Public Performance, Personal Story: A Study of Playback Theatre

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Burton, Bruce

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Bundy, Penny

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In this study I explore the hybrid ritual performance form of Playback Theatre through audience members' experiences. The particular Playback Theatre application under consideration is the one-off community-based event. Selected writing from the Playback Theatre practice field assists in the establishment of the study focus. Literature from performance and ritual theory provides a framework for the inquiry. Theory about stories and storytelling offers a complementary lens that acknowledges the centrality of personal story in Playback Theatre. Contemporary writing about the experience of community is included to illuminate the experience of the public-private convergence in the Playback Theatre event. This study adds the voices of audience members to the writing about Playback Theatre from a practitioner perspective. The research has been undertaken using an ethnographic approach that draws on participant observation, informal group and individual interviews and researcher reflexivity. Audience members engage in the one-off community-based Playback Theatre performance as participants and spectators. The study finds that the ritual framework offered by Playback Theatre is central to creating an environment for participation through the encouragement of flow experiences. Audience members' desire and capacity to participate is influenced by their initial engagement and their on-going negotiation of the tension of participation that is evoked through the repeated invitation implicit in the form. As participants, audience members' focus tends to be predominately on themselves as they resolve numerous responses to the invitation to participate. In order to accomplish this, many audience members engage in reflective distance, a momentary moving away from the liminal pull of the performance with the intention of re-entering. A resistance to surrendering to the invitation to participate challenges some audience members. The study identifies a number of barriers to participation. The focus on self that the invitation to participate creates is transformed when a storyteller emerges from the audience, at which point, audience members shift to focus on the teller. This constitutes a period of deep listening where audience members demonstrate a commitment to hearing the teller and appreciating the performers. While spectating, audience members experience connection to the teller and connection to the ideas presented in their stories. Watching the enactment they may have this experience expanded or heightened through the amalgamation of the multiple perspectives that the actors evoke as they interpret the story in the dramatised enactment. The collective experience of spectating yields multiple moments of communitas. This might be impeded if an individual has a persistent story they feel reluctant to tell or if an audience member is featured in a story told by another. The after-show period is shown to be an intrinsic part of the ritual event facilitating the incorporation of the experience for audience members as they prepare to re-enter the ordinary social world. This occurs through on-going storytelling and reflective discussion. The informal nature of this period is insufficient for some audience members who may require specific debriefing. The one-off community-based Playback Theatre performance is an opportunity for people to gather as a community and to tell and listen to stories. This requires an interactive process of risking and listening and provides audience members with an opportunity to see themselves and to see The Other. The study concludes that the application of Playback Theatre in this context is a metaphor for community.

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Thesis (PhD Doctorate)

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


School of Vocational, Technology and Arts Education

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The author owns the copyright in this thesis, unless stated otherwise.

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Playback Theatre

Playback Theater









Brisbane Playback Theatre Company

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