Externalising the ‘Storms of Life’: Creating Movement Towards Healing

Top End storm over Fogg Dam. Image by I. Morris.

Top End storm over Fogg Dam.  Image by I. Morris.

What I love about using art in therapeutic groupwork with Aboriginal women is giving them an opportunity to do some gentle inner reflection during the creation process, without causing retraumatisation.  The idea from narrative therapy of being positioned on the riverbank to look at a problem, rather than feeling tossed around in the river, influenced the development of an activity we’ve called the ‘the storms of life’.  This exercise was developed with an Elder with the intention of allowing women who have experienced violence or other trauma, to observe their problem moving away from them and letting go of whatever may be holding them back.

Any kids of art materials can be used such as paint, pastels, pencils or collage bits and pieces.  The women are instructed to close or lower their eyes and imagine they are sitting on a beach, with water lapping at their feet and the sound of waves and a gentle breeze.  They are safe and comfortable in this place.  They do not have to leave this place of safety.  They are encouraged to picture a storm in the distance over the horizon, slowly moving away from them.  This storm holds memories of those things that have happened in the past, that still cause uncomfortable or painful feelings for them.  After a few minutes when the women have a clear picture in their mind, they are encouraged to draw what they see.  It is important the women stick with the metaphor and do not draw the bad things that have happened.  You may like to encourage the women to think about colour; if it is dark or light, loud or soft, heavy or light; and the presence, intensity and distance of clouds, lightning, rain or wind.

A drawing is burned on the campfire to rid bad feelings.

A drawing is burned on the campfire to rid bad feelings.

I usually give women a good 20 to 30 minutes to draw or create.  There is never any pressure for women to share their drawing however some choose to do so.  This has been a powerful affirmation with others in the group as witnesses, of women’s intentions to make one small change for themselves or their children.

The fire is a strong symbol of healing, as a gathering place for sorting out problems, sharing stories and offering support to each other.  Tiwi Elders have also used fire as a way of ridding bad spirits.  When we have run this activity on healing bush camps, the women have been keen to burn their drawings as a way of letting go of bad feelings.

It has been interesting to observe the sense of movement that is created on paper through the externalisation of ‘the storms of life’.  This movement has transferred to women as a collective following their traditional instincts of letting go of bad spirits, creating a profound sense of healing.

Giving Aboriginal Children a Voice

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Using bear cards to give children a voice in the ‘third person’

One of the things I have been most passionate about in my work with children and their families is being able to give children a voice.  Sometimes this can be very challenging.  Children can be left silenced by their experience, especially in situations of domestic and family violence.  Feelings like shame, sadness, anger, guilt, despair and fear prevent children from being able to find words.

As a counsellor in remote communities, it would be very easy to become complacent and dismiss the effects of violence as normalised behaviours in children; because violence is something many children may witness and learn to live with.  But it is certainly not normal and violence shouldn’t be tolerated.  It is my experience on the Tiwi Islands working alongside local people that children, especially boys, are too scared to talk about the violence occurring in their families.  It could cause further shame for them or expose them to further punishment or abuse if they speak out.

So the challenge is….how do you allow children to have a voice without exposing them to further shame or trauma?  Of course, one does not necessarily have to speak about the details of a bad memory in order to begin the process of healing.  In fact, neuroscience suggests that sometimes it is physically impossible to recall all the details of a traumatic event anyway, due to the brains response to toxic stress and its effect on memory.  Some children may not be consciously aware of what has happened to them even though the body remembers.
The goal then is to help children integrate and transform their trauma experience without having to recall any facts.  The child will be able to relate to feelings, thoughts, sensations in the body and compulsions to behave in particular ways, even if they do not link this to any past hurts.

One way I have tried to assist integration and help children to make sense of their experience is encouraging the use of ‘third person’ voice.  Play using miniature animals or puppets, drawing or play-doh creates all sorts of opportunities for imagined creatures to tell a story.  For me, the bear cards have been a great resource in shifting children into this safe space; to explore what might have happened for bear to have an angry, scared or sad face, what is happening in his body and what he is driven to do.  The process also fits really well with the idea of ‘externalisation’ in narrative therapy, allowing the child to see that a problem sits outside of themselves, rather than taking up permanent residence inside them.  I have written elsewhere about the use of masks in therapy to assist with externalisation of feelings which are impacting in negative ways on children.

