Playback Theatre – A Processby Selia Karsten, BA,MFA,EdD

Playback Theatre as described in this document is designed for workshops. The workshops begin with warm-ups and are followed by the improvising of stories told by volunteer participants with the help of a facilitator, designated as the conductor. It is recommended that the conductor have training and experience in this process in order to best assist the participants in a meaningful and safe experience.


The “conductor” introduces an improvisational atmosphere for playback by encouraging “warm-ups”.The participants are asked to (one at a time) describe how they are feeling at this moment in time. The person describing how (s)he feels to the conductor is the “teller”. The teller may say that (s)he is feeling “excited”. This feeling, “excited” is improvised by the participants. The teller may ask for a re-enactment of this feeling until, in his/her opinion, the feeling has been captured by the performances (s)he sees. Participants use their bodies and voices in the enacted improvisations to capture the requested feelings.
The teller next goes through the A.R.T. Process. (S)he may:
  1. Accept the feeling and stay with that feeling
  2. See a Repair of that feeling to another chosen feeling. For example, they may decide that they would rather feel “calm”. Participants would then improvise this feeling until the teller is satisfied with the performance.
  3. Ask for a Transformation – that is, ask the performers to go from the feeling of “excited” to the feeling of “calm” in their improvisation.
  4. Whatever the choice of the teller, the feeling is played until the teller is satisfied with the performance as capturing the essence of that feeling. 

Additional warm-ups

Flares: individual responses in movement and sound to a suggested idea.
Pairs: Two performers working together to reflect conflicting feelings, for example, “happy” and “sad”.
Fluid Sculptures: all performers join together to form a representation of an idea or feeling. 
Once the participants have demonstrated the playback process by acting out a number of feelings and ideas, it is time to ask for storytellers.The conductor gets the group to select a theme for the stories to be told. The conductor guides volunteer tellers in telling stories (related to the chosen theme) from their lives.

Telling Stories for Playback

The conductor asks the teller to choose one of the participants to play him/her in the story. The teller is encouraged to select a person who might have the same energy as the teller did at the time of the story. Performers are chosen on a non-traditional basis, that is, without regard to age, size, race, etc. but according to an intuitive sense that this is the right person. The teller gives his/her actor a word for the feeling(s) that dominated him/her at the time of the story. For example, “I felt confused and angry”.
The conductor guides the teller in relating the story. Other actors are selected to play other people (and sometimes inanimate objects) that are featured in the story. Each actor is given a predominant feeling. The conductor helps keep the story on track and when it appears to be nearing completion, the teller is asked, “how did the story end?”Once the conclusion is told, the teller is asked to give a title (and/or a colour) that might describe the story.The actors may ask for clarification before beginning the improvisation. These actors may also need a minute to gather any spontaneously appropriate props or costume pieces in the vicinity. They do not rehearse but improvise based on what they understood. The conductor signals the play with instruction to teller and audience: “Let’s watch!”
After the performance, the conductor asks the teller if the essence of the story was captured.If there are corrections required, the story is replayed from the point where it may have gone off track. 

Following the acceptance of the story as played, the teller has three choices.These are the A.R.T. choices, acceptance, repair or transformation. 

  1. The teller may decide to stay with the story as played.
  2. The teller may ask for a repair. How does (s)he wish to have behaved in the story? Only the teller’s actions are repaired. Other characters in the story follow the teller’s actor, responding to any changes that actor may make.
  3. The teller may decide to see a transformation. In this replay, the actors from the end of the scene and continue on with a different behaviour (as chosen by the teller for his/her actor). This choice is based on having experienced the story as performed. The teller chooses three words to describe how they would like to be in the transformation scene.
This information is based on my experiences as teller and training as conductor and actor with Yes Oh Yes Theatre Company under the guidance of Annie Stirling. Annie studied with Jonathan Fox, originator of the playback process. Books and articles regarding playback may be found in the list of references within the following research proposal developed in 1994.
You may also find information on the following website.

For information regarding playback workshops, contact