To provide opportunities for all audience members to engage with a production
To create more touchpoints for the audience by adding tech-based talkbacks and pre- and post-show events
Encouraging audience members to connect with artists personally and in the way they best like to communicate
What needs work
Opening “tech” talkbacks to more participants, consistently offering alternative talkbacks
Following a Saturday night performance of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, actor George Psarras relaxed backstage at City Lights Theater Company in San Jose, Calif. He was getting ready for the post-show talkback—but he wasn’t heading out to the stage to join his castmates or the director on folding chairs, and that night’s audience hadn’t stuck around in their seats to ask questions and banter with the performers. For this talkback, Psarras simply logged on to the computer.
“Fascinating production,” one person texted. “I’ve never seen multiple actors play Edward Hyde in the same show. Was it challenging working with other actors who had different interpretations of the role?”
The question was one of many in a new kind of talkback from CLTC, which for the past few years has been experimenting with tech-based talkbacks and alternative forms of audience engagement. It’s all part of an effort to remove many of the traditional barriers to participation, as well as deepen the connection audiences and artists have with the organization, which prides itself on offering “innovative, intimate” theatre. In addition to inviting patrons to text an actor one-on-one, City Lights began encouraging audiences to casually engage with the theatre and specific works, both before and after performances, in person and virtually, in whatever way felt most comfortable, explains Lisa Mallette, executive artistic director of CLTC.
“I started to feel like maybe the old-fashioned talkbacks weren’t as successful and engaging as they could be,” recalls Mallette, who took on her current role in 2004 and began seriously questioning the talkback status quo a few years ago. “Part of what I do in my work all the time is challenge my own assumptions by constantly asking, Are we just doing this because this is the way we’ve always done it?”
Mallette found out the answer was yes and no. When City Lights polled audiences about engagement, theatre leaders discovered there were still many attendees who would schedule themselves to attend the single performance that included a post-show talkback. Still, Mallette says, CLTC was looking to encourage “true, authentic engagement” and knew talkbacks did not work for everyone. What if a parent had to rush home to relieve a babysitter? What if someone simply felt too shy or uncomfortable to participate? CLTC’s interactive lobby displays, pre-show discussions, and virtual engagement boosted engagement with those missed audiences.
With funding from Silicon Valley Creates’ Creative Impact Fund, CLTC leaders began working with Ron Evans, a strategic advisor to cultural organizations, during the theatre’s 2014-15 season to launch an experiment. Instead of directing questions to a row of artists sitting in front of them onstage, CLTC patrons could watch a video chat, join a conference call, or text in a question.
Though this approach might seem to have been designed to appeal to younger, more tech-savvy patrons, these experimental talkbacks were not designed for any specific group. People often leave the theatre with unanswered questions, Evans says, and virtual connections can keep a conversation going. Giving them a forum to air those queries can turn a casual theatregoer into a dedicated patron, he adds.
“A few people have come back and said, ‘Does this make people live on their screens more? Talkbacks should be face-to-face,’” Evans says. “We’ve never suggested that any of these things replace the traditional talkback or be done instead of a traditional talkback. But we do feel that there is an opportunity to engage the type of person who doesn’t want to stay afterward or simply can’t stay afterward, yet wants to live in the richness of the world of the play longer.”
All the technologies used for City Lights’ effort were either available for free or at a low cost, says Evans, making it easy for other theatres to experiment with talkbacks through technology or social media. But at the same time, depending on the presentation of the alternative talkbacks, the events can still seem special enough that they feel like a unique experience—perhaps the kind that would only be available to subscribers.
The first experimental talkback in 2015 looked similar to a traditional one, with 23 audience members staying behind in person to ask questions. It was with playwright Lauren Gunderson, who was there virtually; she appeared on a 32-inch monitor, connected to a MacBook Pro for a video conference hosted by CLTC marketing director Rebecca Wallace. Audience members had just attended David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, but this “virtual speaker talkback” was meant as a preview for the company’s upcoming production of Gunderson’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear.
