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.


21 responses to “Don’t Talkback to Me!

  1. While I agree that good theatre speaks for itself, I do think there is room for further education – and a well-led talkback can be a part of that educational system. If hosted well, a good talkback doesn’t do the work for the audience, doesn’t reveal character motivation, and doesn’t put artists in the position to speak authoritatively on topics of which they are not the expert.

    Instead, like a good sommelier gives a consumor better tools to describe and discuss wine, a good talkback host empowers theatre patrons to better analyze and/or appreciate a production and the process that led to it.

    One of my biggest beefs with the theatre is that we expect people to just come in and enjoy us and buy tickets to all of our shows. We even complain about their lack of sophistication or their laziness at not comprehending a production that is out of the mainstream… but when have we given them the tools to appreciate it? I’m pretty sure No Child Left Behind doesn’t have a “Theatre Appreciation” test. If we want people to develop sophisticated palates and appreciate diverse styles then we have to help them grow. A well-led talkback can be part of that process.

    (by the way, I’m going to hope that an actor with an MFA and many weeks of rehearsal on a production knows far more about a play than an accountant with a MBA who just scanned the directors notes before the lights went down)

    And some productions beg for it –
    I work at a LORT theatre that recently did talkbacks with the playwright after every show for a play that focused on a touchy topic in local history. The talkbacks were cathartic and important for this community to digest that production and the historical events. Again, this was a play that dug deeply into old racial wounds, we probably wouldn’t do anything that extensive on a more traditional show.

    I do agree, it can take the magic out of a production, and for SOME audiences, a talkback can dilute the experience. I do contend, however, that if not led by a hack, (Have you been going to talk-backs where the actors speak for the set designer or dramaturg or something?)it can be a great tool for audience development.

    But maybe you can help me – Let’s say we never do another talkback – what methods do YOU propose to educate and empower audiences to be more discerning theatre-goers and theatre-appreciaters? (I’m hoping we can assume that striving for exceptional performances is already our goal)

    • Welcome to the Many Faces of Wayne, Patrick (my apologies I called you Paul earlier by mistake). Thank you for taking the time to respond to this post. I’m glad you’ve raised the following question: “what methods do YOU propose to educate and empower audiences to be more discerning theatre-goers and theatre-appreciaters?”

      This will be the focus of my next post. As it turns out, I do have a few ideas to engage the audience :). Stay tuned!

  2. sterlinglynch

    I’m no fan of talkbacks as an audience member. The questions are rarely insightful and it is the same with the responses. This isn’t a problem with theatre-folks, it is a problem I have with just about every Q&A I’ve ever attended.

    I can’t recall doing any talkbacks as a performer. Did we do one with your children’s theatre project, oh so long ago?

    At any rate, as a performer, I can honestly imagine talkbacks being kind of fun but I also imagine I would spend most of my time redirecting the question to the questioner and getting them to speak. It’s what I do when someone asks me about a play I have written.

    Where you and I are in absolute agreement is our distaste for the set-up of talks backs with which we are familiar. Essentially, it is an opportunity for the audience to be a passive audience at a Q&A, rather than at a play. This hardly seems rewarding or compelling for anyone. But, I will admit, I am sure there are some folks who would enjoy it.

    I think small group, mediator-led discussions before and / or after a show would be a great way to engage and learn from the audience (NB: “learn from”, not “educate”). A theatre might even be able to sell spots at those tables and, at the very least, sell refreshments.

    • That project was a very long time ago, but yes we did do a talkback session after that production. I would go in a different direction today.

      I think this point is well made: “The questions are rarely insightful and it is the same with the responses. This isn’t a problem with theatre-folks, it is a problem I have with just about every Q&A I’ve ever attended.”

      • sterlinglynch

        I think it’s the public dimension (and tensions) of the Q&A which is the source of the difficulties, whether people are in a theater, an academic seminar room, or a municipal government meeting.

        People with axes to grind or who like to hear themselves speak tend to — but not always — take control and the formats I’ve encountered don’t really encourage discussion.

        Instead, one person speaks , the other “listens”, vice versa and then on to the next person. If there is any genuine point of disagreement, egos flare quickly, there is little opportunity to clarify misunderstandings, and no one ever feels satisfied by the outcome.

        Moreover, it’s fairly rare that someone will take a genuine risk in a public setting; so the questions tend to be fawning and facile or unnecessary provocative and preaching to the converted.

