On Talkbacks, pt. 1

I'm a dramaturg, which means I've led my fair share of talkbacks. I'm also a theatre-goer, which means I've sat through more TOTALLY HORRIBLE ONES. You can feel a palpable stomach-lurch in the crowd when the play ends and a talkback is announced. If you're lucky, the organizer gives everyone a moment or two after curtain to choose to leave or stay; if you're unlucky, they catch the audience before anyone can get up and start the talkback immediately, making it awkward for you to sneak out should you so desire. Then, usually someone--the playwright, the director, the actors--joins the organizer on stage. If you're lucky, there's a specific topic at hand to be discussed; if you're unlucky, whoever's up there rambles on about something that may or may not (usually not) be interesting, and then it turns into an incredibly awkward and horribly prompted, "What did you all think?" Then, if you're lucky, a few observant, articulate people make a comment or ask a question or two; if you're unlucky, that one person goes on a 15-minute diatribe that seems to ultimately be about something wholly unrelated to the play.

Talkbacks are about being specific and setting boundaries. Talkbacks are better if there's a subject selected beforehand, usually resonating with one or many of the play's themes. If it's a new work, talkbacks might be used to glean audience information from a new production, which can also be incredibly useful for everyone involved but especially the playwright. Talkbacks should never, ever, absolutely EVER be a moment to see whether the audience "liked" the play or not: again, specifics are your friend should you ever face the task of organizing a talkback. Whether or not the audience "liked" a play is useless information and will change every night.

In my opinion, the most important thing about talkbacks is putting the event in context for your audience, and then reining them the fuck in. Context is important for everyone, and setting the scene for your audience allows you to most effectively prompt them into participation or steer them away from other things. For instance, if the play is new, please for the love of all things good and true do not look an audience in the face and ask, "What things did you like? Or dislike!" Like or dislike is too subjective: the answers won't be helpful, and they'll either be overtly positive (therefore useless to any revision process) or negative based on each individual's personal tastes and preferences. Instead, give them context--"One of the things that made this play stand out to us was its use of a nonlinear timeline, switching back and forth between past and present based on conversational triggers..."--and then ask a specific question designed to get feedback that the production team is interested in--"...were you able to follow the timeline? When did you get lost? Were the transitions between time periods clear?" If you do this, you will cut down on 90% of the bullshit comments/questions that plague most talkbacks. 

The inspiration for the post occurred recently--I suffered the most infuriating talkback experience of my life a couple weeks ago. It was a college-level preview performance of what some consider a more difficult play; I went in with low expectations and was pleasantly surprised to see a lot of solid work being done by the actresses on stage. It was a decidedly fine production--aesthetics were terrible, there were a handful of questionable choices, but all in all, a perfectly fine 2.5 hours. The play ended, we clapped, the actors bowed, the lights came up. A small audience of perhaps 25-40 people began to leave. The director walked out, thanked us for coming, and began to walk away. Suddenly she whipped around and stopped us: "We usually do a talkback after these preview performances, actually, so we'd love to hear from you!" I was literally standing in the aisle, halfway to the exit, but I and my partner turned to pay attention, not wanting to be rude.

After a lot of bumbling about what a hard, difficult show it was, the director's first question was: "So--did you guys get it?"

I realize not everyone is as sensitive to these comments as I am, but I was livid. Sure, it's a play notorious for a confusing first act that seems to have nothing to do with the second act. Unless you have a brain, in which case even if you don't get it you still pretty much get it. Also, sorry, but this is one of the most famous plays written by a woman--there's a reason it's well-known, and it's not because audiences don't get it.

The last thing you want to do in a talkback is make your audience feel stupid, and though I don'tthink that's what the director meant to do, it was still a byproduct in my mind. And the real reason felt even more offensive--it felt like a desperate need for validation based on a cringe-worthily obvious insecurity. Talkbacks are not for you--the director, the playwright, the artistic producer, the actor--to assuage your insecurities with a real live audience. Quite frankly, if you're that insecure about your production, I'm not sure I want to see it, not if you don't have an ounce of assurance about your own work. There are risky productions; there are things you're not sure an audience will take to; there are stories that need to be tested to see if they really resonate. All theatre artists are occasionally insecure. But if you don't have the conviction if your own choices, why the fuck would you expect me to sit around for 2.5 hours to give you a pat on the back? No ma'am, everyone's time is more precious than that, including your own. You wrote or picked the play for a reason, didn't you? Something about it made sense to you, didn't it?

But the talkback from hell went on. The director must have asked anywhere from 6-10 times, "Anything else? We welcome all your comments and feedback." And that was the only question she asked. The most specific she got all night was, "Didja guys get it?" and followed that up with, "I'm not even really sure I get it myself!" What a disservice, to yourself, to the audience, to the playwright, to your actresses who worked their asses off onstage, to every single person involved in this evening of theatre. Then, even worse than that, she'd brought all the actresses out onstage in their costumes, and finally (and perhaps unexpectedly) she opened it up to them.

"What about you girls? Do you all have any questions for the audience?"

Again, no guidance, no specificity, just opening the floor to young students--many for whom this was their first show--to ask whatever their hearts desired. Most of them politely shook their heads, but one girl asked one question. What do you think it was?

"Did you guys like it?"

NOT. THE QUESTION. YOU ASK. AN AUDIENCE. And it wasn't the actress' fault--she's a student, it's someone's job to teach her what questions to ask and why.

The whole thing lasted about 15 minutes, which doesn't sound terrible until you realize the audience made a maximum of 3 comments during that time, and one of them towards the end, after many rounds of being prompted to say something, was, "I thought the girl who played the mom did a really great job. I really felt her emotions." BECAUSE THAT'S ALSO WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU PUSH AN AUDIENCE TO MAKE COMMENTS, they start to get into the compliments that should be delivered after the show instead of in front of all the other actresses who worked just as hard. Most of the 15 minutes was filled by the director, rambling about her own misunderstandings of the play, her own difficulties, then forcing the audience to assuage her doubt, then forcing them to make comments on a topic she hadn't given them.

Again, I'm sure very few people in the audience felt any type of way about this, perhaps a little awkward, at most. Perhaps they didn't walk out feeling like the director called them stupid; perhaps they didn't walk out wondering why they'd sat through a production that the director didn't even believe in; perhaps they didn't feel like they'd been gagged and bound and forced to pet someone they were already there to support. But I did, and perhaps one or two of them did too.

That's one or two too many.