Playback Theater is a practice of hearing somebody’s story or watching some activity, and then acting as an improvisational mirror to that person or those people who were involved in the situation. Playback theater actors creatively go through the kind motions and interactions which are appropriate for the particular story they’ve been presented with. Somebody tells the story of what happened to them, some tragic event in their life, like the mother did this, the father did that, that guy came in and did this. Then the playback theater people take that story and act it out in front of the person and everybody else in their audience. Often significant shifts occur in the person’s perspective as they experience from the outside the different voices in the situation being acted out. Playback theater could be applied to political conflicts or public issues, too. I don’t know whether it has been done or not, but the playback model seems to be very suitable for those things, too.
Dynamic Facilitation applies multiperspectivity in real time by having people speak and giving them adequate space to be fully heard. Everybody involved in the situation is given the space to really say their sense of the truth and their perspective and to be respected and heard for that perspective. That’s part of the facilitation technique in Dynamic Facilitation, where the facilitator becomes the multiperspectival “designated listener” and seeks to experience and reflect back each speaker’s full viewpoint so they feel fully heard and everyone in the group gets what they’re saying at a deeper level.
In 1991 Maclean’s magazine in Canada chose a dozen people for their differences and in a very public way had them engage in conversation with each other. Their 3-day event was designed to see if these folks could come up with a shared vision for Canada during a time when it was a very divided country. Because it was so public – being covered fulltime by both a national magazine and a public affairs TV documentary – in a sense it was like Anna Deavere Smith’s work. It takes these very different people and shows you how this person believes this, this person believes that, this other person believes this other thing – and what happened when they all got together to seek common ground. In effect, Maclean’s was saying to their Canadian audience: “These are strong willed vocal representatives of some very different perspectives, and we are going to put them together and have them talk and you are going to watch them and see how they interact – see if it goes well, see if it doesn’t, see what they come up with.” All this is a multiple viewpoint drama that is real and in real time. This is not being acted out or a play. The whole initiative and its results are quite remarkable.
And of course certain documentaries focus on multiperspectivity. This style of documentary is to document this person’s perspective and that person’s perspective and so on. That is very good and it’s much easier to do than having a dramatic artist like Anna Deavere Smith do it. I notice when the face of Anna Deavere Smith is always in the “middle”, there is something humanizing about that, as opposed to seeing the very different actual people’s very different faces. Viewing the real people, you can kind of keep them separate, you don’t have the same subliminal linkage of all these people as being all human beings with legitimate struggling perspectives. But the documentaries are extremely valuable, anyway.
And there are also fictional representations of that kind of thing. The director Kurosawa is very famous for a movie called Rashomon which presents a number of different people who all have a different perspective on an instance of rape. And within the movie he has all of them speaking about what they each saw or heard or believed happened. Those different perspectives don’t really quite fit together. So there is a funny way in which you get the same feeling from watching Rashomon as you get when you’re watching Anna Deavere Smith.
An interesting twist on all this is research that’s been done recently on eyewitnesses: People were shown a movie of the same situation. Then they were asked after some other activities to describe what it was they saw in the movie. Different people described it differently even though they had all watched the same movie. What does this tell us about the descriptions people give who were across the street from each other when a real life incident happened? This finding is shaking up our whole sense of what we thought was the most dependable kind of evidence we could have in a trial. Eyewitnesses were there, they saw it! But the fact is that they experienced different things and that they remember different things. So what do we do with that?
There is a way in which people witnessing the same situation but having different experiences is very problematic for us. And there is a way in which that it can be valuable. There is the story of the blind men and the elephant: These several blind men are all feeling the same elephant but having different experiences. The one feeling the elephant’s ear thinks the elephant is a giant plant with big leaves. Another is feeling a leg and claiming the elephant is actually like a tree. Another is feeling the elephant’s trunk and saying that it feels like a snake. They are all creating their independent images of what this elephant is but none of them are seeing the whole elephnat. But if they got together and talked, they might be able to come up with a model of what the whole elephant looks like. That’s not part of the fable, but it’s part of the implications of this phenomenon. We should take the opportunity to help people with different perspectives build larger, deeper understandings out of their diverse pieces of the puzzle.
A group called National Issues Forums runs one of America’s largest citizen deliberative activities. They have citizens across the country deliberate for an evening or afternoon about some public issue. The citizen deliberators are given briefing materials in written and/or video form which briefly describe 3 to 5 perspectives on the issue they are deliberating. Each perspective is presented to embody the legitimacy of its argumentation. The briefing materials acknowledge that there are people who hold those perspectives and who would be arguing in those ways. Advocates of each perspective would say, “This is what makes sense, and this is why it makes sense, and here’s all the evidence I am trying to convince you with.“ And the materials do that for all the other perspectives as well. So people who are deliberating get to enter into the worldviews of several different people before they even start talking about what’s involved with this issue. So that is a more analytical form of multiperspectivity. NIF is analyzing an issue and creating these 3 to 5 perspectives that together seek to represent the conversation that is happening around this issue in the larger society, so that the deliberators can be brought up to speed even before they start their deliberations. They sense what’s going on in this conflict and then start to explore together what they think. The process of creating those diverse arguments is called “framing an issue for deliberation”.
Lastly I want to add to these examples the many novels and short stories that serve our multiperspective awareness. One of the powers of fiction, both written and audiovisual, is to help us climb into the world of other people or situations with which we are unfamiliar. In really high quality novels, you climb into somebody’s head and into their life experience in such a way you think, “Oh, that’s different from my way of looking things! That’s different from what I’ve lived through, but I get it! I really get why a person like that thinks, feels and acts that way.“
There is another practice called The Council of All Beings created by Joanna Macy and John Seed. Since this is an effort to bring in the viewpoints of other species, you have people in the Council who are there to speak for certain trees, certain animals, certain plants, certain landscapes or mountains, and so on. The participants that are there try and speak for the perspectives and issues of those entities who usually can’t participate in society’s other councils. It’s somewhat analogous to some of the things that happen in some native cultures who give voice to “all our relations” – all the entities and forces of life.
Both within specific efforts to deliberate on a particular issue on behalf of the larger society, and in general in the larger society, all these approaches can help people be able to see more clearly the multiple viewpoints that make up any given situation and that make it “a situation”. That’s their gift. And because we want to have a wiser democracy, we want to have people who can see into that as part of the complexity of whatever it is they’re addressing so that they can take that into account and generate the kinds of benefits that would satisfy most or all of those people involved, and all the lifeforms existing today and in the future.