It’s happened to most of us. We’ve just finished the staged reading or performance of our newest play, and we sit next to the director, look confidently at the audience and await the gushing flood of what we hope will be razor-sharp, insightful, critical observations about the structure, validity, and genius of our work. Our director has prepped the audience, most of whom are non-theatre people, by setting a few rules down, the first, and most important of which is “Please do not attempt to rewrite the play for the playwright. We are not looking for fixes, we are looking to find out your impressions of the work.”
An observant playwright-in-the-spotlight will notice the facial adjustments of many in the audience who have now had their brilliant comments nullified. Because we are somewhat, as the famous 1980s book tells us, a Martian society, we seek to apply fixes. Why else would a talkback exist but to ask for remedies? But fixes have no place in a talkback.
I’ll say that again: Fixes have no place in a talkback. Why? Isn’t that what you want to hear?
Let me offer this analogy: How would you, as a parent, respond to the statement “Let me tell you how to better raise your kids. Let me tell what you are doing wrong so little Rainbow turns out better.”
Plays and other creative works are analogous to offspring; depending on an innumerability of factors it’s an extremely personal choice how best to bring either of them to positive, healthy fruition. In polite society one simply does not tell another how to “best” raise their children. (Unless, of course, it’s your mother.)
It’s the same with talkbacks. The play is the playwright’s offspring, the product of imagination, effort, sleepless nights, and sudden bursts of joy. One literally gives birth to a living entity. Every play is someone’s pride and joy.
So. Once we remove the tactic of quick fixes, we leave much of the audience at sea. Because what else is there for an audience member to contribute (aside from bestowing effusive congratulations) except a way to remedy what they see as a fault?
I imagine the talkback after the first performance of Hamlet:
“So, Will. Can I call you Will? Y’know what would make this really cool? Like when, at the end, when Fortinbras enters, Hamlet gets up as a ZOMBIE and eats his brain!” (This is my “Zombie” moment. It almost always happens.)
Or: “Seriously, dude. Hamlet really needs to get his shit together a lot sooner. Waiting all this time and doing…nothing? And the women in this play are almost window dressing. Gertrude and Ophelia need to get together, pull a Lysistrata move and take control. THAT will make this play interesting.”
If that’s not bad enough, I’ve also received emails from audience members a week later telling me at length how the play could be improved if I did these six or seven rewrites including changing the ending to create a happy, inspiring deus ex rectum moment even a mother would choke on.
And lastly. My dreaded moment is when, as it recently happened, an audience member openly ignored the caveat to refrain from offering solutions: “I know I’m not supposed to do this, but I have nothing to say otherwise…” My director and I glanced at each other. (“Really?” “Yeah.”) Then we said, out loud, in stereo: “Zombies.”
I keep thinking that one day I will write a play called The Talkback. Watch out.
So, what’s the best way to run a talkback and save your sanity as well as further your play? Provide as much structure as you can manage. Experienced teachers know the value of structure, a way to keep activities (and a classroom of hormone-crazed teenagers) on track while at the same time facilitating successful results. Talkbacks are not group therapy. They are potentially useful sessions in which a playwright and director have to prize out a much useful information from an audience as possible. Let me state this for the record: nothing matters except the potential viability if the play. Otherwise it’s a complete waste of time.
As mentioned above, prepping the audience to not provide fixes is a good start. Add to that the following instructions: “We are here to ask you, the audience, a few questions. We’d love to hear your responses, but we need them to be brief, under a minute, please, as time is limited and the playwright wants to get hammered by eleven o’clock. Speaking of whom, please do not address any questions to the playwright; we’re not here to engage him in discussion (you can find him afterwards). We only want to hear your impressions. Please remember this is solely about the play and the information you offer us will be critical and very much appreciated.”
Then you’re ready to go. The first thing is start off with a set of specific questions about the play. Such questions should include, but not be limited to:
“What moments in the play stood out for you?” (What were the highlights? A good starter because it gets the audience into the idea of giving specific answers.)
“Was there a moment in the play when we lost you? When we confused you or you stopped caring?”
“In one sentence, what emotion did you feel at the end of the play?” (Never “Did you like the ending?” It’s never about “like.” “Like” leads to “why I liked” which leads to stories ad nauseum. You hope for words like “satisfied,” “thrilled,” “stunned.” “Confused” is also useful, as is “disappointed.” Not optimum, but indicative of possible work to be done—which is the point of this exercise!)
Questions should be structured to encourage the audience to give concise answers, not opportunities to meander through their as-yet-unformed thoughts. These wanderings are useless to the playwright. He or she needs information, not time taken up by questions that encourage the audience to talk at length (sometimes about themselves).
“Yes” and “no” answers are the shortest and the best. You get what you need in one syllable and then you move on to the next item. Questions that require more syllables in response should be phrased to encourage as much brevity as possible. This is a great way to have the audience respond to a particular question or two the playwright may have about her work. There’s always something that needs a bit of positive reinforcement or clarification.
“Did you feel that Ginger’s decision to throw out her husband Shawn was justified?”
“Was the narrator an efficient facilitator?”
“Did the quadruple icepick murder in act six, scene twenty make you laugh?
“In three words or fewer, what was the play about?” (Seriously, three or fewer. That narrows down the theme and content description.)
Bear in mind the people who attend talkbacks are different from the Saturday night audiences. They know there will be a talkback. They want more than just the play itself; they are almost always theatre enthusiasts and they are looking for a deeper connection to the work. It’s one thing to have a post-event discussion over cocktails with your partner; it’s something completely different to have one with the actors, director, and possibly the playwright in the room.
And of course, there is the theory that the playwright should not be in the room at all for this, that the absence of the playwright will encourage freer responses. No one wants to say something negative about the baby when the mother is in the room. (Unless it’s that actor you didn’t cast.)
This is why talkbacks are a delicate balance; talkback attendees want to be a part of the production. It’s the only real time an audience member can get to interact with the entertainment. Movies and TV do not offer a chance to talk to the creator. And who knows? Maybe one of them will hand you the key to the play’s ending and the eventual Pulitzer will be all due to their perspicacious insight.
Talkbacks do not have to be dreaded. With a little prep and some efficient pre-planning, playwrights can get the information and feedback they need. And still make in time for last call.
George Sapio’s book, Workshopping the New Play: A Guide for Playwrights, Directors, and Dramaturgs is published by Applause Books.