Although I haven’t acted in some time, I recently spent three hours over the course of one week on stage, in front of an audience, without the benefit of fictional characterization. My cameo wasn’t voluntary; my contract required me to be there. I spent much of the time listening to and making redundant comments, “explaining” a play I’d just directed. The playwright, actors, audience and myself had become victims of the post-play discussion.
“Why not let an audience voice its opinion?” say some producers. “After all, they’ve paid their way. What harm can they do?” But is it harmless when in a post-play discussion an actress hears her performance criticized without substantiation, or when a spectator mistakes a playwright’s considered perspective on race relations for his own prejudices? No matter how a majority of the audience feels, ill-considered criticisms can adversely affect writers and performers, especially in the fragile environment of a new play process. Discussion leaders often only add to the muddle and mischief.
With the new play process, the discussion can take an especially noxious form. Audiences are told too often that they are watching an unfinished product which they are helping to shape. They are asked to become fellow artists in the collaborative process. Is it any wonder that audiences take this to mean there are weaknesses in the play that they must ferret out? I heard one recent discussion introduced this way: “The playwright is here to listen to your comments and use them in reworking the play.” Naturally the audience unleashed a barrage of criticisms that distorted both the play and their generally positive response to it.
The new play, post-production discussion (which I distinguish here from discussions among professionals after play readings or workshops) implies that theatre professionals, unlike other artists, need specific advice from laymen to complete their work. A visual artist would never think to include a casual observer’s reaction in the development of a work; it would seem only natural that theatre artists should take credit and responsibility for their plays. An audience’s participation is crucial, but it is its moment-to-moment responses as a group, not individual comments immediately following a performance that affect the artists. Specific comments rarely
make a difference in the development of a play, but one is always aware of and attentive to the hush of an audience, its fidgeting at ineffective moments, its laughter and tears. Even in a country that tries to hold its arts up to democratic procedures, the vision of the artist cannot be subject to audience complaints or to a majority vote.
Post-play discussions—with or without artistic personnel—can be far from harmless. At a recent discussion the most eloquent remark was made (from the audience) by a playwright. He said he found it extremely dispiriting that theatre artists work so hard for two or three hours to create an
epiphany—only to have it dispelled by a 20-minute question-and-answer session. In other words, a play is a work of art, not an academic exercise; plays aren’t lectures that can be distilled. Good plays bear their own conclusons. Discussions vitiate the final moment of a production and dilute the power of performance by insisting that a play is “finished” only when it is followed by a critique. At best a discussion merely summarizes a play’s ideas, reconstituting it into a lesser form.
As most playwrights, actors and directors will testify, audiences will use discussions inevitably to seek clarificafion, to attempt to sccure a simple, brief meaning that will encapsulate the experience. Since only poor plays can be oiled down to an epigram, discussions can be anathema to the artistic process. They inherently assume that plays should provide answers, when we should be conveying to audiences that plays pose questions. Discussions foster the need for resolution instead of encouraging the acceptance of ambiguity.
I recently fled in haste at the start of a discussion of a complex, highly ambiguous new play. But before I could reach the door, I heard audience members shouting at the discussion leader: “What did it mean?!” Is it possible that because they knew a discussion would follow the performance these spectators didn’t work as hard as they might have to grasp the play? It’s hard to imagine any answer to their question that could help them develop their skills of appreciation and do justice to the play.
My opinions obviously are those of an artist involved in creating a work; theatre educators and those not directly involved may see value in post-play discussions, especially if they focus on questions about the theatrical process. While I acknowledge the value of educating an audience, I believe that both performance and education would best be served by the, separating of the two. Just as we wouldn’t expect to ask a violinist how he accomplished a difficult passage immediately following a concert, we should separate theatrical performance from questions about process. This would not only respect the integrity of a performance but also increase the value of a discussion held later.
Discussions could serve a real educational purpose if we were willing to take them more seriously. As a possibility, a core group of spectators could be introduced, in a series of meetings, to the reasons for producing the play, its dramaturgical background, and the key concerns of the actors, director and designers. Then a post-play discussion, held on a day
other than the performance, might provide a valuable opportunity for an audience to apply its understanding. Most important, it would educate the audience to the necessity of knowledge and understanding as prerequisites for responsible criticism.
Michael Bloom is a director and writer.
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