Everyone is doing them, doing them, doing them.
Well, actually no. Some artists say they hate them, notably David Mamet who recently threatened to fine theaters the hefty sum of $25,000 if they held any after his plays. In an article July 30th in the New York Times, Alexis Soloski sent out the intentional incendiary message, “David Mamet doesn’t want to hear from you!” There were plenty of playwrights who came down on both sides of the debate.
Soloski again on talkbacks. “Some are tedious, some are contentious.” I would agree. How often have I sat in the audience after a compelling theatrical experience only to hear a director open such a post-show discussion by asking, “So does anyone in the audience have a question for the actors?” And I brace myself in my chair for the wild stare of uncomfortable audience members, and then the inevitable lame fallback question is lobbed toward the stage, “How do you learn all those lines?”
Also pretentious. Talkbacks abound where experts and facilitators decide that post-performance is a perfect time to compel a captive audience to listen to a lecture. Ayad Akhtar, author of the powerful play Disgraced, suggests they often oversimplify a work and unintentionally “dissipate the dissonance.”
Nonetheless, more Washington theaters are wading into the fray.
Shortly after the NYT article came out, I spoke with Ari Roth, Artistic Director of Mosaic Theater and someone who clearly has given a lot of thought to the way his company addresses talkbacks. Also at the meeting was NJ Mitchell, someone who has assembled panels and run talkbacks at several local theaters, including Theater J, and is a committed colleague on the subject of audience engagement.
I post our conversation as a catalyst for more discussion from local directors, playwrights, and audience members.
Susan Galbraith: After reading the NYT article, I’m thinking of Joy Zinoman, founding Artistic Director of Studio Theatre, who directed Blood Knot last season for Mosaic and announced at your opening night how she despised talkbacks. Carolyn Griffin, Producing Artistic Director of MetroStage, says she mostly avoids going to them or holding them. What would you say to them?
Ari Roth: I’m interested in those people who are intolerant of discussions. I am curious about artists who have such a hardened spine about it and are historically allergic to these post-show events. I have noticed that most everyone who comes to work at Mosaic becomes genuinely engaged and give themselves over to the process.
Susan Galbraith: What makes a good post-show discussion to your mind?
Ari Roth: I think a good conversation is one that is open but framed. Of course these are unscripted events. At Mosaic, we’ve had a few lousy conversations, but in general I think people find our conversations provoke thought and extend the experience of a play.
Susan Galbraith: You seemed to have built Mosaic with a commitment to making its central mission the integration of audience engagement through post-show discussion. Can you share with us your thinking?
Ari Roth: Well, we’ve just hired six new people for our upcoming season, and part of consolidating our culture is talking about this very central mission of ours. We’ve all just got together and brainstormed on what we want to do with talkbacks and how. We brought into our workshop today a couple of our Board Members who are experienced at shaping the way our conversations get handled. Pamela Pinnock, a gifted facilitator and on our Board, who is Co-Coordinator with Stephen Stern of Mosaic’s public programming, has been running public discussions around race at Busboys & Poets once a month for a decade. She helps shape the conversations that are part of our productions, whether that’s around some topic such as the Palestinian-Israel conflict or on some other theme.
Through our workshop conversation we drew up tenets of what is important to us. You can witness and experience a work of art but then to build meaning around it with others, that’s powerful. We came away with the opportunity to be in community. And that is the most important aspect of talkbacks.
Susan Galbraith: Are there any drawbacks or pitfalls in such programming?
Ari Roth: It’s important for us that these conversations don’t intellectualize the experience. I think that is what the purists, playwrights and directors who don’t want the experiencing of theater watered down, are afraid of, people boiling things down to a thesis statement.
Susan Galbraith: But isn’t there also the issue of how to keep a theatrical forum safe? Do you think there is a danger of escalating tensions and differences over a particularly sensitive issue in a play that could turn the conversation into a kind of verbal brawl?
Ari Roth: Absolutely, but what we work towards is an interactive, well-facilitated forum where everyone has their voice heard and where responses are shared about the artistic experience which those gathered have just witnessed, and to give language to that, coming to a kind of shared meaning. TCG (Theatre Communications Group) found a very simple way of saying it, that post-show programs become really an Act II of the experience.
Susan Galbraith: Describe Act II for you.
Ari Roth: Art is part of their experience, but there is also a social element. And that doesn’t mean just drinks and chitchat. The best is actually the opportunity to hear from other people, absorb other people’s point of view, and process meaning of a challenging, provocative, even naughty but hopefully exciting work of art idea, and I go back to saying then it’s being in community.
Susan Galbraith: And of course it’s never compulsory –
Ari Roth: Exactly. But if you’re in the right frame of mind and take it in, it’s a total enhancement.
Susan Galbraith: Should theatres take care with plays, casting, or topics that deal with inflammatory subjects?
