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Playback theatre as an organizational Knowledge Creation tool

1 August 2018
actors on stage

Organizational life is packed with events, emotions, conflicts, successes and shortcomings. Inspecting and reviewing these core events allow the organizations to learn, develop and excel. This assumption serves as the basis for many Knowledge Creation processes- debriefs and lessons learned, collective content development, optimization crews, etc.

However, implementing in-depth, personal sharing and direct conversation is far from simple. Many find it difficult to share deeper emotional and cognitive layers that may be invaluable; they find it difficult to even share this with themselves, so to speak. We, in the business of Knowledge Creation, toil to discover new tools that simplify learning and sharing. One such tool is the playback theatre, a medium which offers a new and different channel for shared learning in groups.


Playback theatre is a type of improvisational theatre based on unique sharing between the audience and a team of actors and musicians. A volunteer from the audience tells a story or describes a moment in their life, which is immediately transformed by the theatre group into a theatrical show with rich, constructive meaning for the narrator in particular and the audience in general. The group is thus able to bring organizational stories to the shared space, review them together and reveal new aspects of these stories/events, eventually understanding what we can learn from the story and how can an organization use the produced knowledge.


Playback theatre was invented in 1975 in New York by Jonathan Fox and his wife Jo Salas. Fox was a student of improvisational theatre, oral traditional storytelling, Jacob Moreno's psychodrama method and the work of educator Paulo Freire. It was Moreno (1940) that defined psychodrama as "clinical culture in a nutshell" and believed that by acting a person can change. He was the first to realize the substantial therapeutic power of recreating an action, roleplaying and role-switching, all in a context of working as a group. Fox viewed its essence in spontaneity which means finding new solutions for familiar solutions and apt solutions for new situations".


 None of the above should be foreign to KM workers. The basis of any creation of new knowledge is the assumption that reviewing different case studies related to a shared field can allow reconnecting these knowledge segments from various sources, restoring other perspectives, broadening the professional possibilities and enables creating knowledge items, insights, lessons and work methods. Not unlike playback, Knowledge Creation processes are based on various knowledge sources, constructing abstract principles from concrete details then distilling it into a new product.

Can the two be merged? A Knowledge Creation group activity can attempt to bring up the stories via drama and acting rather than through direct verbal expression and review how the group processes them collectively. For example, this sort of activity saw users expressing feelings like frustration from tasks, boredom and routine; the results surprised the narrators as well as they weren't aware of these emotions earlier. Raising the content to the collective conscious can ease their difficulty; better yet, it can change them. The group may think together of ways to cope with these situations and new methods to diversify its execution. Another activity, using a dramatic exercise regarding conflict, raised existing tensions between two competing work processes led by two different parties in the group. The processing allowed the participants to air out the subject and confront it in a non-threatening manner, which in turn led them to think together of ways in which they can work together and cooperate when shared goals are at stake.


When working with an organization via playback theatre, the story sequences seem totally engrossed in the subjective perspective of the individual relating their experience. Editing these stories, i.e. processing them by reenacting the situation, reveal their shared theme which is the organization's struggle. The stories seem to be brought up coincidentally and individually, while the collective subconscious seems to revolve around the issue the organization must express and process to gain from it.

The tapestry is only seemingly coincidental, while creative dramatic inspection actualizes the organization's dynamic needs and allows them to vent, replicate and confront from a fresher place with renewed strength and hope. For example, one participant chose to share a free association involving a movie in which the protagonist enters a job which promises comfortable conditions and a generous salary, yet with time understands that everything taking place in the organization is a lie and that these benefits bear a heavy moral price. Then someone related a story about them cheating in some children's game to win. The stories connected during the playback acting and revealed the workers' difficulty and their feeling of actually faking results and cut corners as a result of pressure applied by their employers, feeling guilty since they are providing clients with products they view as insufficiently handled. This is all due to the constraints of budget and deadlines. After this issue was exposed and handled, those responsible could comprehend the importance of allocating more time for development and gain much more when their team truly believes in the product they market and marketing it excellently as a result. Needless to say, organizational climate was greatly improved following the playback session.


In conclusion, playback is relevant to organizational Knowledge Creation due to the following properties playback features:

  • Playback encourages spontaneous behavior and finding new solutions for familiar solutions and finding apt solutions for new situations. This is actually the essence of Knowledge Management.

  • The essence of playback is broadening one's knowledge by interacting with others. This can be done by taking stories from our lives and reenact them spontaneously on stage. This activity provides narrators, actors and the organization as a whole with a new perspective and access to newly created knowledge.

We wish you luck and remember…all the world's a stage!


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