        Now this is not to say that talkbacks can’t be useful or haven’t ever been useful. Really, historically, they were probably an important first step in helping theatre people get over themselves and interact with their audiences in some capacity. Even so, in this age of social media, in this age of theater’s renewal, we can’t rest on yesterday’s solutions and initiatives. We need to build on success and sometimes that means re-inventing or even discarding old solutions.

        Ultimately, the talkbacks I’ve encountered only serve a very specific segment of the theatre community and aren’t very efficient when it comes to generating interactive “wow” moments. So, if that is the only engagement a theatre is offering, they are not serving their whole community.

        If a particular theatre or organization has had success with talkbacks, keep it up and spread the word on how to make them successful but recognize also that talkbacks should not be the be all and end all of community engagement. Otherwise, you are giving up opportunities to learn from your whole community.

  3. My experience with talkbacks began 40 years ago when LORT theatre was still referred to as “winter stock”. Since that time I’ve participated as an actor, writer, director, facilitator and audience member. I love talkbacks because everyone can learn a little gem of wisdom to take home with them and wake up to the next morning. (Make what you like of that analogy – I love them that much.)

    I find it absurd that a talkback might demystify theatre “…like a magician revealing how he pulled the rabbit out of the hat. You kill the magic.” The theatre is not a trick! It is an art form, which by its very definition is collaborative. Talkbacks challenge assumptions and encourage knowledge exchange. They are similar, perhaps, to your gatherings after-the-show-over-coffee-or-booze, except that the participants are not your cronies, they are a random assortment of people who come together once, and provide a possibility to learn something new.

    The talkbacks at Trinity Rep in 1969-1970-1971, for instance, were part of Rhode Island’s Project Discovery – one of the first government supported educational outreach programs – which produced a generation of theatre-goers, board members, theatre professionals and donors. (Is this what you put in the category of children’s theatre?) Recent talkbacks at Off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre in NY bring the playwrights into the conversations, stimulate subscriptions, and provide valuable PR for the company.

    Your blog lacks respect for audiences and disproportionately emphasizes actors. I suggest that you expand your anecdotal evidence and acquire some data. And if you’re going to complain, please suggest a possible way to make it better. That just might be radical – stopping talkbacks certainly is not.

    • First of all Ann, let me say that I respect and admire your dedication to LOTR and theatre in general. I think it’s fantastic that you have spent 40 years devoted to and engaging with theatre. I am very pleased to have you sharing your insights and experiences with all of us here.

      I think you are correct to point out that I am referring to a particular kind of talkback session: the Q&A format taking place after the performance.

      This is the way it is typically done in my part of the world. I agree with Sterling and HM that it is usually an unsatisfying experience (at least for many of us) and I share their frustrations with this format.

      It sounds like you may be doing it differently in NYC and are having more success with it.
      To be honest, I only meant my anecdotal evidence to refer to a particular production in this city where the routine talkbacks themselves did not seem to generate a larger audience for that particular run. I wasn’t very clear though and thanks for bringing that to my attention.

      My ultimate aim, which will become more clear in my next post is that there are other ways to engage the audience, which I would like to highlight that use a different format, rather than the post Q&A session, which is popular here.

      Please believe me when I say I have the utmost respect for both actors and audiences (I frequently am part of the audience). In fact, I took several years off of being a creative participant (writer,actor, and director) where I solely participated as an audience member.

      I think it is clear is we both want theatre to thrive and be successful and continue to “wow” audiences (as Sterling puts it :)) into the future.

      Thank you again for taking the time to respond. I’m finding this discussion very useful, and interesting. I hope you are as well.

      Wayne C.

  4. Great post, Wayne. I have to say I agree with you when it comes to talk backs. As an audience member, I avoid them.

    I absolutely support the idea that finding ways to
    engage with the audience can enrich the whole experience. I think it is the typical setup of a talk back I do not enjoy. It’s post show, the actors are required to return to the stage – there is still that sense that we are separate – they are ‘there’ on stage and I am ‘here’ in the audience. Patrons meekly raise their hands and most of the time ask questions I’m not even interested in, that then the actors struggle to answer. I find it tedious. And generally, if I want to know more about a particular production I want to hear from the director, the designers and/or the playwright – in some cases I want to hear from the Artistic Director, as in: why this show, why now?

