Improvising Real Life

Personal Story in Playback Theatre
20th Anniversary Edition

by Jo Salas

First published in 1993, Improvising Real Life: Personal Story in Playback Theatre by Playback cofounder Jo Salas is the basic text used by new and seasoned Playback practitioners, trainers, and in university courses. The book has been translated into German, Japanese, Spanish, Chinese (traditional and simplified), Portuguese, Russian, Hebrew, Korean, and Nepali.

The 20th Anniversary edition, published in 2013, includes new photos and an afterword by the author with comments on Playback’s current development, as well as a foreword by Roberto Gutiérrez Varea, a steering committee member of Theatre Without Borders and cofounder of the Performing Arts and Social Justice Program at the University of San Francisco.


“A basic operating manual for anyone who works with expressive therapies, role play, storytelling. Jo Salas’s language is as direct and evocative as a Playback Theatre episode. Study this book, use it!”
Robin Larsen, PhD, co-author of A Fire in the Mind: The Life of Joseph Campbell

“Readers concerned with story and theatre will find much of interest in this clearly and simply written account, which combines some of the elements of a how-to manual with reflection and theory.”
Parabola Magazine

“This is a must-read book not only for theatre artists, but for educators and social service professionals interested in the arts as a tool toward both self-expression and community building.”
Mady Schutzmann, Co-Editor, Playing Boal: Theatre, Therapy, Activism

200 pages
ISBN 978-0-9642350-9-0


Foreword by Roberto Gutiérrez Varea: “Who has the next story?”

Chapter 1: The Beginnings
Chapter 2: The Sense of Story
Chapter 3: Scenes and Other Forms
Chapter 4: Being a Playback Actor
Chapter 5: Conducting
Chapter 6: Music for Playback
Chapter 7: Presence, Presentation, and Ritual
Chapter 8: Playback and Healing
Chapter 9: Being in the Community
Chapter 10: Growing in the World

References and Resources
About the author

From the Introduction

Playback Theatre is a form of improvisation that is based on stories of ordinary and not-so-ordinary life events told during a performance—dreams, memories, fantasies, tragedies, farces: all holographic glimpses into the lives of real people. It is accessible and fun, and yet carries dimensions of depth and sophistication. It takes place in theatres, but also outside them—it can work in virtually any setting, because by its nature it adapts to the needs and concerns of whoever is present. Whether in the hands of polished performers or awkward beginners, Playback Theatre celebrates individual experience, and the connections between people—their collective experience—through their stories.

People who are drawn to practice Playback usually find themselves doing it for its own rewards—the fun of it, the satisfaction of bringing a story to life and knowing that you have given a memorable gift to a stranger, or perhaps to a friend. Other kinds of rewards—money, recognition, prestige—are not so easy to come by through something that defies categorization the way Playback Theatre does. It is artistic, healing, community-building, visionary, all at the same time. It is, perhaps, a kind of synthesis of these functions that has not been familiar in our culture for hundreds of years.

I have written this book most of all as a resource for the many people now doing Playback, and for those who would like to learn more about it. As someone who teaches Playback Theatre to new and experienced people, I know that it’s not something you can really learn from a book. What I’m offering will be, I hope, a supplement to hands-on training, a supportive and informative companion.

Jo Salas is the co-founder of Playback Theatre and the artistic director of Hudson River Playback Theatre in New York State. She has taught Playback Theatre in 27 countries, often teaching courses for the Centre for Playback Theatre and the New York School of Playback Theatre. She was a keynote speaker at academic symposiums on Playback Theatre held at the University of Kassel, Germany, and Arizona State University.

Jo’s publications about Playback Theatre include numerous articles and three books: Improvising Real Life: Personal Story in Playback Theatre, now published in eleven languages; Do My Story, Sing My Song: Music therapy and Playback Theatre with Troubled Children; and Personal Stories in Public Spaces: Essays on Playback Theatre by Its Founders, co-authored with Jonathan Fox. She also co-edited the bilingual publication, Half of My Heart/La Mitad de Mi Corazón: True stories told by immigrants. Her TEDx talk “Everyone has a story” can be viewed on Youtube.


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