There is a phenomenon that is sweeping the world of theatre called the “talkback” session. Unlike the old days, where the audience would leave the theatre to discuss a show over beer or coffee (guess which one I prefer ) among themselves, they instead return for a discussion with the actors about the play. I’m positive this concept arose out of children’s theatre where, in an attempt to demystify theatre, the cast would return to the stage (out of character) and answer any questions the kids had about the play/theatre etc. The philosophy behind these sessions is basically that by interacting with the audience you engage the children more in the theatrical experience. Because they are engaged, they are more likely to go and seek out more theatre experiences.
It’s not surprising that soon someone decided that if it works for children it will also work for adults. More engagement will lead to bigger audiences, and more revenue, or so the theory goes. Currently, talkback sessions are a regular part of adult theatre as well. In fact, one local theatre decided to hold them after every show during a recent production. Have these sessions increased performance attendance at this theatre? Anecdotal evidence suggests they haven’t.
I am not a fan of talkback sessions. I’ve come to this opinion after experiencing them both as an actor and as an audience member. I actually feel they are detrimental to the theatre experience. In fact, and this is a little radical, I would prefer to see the end of the talkback session even for children’s theatre. Here is why:
1. The artists should say everything they have to say within the play. After the play it is the work of the audience to figure it all out. This work is a vital part of the process of being an active audience. It is the audience’s time to engage with the performance and think about it. Having a Q& A session afterwards with the writer or cast can negate and dilute this essential part of the theatre experience as the audience looks for the writer and cast to do this work for them.
2. Actors hate revealing the motivations for their characters. Audiences are rarely sensitive to these concerns.
3. Theatre often speaks to a multitude of issues but actors are not authorities on the play or these issues. Talkbacks are often structured in a way where the actors are speaking for the play (implicitly or explicitly) even when in most cases they have no greater insights to offer than individuals within the audience.
4.When theatre is successful it is because a wonderful product has been put on the stage that has fully engaged the audience. It is these kinds of magical performances that make live theatre so addictive. When theatre is exceptional is is nothing less than pure magic. It will have a greater impact if you leave the audience with that experience. Demystifying theatre is like a magician revealing how he pulled the rabbit out of the hat. You kill the magic.
The best way to increase theatre attendance is to consistently provide exceptional performances, great scripts, solid productions, and excellent marketing/promotion. Do all this and you will have no trouble filling seats.
As always I appreciate everyone else’s perspective. If you have any thoughts on this issue I encourage you to respond in the comments section.