“Write a horror story for your industry using just four words,” prompted the popular business Twitter account @MorningBrew.
“Stay for the talkback.”
“Actually, it’s a comment.”
“Please join us afterwards.”
“Questions from the audience?”
It was a popular source of humor among the theatre industry responses: the universal dislike of post-show talkbacks. I cringed with familiarity: At the time of the live, in-person theatre shutdown on March 12, 2020, I had moderated 101 talkbacks in my role as resident dramaturg at New York’s Signature Theatre, with roughly another 50 or so in previous literary positions, before I started keeping an official count. I’ve seen it all, and I have some thoughts.
Why are talkbacks so disliked among those of us within the industry? It’s not a stretch to see why: Talkbacks are a demand on our time and spirit, they give space for rude and harmful comments from audience members, and they ask that we distill a nuanced and sprawling artistic process down into 20-minute chats. It’s a fair question to ask, then: Why do we keep doing them?
To answer that query, we have to dig into the disconnect between what we want or claim that talkbacks are accomplishing, and what they are actually doing. Ask any theatre in America what the purpose of talkbacks are, and you will likely be given variations on the same theme: They are designed to deepen the audience’s engagement with the work onstage. How do we know when a talkback has succeeded in that goal? It’s almost impossible to measure. And even when it is arguably achieved for some audiences or individuals, the price of such “engagement” can often threaten the safety and well-being of our artists.
The format of talkbacks varies slightly from theatre to theatre, but generally speaking, they are moderated discussions that take place immediately following a performance. Sometimes these talkbacks involve the playwright and/or director, sometimes the actors, and sometimes just a member of the theatre’s artistic staff. Almost always, by definition a talkback involves taking questions from audience members.
While a deeper engagement with the work is the oft-cited aim of talkbacks, they are frequently underwritten by corporate and foundation donors, because by some metrics their “success” can be easily measured for final reports (i.e., number of talkbacks, number of attendees), which provides ample opportunity for a donor’s brand visibility on signage. In most theatres’ budgets, talkbacks appear on paper to be cheap to produce, with costs typically including extending the hours of the stage crew, sound board op, and front-of-house staff. Sometimes artists will be given a small honorarium in exchange for their time, a practice that is thankfully becoming more common but was practically unheard of even a few years ago.
But while the direct costs of talkbacks are low, the indirect costs are high. Extending the performance day can have an outsized effect on the commute home for those involved; a work day that is 30 minutes longer might make the difference between an express train and a local one, or sacrificing much needed sleep or time with family. When talkbacks are held after evening performances in particular, this can also have an effect on the safety of the commute. I recall one sparsely populated subway ride on the way home from a talkback in which an actor and I were mercilessly harassed by another rider; thankfully a bystander intervened and de-escalated the situation, as the harassment was turning physical. (The actor, without missing a beat, thanked our hero and invited him to see the show.)
In June 2020, among the list of demands published by We See You White American Theater were a few about talkbacks. It’s crucial that these not be glossed over. The first mention reads in full:
We demand fair compensation for BIPOC artists for appearance at donor events, audience talkbacks, and any other appearances of work that falls outside of their position as detailed in their contract.
Theatres must cease all expectation of BIPOC artists or staff working outside of the expectations of the positions itself as prescribed in the BIPOC artist or staff member’s hiring paperwork/contract. No pressure shall be put on any BIPOC artist or staff member to assist with marketing, fundraising, etc. without proper compensation and credit.
On first read, the central point here is clear: People should be paid for the work they do. But it’s vital that we also rectify the harmful expectations by which pressure, implicit or explicit, is placed on artists to participate in “optional” events. At many theatres, participants in post-show discussions are listed as vaguely as possible in promotional materials (“artistic staff” and “members of the creative team” are common labels), often with the caveat “subject to change.” But the culture of talkbacks is such that audiences arrive with the expectation of being in proximity with artists.
Over the years I have moderated talkbacks, I have had three instances in which no artists were participating in the post-show discussion, and each time I watched large swaths of the audience angrily exit, leaving me alone onstage with a microphone. The message was clear: Folks were not there to engage in conversation about the play; they craved proximity to the artists. What kind of a culture have we created when our audiences feel entitled to the time and spirit of artists, even after the curtain has dropped?
This sense of entitlement can lead, and has led, to harm. If we go back to the supposed mission of talkbacks (to spark dialogue and engage more deeply with the work), what is a fair exchange of energy among those involved? Too often, audience members treat these discussions as their own personal platforms, demanding to be given time and focus in exchange for having been in the audience. In its worst form, the format of a talkback can give voice to this entitlement, with audience members attacking the play or the performances.
