Playback Theatre: Putting Story on Stage as an Opportunity for Healing

by Barbara Esrig.

I have been the Writer-in-Residence with the Shands Teaching Hospital Arts-in-Medicine program and involved in an oral history project at this Gainesville, Florida, facility since 1999. Every week I go to patients bedsides and ask them to share their life stories. I tell them that in every room there is an amazing story and if it doesn’t get written down no one else can tell it. I emphasize that I know they are more than just “a heart” or “a car accident in room 4515” but a whole human being, and I want to honor them and their life.

Soon after joining the Arts-in-Medicine program, I was drawn to Reflections, a Playback Theatre troupe that was part of the program. There seemed to be an intrinsic similarity between playback and oral history. Hearing a patient’s oral history and writing it down was the flip side of hearing a patient’s story and performing it, and both honor the story and the person through their experience.

Being a writer and storyteller since I was a child, I understood the importance and value of not only telling my story but being heard. I was heartened to see that this deep listening was such an integral part of Playback. In fact, just the name reflects the idea that we have heard the story and are now playing it back to affirm that person’s personal experience, and with that there is a healing.

Playback Theatres have performed in many venues such as schools, conferences, drug treatment centers, festivals, prisons, homeless shelters, libraries, benefit concerts and disaster areas such as New Orleans right after Katrina and New York City following 9/11. An innovative and original form of improvisational theater, Playback Theatre allows a member of the audience to tell a personal life story and then watch as the story is immediately enacted by the performers of the troupe. Created in 1975 by Jonathon Fox and his wife Jo Salas, Playback Theatre allows tellers to see and experience their story recreated into theater, thus enabling them to view it in a different way.

Initially Jonathon was asked by a group of friends to help them develop a theater piece for their children. When that project was over, the parents wanted to continue working with Jon, and include Jo as well. The couple moved to New Paltz, New York, and Playback Theatre was born. The Centre for Playback Theatre resides there today.

Playback is now practiced in hundreds of settings all over the world. Within a decade of its inception in the United States, Playback Theatre had expanded to more than fifty countries in North and South America, Europe, Asia, the Pacific, Australia, and New Zealand. Places as diverse as Cuba, Bangladesh, Japan, and Finland have all found that Playback Theatre is able to connect people and create community by demonstrating the universality of story. In 1990, the International Playback Theatre Network was formed as an umbrella organization for troupes all over the world.

Reflections, The Playback Theatre troupe I belong to in Gainesville, Florida, is the first and, to my knowledge, only troupe permanently based in a hospital. Paula Patterson started Reflections @ Shands Teaching Hospital in 1996. The name “Reflections” was chosen by the original troupe to illustrate our intention of mirroring back the story that is told to us. A registered drama therapist, Paula studied with Jonathon Fox and graduated from the School of Playback Theatre. From 1990 to 1995, she was the founding director and leader of a Playback troupe in San Diego, California. Paula moved to Florida in 1995 and started the Jacksonville Playback Theatre the following year. That same year, she introduced the Arts-in-Medicine program to Playback.

Paula became the Dramatist-in-Residence and started Reflections in Gainesville, bringing it to both public arenas and hospital bedsides. After commuting for five years to lead both troupes, she finally moved to Gainesville in 2001.

Our original troupe was comprised exclusively of artists-in-residence, including John Graham- Pole, one of the co-founders of Arts-in- Medicine. The troupe has evolved to now include performance volunteers from the University of Florida and Gainesville.

Like every other Playback troupe, Reflections includes a conductor, actors, and a musician. The conductor is the facilitator who helps frame the theme of the performance and guides the Teller in finding the story he or she wants to tell. The conductor also directs the actors by choosing which form the actors use to best recreate that particular story.

The actors play out the story with the knowledge and understanding that the Teller is the “Star,” and the focus is always directed towards the Teller rather than the actors. The actor’s job is to create an atmosphere of respect and empathy. When the Teller’s story is presented in this way, a feeling of community is generated among the audience, the troupe and the Teller, and healing results.

Music, the third essential component of the troupe, reawakens memories, thoughts and feelings, and that’s what Playback is all about. The musician creates the soundscape that often evokes the story, creating the theme that moves both actors and audience to a different time and emotional state.

Our entire performance is non-scripted. While we all have practiced together, the intrinsic nature of improvisation is that no one really knows which direction it will take. We approach each performance with knowledge of the forms, experience of the process, and a whole lot of faith that we will somehow pull it off together.

After being in this troupe for eight years, part of the mystery and magic is how rapidly we plumb the depth of the story to experience its essence. This not only surprises the teller but the actors as well!

A huge medical complex such as Shands Teaching Hospital can be an isolating place for patients. For someone to be able to tell a personal story, not just his or her medical history, to another person is a powerful way to connect. Our audiences are not limited to just patients. The family and friends of the patients, young medical students who go in and out of crises month after month with nowhere to process their feelings, and hospital staff also come in and tell their stories. So every Thursday afternoon this diverse group is our audience. In addition, one Thursday a month we go to Shands at Alachua General Hospital, the first and oldest hospital in town, and do bedside Playback Theatre or a performance there as well.

What does a performance at Shands look like?

One of the ways we do Playback is Charlie’s Corner rehearsals and performances. Charlie’s Corner is a family lounge where patients, relatives, caregivers, and friends gather. On rehearsal days, patients and their guests are welcome to come in, watch and be part of the rehearsals. The day before a performance, one of us goes on the floor and gives out invitations to our show starring Them! Then on the day of performance we go from room to room gathering people up. Of course, being on a medical floor, we never know how many people will actually be able to come. Doctor visits, medical procedures, and just not feeling well enough that day are the variables that can never be anticipated. That’s the nature of working on a medical floor.