Another indirect way of assisting communication in therapy is through the use of metaphor.  In my experience running group-work programs on Aboriginal family bush camps, I’ve discovered the power of using the tree metaphor to assist people to share their strengths, abilities and skills for getting through hard times.

It is through my discovery of the power of metaphor for communication and the challenge of working with Aboriginal boys, that inspired me to write a children’s therapeutic picture book.  ‘The Life of Tree’ uses the tree metaphor to explore the issues of domestic and family violence.  My hope was that by reading this story, Aboriginal boys in particular, might be invited into a safe conversation about their feelings, thoughts and actions in their own lives.

Over the past six months I have been mentoring Yolngu artist and friend, Christine Burrawanga, to create the images for the story.  This is a story that is very close to Christine’s heart and so her strong culture, passion and enthusiasm to make a difference for her people has really shaped the book.

Our hope is that ‘The Life of Tree’ is a key to opening the door to the voices of children which have been locked away by the experience of violence.  Healing from the trauma of violence can be a long journey.  But if that door is opened ever so slightly as a child, perhaps the emotional burden they are carrying, will be lightened just a little bit.

Read Part II – Giving Aboriginal Children a Voice.

Reconnecting with the Hopes and Intentions we have for our Children

20160421_140355The Rings of Growth is an art activity included in the first session of the Healing Our Children group-work program with women on the Tiwi Islands.  In this session, the women are introduced to the metaphor of a tree as a way of reflecting on and talking about their own lives.

In our training with Tiwi workers we used the Life of a Tree video to show how each ring of the tree represents one year of growth.  These rings can reveal years of hardship (such as lack of water), years of rapid growth (usually during our wet season) and other unforeseen events like insect damage, fire or even crowding out by other sun-loving trees.   Although these rings may be invisible to us, the scars from these tough times are always there.   The Rings of growth is a metaphor that can be used to think about the long term impacts of domestic and family violence on children.  We cannot see inside a child, therefore we cannot assume they haven’t been affected.  It can also be used to explore the influence that positive early childhood experiences have on children’s long term growth and development.  This is the purpose through which we invite Tiwi women to document their own Rings of Growth and share hopes they have for their own children’s future.

This activity invites the women to draw the inside of a tree as if it was cut across the middle and each of the rings of life were exposed.  The women are asked to think about what they were doing when they were a child and the memories they have about what other people did that made them feel good inside, safe and loved.  These things, however small, are the things that helped them grow up and be strong.  For each ring of the tree they have drawn, the women write or draw a memory of something that made them feel loved, safe and comfortable for each year of their childhood.  This can include special events, favourite activities, special people in their lives, significant words said to them, important lessons they learned  or stories they were told by Elders and family members.  The women need at least 30 minutes on this activity to draw, colour, chat and share stories with each other.  After there has been sufficient time to document significant memories and knowledge, the women are invited to explore what their drawing might tell them about hopes they have for the future of their children.

Women whose childhood experiences were largely pleasant, memorable and positive, usually have similar hopes and intentions for their children’s lives.   For those that are struggling in their parenting, it can be a positive way of getting back in touch with hopes that have been lost along the way.   Those women with an unpleasant memory may use the opportunity to explore what positive message or learning they have taken from their experience.  They may reflect on how they want things to be different or better for their children than what they had experienced.  Remembering and recommitting to these intentions within the support of a group, can move women to action in positive ways with their children.

In my experience, women have enjoyed making connections between their early childhood experiences with their own development into adulthood.  Recently, one woman traced back her strong interest in natural remedies to her memory of being thrown in a big copper pot by her grandmother and being treated with bush medicine for chicken pox.   Another first learnt to sew in school and is now actively involved in a women’s cooperative doing screen printing on fabric and making a variety of articles as her work for the dole activity.  Yet another remembers her dad teaching her the rituals of the Kulama ceremony and is now instrumental in keeping this tradition alive with her grandchildren.

Metaphors have the power to be transforming and insightful.  The learnings that women have taken away from this very simple exercise have been delightfully surprising.  The potential is unlimited for adaptation for different client groups and contexts of work.