    I do enjoy social situations where patrons are made to feel comfortable. In a more laid back environment, I can approach the people involved in a production and ask what I really want to know. As you know, this is what is great about the Fringe Festival – I love running into the artists in the beer tent and chatting with them casually about their show. I much prefer that to meekly raising my hand in the theatre.

    I also enjoy when theatre companies put extra information online – through blogs or on their website, because again it gives me the opportunity to find out more on my own time, and not after I’ve already spent a couple of hours sitting in the theatre.

    I wonder if you have read Kris Joseph’s post on talk backs, since he was in the show you refer to that had talk backs each night:
    As he points out, in that case the choice to do a series of talk backs had to do with the theatre’s desire for bar sales, and not with any kind of altruistic desire to engage with the audience. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to check it out.

  5. I’m going to have to agree with Ann. There’s a lot of me, me, me in these replies. “What I want.” And, yes, you’re important. But it sounds like you all are already theatre patrons. Who have your own education and baggage.

    How do we educate people who don’t treat the theatre like a research paper? How do we reach the ones don’t read the director’s notes, much less the background information on the website? Who are too busy drinking in the lobby to read the displays? Often they will stay after a show – it’s immediate, relevant, and sometimes even fun. And, at least in our space, they often gain new appreciations for the craft.

    If we don’t reach them then, while we have them in the building, then when?

    I’m still waiting to hear some engaging ways to grow those lower level audience members…

    (Oh, and yes there are many bad talkbacks. There’s a LOT of bad theatre in the world too, but I’m not going to recommend we stop doing plays… )

    • sterlinglynch

      I prefer to ask “how do I learn from people”, rather than “how do we educate people?”

      That’s one reason why I am out there in the lobby drinking too.

  6. I agree with you Wayne. If I were an actor, I would balk if I had to explain/justify my performance in this way. It is rather unfair, I think, to ask an actor to explain his/her work in a [Q and A/talky-talk format] that is not the actor/artist’s medium. Some may be comfortable with this, but I bet many other would feel they were unable to fully articulate their craft in this medium.

    And I do think it is demystifying – as an audience member I would most definitely avoid them.

  7. ^oh and I loves your new header!

  8. I am *sure* that I posted 2 comments in this thread yesterday. Wayne, did you delete them because they were too stoopidz? (:

    ha ha, just kidding, I must have done something wrong, in which case, I do got sum stoopidz. (:

    • Thanks for your comments PFP. I’ve been pretty busy lately. I’ve started a new job and my new nephew Téo just arrived a couple days ago. I might have been a little slow with the approve button. I’ve finally started writing my post on techniques for audience engagement. If all goes well it will be up this week.

  9. Hey, they’re back! Sorry, my gaffs are hijacking this thread…

  10. Congrats on your new nephew!!! Hope the job is going well. Hope the MAN is treating you ok.


    • Thanks PFP. So far so good. I will return to more regular blogging soon. I’m also still writing for (Cult)ure magazine. Things are pretty busy.

  11. Pingback: How to Effectively Engage Audiences « Many Faces of Wayne

  12. Hi Patrick,

    This line bothered me: “If we don’t reach them then, while we have them in the building, then when?”

    It sounds as though you’re putting a bolt on the door and withholding release until they sit through an entire Q&A session!

    It is not compulsory for members of the audience to stick around for the talk-back. Many of them don’t. Those so-called lower-level audience members that don’t read director’s notes probably aren’t interested in listening to an entire talk-back either. Only the real keeners (and special groups) do that.

    Either way, as Wayne says in his first point, you should be able to reach the audience through your play. The show should speak for itself.

    One way of engaging the audience is doing what the National Arts Centre and the Magnetic North Theatre Festival do during their productions. They have ‘talk-backs’ but not directly after the show, and not in the same format. One adept interviewer (Peter Hinton ‘Hinterviews’ and Sarah Stanley ‘Tea With the Artists’ come to mind) prepare specific questions to ask the director, or the playwright, or the designer, or the producer; the audience is allowed to ask questions, but that is not the focus of the event. In this way, the event is concentrating on one aspect of the production, keeping that one hour focussed and detailed and less sparse. These (free) sessions are conducted on a separate day so that the people who really want to have a more fulfilling experience of the show can do so. And those that are content with just seeing the production can miss out, if they so choose.

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