Narrative Essay, 5 pages (1100 words)

Narratives and memory work by nick rowe | analysis

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  • Aengus Donald

A 1000 word review of one of the recommended chapters or articles. Students will choose a chapter or article from one of the prescribed texts, and write a review of the content, as understood by the student in terms of: the writer’s intent, the psychodramatic theory, and its application to practise.


Review of Chapter 4: Narratives and Memory Work, by Nick Rowe (2007).

Playing the Other: Dramatizing Personal Narratives in Playback Theatre

Rowe explores the relationship between memory, narrative and the self and reminds the reader that the audience’s stories are what make up the curiosities that are enacted out in front of them. Rowe personally opens up by sharing a story about his father’s death. This vulnerable space that Rowe sits in allows for resonance and connection with the reader, whilst informing them that that the story is the basis of discussion in this chapter. His actual experience of physically writing the story down years after his father’s death is shared with the reader as a very balanced moment in his life.

Drawing on research in the fields of psychology, philosophy and psychotherapy, Rowe intends to compare and contrast different aspects of memory, narrative and the self to show the breadth, depth and scope of the subjects.

Rowe proposes that it is misleading to conceptualize playback theatre as a mirror of the essence of a protagonist’s subjective narrative. This is because it denies ‘ the relational, negotiated and context-rich’ (Rowe) aspects of Playback theatre as well as negating the humanness of the performers, protagonist, and conductors. Actors may have different responses to the narrative than the protagonist. Actors may have incongruent obstacles of their own.

Being present to the essence of the storyline and then responding on the stage set by the director, protagonist and audience members can occur on any range or scale of response. Rowe proposes to utilize a model of a ‘ cumulative process of mediation’ in which each time a narrative is retold, the protagonist or client creates and refines the expression of the phenomenological and subjective content of the narrative.

MacIntyre proposes that the most efficacious source of “ intelligibility” for human beings is received through narrative, which he believes is the human identity’s organizing principle. If this were the case according to Rowe, every known thing would be spoken into existence, which I relate to the opening creation passage of the bible. I feel that if this was the case, we would be our own gods and all words would be the words of gods.

Rowe would sooner agree not with MacIntyre’s notion, but with Griemas’ idea that “ Narrative structures do not exist per se , but are a mere moment in the generation of signification”. Griemas’ school of thought leans more toward meaning making, than MacIntyre’s idea of instantaneously announcing manifestations of life experience.

Barclay presents the idea that ‘ autobiographical remembering is largely an improvisational act’, played out by ‘ protoselves’. This makes me feel that there is simultaneously room for both meaning making and calling experience into existence, and perhaps one can’t exist without the other. Barclay’s work also makes me wonder if we completely embody these ‘ protoselves’ when we are being truly spontaneous.

Lyotard presents that the idea of self is not one of individual singularity in a world of increasing billions of other individuals, but more so of each human as a nodal point in an growing pool of specific communication circuits. Lyotard sees the self as ‘ first and foremost, a practical project of everyday life’ (Holstein and Gubrium, 1995) and it is never a completed object.

In Playback theatre people are invited to perform their stories and witness the enactment. This halters the teller’s self-creation process when the control of the protagonist’s enactment has been handed over to the actors. The conductors questioning in Playback allows the events to emerge. Rowe does not believe that this is “ rewriting the self” (Freeman 1993).

Vocal language is a primary technique of narrative in playback. Utilizing and encouraging other expressive methods such as “ acoustic, visual, spatial and theatrical images can significantly extend the teller’s memory work” (Rowe).

In the section “ Poetry drugs the dragon of disbelief”, Rowe writes that subsequent re-telling of a narrative emphasises an aspect of the story that leads to the question: “ Can we ever trust memory?” (Rowe). Re-enactments through Playback theatre may contribute to the fictionalization of actually false aspects of the memory; in Rowe’s case this is the Red Dress, which turned out to be pink. “ On the borderline of life and death, the colour must be red – pink will just not do” (Rowe).

Donald Spence writes of the therapist being engaged as rather “ a pattern maker than a pattern finder… in an artistic struggle” (Spence 1982). Enabling people to sit in acceptance of their narrative and themes explored through language and movement is the task of the therapist. I personally resonate a lot with Spence’s notion of making patterns as opposed to finding them. It is much more creative than reductionist in it’s approach.

Vocal language has its limitations. As people’s traumas can lie buried within tissues and sinew (Rowe), they may need to be expressed through movement and dance. This may assist to bring traumas to vocalisation, or can be experienced or witnessed as pre-verbal expression. Rowe warns therapists to be as aware as possible of potential body, personal and cultural memories that may arise in sensitive group work.

Rowe agrees with Kristeva in that a text can’t possibly be ‘ a hermitically sealed unit existing independently on other texts’. This ‘ intertextuality’ emphasises the significance of relationships between all aspects of inter-personal and intra-personal narrative. A field of open possibility allows for relationships between different texts and aspects of self to be connected through a paradox of self-definition on the one hand and re-negotiating relationships with both the audience and conductor on the other hand. This point of vulnerability allows the teller to be moulded and evaluated by the group or society at large. The stories that are enacted can have a transformative effect on the audience as well as the teller, creating a group felt shift. Annette Kuhn suggests that public and private memory show to be less separable than has been commonly believed. In this idea, what affects the protagonist is more than likely to affect the audience.

Phillips presents the idea that ‘ the only good translation is the one that invites retranslation; the one that doesn’t want to be verified so much as altered (Philips 2002).’ This philosophy reminds me of Nietzsche’s attempts at self criticisms. If a translation is hailed as the One True translation, narratives will never be able to be dynamic or interact without eventually going stagnant, but will exist as, as Rowe puts it, ‘ a new, but never final, version’. ‘ Perhaps call it play-forward theatre?’ asks Rowe, expanding on his theme of an ever-evolving reality of expressive experience.

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