On August 28, 2015, we held our second PNI hangout on the topic of power differences in PNI. We were lucky to have a caller who works in the area of social drama (speaker 4), and we talked about how drama and PNI can work together in the context of power and participation.

Here’s how the conversation went.

Speaker 1: I wanted to mention a book. It’s called Participation: The New Tyranny? Here’s something I find interesting from it. The book talks about three types of tyranny:

  • Tyranny of decision making and control, which is the normal type we think of – I choose what you will do.
  • Tyranny of the group, which has to do with group dynamics, peer pressure, self-censorship, things like that.
  • Tyranny of method, which is “that’s the way we do things around here” or just “here’s the way we’re going to go about this”.

Speaker 2: What is the first one? Is it about we are consulting you instead of we are including you in the decision?

Speaker 1: It could be, but I think it could also just be, this is the way we are going to participate.

Speaker 2: I was talking to somebody in Organizational Development, and she said she will not work with people until she knows the organization. She said, “My process is unknown until I meet with the people.” I think that’s participatory.

I feel guilty about PNI on all three levels. But the situation I often face is, I’ve got a contract, because we’ve been hired to do this, and it’s a good way to do it. But I can’t always change the way things go.

Speaker 1: I also feel guilty. When we say that part of PNI is getting to know the participants, I interpret that – or part of that – as getting to know what _process_ the people need for the project to be as participatory as it can be.

Speaker 2: For me it highlights the power dynamics that come with doing our work. In our last call we were thinking about how the power inherent in PNI is understood.

Speaker 1: I feel like because PNI works with the things everyone does already – tell and listen to stories – it is participatory to start with. But still, that doesn’t get you the whole way to full participation. I think it’s a responsibility we bear.

Speaker 2: In the organizational space, I try to make the participation as invitational as possible. When I’m running a story circle or doing an interview, I make sure people know they can decline. Though I wonder what people do hear in the invitation, because very rarely do people then not participate in the story sharing. Hearing the story
draws people in. That’s natural; that’s not coercive. My _hope_ is that the invitation to share the story is an honorable thing, and that when they do share, they are participating as freely as they want to.

Speaker 1: I use gratitude as a measure of participation. When there’s gratitude you know you’re doing it right.

Speaker 3: Do you mean some people should show gratitude, or all of them?

Speaker 1: In a good project at least ten percent of the people go out of their way to say thank you, even when you didn’t ask for feedback. But I also think it’s important to admit when you are not as participatory as you want to be.

Speaker 4: But you have to ask, what’s the appropriate level of participation in each context. Sometimes consultation is appropriate. For facilitators, it’s how can you create the enabling conditions, how can you make it more likely for you as the facilitator to have the right conditions.

Speaker 3: One thing I noticed in Theatre of the Oppressed, is that when you move from storytelling to theatre, it give people more modes of interaction. They can change their position, literally. Normally when we do workshops, people sit. Here you can lift your arm, or make a noise. Can you say something about modes of participation and relations to power differences?

Speaker 4: The language of images [in image theatre] can be interesting. As you start to move, it becomes a medium of expression. The image is a medium, in the same way as when you create a model out of matchsticks. There is a possible tyranny in that as well. It’s harder to self-censor when you are going through a mode where you are not aware of where it might lead. There is a responsibility around that.

I was at a TO workshop once and they were playing with something called “siren of mermaids,” which is a process they use. You create your synergy groups by people making different sounds in the room. People thought about the theme in question, which I think was discrimination, and they formed groups. And it all went a bit
wrong, out of control.

Speaker 1: How did it go out of control?

Speaker 4: People got emotional. There was one lady in particular who started outpouring in the group. It was intense, and they weren’t aware that would happen. When you work with sounds it can trigger deep things. Some people didn’t come back the next day. She burst into tears and all that.

When you move outside a clinical context you haven’t got the clear boundaries. It _can_ be an advantage, but especially when working with sound, it can be unpredictable. This is where ethical frameworks are very useful. You can promise a lot to people and they will participate gratefully, but is that ethical? One guy I work with says, you should promise below what you can deliver. That isn’t good for initial buy-in for participation, but it’s better for maintaining longer-term trust.

Speaker 1: I try to do that too, because the worst thing is to have people
disappointed when the thing is over. They carry that with them into the future, and also it spreads to other people.

