Using Playback Theatre to Explore Diversity & Inclusion at Different Organizations

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This paper was presented at the first virtual conference on ‘Role of Applied Theatre in Indian Society – 2020’ organized by Applied Theatre India Foundation & ICCR.


This paper aims to explore how Playback Theatre (PT) can be used as an effective tool by organizations to address Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) at the workplace. It reflects on First Drop Theatre’s experience of using PT as an intervention tool in different types of organizations; to help them gain a deep understanding of the feelings and challenges that their workforce currently has around this topic, as well as to have the participants gain a wider perspective through the power of shared, real-life stories. The feedback, both from the participants and the management at these organizations indicated how using PT as an intervention model had helped go beyond the cognitive and unearth deeper insights both for the individual as well as the organization.

Why did we choose PT as an intervention method?

Playback Theatre (PT) is an improvisational/non-scripted, interactive community-based format of theatre founded by Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas in 1970’s where the actors play out real-life stories and moments shared by the audience members – with text, movement, images, sounds and metaphors. In Playback, the participant becomes a storyteller and they witness an actor playing them in the improvisation. Storytelling and spontaneity are the basis for Playback Theatre. Participants are guided by a trained conductor to tell stories from their lives which are then played and replayed to the teller’s satisfaction. Jo Salas, in her book on Playback Theatre, writes about the process based on her close working relationship with husband Jonathan Fox, “When we weave our experience into stories, we find meaning in what we have undergone. Telling our stories to others helps us to integrate the story’s meaning for us personally. It is a way, too, for us to contribute to the universal quest for meaning. The intrinsic element of form in a story can transmute chaos and restore a sense of belonging to a world that is fundamentally purposeful after all. Even the most desperately painful of experiences are in some way redeemed when they are told as stories.”(1) PT enables a forum of dialogue, shared emotions, self-reflection and deep connections. It also offers a safe space for different groups of people to be heard, especially those voices that might be silenced or left out from the public discussions in the communities.

Gender dynamics at the workplace in India

The DivHERsity Benchmarking Report 2019(2) conducted by JobsForHer stated that a significant gender gap exists at all levels in the Indian companies, and that this gap widens as we move towards the senior management levels. Several factors including access to employment, working conditions, the need to balance the competing burdens of work and family responsibilities etc. are cited as some factors, among others, that are at play here. In recent years, organizations have taken several initiatives to address the overall gender gap and these include focussed hiring programs, specific D&I goals and sensitisation of the workforce. However, industry analysts say that there can be more that needs to be done in this regard and here’s where, they say, that Allyship can play a crucial in positively addressing not just the gender gap but overall in bringing about greater inclusivity on all counts(3,4). In India, where the workforce in organizations comprise of people from different backgrounds – regions, languages, customs, beliefs etc. – allies at workplace have an important role to play in making each other feel included.

Exploring D&I through Playback Theatre

First Drop Theatre, was invited by two organizations to engage with their employees on the broader theme of D&I. What was interesting was how these two organizations, vastly different to each other in terms of their overall setup and working culture, looked to address the subject but from different angles. The first organization, a large company with a strong hierarchical structure, looked to address the issue of gender gap. The other organization, a MNC with a more open culture, was introducing the concept of allyship as a means to have inclusion as a key tenet of their work culture.

The missing voice and perceptions

The gender gap, especially at the higher levels in an organization in India, is quite big with the women representation at the middle levels and senior levels being as low as around 20% and 11% respectively(5). In the first organization that we worked with, this ratio was further skewed with women making up only 8% of the workforce. At this place, we were invited to perform PT for a group of middle-level managers who were undergoing a two-day Gender sensitization program. The idea was to use PT to explore how leadership was viewed through the prism of gender.

We had approached the performance keeping in mind that, given the structure and culture of the space, the group might not be used to openly sharing their feelings. Therefore, the conductor first got the audience members to talk about themselves; what they felt were generally easy or difficult for them as leaders. These feelings were reflected back by the actors using quick fluid sculptures (short format in PT). This helped to get the group into sharing mode.

The group seemed to relax post these initial exchanges and what followed was a wonderfully free-flowing conversation where their existing perceptions were shared in the open through their personal experiences and stories. What emerged was that the women felt that their voices were often missed while the men in the group mentioned about feeling inhibited while interacting with women as they were worried about how they were being perceived. The women mentioned how they felt they had to work much harder to be perceived to be as good as a man doing the same job. Watching these perceptions being enacted seemed to help the group open up on situations where the stereotypes played out strongly.

