid-1970s; she’ll be teaching it at SPI 2014.

“Listening to stories with openness and responding with artistry is a unique way to build awareness, connection, empowerment and change. We hope that participants will come out of the SPI course excited and prepared to use aspects of Playback Theatre in their peacebuilding work,” says Salas.

Ben Rivers will arrive from the Jenin refugee camp in Palestine, where he initiated and leads the Freedom Bus troupe, their moniker inspired by civil rights Freedom Riders. The group consists of Palestinian theater artists from occupied Palestinian territories and current-day Israel. They lead playback events in towns, villages, refugee camps and Bedouin communities throughout the West Bank. The troupe has also taught and performed in neighboring Arab countries.

“Freedom Bus events can last for several days and include protective presence activity, building construction, drama workshops, talks, live music and more,” says Rivers. “To participate in the creation and celebration of beauty is a direct affront to a system that tries to brutally crush and dehumanize oppressed people. The stories we ‘play back’ empower ordinary community members to imagine different futures.”

Salas has watched Playback Theatre spread especially during the last 15 years as an instrument for “marginalized voices to be heard and highly charged issues explored.” As an example, she cites her company’s work with immigrants, “whose stories of hardship and courage are rarely heard in our society.”

Speaking in the fall-winter 2012-13 issue of Peacebuilder, Rivers said: “The man who tells a story about torture is no longer alone with his memories and feelings of violation. Nor is he powerless in the way that he was. He chooses to enter the stage. He volunteers to tell. He casts the actors. He gives the final comment. The actors join him in a form of deep accompaniment.”

Unkown student, Fabrice and Heidi Winters Vogel
Professor Heidi Winters Vogel (seated) co-founded a local playback group.

When Salas and Rivers arrive to teach their course, they will find an EMU playback group that traces it roots to several informal SPI workshops led by Rivers in 2011. Theater students, conflict transformation students, recent graduates and several students from James Madison University form the nucleus of the playback group, according to theater professor Heidi Winters Vogel, who co-founded the group.

In the past year, the group introduced its services to EMU cross-cultural students following their return from semesters abroad. In a playback session lasting 90 minutes to two hours, students volunteer to tell their stories, which may include lingering feelings of confusion and isolation. Seeing their stories transformed by the playback actors can create moments of insight, laughter, empathy and understanding, Vogel says.

For more information or to register for the June 5-13 course, “Playback Theatre for Conflict Transformation” with Ben Rivers and Jo Salas, go to or call 540-432-4672. The course is open to all, regardless of acting experience. It is one of more than 20 courses offered at EMU’s 2014 Summer Peacebuilding Institute.

Discussion on “Two pioneers of Playback Theatre – evoking understanding, empathy and change – will be teaching at SPI 2014

  1. Need help finding Jo Salas’ talk “Everyone has a story” on the online Ted talk program list …does not come up for me.
    Also is Jo Salas connected to the Musalaha organization?

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