Monthly Archives: July 2009

How to Effectively Engage Audiences

Well in my last post (Link) I argued that Question & Answer “talkback” sessions,  often conducted post-performance, were actually detrimental to the theatre experience. I later conceded that it was possible for some to be beneficial. I still believe, however, that my concerns/critiques are valid for the majority of talkbacks found in my part of the world.

Is there a better way to engage audiences? Yes there is, and this post will provide examples of theatre companies that have taken a very different and more effective approach. While the approaches are different, the underlying methodology and principles are useful for all theatre practioners to learn from and adopt.

Back in the spring, I had the privilege of attending a performance by the Otesha Project. The Otesha project is an environmental activist theatre group. The concept is simple. The members of Otesha bicycle across Canada and perform an environmentally conscious play to young audiences at various locations along the way. The play they perform is fun, short and has a great message: “small changes in your lifestyle can make  a huge difference to the environment.”

The reason  it is worth mentioning this group  is because of the way they handled the play’s conclusion.

When I first  saw the play performed, I fully expected, dreaded even, a Q&A session on the environmental issues at the play’s conclusion. The Otesha players went in a different direction. They asked the audience what small pledge they would like to make to improve the world (whether it was drinking organic coffee, choosing to bike or bus to work rather than travel by car etc.) They then either acted out the pledges or had the audience members come on stage to act them out. It was fun, interactive, and most importantly generated a feeling of community.

Playbacks are another example of a similar concept. In this instance, post-play, the actors improvise scenes based off the audience’s experiences. I’m excited by the concept. Again, it is interactive, collaborative, encourages sharing both ways and builds community.

Those of you who read my Fringe reviews in (Cult)ure Magazine are aware that I enjoy engaging with actors, writers, and other fellow audience members at the beer tent. I also encourage my readers to do the same. So how are these kinds of conversations different from talkbacks? They are conversations, as opposed to Q&A’s, this is a key difference and means that both parties are participating as equals. The informal and unstructured conversations are ultimately far more satisfying and allow the pefromers to learn from the audiences.

My review of Oreo mentions one instance of this kind of exchange, but I experienced many more throughout the Fringe. I would encourage theatre companies to mingle freely with the audience post-show in this manner.

All these methods foster a feeling of community in which everyone, whether performer or audience member, can participate as equals and where opportunities  are created for everyone to learn from each other.

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Don’t Talkback to Me!

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.

Fighting The Fear: Round 2

Back in May, I wrote a little post, which would become by far the most read and commented on post on my blog.  It was called  “Here’s How it is” and described how I felt about my contract ending and my ongoing battle with what I named “The Fear.”  Many of you will recall my description of this neurosis:

“It constantly whispers into your ear that uncertainty should be avoided at all costs and that financial security trumps all other concerns… The Fear tries to box you in so you stop looking at new possibilities.”

It is a direct result of this neurosis, that people become trapped in jobs that they don’t enjoy, or put less time into what they feel is truly important to them. I’ve been there. It took a trip to New Zealand and several long conversations with Sterling to make me realize that working in retail was not something I wanted to do but something I was doing because I was afraid. The Fear had me firmly in it’s clutches. Afraid I wouldn’t get anything better, afraid of going back to school, etc. I got over it. I now have an MA and I have become one of the most employable men in the city. I turned down three job offers during this period of unemployment alone so much for the biggest recession of our time. (Though to be fair, Ottawa is a very safe job market).

I’ve used this creative period between contract time to write for (Cult)ure Magazine, play music and record a song with Dr. Bickerstaff (Jay you’re next on the list for musical collaboration), and prepare myself for directing one of Sterling’s plays.  I’ve also spent a lot of time just hanging out in coffee shops reading books.  Now the Fear has morphed into a different variation.  I am afraid that if I take a job, it will turn into a 30 year commitment. I am now at an attractive pay scale, but many of the creative projects I intend to pursue take a lot of time, which are very difficult to accomplish during a few weeks holiday time.

I’ve discovered that I actually like contract work because it gives me considerable flexibility. I can work for 4-6 months and then take a few months to focus on writing, directing, music and fun.  This realization is very important for me but it flies in the face of the way most people think. Most people take contract work as a means of landing a permanent job; however, I am now afraid of losing time for my creative projects and getting trapped again in a job. Admittedly, this time in a well paying rather than a poor paying job.

For these reasons, it is not without a few misgivings that I have decided take another  four month government contract starting on July 20th. It feels a little premature as I was hoping to achieve quite a bit more during this creative period. It is,however, an opportunity to make some new contacts and get some different kinds of work experience. Fortunately, it is also just for four months and I will be able to pick up my creative endeavors where I left at that point. Yes, I can also continue to write reviews and articles during this work period to a certain extent. I intend to do that as much as I can, but spending the day at work on a computer usually means I don’t want to look at a screen when I get home. On the plus side, and part of my motivation for taking this job is that July and Aug. are very slow for this particular department and so I will be able to do some writing while at work during the “quiet” periods 🙂

The key to not getting trapped will be to focus constantly on what I want to do and have an exit strategy prepared. It is equally important to not be so focused on that exit strategy that I miss out on work related opportunities. I am successfully walking on a tight rope balancing these concerns for the moment; however, all around me is the chasm of The Fear. Sound familiar?