There are many forms Playback uses, depending on the story. One form, called “Pairs”or as Reflections calls it “Mixed Feelings,” is used when the story expresses two opposing emotions. For example, say the Teller is nervous about getting a heart transplant but excited about what he or she will be able to do once it’s achieved. Six actors break up into three pairs, one actor standing behind the other. Then one by one, each pair steps forward, struggling with each other through words and body language, yet always touching each other, expressing opposing emotions. “What happens if something goes wrong? says one. “I can’t wait to play football with my grandson” says the other. Back and forth they take turns, usually in three statements, and it is clear this one person has conflicting feelings. Although it is satisfying when the form is completed on a positive note, we don’t force the issue. We’re trying to reflect the patient’s experience, not change it.

There are over a dozen set forms that can be used including a long form called “Stories”  One of my most memorable performances was a Playback we did with graduating medical students using this long form.

It was spring and the last week of their four years in medical school. Paula asked if anybody had a story they would like to tell that really affected them during their years of medical school. A female student raised her hand and Paula began, “Now where did this story begin?”

The student said her story actually started on Christmas Eve as she was leaving the shopping mall in a rush to get home. Two older women were standing by the doorway and asked if she would like to contribute something to Hospice. The student was in a hurry but thought to herself that, yes, she believed that Hospice was a good organization, and she quickly gave them a check. But as she turned around to leave, one of Hospice workers said, “Is there anyone who has passed away this year that you would like to remember this Christmas?” and handed her a small piece of paper to write down the name.

The question suddenly threw her back to an incident several months earlier. She was on a medical-surgical rotation, and there was a patient she was following, a 21-year-old man, who had cancer. He was getting sicker and sicker, and his wife, who sat quietly by his side day after day, was so young, terrified, grieving, and not knowing what to do. His mother would come in every day with new information about his cancer that she had read about on the Internet, pleading with the doctor to do something different. “Why not try this new intervention or drug? Well then, what about this one?” The primary doctor kept saying the young man was getting better, that this kind of cancer was very treatable, and that the prescribed medicine would work. But the patient kept getting sicker and sicker.

Being only a medical student, she had to stand aside and not say anything. She felt useless and frustrated. The personal drama escalated as the patient continued to get worse. Then, in the middle of it all, the student was transferred out of that rotation onto another floor. She felt emotionally jerked in a whole other direction. Several weeks later she heard in passing that this patient had died. She felt so conflicted and had nowhere to process her feelings.

Now, there she was standing in the mall with a pen and small piece of paper in her hand. It was then that she noticed a large tree covered with little pieces of paper like hers and the two women who were quietly standing there, bearing witness as people remembered and placed their loved one’s name on the tree. She wrote the young man’s name on the tiny piece paper and quietly tucked it in the branches, nodded to the women, and slowly walked out of the mall.

This was clearly a three-act story, with the first and last act in the mall and the second in the hospital. Paula had the student (teller) pick whom she wanted to play herself, who would be the patient, the mother, the wife, the doctor, and the two women by the tree. Some of us picked up fabric, the only props we use to symbolically enhance the moods of the story. Cathy, our musician, began playing Christmas carols you would hear at a mall. This drew people in, stirring memories, transporting everyone through the music and visual images, and creating shared feelings. We had no idea what words were actually spoken, but having heard and felt the story, it was easy to move into the emotions and develop each act.

By the end of the play there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Every one of the students, as it happens often with the audience, could coat-tail on this story because it was so familiar. The feelings and emotions that come from personal stories ultimately are universal. The feedback at the end was, “Where have you been these four years? We’ve needed you desperately!”

Playback Theatre demonstrates how story can easily transition into theater. As Jo Salas said, “When an individual’s experiences are reflected in aesthetic form, that experience is given new meaning, and through that meaning, a sense of reassurance -part of the healing process.”


Fox, Hannah. (2007). “Playback Theatre” in Adam Blatner, ed. Interactive and Improvisational Drama: Varieties of Applied Theatre and Performance. New York: Universe Inc.

Fox,Jonathan. (1986) Acts of Service: Spontaneity, Commitment, Tradition in the Nonscript Theatre. New Paltz, New York: Tusitala Publishing.

Hartigan, Karalisa. (2005). “Drama and Healing” in Helen King, ed. Health and Antiquity. New York: Routledge.

Rowe, Nick. (2007). Playing the Other: Dramatizing Personal Narratives in Playback Theatre. Great Britain: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Salas, Jo. (1993). Improvising Real Life: Personal Story in Playback Theatre. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.

Trivedi, Hemal (film maker), Patterson, P. (director, co-producer). (2006). Acting Healthy: Playback Theatre in a Medical Hospital (DVD) Gainesville, Florida: Manjushi Films (available from swampmail@aolcom ).

Hudson River Playback Theatre and The School of Playback Theatre (producers). Performing Playback Theatre Training. (DVD) (Training DVD for Playback Theatre and available through )


This article appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 5, Summer 2005.

Barbara Esrig is the Shands Arts-in Medicine writer-in-residence, doing bedside oral histories of patients since 1999. She has also been a member of Reflections, a Playback Theatre troupe, performing improvisational theater in two Gainesville, Florida, hospitals: Shands@UF and Shands@AGH. With a degree in cultural anthropology, Barbara is also a retired midwife, psychiatric nurse, world traveler, and hitchhiker. A member of the National Storytelling Network and the Healing Story Alliance, she promotes the use of storytelling in healing in hospitals. A published writer, Barbara has taught classes to inspire others to start their own oral history projects.

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