Ari Roth: I think maybe it is especially important to offer these kinds of discussions when there is theatre of public import whether it’s political, social moral, ethical. And at the end of a show, if you walk out of a theatre alone or with a partner, you don’t walk out as a community, there’s a danger in that, I feel. But staying in the room with the material, you sustain the experience. And that’s why I think these are important.
Susan, you were at our last play of the season that dealt with a relationship between a Palestinian man and a Jewish woman, both living in present day Jerusalem. It was tough, and the portrayal of one character in particular angered some people. But most nights it shed new light on the situation and was —
Susan Galbraith: Electrifying. And the night I attended a Jewish man stood up and said, “I’m so tired of hearing I’m the bad guy, listening to this kind of thing.”
NJ, you also have led a race and identity discussion last season with Rabbi Batya for Mosaic, what other kinds of programs to engage audiences have you led?
NJ Mitchell: The Passport Program was set up as an outreach initiative to serve those underserved in the arts including the homeless in the Theater J district and provide them with an opportunity to see a season of productions. Always included was a talkback discussion to receive audiences’ perceptions and responses, and then this was fed back to the theater directors.
Susan Galbraith: Would you say then that the discussions were for the audience or as a special kind of “feedback loop” for the theatre company?
NJ Mitchell: They’re for the community but there is the responsibility of the facilitators to feedback to the theatre directors and producers what was heard and to enrich and benefit them as well. Did what was put on and addressed get across to the people watching?
Ari Roth: Some people working in theatre don’t respect or listen to their audiences. That’s a kind of entitlement and elitism.
Susan Galbraith: And that’s been bred into the traditional way of viewing theater and theater-making. You have just identified a seismic shift in the way much theater is being produced which addresses the need to break down barriers between what goes on stage and what is received.
Ari Roth: Equally problematic are those artists who think the audience is the only point. That’s not serving the artist or the deeper needs of community.
Susan Galbraith: I love your language of sustaining community through the experience. I cut my teeth on the original productions at Arena Stage. And I loved that theatre in the round for many reasons, but one was the way you could see the audience across the playing space from you and therefore carried this awareness of bearing witness to theater together. I think my wanting to extend the conversation post-performance discussions came from that awareness.
Ari Roth: Yes, and I think people were excited about the staging we had for The Return because of the same thing, people seeing others across the playing space. And actors too watching the audience watch them. And it’s true if the first statement made in a talkback is such a fierce response, it can derail or maybe what’s worse is shut down people who perceive they are not represented in one’s person’s diatribe.
Susan Galbraith: What would you say to people who have such strong feelings?
Ari Roth: It’s an immaterial thing to fight over. Joy, at our closing night, said “Your theater is doing very well because of the amount of time you invest in the audience.” Whatever she said at the beginning of the month was the beginning of a process. And it’s a process that weeds out audience apathy. Unless you are willing to grow together and hang in, it stays a limited form of theatergoing.
NJ Mitchell: The play is the thing but the audience interaction and response has a life of its own. Susan, I came to one of your talkbacks at Dupont Underground for Havel’s play Protest. The conversation was electric; everyone was engaged and participated. But you said very little. What were you doing in your form of talkback?
Susan Galbraith: I worked for more than 15 years at Great Books Foundation, training teachers in a process of engaging students called Shared Inquiry. Most recently, I’ve worked in China with students and teachers and observed how it can transform traditional classrooms. It is quite an amazing process, based on a very simple but elegant idea that the “leader” of a discussion asks a specific, focused interpretive question about a text, or in the case of theatre, a performance that represent a knotty problem and suggests multiple interpretations. The audience begins to work through such a problem. Because there is no one right answer, the forum becomes a safe one to address difficult issues. The conversation stays focused through the lens of a specific work we’ve all engaged in. It asks the audience to grapple with what the playwright, director, or character is trying to say, and so one has to initially leave one’s prejudices at the door. The process encourages people to listen to each other and consider new possibilities. It’s been shown to be a great way to inculcate a passion for literature.
Ari Roth: Interesting because we are doing a workshop of a new adaptation of Native Son on September 25 (7pm at Atlas), and it might be we could combine something like this.
Susan Galbraith: It is a way too of splintering the group in fraught evaluative judgments. Perhaps having talkbacks between theater companies is a way of extending community across the city
Ari Roth: Thinking about where you start a conversation is important. It might be interpretive. It might be impressionistic. A skilled facilitator might be one way.
NJ Mitchell: Or just being a careful listener. Remembering it is their chance, members of the community to have their say. This can help open things up for us. To break down how we makers of theatre might generalize who is coming through our doors to see theater. You have had your opportunity as director or producer. I think that can make us better theater practitioners, better aware of the community we are addressing and serving.
Howard Shalwitz, when I spoke with him recently, had much to say on the crafting of community engagement, and in particular for The Arsonists which opened September 9 at Woolly Mammoth.
Ari, NJ and I talked some more about our best and worst talkback experiences. And now we want to ask you into our conversation.
What was your worst or best experience at a post-show discussion?
And if you are a theater director or producer, what kinds of theatre post-show discussion do you like to program?