To find healthy, sustainable ways to foster engagement with audiences, we must first acknowledge that some of these same audience members can cause real damage. In my years moderating talkbacks, I’ve had numerous experiences with audience members who ask questions filled with racist and sexist language. It was not uncommon for audience members to pointedly ask about the ethnic background of particular BIPOC actors, or to use the talkback to say that they hadn’t been able to understand the dialogue (a complaint I never heard during talkbacks for shows with majority-white casts, even ones filled with accents). While I have attempted to de-escalate or correct course on these questions, the harm had already been done in allowing these toxic questions to be publicly voiced in the first place.
I realize now that my behavior as a moderator was insufficient. In the name of so-called “customer service,” I didn’t call out these problematic questions; I didn’t make them teachable moments. Instead I tried to rephrase and reframe, leaving the artists onstage to respond while the hurtful language still hung in the air. As administrators, it is unethical to put our artists in harm’s way; it is unethical to demand their emotional labor. I should have known better. I should have done better.
Let me preempt the inevitable response: Of course, not all talkbacks are bad! I have had many good ones—talkbacks that felt safe and progressive and kind and fruitful and connective. But the fact remains that the typical structure of a post-show discussion facilitates more of the harmful kind that the helpful ones. The next question to answer is: How can we do better?
In order to improve on talkbacks, we must first interrogate the structure of them. While it’s clear that talkbacks can go astray and become boisterous, they are fundamentally built with the same intent as the traditional theatre model: They assume polite speakers and polite listeners. And we have to acknowledge that that structure—a binary opposition of talking and listening—is one that is inherently Western, colonialist, and patriarchal. If we truly want to deepen an audience’s engagement with the work onstage, how dare we insist that that engagement can come only in the form of this narrow permission structure? (In composing this piece, I tried to find out who invented the panel discussion. While I was unable to track down a specific name, I feel fairly confident that it was a man.)
One of the best changes that has occurred in the last few years is the increasing popularity of affinity nights: performances that specifically welcome audience members from a certain background, usually with a post-show discussion to follow. I have not personally witnessed or hosted one of these talkbacks, but I have heard from friends and colleagues that the depth of conversation that can be fostered in such a safe and protected space is profound.
A crucial component in improving talkbacks is to question the relationship we’ve come to expect in these discussions between artists and audience members. There has been an expectation for years that, after having quietly sat through an artist’s production, audience members are then entitled to ask questions of those artists. There is something about the liveness of theatre that invites this kind of feedback—when was the last time you stopped a painter on the street to share your thoughts on their most recent exhibit?—but this is an unhealthy dynamic. If we want artists to share their creative process and we also want audiences to voice their thoughts, we must come to terms with the fact that those two things need not and indeed should not occur within the same event.
In pre-COVID times, if someone had asked me what my dream post-show event was, I would have pointed to theatre’s complicated older sibling: religion. While places of worship are experiencing many of the same dilemmas as theatres (attendance is down, the building needs a new HVAC system, sitting quietly for more than an hour is a challenge), one thing that is frequently done well is the post-service experience. Fellowship lunches, Oneg Shabbat—the real work of engagement is done after the service proper, in gatherings with food and looser rules of behavior. What powerful conversations could transpire if every theatre ticket came with a meal and a place to eat it? While this certainly wouldn’t prevent audience members from deploying toxic language, having audience members engage with each other instead of demanding “answers” from artists or staff could perhaps allow people to engage with the work in a way that departs from a hierarchical “us-versus-them,” talking-and-listening binary.
If a full post-show meal service isn’t possible, there are other ways of making talkbacks healthier and safer, but they do require significant changes to the current format. For each production, administrators and artists need to have a conversation where we ask: Does this feel like a situation where we should allow audience members to ask live questions, or submit them in advance? Do we need to have artists responding, or should it be experts in a certain field? Does this production benefit from an immediate post-show discussion, or might we instead structure the audience’s experience differently?
There isn’t going to be a one-sized-fits-all solution. Administrators need to approach every production anew, asking artists: How do you want to relate to your audiences, and have audiences relate to you? We need to be prepared to reinvent the wheel every time, to treat every opportunity like a fresh chance to explore connection. This means we won’t be able to slot in a half-dozen talkback dates in time for subscribers to book their season tickets. And that’s a good thing.
Changing talkbacks is just one part of a theatre system that needs to be entirely overhauled. As we make (slow, incremental, long overdue) changes in the kind of theatre we are presenting, the theatre community needs to keep in the forefront of our minds the many ways in which white supremacy culture is found in so many more aspects than what’s onstage. How we ask our audiences to engage with the art is just as complicated and nuanced and in need of change as what that art is in the first place. We can’t hit the snooze button now.
Jenna Clark Embrey (she/her) is a dramaturg, communications and marketing consultant, and mom in New York City.
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