Insights from Playback Practice

March 8, 2017

As you may know, our ensemble meets weekly to maintain and deepen our Playback Practice (PP).  During each PP we discuss company business and practise our theatre craft. Since we share leadership in our company, something that comes up repeatedly for each leader, is how to maintain the balance between the meeting’s program or agenda, and the mood, or connection, in the room.


“Program implies a stance that is logical, instrumental, computational while mood implies the expressive, the relational.”  – from Acts of Service by Jonathon Fox, founder of  Playback Theatre.


Have you ever organized a meeting with a planned agenda and entered the room only to be met another agenda – the group dynamic or the relational – and although the mood in the room may not be explicitly expressed, you often feel it.


The group dynamic is most often expressed through energy – either a low energy or a high or distracted energy – and this impacts group attention or cohesion.


Since Playback works within a framework of emotional expression and stories, it can be easier for us to acknowledge and address this ‘other agenda’ in our PP, yet it is still a challenge when we, as PP leaders, want to focus on specific agenda items. These could be developing our improvisation skills or looking at story structure. Even though we might ‘feel an emotional mood’ we might try and push our program agenda since we’ve often spent hours creating our ‘plan of action’ agenda.


We believe the challenge for a leader is to be flexible with their plan, and respond to what is alive and present in the group dynamic at that time. To do this you have to engage an awareness and sensibility to the emotional energetic dynamics of the group, which  requires flexibility in your logic and feeling abilities – right and left side brain functioning.


Resisting the mood or feelings, or not addressing a discordance, is often futile as emotions will often overtake the task at hand anyhow (we are emotional creatures) so we find we’ll have to spend time discussing and processing any issues, before getting to the planned agenda.


Playback’s core skillset is an ability to acknowledge emotions, so we try to spend the time required, and often it doesn’t take as long as first feared – it depends on the depth of the issue. One of the things we’ve learnt is that if we don’t address the group mood e.g. tension between team members, responses to feedback, or fulfilling (or lack of fulfilling) other roles in the company, this dissonance keeps presenting in obstruction, or poor cohesiveness of ensemble team work. Which means we can’t focus on the tasks at hand.


If this scenario resonates with you in your leadership roles, we recommend you open yourself to another layer of communication to address what’s happening before and while you get down to task. Try checking in to what’s happening energetically in that team meeting – are people engaged, distracted, bored – what are you feeling? Allow some space to address it – acknowledge it e.g. ‘I’m feeling a level of distraction in the room, are you feeling it?


Of course the challenge is, how long you allow for this so you get to the matters that need to be addressed. If the issue is deeper and requires attention, it’s ultimately better for group openness and cohesiveness to at least acknowledge that it exists, and vocalise that you will address it when you have more time.


Perhaps suggest a follow up meeting ‘taking it offline’, as they say, to ensure that any relational needs aren’t just swept under the carpet for more practical matters. This can only help transparency and team cohesiveness. Try it and see.



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