 

‘Therapy on the Go’ – Mandalas

Mandala4‘Therapy on the go’ is about sharing quick insights into healing practices that anyone, any age, any gender, can do anywhere, even if you are time poor. Whether you are wanting to reclaim a sense of groundedness in your life, achieve some insight into your self or simply relax through meditation, creating a mandala can do all this and more. You could doodle one in your coffee break or create some space on a weekend to really go for it!

A quick history.  The Sanskrit word for mandala is ‘circle’ or ‘completion’. Eastern cultures have honoured the circle over thousands of years for its inherent beauty, wholeness and sacredness, with different interpretations put on its meaning for spiritual life. Carl Jung introduced mandalas to the Western World after noticing his patients spontaneously made circle drawings in therapy. He believed that if you drew mandalas or dreamed about them, it signalled a movement toward new self knowledge. Art therapist Cathy Malchiodi says mandalas “give us an experience of wholeness amid the chaos of every day life, making the “sacred circle” one of the very coolest art therapy interventions for both soothing the soul and meeting oneself.”

Mandalas are everywhere. They literally exist in the cells of my body, around my garden, even the universe. Take a look around your environment; notice the patterns and be inspired.

mandalaQuick reflection. Creating a mandala is a personal journey, it’s not about the final artwork. So take your time, enjoy it. Your mandala represents your inner emotions and thoughts at a particular point in time, through the shapes, colours and materials you use. Don’t think about it too much. Go with your gut instincts and see where your body takes you.

Mandala3Quick instructions. Gather your choice of materials. If drawing is your preferred medium, try pencils or pastels on large paper. If you like collage, almost any crafty materials or articles from nature work. Things like coloured or patterned paper, buttons, pipecleaners, feathers, fabric, ribbons, lace, wool, match and popsicle sticks, crushed eggs shells, , jigsaw pieces, bottle caps, leaves, dry grasses, small shells – the possibilities are endless. It could be as simple as a black pen and white paper or a stick and sand.

Start by drawing a large circle. If you like use a compass or trace around a plate. Then in the centre of the large circle, draw a very small circle or glue a centre piece. Work outwards from there, using the ‘mandala dance method’. What’s that? You’ll have to watch the video. Basically, you draw a line (or glue items) radiating out from your centre at 12 o’clock, 6 oclock, 3 and 9 o’clock. Then you can divide each of these sections in half again, so you have eight lines. Keep adding lines, patterns or craft bits to your mandala until you fill the whole circle. Try experimenting next time with black paper or a canvas board.

Quick inspiration. An artist friend of mine, Alison Dowell recently ran a mandala making workshop for International Womens Day.  Watch her quick instructions including her very cool ‘mandala dance’ here.

Here is a great picture summary, courtesy of one of my favourite websites where there is lots of inspiration.

MakeAMandala2

Use your mandala as a centrepoint for meditation, to decorate a wall or turn it into a coaster. Above all, enjoy the experience! You’ll never know what you learn about yourself, if you don’t try therapy on the go.

A Narrative Approach to Working with Women who have Experienced Violent Relationships and others on the Journey of Life.

Narrative therapy is all about re-authoring lives or giving voice to the alternative stories rather than the problem-dominated one.  One of the tools for doing this is seeing life as a journey.  David Denborough (2014) so eloquently revisits Michael White’s (1995) original idea of viewing life as a ‘migration of identity’ in his new book “Retelling the Stories of Our Lives’.   I love this book because it sets out really simple ways we can help ourselves and others to rewrite and reclaim the stories of our lives from trauma or abuse to one of survival and strength.  These documents can then be used to help others who are still on the journey and hitting hard times!

Denborough explores how the journey for a woman leaving a violent relationship can be a difficult one particularly at the point of separation when expectations of finding a sense of wellbeing again can soon plummet into feelings of confusion, insecurity and personal failure.  However, mapping the journey of experiences of despair and wellbeing over time can help women see that a ‘trough’ is just one step on the ‘migration of identity’.  Women can come to appreciate that these feelings are actually an indication of progress and a sign of their commitment to wanting a better life for themselves, rather than slipping backward. It also opens the way for conversations about how to equip oneself to avoid a ‘backlash’, when a women feels vulnerable to plunging back into the despair that tries to take over her life once again. (For more information on creating Migration of Identity Maps see Denborough, 2014, p. 126-7).

