Let’s Talk About Talkbacks

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A talkback after "Farragut North" in 2009 with cast members Chris Noth, Chris Pine, Justin Huen, Isiah Whitlock, Jr, Olivia Thirlby, Dan Bittner and Mia Barron. Moderated by Geffen Playhouse education and outreach director Debra Pasquerette; Photo by Tyler Boye

Applause dies. The lights come up. The show is over. And then, there’s the choice. To stay or not for the talkback? For many, there is very little debate. It’s choose the car, maybe go have a drink, and then head home. Others stay, hoping that this is the talkback they have always wanted, something that will illuminate the show they have just seen.

For theater companies, the talkback is an opportunity to engage with an audience. To find out directly what they thought of the show, what material resonated with the audience. But often they just field comments like, “I couldn’t hear that woman when she turned her back,” as heard at a recent talkback. And that can be frustrating for the theater company.

Why even do a talkback in the first place? What elements go into a good talkback?
How can engagement happen more fully?

Amy Levinson, literary manager and dramaturge of the Geffen Playhouse

Amy Levinson, literary manager and dramaturge at the Geffen Playhouse, answers the “why” question quite simply. “I don’t think in this day and age it’s enough to just throw the art up there and let it do what it will. I think we have a responsibility to allow all of the feedback to come back to us.”

This need to engage with its audience has led the Geffen to formalize its talkbacks into a regular Talk Back Tuesdays, even going so far as to have a sponsor, Peet’s Coffee. The night is now advertised as a part of the subscription package. Consistency has been the key. Levinson remarks, “We never miss a Tuesday. Our audiences have grown to expect it.”

Levinson hopes the talkbacks give audience members an opportunity to consider the context of what they have just seen on stage. But it isn’t only curious theater outsiders who attend the talkbacks. She explains, “There are a lot of working artists who are coming to the theater, who genuinely want to talk to other artists about the process. So a lot of the questions end up being process-oriented.”

For example, with the current production of Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire, many people have been asking about the set design. “I get to wax rhapsodic about how much I love this set and how much of a monster it was to put in,” she says.

Aaron Henne, co-literary Manager of Theatre @ Boston Court

At the Theatre @ Boston Court, Aaron Henne, co-literary manager, describes the talkbacks as “sharing the how and why choices are made.” The theater’s work is often challenging from a narrative point of view, and for Emilie Beck, the other co-literary manager, it’s a peek inside. “What we want to offer is context,” she says. “People always enjoy something more when they have context to root it in.”

Henne believes that talkbacks are a natural extension of why people go to the theater — curiosity. People go to the theater because they are interested in learning, discovering something new. Beck finishes the thought, “The more we can offer to say “˜hey, this is why we did that’ or “˜here’s how things work’ is a real benefit to our audience.”

Boston Court uses a program called Illuminations, which offers five talkbacks for each production, focusing on a different topic: the actors, the writer, the director, the designers and theme.  Henne explains, “That’s our big strategy. Rather than the classic after-the-show “˜let’s just talk about it’, it’s five designated times and each one has a specific focus. Also sometimes people would come because that’s the focus they want to have a discussion about.” Most are post-show, but in order to provide context, the talkback discussing the “theme”  is a pre-show discussion.

During the theme talkbacks, experts are generally brought in from outside of the theater. Earlier this year, when Boston Court and Theatre Movement Bazaar produced The Treatment — a show based on a Chekhov short story about an insane asylum — mental health professionals spoke about mental health issues.

Jordan Elgraby, executive director of Levantine Cultural Center

For Jordan Elgrably, executive director of the Levantine Cultural Center, talkbacks offer a chance not only to engage the audience with the work, but for theatergoers to engage with each other. His organization focuses on the art and culture of the Middle East and North Africa. He says, “I kind of feel we live very much in a screen culture where we all spend too much time in front of our computers, or on our smart phones, or in front of our TV screens and not enough time with other people.” He compares it to Noah’s Ark — people go out into the world in pairs, seldom engaging with the other people around them.

At a talkback, they might discover a new person. As Elgrably explains, “A talkback is an opportunity where people can hear someone else. And say, “˜This person had an experience that resonates with me, so maybe I can have a conversation with them’.” Indeed, space and time is built into the evening for people to continue chatting after the formal talkback has finished.

Elgrably believes one of the most important aspects of a talkback is content. He says, “A good talkback is predicated on a substantive play or issue. It you’re doing an entertainment, I don’t know if there’s a lot to engage on.” Elgrably continues, “If you’re doing a play about race or class, you’re doing a play about something, you’re engaging people’s emotions on the most basic level.” And a talkback is an opportunity for people to process those emotions.

Elgrably thinks for a moment and then says, “They achieve the opportunity for people to be heard. And feel some relief — to relieve some of their tension that you want to expiate in some way.”

For Elgrably, the moderator is the key to a good talkback, especially for the sometimes controversial work at the Levantine Cultural Center. “The moderator has to be well-chosen and somebody who has a sense of humor. Who doesn’t get offended easily and doesn’t offend everybody.” He feels the moderator should be an expert on the play or the subject matter at hand. And, ideally, someone outside of the organization “who is a [somewhat well-known] personality…who has something to say on the topic,” he continues. Not only will it raise the profile of the talkback, but it will cross-pollinate, getting other people to come out for a night of theater and discussion.