Speaker 3: What about setting an expectation? Telling people what is expected of them? Then it’s not so much a promise as an expectation of what people will contribute in the participation. I imagine that the more oppressed and excluded people are, the less successful such an invitation would be, because you expect things of people that they are not accustomed to providing.

Speaker 4: It has to do with the level of intentionality of what people think they are doing. It becomes more relevant when you step outside of traditional research to action research. You want to know: what is the potential of making change?

When we’ve done work on water issues, for example, if someone’s coming in and they haven’t had water for a month, it will be different than if they currently have access to a water source. They will have different needs in their mind. How do you position yourself in those situations? We try to spend the first part of our time listening to expectations. People might have heard about it, had a meeting about it, know what the topic is. We say, look, this is about listening to where they are at. We are not here to promise things that will be provided.

Speaker 3: If the group of participants is in a state of chaos, it doesn’t matter what you promise. You have to attend to the issues directly. In a water case where there is no water source available, the only thing you can do is work on a method to increase the chance of getting water right away. It’s logical that people in such a situation would want to work on issues right way. In a complex situation people want different things than in a chaotic crisis one.

Speaker 1: And often different people are in different places, and different aspects are all mixed together.

Speaker 3: And that mixture is your starting point for the workshop. If some are experiencing chaos at that moment, you need to deal with it. You need to research the diversity of participants about the subject at hand. Is that about power differences? Or ability differences?

Speaker 1: It’s about power because you have the power to listen or ignore, and they don’t. But they do have the power to leave.

Speaker 4: We had a lady who carried water three hours a day, and she said she had never thought about it /really questioned it before. That’s just what she had to do.

Speaker 3: If half of your population in the workshop is experiencing chaos, that has to be dealt with immediately. But some people are experiencing it as simple.

Speaker 4: She didn’t see it as simple. She just hadn’t thought about it. She was not in a position to make change. This idea of the multi-level system understanding is important. The people at the lowest level of the system, like that woman, are in a very grounded landscape. They live in that environment. They can give a perspective through stories of what that is like, and that’s great.

I see two types of complexity: complexity around the system and complexity around the landscape.

Speaker 1: What’s the difference?

Speaker 4: The landscape is at the ground level. It’s more granular. People at the higher levels, like universities, can’t deal with that. Then there is a more systemic context.

Speaker 3: You mean at a more abstract level?

Speaker 4: Yeah, where you’ve got inter-related conditions. They are qualitatively a bit different. At the granular level it’s more performative in nature, and embodied. It’s more cognitive at the higher level. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Speaker 3: One time I went to holiday to Greece. We rented a house. There was no water. So we went to neighbours and we asked, “When is the water returning?” And they said, “There hasn’t been any water between 9 and 6 o’clock for six years. It was normal there. We came from a system where it’s very abnormal to have a water breakdown. They were from a landscape where there was another system. They had water in the morning and night. We had no coping strategy, because we didn’t expect it. But they would keep water on the stove to drink during the day.

This is the reality for them. What are the coping strategies? In some places, you turn the tap on and sometimes there’s no water for a week. Where do you get the water from in that situation? In rural areas they have to look at different things.

Speaker 4: In terms of power, where is the accountability when you have people in situations like this? What is the role of the facilitator? To have a better power dynamic, and to help people to want to participate, sometimes you need people from inside and outside the community. If you start training people up to be part of that, it’s your responsibility to put them inside a framework that is going to be more likely to work.

With forum theatre, for example, how do you get people to participate in the play? They are supposed to say “stop” and get up, but some people don’t. Instead of blaming the audience, you need to realize that they aren’t able to get across the threshold to get up. That’s where my work in socio-drama (which is broader than participatory theatre) came from, the aim was to lower the threshold so people will be willing and able to get up and participate.

In PNI, as you do the story gathering, you are giving people the capacity to engage in the subject at hand. PNI sits on the edge of reality and performance and research. Some of these processes jump over the edge. Some participatory theatre is allied to action research, but you can also have participatory theatre that is _not_ allied to action research. And you can have people using research for theatre. There is a lot of ethics around that.

There is a thing called verbatim theatre, which is using people’s own words to make the play. There was one in London that was a controversy. They used a convicted murderer’s words. People asked, “Where are the victim’s words? And did they pay him for those words?” There are so many different ways you can get into what is being created. We could all do a rain dance and pray for rain. That would be a performative act that is participatory and has an objective. What is it you’re trying to do?