We dived deeper into these perception models by looking at how the men and women in the audience viewed each other specifically as leaders. By now the participants had warmed up to the idea of sharing. The awareness that the space was open to all voices and perspectives seemed to bring about uninhibited sharing. This was seen in how they not only pointed out what they felt were the strengths of the other gender as leaders but also shared what they felt were the not-so-strong points. The men, for example, felt that while the women leaders are very focussed and task-driven, they fail to take risks. The women felt that the men do a good job of delegation but are not always sensitive. The actors played back these feelings through the use of metaphors.

A key observation that emerged through these sharing was that many a time, the individuals were not consciously aware that they were being discriminatory. When they heard the experience from the standpoint of others and watched the enactment by the actors, they seemed to become more aware of possible discriminations. After watching the acts, when the conductor checked back with the audience, they mentioned that these were like new perspectives that they were seeing to everyday situations. This included incidents in situations like regular work-place meetings, specific project discussions and even team outings. An interesting revelation was about how a similar situation was perceived differently by leaders from the two genders. A lady manager shared about an incident where she was the lone woman in a meeting with a group of men, and how she felt the men were insensitive to her presence and that she felt uncomfortable. A male member from the audience mentioned about another meeting where there was only one woman present and he observed that his male colleagues were not being sensitive to her presence in the way they cracked certain jokes etc. He said that he did not make it a point to react by speaking up for the woman as he wasn’t sure if he should make this to be a gender related thing as it could just be that in a group, some people, irrespective of gender might be ok with certain things while others might not be. The actors used the format of corridors to reflect the thoughts of both the tellers from a similar situation. Post the depictions, both the tellers mentioned how they were now reflecting a bit deeper about their assumptions and expectations. While talking further about challenges faced, a lady participant spoke about the time during an office off site when she, being the lone woman, felt restricted to reach out for help when she faced a scary situation. She said that she was hesitant to ask for help as she was worried about being judged. She reminisced about how she braved the situation on her own. This story was depicted by the actors in a long story format. When the act concluded, the audience group reflected that while the story was remarkable in terms of a person finding the inner strength, it allowed them to see the need for proactive inclusion and sensitivity.

Such stories freely shared by the participating audience members, we believe, reflected a welcome opportunity for them to share their views in an uninhibited manner. Given the highly hierarchical environment, PT showed promise in having the participants open up in a way they might not usually do. As they watched the stories being enacted, and then reflected on it, the participants mentioned that they had not earlier seen something from the perspective of the other gender at least in a very focussed manner. In this environment, where perceptions ran very strong and the traditional stereotypes were strongly prevalent, PT was going beyond the surface level of the persona and bringing out the motives, challenges and feelings of the person. By giving space to multiple voices, there was a chance for the audience members to see the common situations from the work environment, through different angles.

Becoming Allies

The second organization we engaged with was a large MNC with a more open and less hierarchical set up. This organization had been running different D&I related programs over the years and were keen to bring in the understanding of allyship; how being allies to one another could bring about greater inclusion. For this event, we had partnered with another company, Shenomics, who were responsible for introducing the employees to the concept of Each for Equal. The facilitator walked the audience group through the theme and also led the group through a short meditation. She concluded with a short activity that the audience members had to do in pairs which involved some sharing with each other. Thus, when we began the PT performance, the audience were already slightly warmed up to the idea of sharing.

An interesting experience, for us as a PT team, was that we were to perform to an audience who were in different locations. This performance was in the early days of the Covid pandemic. While there wasn’t yet a total shutdown in India, many organizations had already taken steps to avoid the gathering of many people at one place. So, while we had some people in the room as audience, there were many others who joined virtually. What we didn’t know then was that such virtual engagements were going to be the norm in the coming days and months! In hindsight, this early experience was very helpful in understanding how PT can help hold the space even in a virtual world.

In contrast to the first organization, the participants here appeared more ready to open up without much prompting. This, most probably, could have been due to lack of strict hierarchal structures in the organization as well as due to the activity before the PT performance, that we spoke about earlier. Since the audience had just finished an activity of sharing with each other, the conductor started by asking how they felt to hear the other person out and also how they felt to be heard by the other person. The audience shared about how they felt a sense of familiarity with the other person, the joy of discovering something new about a person etc. The actors reflected back these feelings using Fluid Sculptures.

A shift happened when a leader (senior manager) in the group shared his experience of how he missed having an ally when he was going through a crisis in the family and had to shift back to India from abroad. The actors played back the feeling of desperation, loneliness and anxiety in a format using poetry, movement and sound. This vulnerability, displayed by a leader, seemed to uncork a deeper sharing of personal stories from within the audience. It seemed to have encouraged the others to open up more about their emotions as they seemed to be having an assurance that PT was providing them with a safe space to go deep into their personal experiences. This opened up the space to stories where individuals reflected on situations where they could not be allies and what might have prevented them from becoming one.

