How can performance prevent rape?

On-stage performance can help us reimagine what we take for granted. This blog looks at how performance can explore different ways to be a woman or a man, and negotiate relationships that are flexible, fun, and freeing.

I suggest that performance can be used as a tool in rape prevention. I look at how performative methods of rape prevention may build upon and develop other forms of social education that work to end rape, creating possibilites for different ways to engage in intimate relationships.

This blog is a personal, theoretical, and performative exploration of how performance can be used in rape prevention.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Playback theatre - Bonfire Theatre, South Africa

I saw Bonfire theatre perform their playback theatre at the Drama for Life festival in Joburg.

Let me make this very clear: I hate playback theatre!!!
But Bonfire theatre, now they are something else.

Why DID I hate playback theatre?

1. Because playback is disconnected.
In playback, people tell stories of their lives, and the actors play this back to them. The little playback I have seen pulled any rawness from the original story, proscribed an ending, and not understood the speaker's intentions.

2. Because playback is airy-fairy.
Playback looks to ways that performance can create catharsis and allow for self-expression. Consequently, I have found this catharsis to be forced - pulling out tears and striving for poetry where there is only shit.

3. Because playback is awkward.
Noone from the audience wants to say their story and someone has to otherwise we all shuffle nervously thinking 'someone better say something important'.

Yet....Bonfire's playback made me want to leap for joy instead of off a cliff.
Mind you, I'm not going back on my criticism of playback theatre just yet.... I am actually putting Bonfire forward as practitioners who really get playback, who have found it's beauty. Although improvisation is often promoted as 'anyone can do it' I think that's bullshit. Maybe anyone can, but I don't know if anyone should. I suggest that Bonfire are astute practitioners who do not neccessarily take the easy road.

Why do I LOVE Bonfire's playback theatre?
1. They are not proscriptive of their audience but let each groups' own stories to emerge.
Jonathan Fox, who together with Jo Salas, created playback theatre in 1975 said that he wanted playback to use music, movement and image to create a narrative on 'deeper level than conscious thought'. Unlike some applied theatre, including theatre of the oppressed, Bonfire did not come armed with what they considered to be our oppressions or issues. They came with a theme to explore. They did not only ask us stories of suffering (so they could solve them), but opened the dialogue up, so we could tell the stories that were burning in our minds. there were no antidotes for suffering. There were no grand morals delivered. Answers were not sought.
It was not awkward because we did not have the pressure of telling the 'right' kind of story. Each story was embraced wholeheartedly. We were warmed up a bit before the public sharing of stories, by telling the person next to us the title of the story of our life right now. Unlike other playback I have seen, I did not feel like stories of the greatest pain were required for drama. My life felt just right for the stage.

2. They help people see the choices they made that created their circumstances.
Those who share stories cannot explain away the positive things in their lives with get away with 'it just happened', or 'he made me feel that way'. The conductor (Paula), who works with audiences to gather stories, insisted 'and what did that show you about yourself?'. No matter what, Paula always brought it back to the purely personal. These were not stories of politics, government, stystematic violence. These were stories about the individual, that brilliantly, seemed to be about each onbe of us.
3. They attempt to find a 'possible' ending, rather than imposing a 'reality'.
Each story was a possibility. I think endings are the hardest - do we give it a happy or sad ending? How does the protagonist end up? Paula asked each audience member/storyteller 'and how did the story end?'. If the storyteller didn't know, the actors would improvise. But these were not proscribed courses of action, nor attempts to find the core or truth of the story. It was simply another story, a story given back to the storyteller and the audience.
4. Catharsis occurs through recognition of story, one's role in the story, and awareness of bigger picture rather than pushing the emotional drama.
Tears flowed and laughter rang out. Children danced and one man decided to love again. This was allowed, rather than forced. The actors did not ride the emotions of the piece - primarily, they told the story. They used image and rhythm, connection and movement. And music! The soundtracks to our stories moved them forward, created tension and drama, mystery, and fulfillment. The musician (Chris) worked so well with the actors, and brought so much energy to each piece.

5. Witnessing played an important role
Playback is premised on the notion of witnessing. It suggests that witnessing one's own story, or witnessing that a person sitting near you, creates reflection, connection, catharsis, and social change.
How does it do this?

How does Bonfire theatre enable transformation of the audience/witness?

You have the opportunity to view your own story, or a story that you identify with from a distance. A broader view is created. You can see yourself within your surroundings.
Telling one's story and having it listened to with such empathy that people can actually play it out in front of you, feels like an enormous gift of listening. Witnesses identify and connect with the story, and through this, each other.

Seeing one's story often brings about catharsis as storytellers both laugh and cry. This was brought about through points of recognition of one's pain. Catharsis is a Greek word that means a purging of emotional tensions. It connotates a releasing of tensions that built up without a release.

Social change
Jonathan Fox understands that playback fulfills anthropologist Victor Turner's notion of social change. For Turner, ritual is a vehicle for social change, rather than a method of maintaining the status quo. Ritual undermines everyday social roles, rules, and responsibilities. New possibilities can be imagined. Traditional theatre positions shift: any witness can become the scriptwriter, and actors then become witnesses. Bonfire threatens the rules that govern who can and who cannot speak. Social rules are transformed and a liminal space is created, in which new positions can be played.


  1. I'm so sorry that you have suffered through Playback in the hands of so many poorly trained or untrained practitioners, and I resonate strongly with your critique. Not surprised to hear my friend Paula's company is so remarkable. Maybe one day you will travel to Memphis, TN and see another Playback company that does this work with impressive skill and integrity.Virginia Murphy,Director, Playback Memphis

  2. HI Virginia,
    Sorry this reply is so late - I haven't worked out to get a notification when a comment is posted (think I got it now).
    Yes! I often speak of Paula's skill - I believe she is an ASTUTE LISTENER. I think that's what makes her facilitation stand out. That's what makes the stories transformational. Interesting that simply listening, deeply listening, can be so transformational.
    And the rest of the group too - wonderful listeners. Now I have to learn more. I think these skills take a lot of learning. Not every actor can be a good playback actor. It's totally different, so it seems.
    And I'd love to come to Memphis and see your work! I'll check out your webpage now.
    PS - we have the same surname, nice.