I read an interesting paper by Mike Kesby about the difference between a badly executed or designed participation project, and participation as inherently tyrannical. It makes some interesting arguments around that distinction.

Speaker 1: I think both of those things can happen at the same time, poor execution and inherent power differences.¬† I’ve noticed that the word “responsibility” keeps coming up. When you do participatory work, I think you need to have responsibility for the power you have. You need to use it to truly help people in a way they would like you to help them. I think sometimes people delude themselves into thinking that they don’t have power because, you know, it’s participatory. But if you run something you have power. You can’t deny that.

Speaker 3: In the book The Work that Reconnects by Joanna Macy, she says that a facilitator should be both a participant and keeping an eye on the whole process. We say, we go away from the group and don’t disturb it. That’s a way of not being involved and not being biased. It’s staying at the process level. That gives you another kind of power. It’s saying, I’m different from you. I understand Joanna Macy’s argument, but I think it’s too far to go. It’s over-stretching facilitation. I feel an urge to participate, but I don’t want to lead the group and control¬† it. If you can participate in a way that adds without controlling, that’s fine. But you have another role to play, which is to make sure everyone gets something out of the workshop. But she says you can’t get away with just facilitating. She says you have to create a balance. I am not used to that.

Speaker 4: When things cross the threshold the decisions get harder. You have this with the question “Is PNI scientific?” Or is it quantitative or qualitative, or is it research but not science. We had a event during which a fairly inexperienced facilitator used a Joanna Macy exercise from notes. This was a session bringing groups to dialogue about the effects of partition in India. We did an exercise where we were walking around the room and looking at each other, looking deep into each other’s eyes. I was uncomfortable with it. Maybe if you were on an eco retreat. But this is an example of this whole participation-is-tyranny thing. You’ve told someone to do something, and it’s contextual whether that’s suitable. It may be fine for some people. When people sign up to a workshop where they know this type of activity happens, people will self select, and some will self exit. That’s a difference between participation in a self-selected group and participation in an community group, which is just everyone in the community without previous exposure to the methods.

Speaker 3: In the first two hours of a workshop you get a different interaction than with people you have known for a long time. You have to ask, is it a social network before they start? People might have a history.

Speaker 4: I think it’s harder to do personal work with people who have a history together. Some things you can’t talk about with your neighbor, some things you should, some things you want to. The thing about PNI is that you are able to keep certain boundaries. When you start doing experiential exercises, you can get into the wrong context more easily.

Speaker 1: I think in PNI there is a lot of responsibility to find the right method. For example, there is not one story collection method but 8 or 9. It puts the responsibility on the people running the project to find the right method for the context. Of course sometimes people don’t like that, they want to be told the one right way to do it.

Speaker 3: In Working with Stories, participatory theatre is in the intervention chapter, but it’s also a good collection method. Maybe participatory theatre is a medium or channel that can do all of the PNI steps.

Speaker 1: I agree, but it’s harder to use participatory theatre in any place other than intervention if you are just getting started. In story collection it could go all wrong to use participatory theatre if you don’t know what you are doing yet.

Speaker 3: Well, I saw that it could work for collection, that it brought stories out. If you think of complementary parallel threads, of collecting stories with digital collection plus image theatre, leading into the development process of the forum theatre play…

Speaker 4: An easier thing to start with is to have an ethnographic gathering, to use PNI as a part of the process of creating the play. The forum theatre play has to have a particular structure to make it work, this is not so critical for non-forum theatre work. In our work we do something called “pure forum” – all of the people who are performing are from the world which the play speaks to. The actors are local people. When audience members intervene in the play these local actors know deeply how to react in ways that are congruent with the local context. I have an issue with legislative theater, is that they try and make the decision making an outcome of the play. And this can make the exploration become a rather gross method, and it loses some of the meaning-making aspect. I think the deliberative stage should be addressed by starting another type of participatory process.

Speaker 3: We find what’s difficult is to get funding to do the play. We go to town halls and ask them, “What are the problems you can’t solve?” We will find people who can create a play about that issue. The play can be played out in the city theatre with all the stakeholders in the audience and interacting. If you make a play on legislation you cross the boundary, and say the play is done in the city council instead of the city theatre. You are providing input to the process but not supplanting it. That’s the discussion we had the last time, about do we have the whole system in the room. Are we a legitimate group to do the decision making?