Patrons were thrilled at the opportunity to chat with a playwright, but CLTC leaders realized future video chats would need a larger screen. Though they discussed potentially live-streaming the discussion, it was not possible at the time because the theatre lacked fast-enough internet. Technical issues also came up during a later conference call-based talkback, which attracted only a handful of participants. But organizers realized that if it had received a larger response, they might not have been able to juggle questions from all the callers. Evans suggested that if CLTC wants to pursue this idea again, and open the call up to anyone who saw a production during its run, a webinar system might be a better option.
Anecdotally, the most successful of the early talkback experiments was the text-message-based one, which used Pinger.com, a free online service that allowed Psarras, the participating actor, to receive audience texts on a computer, keeping his own phone number private. About 20 minutes after curtain, audience members began texting the number, which they had been invited to do as they left the theatre. Psarras theorizes that people too shy or embarrassed to ask questions at traditional talkbacks felt empowered to text in.
“I think the one-on-one aspect can feel more personal,” Psarras says. “Also, the protective shield that people have when they text makes if feel more personal as well. Texting, emails—they feel very safe. I can’t say how the texting changed the nature of the questions themselves, but due to the fact that it was texting instead of in person, I may have been asked a question from someone who may not have had the courage to ask it in person.”
Although Psarras was the only actor scheduled to participate in the texting talkback, the introspective questions encouraged other actors to gather backstage and strike up their own conversations—a totally unplanned natural outgrowth of the talkback. That said, Psarras thinks the texting conversations remained more connected to audience development than artistic development. No matter what kind of feedback Psarras receives from patrons following a performance, Psarras says he has to remain confident in what he presented onstage.
“Actors need the audience as the final piece of the puzzle,” Psarras says. “But we as artists ultimately have to own the choices that we and the director have put forth. Very rarely, if ever, would or should you change something as the result of an audience member’s experience.”
Still, engagement can strengthen the ties artists and audiences feel toward an organization, and continuous experimentation is part of CLTC’s identity. In addition to experimenting with tech-based talkbacks, CLTC has also questioned when and how to encourage interaction. In revitalizing CLTC’s spate of audience engagement and mixing traditional methods with virtual and novel approaches, Mallette and others on staff realize that any opportunity to encourage connections between audiences and artists is important.
Following the initial experiments, CLTC didn’t make tech-based talkbacks a regular occurrence. Instead they kept experimenting, adding pre-show “briefings” and interactive lobby displays for audiences to post questions or comments on. This season they plan to return to tech-based talkbacks and are especially interested in offering another video conference with a playwright and a texting conversation.
It’s all part of mixing the old with the new, and it seems to be working: Over the past few years ticket sales have doubled and subscriptions have gone up, according to Mallette, who attributes the rise to an increase in overall audience participation. There is no single best way to engage with audiences, she has realized. Among the new engagement methods Mallette has established at CLTC is more old school than high-tech: an onstage party. Directly following every performance, an artist invites patrons to come onto the stage for food, drink, and conversation. There’s usually something that ties back to the production—like serving Oreos after a performance of Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons, which ran at CLTC this winter—but no formal agenda.
Mallette says CLTC started hosting the parties because she found that actors greeting audience members in the lobby following a show seemed too formal. She worried that patrons felt pressure to say something nice and leave, but not really engage. In a party environment, though, Mallette finds that audience members are more comfortable asking for behind-the-scenes information or sharing a personal experience connected to the play.
Audience development should feel personal, Mallette says. With theatres across the country looking to encourage new patrons, be more inclusive, and broaden their reach, Mallette says it is especially important for CLTC to tell stories that are relevant to the community, then meet audiences where they are to continue the conversation.
“I think that we have to just not say, ‘If we build it, they will come,’” Mallette says, “And we need to reach out and tap people on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, we’re building this, are you into it? Want to talk about it?’”
Dara McBride, a former intern of this magazine, is a Delaware-based writer, editor, and podcaster.