Theatre, Work, Play, and the Gift Economy

 By Jo Salas

“Are you traveling for work or play?” asks my fellow passenger in the shuttle bus from Denver International Airport. In my jet-lagged state I simply do not know how to answer. I’ve just come from teaching improvisational theatre workshops in Germany and Switzerland and I’m about to lead another in Colorado before returning home to New York. This teaching is indeed my work. But it’s also, integrally, play: play that enables the ultimately serious purpose of this theatre. My companion on the bus is a sales manager. On her business trips she meets with clients and sales teams in big hotels. When she travels for pleasure, she tells me, she likes to go to beach resorts or skiing at Aspen. For her, as for most people in our western culture, the distinction between business and pleasure, work and play, is self-evident. Work is serious, adult, a central part of one’s identity. It may also be burdensome, something you wouldn’t do if you didn’t have to, whereas play is freely chosen, pleasurable, without responsibility, the domain either of children or of adults seeking escape from the adult world.

Pablo Neruda's beach

The beach in front of Pablo Neruda’s house

The assumptions implicit in her question to me are both familiar and problematic for most theatre artists. My own particular realm of theatre is even harder to explain than most. It is not scripted; most of the time it does not take place in theatres; it is not a potential stepping stone to Broadway, as even the most humble production of a traditional play can be in the dreams of its cast members. And yet it fulfills theatre’s fundamental nature and intent: it brings human experience into aesthetic form in order to embody and reveal its meaning. Playback Theatre invites audience members to tell their true stories and then watch them enacted on the spot. Since the mid-seventies people have been performing this form of theatre in cities and towns around the world, in theatres, schools, refugee camps, prisons, clinics, conferences, and so on, seeking to create dialogue, connection, and change through the medium of art.

Playback Theatre requires actors to have considerable personal courage, maturity, and social awareness in addition to acting skills. Between stories, they sit on stage undisguised by a role. They listen to strangers tell experiences from their lives—memories, dreams, epics or fragments, sometimes historical or political events that have personal resonance, infused with discovery, pain, delight, remorse, love, conflict, anger, longing, confusion, indignation. Then, without discussion, relying only on the completeness of their attention and their openness to their fellow actors and musician, they create a piece of theatre, with dialogue, movement, and music. When it’s done skillfully it is stunning. Teller and audience alike are often moved, even changed by what they’ve seen. Each successive story adds to a mosaic depicting the themes of importance to this particular group of people.

It’s only possible to do this kind of acting by investing one’s whole being, one’s body, mind, heart and soul; by venturing into realms of adventure, expressiveness, connection, and emotion that are seldom called upon in most professional pursuits. One of the pathways to whole-self artistic expression is playfulness. It’s a paradox that in our work, play is integral, the doorway to the profound. If you can’t release the constraints on your body and spirit placed there by age, education, and convention, if you can’t enjoy the flight into uncharted co-creativity with your fellow-players, you will not be able to transform an audience member’s story into the work of art it deserves to be.

When I teach Playback, easing through the barriers to playfulness is one of the first steps. One of the theatre games I sometimes use in the early stages of a workshop is called “Is there more?” (It originated with the pioneering improvisation teacher Keith Johnstone, who might not recognize it in the version I’m about to describe.) This is how it goes: in partners, one person begins a simple, repeatable physical action such as scratching her nose or wiggling her shoulders. The other person praises warmly. “That’s good! That’s very, very good! I had no idea you could do this!” etc. After a minute or so of this, the praiser says: “Is there more?” at which the other person says: “Oh, yes!” and immediately steps up the action, exaggerating the original gesture as much as she possibly can while her partner praises her ever more lavishly. The game builds for another step or two, then ends, and the partners switch roles. As each pair finishes they join in the praising of others so that the game culminates with everyone calling out extravagant praise to one thrilled and blushing person.

