Appropriately enough, Jenna Clark Embrey’s piece on talkbacks (“Everything in Moderation: Rethinking the Talback,” Dec. 13, 2021) generated a lively discussion and several comments. The subject is hardly new: Embrey’s piece recalled a 1988 piece by Michael Bloom, “The Post-Play Discussion Fallacy.” For more about what the magazine has reported on talkbacks and post-show discussions, go here.
Can We Talk?
In a recent article for American Theatre, dramaturg Jenna Clark Embrey asks, “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?”
As I read this, I was startled by the disdain this artist seemed to have for her audience. Having done hundreds of such talkbacks myself over the years, I can certainly empathize with post-play fatigue, with the need to get home to your kids after a very long day (although in my experience, no one was forced to stay after to participate in the talkback), and with the frustration of having to explain something you just tried so hard to illuminate onstage.
But I have also been consistently moved and deeply appreciative of the depths people will go to understand something or to puzzle out their feelings to a play they’ve just witnessed. It all depends upon how the talkback is moderated and what questions are asked. I will never forget Olympia Dukakis leading a post-play discussion from inside the mound of dirt on the set of Happy Days at the Whole Theater. Knowing that many audience members would bolt from their seats as soon as the production ended, Olympia started inviting a response the moment the lights came up. At first they were resistant and unsupportive; they said they didn’t get what the play was about and had been bored. Olympia was undeterred and undefensive; she asked if they’d ever felt like Winnie, having to fill an empty day with idle chatter or despairing that everything seemed to be “running out.” She wondered what they’d gleaned about Winnie’s strange and complicated relationship to Willie. Soon, that bored and hostile audience was revealing thoughts and doubts about their own lives.
Olympia’s guidance of that conversation was masterful; she gave her audience permission to feel whatever they had felt, without apology. Did the discussion make them love Beckett? Probably not. But that 20-minute talk cracked open the play in a way that energized and invigorated them. They had clearly felt seen.
Not everyone is as deft as Olympia at creating dialogue with an audience. But her attitude stays with me to this day. Like the Lorca poem she loved to quote, she believed that the work we make is a gift, a way to further people’s self-knowledge and to trigger their imaginations. In the dozens of discussions she insisted on doing after every production I worked on with her, she wasn’t asking the audience to “fix” the play or to judge the performances but to respond as honestly as they could to how the work informed or interrogated things they cared about. She knew that the more we let audiences in on the process, the more difficult it was for them to simply dismiss what they’d seen. It didn’t always work.
But if we’re so thin-skinned we can’t take criticism or listen to an opposing point of view, if it’s a form of oppression just to ask artists to sit onstage and listen to an audience for 20 minutes, then surely we have to ask, why are we making the work to begin with? How can we expect members of the public to advocate for the theatre and to support it if we seem dismayed when they actually have something to say about it?
Artistic director emerita, American Conservatory Theater
Who It’s For
What a horrible article, dripping with contempt for people whose only crime is buying a theatre ticket. And the poor, delicate artists who are being tortured for the privilege of appearing onstage! Poor things! I have been an actor, director, artistic director, and ardent theatre lover my whole adult life. Sometimes the talkback goes badly, I have found, because the structure is ill-conceived, poorly moderated, or obviously self-congratulatory. Yuck. Remember who the theatre is for. (In case you forgot, the audience.)
Pacific Palisades, Calif.
Try Something Else
As an actor, I despise talkbacks. “How did you learn so many lines?”
Granted, many I’ve been forced to attend have been poorly moderated, if at all. Plus, there are many shows that do not require a talkback. When I was Angela Arden in Die, Mommie, Die!—well, I believe that comedy/parody can speak for itself, yes? I can see the appeal of the experience, and I understand the desire to want to speak with the creative team, but I would like to see something else developed. Perhaps a Q&A online that comes with your ticket purchase? Pre-selected questions from a Zoom moderator? Have the dramaturg print an informational pamphlet that can be purchased for $5. Let us go home to our families; some of us have to work in the morning to support our “acting habit.” Or meet us across the street at the bar and buy us a drink. We’ll chat.
Scott Albert Bennett
Above all, don’t invite the audience to a talkback and then be annoyed when they have something to say. I think what matters is deciding on a purpose for the talkback first.
- Don’t ask for audience feedback if feedback isn’t the goal.
- Don’t invite audience questions if you think the play speaks for itself.
- If the playwright and/or creative team is going to be present, the key is in structuring how you/they want the audience to engage with the play. But if they aren’t going to be there, provide ways for the audience to talk among themselves.
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