September 23, 2010

Thinking about talkbacks

I don't usually enjoy talkbacks. There, I said it. It's not about hating my audience or anything like that, but I generally don't get much out of them. I don't get much out of it artistically because I don't rewrite according to what people like or don't like, particularly with regards to content or subject matter. I don't get much out of it personally because being the center of attention for that long, and for a work that is still in progress, it's unrealistic for anyone (including me) to expect me to be "sufficiently detached" from my work to expect me to be receptive to criticism without being discouraged by it. So I'm in this weird position of having to decide between accepting everything or ignoring everything - and if I ignore everything, what's the point of wasting anybody's time with a talkback?

Frankly, most talkbacks feel like something that artists do because they want to say that they care what the audience thinks. A connection between people or a deeper engagement with the work is pretty rare. For the most part, they just come, leave their $0.02, and leave. It's the rare audience member who uses talkbacks as an opportunity to get better acquainted with a particular piece or a company (like I did for The Cell Theatre through Blackboard Plays).

I do believe that most artists genuinely want to hear from the audience about what their work does for them. It's just that they see talkback as part of the play development process when it seems much better suited as a tool for audience development.

Think about it. In what other part of a play's process is the audience so intimately involved? In what other part of a play's process can the audience make so direct a connection not only with us artists, but with each other? Even during opening night, the most you'll get from an audience is that they come in, watch the show, then leave without talking to anyone for longer than about 5 minutes. And after that they might write an article or a blog post reviewing the performance.

What a waste!

There's so much more you can do than the typical talkback format. How about instead of taking 20 minutes or half an hour to tell the artists how to make their art, transform the generic talkback into a roundtable - complete with snacks and refreshments? How would that change the dynamic of audience members giving their reactions to a work?

That's sort of what I'm planning for the birthday party after the staged reading of Tulpa, or Anne&Me. I'd much rather watch a discussion amongst audience members about the things the play brings up and what that means for the audience as opposed to them asking me a bunch of questions. As much as I love writer crack, talking about myself does get boring. I'm far more interested in watching the audience wrestle with the work and bring that struggle out to each other - not in a combative or aggressive way, but with a frankness that the work hopes to encourage. What good is it for a piece to say, "We need to have these conversations" and follow up by not having them?


  1. I've seen one way in which the talkback is productive... for the theater company. Active Cultures uses the talkback as a chance to ask audience members what kind of plays they'd like to see. That strikes me as pretty powerful audience development.. especially because they actually listen.

  2. Gwydion:

    That's a crucial element, I believe. If the audience doesn't have an actual impact on what goes on, talkbacks too often feel like spinning wheels.

  3. First off, I think The Cell/Blackboard Plays does an excellent job of facilitating discussions and creating an intelligent dialogue that is helpful to the playwright and informative to the audience. I agree that talkbacks can be arduous. I also agree that if you're not using your "powers" for good-then why have the discussion? I explore this idea with my theater conservatory called The Tofu Chitlin' Circuit. Not only do we ask questions within the text to explore meaning and depth, we implore the "Circuiteers" to get out and do something about it. I think people are afraid to give the audience a little more freedom. This is the ONLY art form where we ask for feedback sans film. Theater is notorious for "talkbacks" that lead no where. Thanks for the topic. I'm a my blog when you have time.

  4. @thetofuchitlincircuit:

    I think people are afraid to give the audience a little more freedom.

    I wonder what they think the audience is gonna do. What's the harm in letting them interact more naturally?