Almost invariably, the effect of this game is that the recipients of the praise feel tremendously flattered and take a large leap toward expressiveness, in spite of being fully aware of the set-up. This expressiveness will be essential in the Playback work that is to follow, in which the actors will be called upon to reflect other people’s personal experience in action and words. The less you are hamstrung by inhibition, the more access you will have to spontaneous, in-the-moment receptivity and responsiveness to another’s story, no matter what it is. If, later in the training, you are chosen by a teller to play his ailing grandfather, or a young apple tree ravaged by deer, or the teller himself at the age of nine, you’ll be ready. Your adventurousness will be there, your readiness to serve the role no matter what it asks of you. The wild hilarity of “Is there more?” and other games will not usually be apparent in enacted stories: Playback is not comedy improv where all input from the audience becomes grist for a comic mill. But the spontaneity fostered by playfulness allows an actor to enter a character with depth and sensitivity, in the space of seconds, which is all the time we have to prepare.

So the apparent silliness of “Is there more?” and many other activities has a deeply serious purpose: to return us to the state of playfulness which contains in it readiness, openness, receptivity, inspiration, and the generative power of creativity—a state we have by rights as children and which few of us retain as we grow up. When we are fortunate enough to rediscover it, there is a sense of both revelation and recognition. Play is the freedom and delight of the creative, the interactive, the inspirationally inventive; it is a place where human beings inhabit the present moment with an intensity that opens horizons of possibility. In an impassioned response to the question “Why play?” posed in the German theatre magazine Theater Heute, the director Thomas Brasch wrote a list of 40 reasons, the first and last being “to render this question superfluous” (“um diese Frage überflüssig zu machen”) (Brasch, 1983, p. 39).

It is worth noting that of the multiple meanings of the word “play” in English, the other most familiar meaning is explicitly theatrical: “play” as a piece of writing meant to be acted by characters upon a stage. (In English, and even more in other languages, “to play” can also mean “to act,” as in theatre.) These meanings, along with all the other applications of this small and nimble word, share a common past in the Old English plegian (verb) and plega (noun), referring to recreation, frolic, exercise, and performance. And, according to etymologists, “play” has been opposed to “work” since 1377.

Money is a significant part of the conventional distinction between work and play: work is what you do to support yourself, to generate a paycheck. Play is respite from work and not productive monetarily or otherwise—indeed, it’s likely to require spending, on equipment, clothes, and travel. Interwoven with this conventional polarity is the opposition between professional and amateur. Broadly accepted as they are, such divisions ill-fit those who work seriously at their art regardless of recompense, including myself and my Playback compatriots.

The polarity of paid work and unpaid play leaves out the notion of calling, or vocation—work that you do because you are called to it. If you are both lucky and deeply committed, your calling may indeed support you financially. Or it may not. If you do it anyway, for other, more compelling reasons, you are an amateur. In contrast to the most immediate connotation of “amateur”—someone who is not professional, not the real thing—the word’s root reminds us of the possibility of love as a motivation for action. (In traditional Chinese painting, it is amateurs, not professionals, who earn the greatest honor, because their art arises solely from the inner urgency to convey their vision, not from the need to satisfy a customer’s requirements. The amateur artist can be pure, free from the compromises of the marketplace.)

In his book The Gift, Lewis Hyde speaks of the “gift economy” which exists in contrast to the market economy. The essence of a gift is that it is neither demanded nor paid for. Even in western culture, where the market economy prevails in almost every corner, the idea of gift exchange persists. We retain, as Hyde points out, a more or less consensual understanding about what belongs in the gift economy—for example, we generally agree that things like kidneys or blood should be given, not sold. Most people willingly give free housing to dependent children and elders. Art, too, belongs in the gift economy, at least in its origin and purpose: an artist’s motivation is the drive to embody a perception of truth, of experience, not the money to be made from selling it. Artists may want and need to get paid for their work, and some artists earn a great deal, but making their art comes first: it is their calling. Even if the work is subsequently sold, it remains a gift if it came into existence as an offer of meaning. The artist’s reward may include money, but more fundamentally it is the satisfaction of knowing that her or his vision has been received and valued. The gift has moved, as the gift must always move.