One of the other ways of using the Journey of Life metaphor is by drawing the journey as a path or road (Denborough p.132-7).  I think this is a great model when working with Aboriginal people who usually like to draw and appreciate visual storytelling methods. To test this out, I recently sat down with Christine and we created a journey map of her life together using a piece of A4 paper, some textas and pastels.

At the end of the process, this is what it looked like.
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The process is quite lengthy but very important for drawing out thick rich descriptions of the positive events, skills, knowledge and future aspirations of the storyteller.  It begins by taking a large sheet of paper and drawing a winding road from one side to the other.  In the middle, a circle is drawn.  On the left is the ‘Road already travelled’ and the right is ‘the path yet to come’. Beginning on the starting point, stories are recorded in pictures and/or words about ‘Where you have come from’, ‘Favourite places travelled’, ‘Milestones achieved’ and ‘Obstacles overcome’. Here Christine drew a tree to represent her and her children that were hit by lightning.  She recalled her strong mum, Aunty and Grandmother telling her “If you’re gonna stay here, you and the kids will lose your life”.  They all supported her to go the women’s shelter and move away.  This was a major Obstacle Overcome, which after a 4 year wait, resulted in the Milestone of getting her own home.  The middle circle is for recording the ‘Circle of Support’ and above this, a compass of ‘Values, beliefs and principles’ that have guided them on the journey.  Important to Christine is to “not lose my traditional footstep. I want to hold onto my culture and teach it to my kids”.  On the top of the page, a ‘Survival kit’ can be drawn documenting what things they have turned to for strength in hard times. Christine shared “I think about the kids and what’s the next step for them and me.  I paint to make myself busy and keep my mind off things.  The pictures I paint tell stories reminding me about the good things”.

Part 2 is about looking forward.  In a similar way, visual stories are recorded about ‘Where you are heading’, ‘Places you wish to see’, ‘things you wish to make happen’, ‘gifts you wish to give others’, ‘obstacles to overcome’ and even a favourite ‘travelling song’ that will help you on the journey. Christine was clear about the goals she had for her children to finish school, find a job and make a life for themselves.   She has had these hopes ever since they were hit by the lightning obstacle and experienced worry for the children.  “I realised what was happening and took action”.

Part 3 encourages the storyteller to look down at their journey like an eagle would if flying over. This externalising viewpoint allows them to think about ‘Good memories’, ‘Name your journey’ and think about ‘a message to others’.  Christine’s Journey of Life map is now a useful tool for her to talk with other women about lessons learned to get through hard times.  During our Journey conversation Christine stated she wants to “tell stories of what has happened to me (the hard times) so that it helps others…. including young people who are suffering” and to “help others identify the strengths they have to get through hard times.  I try to help my daughter and other family who are stuck in these situations. I tell them you have to help yourself.”

References:

Denborough, D. 2014 “Retelling the Stories of Our Lives: Everyday Narrative Therapy to Draw Inspiration and Transform Experience”, W. W. Norton & Company, New York.

White, M. (1995)  Re-authoring Lives: Interviews and Essays, Adelaide, South Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.

When All Else Fails, Push Play : The Healing Power of Music

Xavier Rudd

Xavier Rudd follows the sun to the water.

Have you ever been so moved by a song that you look back and think that was a turning point in your life?

I was never really one to be touched by music in a really emotional way, until I reached my thirties. I was a third year university student and sitting in on the first lecture of Working With Indigenous Communities with Tony Kelly, a passionate man who had worked in the NT for 30 years. The only reason I’d taken his elective was out of curiosity – I’d heard that he cried in class. He pushed play on the cassette player (remember those?) and out came Paul Kelly’s From Little Things Big Things Grow. The tears started to form at the corner of my eyes and what followed was five months of no-holds-barred, in-ya-face black history (what I’d never learnt at school) and an invitation to take a long hard look at myself and my whiteness. Yep, it was a turning point. From Little Things… was a tiny seed planted and watered, which led me back to the NT.

Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is a beautiful song, but it wasn’t until I watched the journey of the Choir of Hard Knocks culminating in their performance at the Sydney Opera House, that it gave me goosebumps. What Jonathan Welch and the homeless people of Sydney achieved together was nothing less than inspiring. Did you know that Leonard Cohen’s career had reached a low point when he wrote Hallelujah in 1984 and his record company didn’t bat an eyelid at it? Every time I hear it now, the goosebumps return.

I have a colleague, who I worked with just long enough a few years ago to make a spiritual connection through shared values and views about the world. We go months without seeing or talking to each other as we both lead busy and very different lives. However, earlier this year, when I was having a particularly tough time and felt like I had come to a crossroad, I got a call from her out of the blue. All she said to me was, listen to Rudd’s song – Follow Your Heart. When I opened the you-tube clip and and was invited to check “which way is the wind blowing”, tears welled up. Not so much because it became obvious to me what I should do. But because this distant friend, like a guardian angel or something, had delivered this message to me. Another turning point.

And this brings me to my last favourite song – another off Xavier Rudd’s album – Spirit Bird. See if you can get through this one without shedding a tear! Like a fighting warrior, these words provide the inspiration for me to keep going and never give up. I know I’m heading in the right direction.

I can count the number of songs that move me to tears or lift me up out of a low point, on one hand. But that’s what makes them all the more special.

What about you? In hard times, what are the songs that bring you healing? Share them. It could make all the difference to the life of another.

“Music is the art of the prophets, the only art that can calm the agitations of the soul.”   Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Metaphorical Drawing as a Tool to Build Relationships of Attachment between Foster and Kinship Carers and Children in their Care.

10626585_759069220821973_6528970359671927082_nThe Northern Territory is over-represented when it comes to Aboriginal children in out-of-home care.  And despite the Aboriginal Placement Principle being adopted, many Aboriginal children still find themselves placed with non-Aboriginal foster carers because they continue to be removed from their families and there are not enough Aboriginal carers.  Not surprisingly, after all the trauma these little tikes have been through, it can be a battle for the Department and the Carers to make the placement work.  Often these children haven’t been able to build a trusted relationship of attachment to their primary carer because of traumatic events in the family, let alone the strange adult they now live with.

Last week I was invited to participate in the Foster & Kinship Care Expo hosted by Foster Carers Association of the NT.  I decided to engage the children in a fun drawing activity which foster and kinship carers could later take home and use to explore their relationship together.  It goes something like this.

10511123_759069540821941_8587260440108007074_nChildren are asked to think about if they were an animal, what kind would they be? If they get stuck, I discuss with them the different characteristics of animals. Some are shy and quiet, others are happy and excited, while some are wild and angry. You get the picture! They are invited to then draw the animal that most closely resembles them, using their choice of drawing materials. I had crayons, pastels and textas available. I encourage them to fill in the whole page, drawing the habitat that the animal finds itself in on a daily basis. At the expo, some children chose to do several animals describing the different parts of themselves. Others, chose to include family members or friends represented by different animals in their picture.

The kids had lots of fun, but the real work happens later. Foster carers were invited to use my Take Home Sheet which offered ways of interviewing the child about their picture. You can learn a lot about what is going on for your child by talking to them through the animal eyes, so to speak.   It is much easier for Aboriginal children to speak in third person through telling a story, than talking directly about their own experience and feelings.

At home, foster carers are also invited to draw an animal picture. This can be used to explore the relationships between the two animals, how well they get on, and what needs to happen for the animals to trust each other. Having this one-on-one time with the child, is a purposeful and meaningful way for the child to build a connection, using the safety and playfulness of their imagination. These kids deserve our full attention so avoid any chance of distractions like turning off your mobile.

If you’d like to read more about the questions to use when talking to children, download my Take Home Sheet here Build Relationships and Connection for Foster Carers and their children.

In my counselling work, I’ve written fictional stories with children about different animals and other characters, that is based on their own experiences. It’s a beautiful way to be able to help them communicate what they haven’t been able to express before. And help them make sense of what happened along the journey!

