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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4 responses to “How to Effectively Engage Audiences

  1. nadinethornhill

    Inviting an audience to join in post-show socializing is a wonderful way for artists to engage with their public.

    Toto Too Theatre holds nightly, informal gatherings at The Buzz after each performance. A chance for everyone to drink, mingle and discuss the show in an organic, conversational way. It’s fabulous!

  2. Thanks for your comment Nadine. I think small groups are the key for these kinds of organic conversations. I think a space where everyone can circulate freely is best. A group of actors sitting together can be intimidating for theatre patrons to approach.

  3. Very interesting, as well as the ‘No Talkback!’ post.

    Engaging the audience is so important – it’s the notion of making theatre communication and connection over one sided presentation. I’ve recently seen a couple of plays in the round which felt very communal, there’s something about being able to directly see the audience reaction at the same time as experiencing the action on stage.

    And while the talkback deals with audience/theatre connection on paper, I agree with you that I’m not sure it does in practice.

    The one’s I’ve seen have been very one-to-one and individual rather than communal. And then there’s the ‘how do you learn all those lines’ question which doesn’t really help anyone…

    • Lindsay,
      Welcome to the Many Faces of Wayne and thank you for taking the time to respond. I really like the way you put this:

      “Engaging the audience is so important – it’s the notion of making theatre communication and connection over one sided presentation.”

      That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. Isn’t it?

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