Speaker 4: When people say “the whole system in the room”, the people in the room are not usually the people who make legislation. If you did a forum play about the legislation, and it’s all the people who _are_ legislators, that would be all right. But it’s not usually them. The people in the room have needs. You hit the complicated versus complex thing. I’ve noticed in participatory theatre that there is a difference between systemic thinking and structural thinking. The Marxists want to have structural change at the end, we should do this to change the structure and have this objective change. Other people want to have ideas. Whatdo you do when you are on the disruptive edge, on the boundary between what is proposed and what is real?

Speaker 3: If you’re doing a play and all the legislators are in the audience, then they make a decision because they’re all in the room…

Speaker 4: If you want to do that, have a meeting. Theatre is in the present, it’s the art of the present. Film is the art of the past. If you’re creating something in the present, are you _all_ creating that present reality? If I am experiencing a play with content that’s been given to me rather didactically, what is the chance for me to think critically and create something? What’s my role as an audience member?

Speaker 3: We are trying to sell this to the stakeholders who have to make a decision, so they can see and discuss and research what is going on. There is no decision making going on there, there is inquiry going on there.

Speaker 4: The challenge is when you take things from a different intentional field of practice and use them at the same time within a project. What does that mean? That’s the trans-disciplinary question. Each of these disciplines have a different set of intentional outcomes. What would describe a good play is not the same thing as what would describe a good research project. In theatre the space is really important. For PNI the integrity of the story collection is more important. These are very different ways of working. There are things I would never do, different styles. With PNI, it’s where are we on the edge between deliberative and metaphorical? You can use image theatre in a deliberative way, but you can also move it into an esoteric form. You can use image theatre to create opera. What would meet your strategic objectives when creating an opera is not the same. Our approach is for different fields to be configured, because if you just put one field on top of the other, they get compromised.

Speaker 1: I think of participatory theatre as intervention because it’s more coercive – in a good way. The conversation is shaped more deliberately. It goes along with appreciative inquiry and narrative

Speaker 4: In PNI, people are being asked to have some understanding of why they are being asked to tell stories. There is a difference between something that simply elicits material, like ethnography, and something that feeds the material back to people.

Speaker 1: Things like TO and AI and NT make a wave that bears people along. PNI in the beginning makes tiny wavelets that just barely nudge people into things they would do already (share stories). There is a larger wave in sensemaking, and bigger in intervention. But in the
collection phase, there is either a series of tiny wavelets or no waves at all, just listening to what people are doing already.

Speaker 3: There was this paper out recently about people who were trying to reproduce social studies and could not. [LINK] It reminded me of a remark by an agricultural professor. He said that people select a methodology and forget to think about the “pissing distance” that the methodology can allow. That’s similar to ripples. How big are the ripples you can create in a system before the waves hit the wall and cause problems? You can create waves that are too big. Your narrative ecology has to survive the ripples you make in your PNI project. If you are more advanced in the system and know it better, you can make bigger waves. You might say, this is more adventurous, but we can do it because we trust each other. It depends on the relationships you have with people. There’s the whole example of, are you white or black and are you asking for stories? Our Bangladesh project only worked because the white woman was taking a walk while the Muslim woman stayed to collect stories. When the white woman came back, she could join the conversation because the Muslim woman had established a relationship.

Speaker 4: There’s a performative aspect to that workshop. That’s a performative moment. But it’s still trying to be action research. You can get that with image theatre, but you can’t cluster and…

Speaker 3: Doing story elements after doing image theatre?

Speaker 1: I’m still figuring out what should go before what in the combination.

Speaker 3: When we did it, we collected stories before the play was created.

Speaker 1: That’s a natural fit. In PNI we build bigger stories out of smaller stories, and in participatory theatre you create larger stories also. Those smaller stories could come from PNI.

Speaker 3: Story elements could do that too.

Speaker 1: Yes. I would put the story elements before the play.

Speaker 3: Yes, in the play creation process. It becomes a good commercial prospect for clients. We also use the play creation process to create a story form, as pilot work to a larger project.

Speaker 4: The thing to think about is, how do you deploy the project? What happens in the workshops?

The conversation ended here, simply because PNI Hangouts are destined to last about an hour and people have other things to do in their schedule. We hope you find these write-ups useful. They are useful to us anyway because they act as a kind of knowledge diary. A place to look up various perspectives on topics we discussed.

By the way, readers, if you are interested in talking to any of the people listed in these hangouts (we know who they are), send us an email and we will ask them if they would like to contact you.