Never underestimate the power of play as a tool to share difficult experiences, communicate feelings and strengthen relationships!10599157_759069590821936_5640702642905705167_n

 

Healing from Chronic Pain or Injury: My 3 Rules for playing the Mind Game

Body Drawing: An art therapy approach to healing from chronic pain.

Body Drawing: An art therapy approach to healing from chronic pain.

This week I sliced my finger. I was cleaning our ceiling fan blades, something I’d been trying to do for months. In the first instance, I fell into a pit of anger and frustration because I couldn’t finish the job. Ruminating, I stared at the ceiling, clasping a bunch of tissues which filled up with blood over my painful little pinkie. To the distracting but somewhat comforting beat of my throbbing pulse, I eventually pulled myself off the sulky road I was heading down, and contemplated how I might now constructively fill in the rest of my day.   I decided to do something I enjoyed – some drawing or painting or both. Half an hour later, I consulted the first aid book locked away in my brain and decided a dose of Betadine and a couple of strong bandaids was all that was required.

Ironically, this is the same process I went through when I popped a disc sweeping up the floor in January. However this injury was much more serious and I haven’t yet fully recovered. I lead an active lifestyle and see the glass half full most of the time, but this pushed me to my absolute limits. The mental anguish of being bed bound is much worse than physical pain and I could have easily slipped into depression, if anger and frustration had gotten hold.  I began thinking about the things I consciously do to give myself the best chance of healing without letting the world crumble down around me. Here are my 3 tips for healing from chronic pain, keeping your spirit intact!

  1. Listen to what your body is telling you to do.

The voices of ‘experts’ in treatment have valuable things to offer but not the only answer. My doctor, physio and chiropractor all had different opinions about my back injury and how it should be treated. The conflicting advice I received was confusing and my back seemed to get worse. Eventually, I refused to do some of the exercises because it didn’t feel right. I had to force my doctor to refer me for an “unnecessary” MRI which revealed a type of degenerative disc disease that he knew nothing about it. I ended up doing my own research to find a path of recovery for myself. In desperation for pain relief, I found an acupuncturist/physio who confirmed what I suspected all along. Don’t do any exercise that causes pain! He cut me back to one exercise and that was the beginning of my recovery, five months after my initial injury.   I know if I ever do this kind of injury again, I have a first aid plan, based pretty much on “Treat Your Own Back”. I also know I have a really strong gut instinct which steers me in the right direction.

  1. Put your mind on a leash.

This is the hardest thing to do when you are in constant pain. Give it some slack and your mind will take off, leaving you feeling powerless. Worry and self doubt tried to convince me that I might never be healthy and strong again. I was also plagued with guilt for lying around and not contributing to the functioning of our family household. A turning point for me came when I created a Body Drawing. On one of my worst days, I lay down and quietly meditated on how my body felt for a few minutes, noticing the pain, tension, and other sensations. Then I took a piece of paper and drew what I had noticed.  Looking objectively at what I had drawn, I knew I had to take positive action to not let my mind dominate, as it was contributing to avoidable tension in my body and inhibiting recovery. The Body Drawing is a good exercise to repeat several times over the course of recovery, so that you can appreciate the positive steps forward you are taking and that change however slight, is happening.

  1. Find creative ways to keep doing things you enjoy.

One of the most difficult things with chronic pain is not being able to do things you love. For three months, I wasn’t able to sit. I either had to lie on my back or stand. And standing for long periods of time wasn’t good either. I became teary and upset at not being able to do the things I normally enjoy like gardening and bike riding (I had just bought a new mountain bike).

Now when I look back, I am grateful for the down time I was forced to take. I taught myself how to set up a business and website and even went to some free business seminars, standing on my feet throughout the whole training.   I wrote my first blog flat out on my back because my thoughtful hubby bought me a bed desk.

It’s important to stay connected to the things you are passionate about, within your limitations. I couldn’t work in the community garden, but I still went along and chatted to the gardeners doing all the hard yakka. I took up new pursuits like Universal Healing Meditation and Playback Theatre which have added value to my healing process. Think creatively and you can find a way, perhaps with a little help from some painkillers now and again!

The Mind Game of healing from chronic pain or injury is a constant challenge. Just keep strong hold of that leash, and breathe.

