Communication Currents

Disaster Narratives, Community Loss, and Playback Theatre

April 1, 2012
Theater & Performance

Interactive performance work, based upon disaster narrative research, extends communication about the meaning of such events for communities, leading to reform in disaster preparation and response. Recently in the U. S. we commemorated the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attack, and in 2012 we reach the 100th anniversary of the Titanic shipwreck with public exhibits that remember and reconsider the event. We now view Katrina hurricane documentaries of tragic experiences and read oral histories of those who still face loss of home.  While we hear of current floods, tornados, oil spills, earthquakes, and other major disruptions to life and place, communities continue to recognize the impact of disaster events.  As global climate change and incidents of environmental damage increase, communication researchers understand the importance of personal experience stories emerging from disasters in their collective performing of loss, identity, and resistance.  Creative work from specialists in performance studies can foster interaction, leading to response to immediate needs with deeper effectiveness and respect, and to building improved aftermath support.

Phyllis Scott Carlin studied disaster stories from letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, court records, community archives, memoirs, and oral history interviews. She reviewed different types of disasters that occurred during the past century, primarily in the U.S., both well known and local, and where residents consider the impact to be significantly destructive of life and property. Carlin's research merges with the work of Linda Park-Fuller as she investigated the way that performance methods can interrogate, replay, and advocate for disaster survivors' experiences. The performance of research engages the personal experience stories with audiences and extends what we learn from them.  Park-Fuller specifically reviewed the current performance work in staging disaster events in Playback Theatre, although our suggestions apply to the multiple ways that performance of disaster narrative can occur.

Disaster narratives, told or recorded in a range of situations, across time and place, share commonalities that present a unique cultural genre of performance in everyday life.  Tellers sense, even immediately, and upon reflection, that they are a part of an important event and that they are participating in documenting, interpreting, and speaking with and for others in the experience. Disaster narratives share the dramatic moments of initial realization of trouble, life-changing decisions, extreme challenge, and shock.  They describe flight, escape, near misses and incredibly difficult episodes of destruction, injury, and terror.  Narrators use artistic, moving language, speaking to paint the scene and express to listeners the extreme nature of experience through images, metaphoric language, and recalled fragments of unforgettable interaction before, during and after the events.  Especially in the stories told upon reflection, days or years after, these elements of gripping narrative combine with tellers' own assessments of the experience.  Here we find yet another source of crucial understanding of what disaster means as tellers recount the heroes, the villains, the negligent, and dramatically provide examples of failed/missing communication, and critical turning-point conversations.  Such narrators show the way to improved preparation, to effective community response, to insightful aftermath programming, to justice and respect for all affected.

One of the significant and unique features of disaster narrating resides in how such stories continue to reach audiences through time and beyond an immediate listener. This is the case for stories from one hundred years ago, as well as in more contemporary times.  Survivors repeat and revise their stories throughout their lives, sharing in the immediate aftermath with community members, friends and relatives, or writing letters, diaries, emails, some of which become publicly available to an extended audience. In addition, narrators tell versions of that story to news reporters, to oral historians, writers, and filmmakers who extend the life of the story in time as well as place. We can still hear stories of the early 1900's  San Francisco earthquake, the 1930's dust storms,  and from throughout the century, factory fires, collapsed mines, tornadoes, explosions, and river floods. 

For those in education, community planning, and social service work, the potential to better understand disaster experience through the narratives exists in several ways. First, tellers express social commentary in their critique of policies, procedures, leadership, and information access.  These stories create a clear and compelling view of what really happens in a disaster, what needs are not met well, and who is left without resources.  The stories reveal inequity in opportunity for escape, rescue, support, and recovery. Also, the impact of interpersonal communication failure emerges clearly, signaling the importance of talk with contacts during disasters. This is a crucial area for communication practitioners to pursue, and goes beyond effective public announcements, as survivors' stories show repeatedly that a life can be saved by a neighbor's act, and trauma is reduced by community interaction before, during, and after a disaster.

Finally, we call attention to the potential for communities, organizations, and schools to work through disaster stories in scripting and staging them.   When disaster narratives are produced as "performed research", the layers of meaning are further revealed, understanding of disaster experience develops, and the potential social force of the stories emerges for extended audiences.  One specific performance method is Playback Theatre, an improvisational ensemble approach with strategies that result in audience members' stories being performed by actors ( and playbacknet dot org).   For examples, after 9/11, Katrina, and the Haiti earthquake, Playback Theatre performances were held across the U.S. featuring the stories that survivors told, opening discussion and reflection upon social implications.

As we reviewed narratives across more than a century, we could see that much remains unchanged for those who suffer in disasters.  In critical ways, we have not addressed significant issues from what disaster stories tell us, and these shared memories continue to indicate serious needs for action. As Playback Theatre strategies illustrate, communication and performance practitioners, teachers, and creative artists have an opportunity to begin with work that remembers and reenacts, and then continues further to lead communities toward change.

About the author (s)

Phyllis Scott Carlin

University of Northen Iowa


Linda M. Park-Fuller