Interestingly, perceptions and assumptions came up here as well just like it had in the first organization. Like in the story shared by a lady who spoke about how she assumed an initiative that she was doing would help a certain section of the society only to later realize that her perceived sense was inaccurate. She openly spoke about how the experience made her realize that she was privileged and was operating from that space. She reflected on how the experience made her aware of how much more can be done if she were to be an ally to that group.

Like in the story shared by a lady who spoke about how she assumed an initiative that she was doing would help a certain section of the society only to later realize that her perceived sense was inaccurate. She openly spoke about how the experience made her realize that she was privileged and was operating from that space. She reflected on how the experience made her aware of how much more can be done if she were to be an ally to that group.

This led to the point about what might be a deterrent to being an ally? Were perceptions and assumptions playing up for all? Or were there other experiences that might be holding them back? Among other things, an erosion of trust due to a past experience emerged as a point. One person opened up about how an earlier experience, of trusting someone only to be let down, made him wary of similar situations. He spoke about this lack of trust cast a doubt in his mind for a long time until one day when a stranger’s act of kindness reaffirmed his confidence to be an ally. We used the Narrative-V format to show the journey of the teller’s emotional state. As these stories were shared, there was a perceptible shift in how others in the room, and those connected remotely, were beginning to voice their concerns, vulnerabilities and changed perceptions.

The aspects of privilege, region, religion and gender, and how these influence the notion of ally-ship were reflected upon by the group in the context of their personal stories. The mindful reflections of different individuals about regular situations made it relatable to the larger group.

The role of Narrative Reticulation  

Jonathan Fox’s Narrative reticulation theory(6) which is still in construction, is built on four main aspects – story, spontaneity, atmosphere and guidance. Story includes memorizing, order and a sense of aesthetic. Spontaneity refers to being present to events of the situation, ability to cooperate and Genuity or acting as oneself. Atmosphere covers being a human in front of other humans, being inviting and inclusive toward to audience, oneness between the audience and the performers and shamanistic energy. Guidance is built from the rituals, skills of protecting both the teller and the audience, knowledge of the ethical viewpoints, ensuring diversity in tellers, ways of choosing the next teller and conveying the sense of control to the audience. These are not hierarchical to each other but rather overlapping and intertwined together(7).

In the PT performances at both the organizations, the importance of the Narrative reticulation was reinforced. With people having differing, strong opinions it was especially important to build up the atmosphere that encouraged all voices to come out.Also seen was how the guidance part of Narrative reticulation helped people open up. In the first organization, it was not initially easy for the audience to speak freely considering the hierarchical set up. But as part of guidance when diversity in choosing the tellers was displayed, they were able to share.Guidance also helped in the second organization for people to open up about situations where they could not be an ally. This opening up, through guidance, was when deeper reflections and transformation could happen (this was what the audience members also mentioned post the session).

As a Playback Theatre team, for us, these performances further stressed the importance of being very mindful of setting the space for all the voices to come out. The discussions and reflections gained depth when differing perspectives could be heard.Due to the Corona situation, in the second organization many of the audience members joined remotely for the session and yet through PT, all of them could open up, reflect and participant effectively too. The experiential nature of the format and spontaneity it lent worked equally effectively for those who were connected through online means.

There was an acknowledgement, by several members of the audience in both the performances, about how it was a deeper experience for them to explore the subject of D&I through this experiential tool. They had been part of other modes – talks, seminars, presentations – that addressed the subject. However, many of them observed that reflecting by watching the real-life experiences (theirs and others) being enacted reinforced certain things stronger while also giving a human touch to perspectives different from theirs.

We realize that there is more to be done in the area of Diversity & Inclusion especially when it comes to corporate spaces; bringing in more voices, building empathy and more. PT, with its core in personal stories lends itself well to bring out these.


  • The management of both the organizations for their wholehearted support and encouragement for these engagements.
  • Shenomics with whom we partnered for the program in the second organization.


  1. Salas, J. (1999) ‘What is “Good” Playback Theatre?’ Gathering Voices: essays in playback theatre. Fox, J. and Dauber, H. (Ed). New Paltz: Tusitala.
  2. The DivHERsity Benchmarking Report: Spotlight on Gender Diversity in the Indian Workplace. Released on 17th May 2019. Click here
  3.  How Business Can Engage Men as Allies for Gender Equality. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Released on 4th Mar 2020. Click here
  4. The Importance of Male Allies: A Review of the Literature. SWE Magazine. Released on 11th April 2019. Click here
  5. Zinnov-Intel India Gender Diversity Benchmark Study. Released on 12th Dec 2019. Click here
  6. Fox, J. (2020) ‘PlaybackNR Workbook- guidelines for mastering narrative reticulation.’ New Paltz: Tusitala.
  7. Satu Prittinen (2020) ‘The Art of Listening In Playback Theatre- Conductor’s perspective’. Click here

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