My Introduction to the Healing Power of Playback Theatre

In February, I was fortunate to hear about some Playback Workshops designed to introduce new and old improvisational actors to the art of PlayBack Theatre. My motivation for attending was personal. I wanted a creative outlet for the rollercoaster of emotions I was carrying from my work.  It was all about me and my needs. If there was some way of expressing the tension that had built up over the past 5 years from listening to other people’s stories of trauma and abuse, in a fun and releasing kind of way, then this was enough. I didn’t really know what I was in for. I didn’t realise I would be the vehicle through which I would hear more potentially traumatic stories and have to literally jump into the storytellers shoes in a physical way. I didn’t realise how much courage I would need to muster to expose the introspective parts of my vulnerable self, while the self critic tried to talk me out of it. That is the journey I am now on.

Jonathan Fox introduced Playback Theatre in 1972 as a vehicle for ordinary people to act out the stories of their community. Although not intentionally a therapy, drama therapists and psychodramatists recognised Playback’s potential as a therapeutic approach. “It is theatre with the power and intention to heal and transform individuals and social groups” (Salas 2009). It has been used with trauma survivors, couples and families, adolescents, people in recovery from addictions or mental illness and other groups.

Darwin Playback Theatre

Darwin Playback Theatre

So how does it work? Well, the stage is set with two chairs to one side for the Conductor and Teller (a volunteer from the audience who is invited to share a story). In the middle of the stage are four boxes (seating and potential props) for four Actors. To the other side, a musician is accompanied by a wide variety of instruments to add musical content to the story. And upstage is a rack of cloth of various colours, for use as costumes or props. The Conductor invites a volunteer from the audience to tell a story. This Teller chooses an Actor to play themselves and for any other key figures in the story. The Actors listen as the Conductor interviews the Teller about the details of the story and most importantly, what emotions were present at the time of the event. The conductor invites the Teller and audience to “Let’s Watch” as the Actors and Musician play back the story as creatively and accurately as they can. The Actors finish their final scene by pausing and looking back at the Teller, anticipating their feedback. If the Teller is troubled by the way their story ends, there is an opportunity for Transformation, as the Conductor invites the Teller to imagine a new outcome and the Actors play back this preferred ending.

The potential healing effects for Tellers may seem obvious but when played out in front of a group of strangers in public, take on a life all of their own. There is the personal sense of affirmation and validation as they tell, hear and watch stories that are significant for them; the feeling of being fully heard and understood by the Actors and through the clapping of the audience; a sense of mastery over an experience that has been hanging around in the background for some time; new insight gained into an issue that has been presented back in a new and creative way; and the cathartic experience of joining in laughter or tears with the audience.

In the short time I have been practising the skills and art of Playback, I have been struck by the potential healing effects for Actors too. In my paid work as a counsellor, my attentive, listening ear was the only tool I could use to acknowledge and validate a story of trauma. With Playback, I can use my whole body, mind and voice in acknowledgement of the courage shown for sharing a personal story amidst strangers. It feels like presenting their story as a gift bound in a bright coloured ribbon, which is unwrapped with gentle curiosity, utter delight or immense relief and profound insight.

To date, I have only witnessed this amongst the cosy and comfortable confines of my PlayBack colleagues, where we share our inner-most personal stories with each other. My inner self critic has successfully sobataged any attempt I might make to step onto the public stage.   But that is a story for another time; perhaps the PlayBack stage? I’ve certainly achieved more than I imaged when I set out on this creative adventure six months ago. Any vicarious trauma or pent up frustrations I carry about the state of the world is unleashed amongst the laughter, silliness and security of my fellow Actors each week during Practice. Playback presents an abundance of other healing opportunities for Actors most of which I’m yet to experience, if I can pluck up the courage to go public.

If this article has inspired you to share a story of Tragic Love or other unresolved Earthly Delights, you might like to come along to our company’s next Fringe Festival performance tomorrow night. I won’t be on stage, but you can experience the healing power of Playback for yourself…..because it’s not all about me.

playback flyer _nReferences:  Salas, J. (2009) ‘Playback Theatre: A Frame for Healing’ in Current Approaches in Drama Therapy, 2nd edn., edited by Johnson D. R. & Emunah R., Charles Thomas, Illinois.