Playback ensembles tend to grow in the direction of “professionalism”—from operating on an informal and volunteer basis to becoming organized in a more business-like way and earning fees for performances necessitated by the simple equation of economic survival: once we are spending significant time doing Playback Theatre, we need it to generate the income that we would otherwise earn during that time. But sometimes we do a show just because we want to do it, because we’re invited by a worthy organization that has no money, or because the theme or occasion feels important.

At a public show honoring the 1948 signing of the International Declaration of Human Rights, my company, Hudson River Playback Theatre in upstate New York, heard and enacted personal experiences of persecution as well as stories of witness and historical remembrance. Performers and audience members alike were stirred by seeing these painful and triumphant incidents brought to life on the stage, with each teller sitting to the side, their emotional responses visible as they watched. As usual there was a palpable here-and-now dialogue going on as well: a man tells of being targeted as an African-American in high school, and after his story is enacted another man recalls being a passive witness to racist violence in his own school. Later in the show the first man speaks again, this time about standing up for the free speech rights of a white student in the school where he is now a teacher.

We began the show with actors and volunteers from the audience reading some of the key articles from the Declaration. A six-year-old girl in the front row challenged us: “I heard a lot of ‘he’ and ‘him’ but no ‘she,’” she said—a salutary reminder that human rights are an evolving issue and the equality of women is not reflected in the Declaration’s old-fashioned language. We enacted her passionate comment.

There was no funding for this show. Audience members made a small donation at the door, which went toward our expenses. Performers were not paid for their time, travel, expertise, and hours of preparation—we couldn’t rehearse the stories themselves because we had no idea what they would be, but we had immersed ourselves in the topic of human rights and enacted our own experiences in rehearsal. Had we been funded, the show would have been exactly the same. Our compensation came in other forms: the bracing richness of the stories themselves; the knowledge that we had made space for a rare public exchange on a vital topic; the audience’s evident appreciation; the artist’s satisfaction at making theatre; the exhilaration of trying something risky and worthwhile and seeing that it had worked; the pleasure of our teamwork. We would have liked a paycheck too but its absence did not diminish our sense of reward.

I imagine trying to explain all this to the skeptics I meet so often. “Well, it sounds great,” they might say. “But you can’t call it work if you weren’t paid.” Could I help them understand? Would they, no matter what I said, frame this event as somehow less adult, less important, less professional than the activities of their own work day?

The majority of theatre artists in this country, including Playback performers, are “amateurs”—devoted, talented, well-trained, hard-working, and unpaid or barely paid. What they do earn—except for those few who’ve make the great leap to commercial success—is not enough, in monetary terms, to recompense the time they’ve put into rehearsals and travel as well as the event itself. My company, with 70 to 80 performances per year, still straddles the gift and market economies: we cannot generate enough income to pay fully for our real costs. We debate about this sometimes: if the miraculous happened and we suddenly had enough money, would we lose something intangible if everything we did was compensated at “market value”? Would our creative work, so firmly rooted in a collective voluntary commitment, start to feel like a job—just a job? We’re unlikely to find out. Instead, we’ll continue to appreciate the non-monetary rewards that supplement our modest earnings.

So how should I answer the woman in Denver who wants to know whether I am engaged in work or play? I could tell her that on my trip I have been hosted by people who have become dear friends as well as colleagues and students, that they invited me for the purpose of teaching them how to act out true stories, that at times during the workshops we cavorted like baby seals and enacted fairy tales in drag, and that this led to the telling of deepest personal truth and its transformation into theatre, to an exchange of true gifts among those who told, those who acted, and those who witnessed. I could tell her that the reason I travel is neither simply work nor play but something beyond, a right livelihood that brings rewards indeed.

“Is there more?”

“Oh, yes!”






Brasch, Thomas. 1983. “Warum spielen?” in Theater Heute.

Hyde, Lewis. 1979. The Gift. New York: Vintage Books.



Copyright © Jo Salas 2008, 2016