Elgrably always lays out the ground rules, “Basic rules of engagement are: be polite, keep your comment or question brief, don’t interrupt people. It seems like common sense, but you need to say it.”

Emilie Beck, co-literary manager of Theatre @ Boston Court

Over at Boston Court, the staff moderates all of the talkbacks. “My strategy has been just to reflect on what seems to be the questions that will open up the most space for that expert to talk about their expertise,” says Henne. “I guide it, but I don’t guide it so narrowly that the topics the experts feel are important can’t come up.”

Beck agrees, “We facilitate the talkback. Only at the very end, we might open it up to questions from the audience. You’ve made it clear where the conversation is going.” She chooses to focus more on the themes of the play — those are the questions that “will open up more of the play.”

It comes back to investigation and curiosity for Brian Polak, the marketing and communications manager at Boston Court. “When I moderate the actors, I tend to think about the things that I am very curious about. I’m assuming I’m not all that different from the audience.”

Levinson focuses first on asking the audience questions. “I have at least three questions that I want to ask the audience about the play. The reason being no one likes asking the first question.” She generally asks thematic questions, hoping to engage people’s reactions to a play. In the case of Good People, “There are a lot of questions about right and wrong.” She hopes to explore that moral area, saying, “What makes plays interesting is the issues upon which we disagree.”

Levinson feels a good moderator will keep the conversation on track and moving along — and also maintain objectivity on the questions and allow audience members to hash out what they are trying to ask or what meanings they might be creating. “I never want to talk an audience out of a reaction they’ve had.”

Availability to the audience is also important. “I think it’s the moderator’s job to hang out afterwards and answer any questions that didn’t get answered.”

Sometimes, of course, a talkback can become heated, especially when politics is involved. One such show was Sarah’s War by Valerie Dillman, produced by the
Levantine Cultural Center. The play tells the story of a young activist who decides to join members of the International Solidarity Movement in the Palestinian Territories
under Israeli military occupation — and her family members back in the US. “Sarah’s War was a natural opportunity for conversation after the play,” notes Elgrably.

Dina Simon and Abica Dubay in "Sarah's War"; Photo by Jordan Elgrably

Talkbacks after Sarah’s War performances did get heated — particularly for a member of the cast who felt the need to defend Israel. At one point, his emotions got the better of him, and he marched off the stage, later apologizing. Elgrably says, “People who are very defensive of their positions get angry. I don’t have a problem with that, I’m used to that. But some people can’t handle it.”

Not that Elgrably wants to encourage conflict at his talkbacks — he shakes his head, saying, “Letting it get too heated, is not good. Because people leave feeling bad. It’s OK to have a little bit of conflict, but try to resolve it.”

Another kind of heated talkback is when the audience doesn’t like the play, as with the
Geffen’s production of David Mamet’s The Cryptogram, a dense short play about the
end of childhood. Levinson describes a talkback after that production –  “I thought that audience members were going to come up on stage and rip my head off. They were in a rage.” Many in the audience didn’t like the play or get it, and the short length also seemed to upset them. “They’re complaining the play they didn’t like wasn’t long enough,” says Levinson, followed by a laugh. At one point during a Cryptogram talkback, a patron had to be escorted out by the house manager.

But, she feels, “Those are the most important talkbacks to do.”

How does she handle those moments? “Often times you pose it back to the audience, what did you find difficult? They couldn’t put their finger on what it (the play) was trying to state thematically.” And that was a source of the frustration for the audience.

Brian Polak, marketing and communications director of Theatre @ Boston Court

Not all talkbacks get heated. Polak remembers a pre-show discussion he led about
Futura, by Jordan Harrison. The show focused on typography, among other elements, and a guest was from the Art Center College of Design. As Polak describes the event, “There was almost no time for audience questions because it was so riveting. There were about 30 people there, leaning in. It was one of those panels that could’ve gone for an hour.”

Beck recalls a favorite talkback for Heavier Than.., Steve Yockey’s  mash-up of Greek myths about a Minotaur turning 30, in which Beck chatted with the sound designer. At first the designer was reticent, and Beck quickly moved through her questions. Luckily, she is married to a sound designer and was able to talk on a more technical level. It opened up the conversation to subjects “that I couldn’t get at before, with my prepared questions.”

One thing seems clear — in talkbacks,  shorter is better. Polak remarks, “Our talkbacks last half an hour, sometimes 25 minutes. We don’t go beyond that, with the understanding that you’ve been here for a whole show. We’d rather give you enough to chew on.”

Beck adds, “It’s really successful here in that it is focused. The people who are coming
here to do talkbacks know what they are focusing on, the audience knows what we are
focusing on, so it’s not a big free-for-all.” Henne agrees that by doing more focused and  short talkbacks, it gives the audience more choices of what they want to engage with.

Companies, of course, can choose not to do talkbacks. Many of those interviewed says that if it’s not a company’s preference, or if the work or the audience doesn’t demand a talkback, don’t do it.

But everyone says engagement is important. Levinson recommends “anything you can do to make yourself available to both praise and criticism. You’re doing yourself a great service and your patrons a great service.”

Larry Pontius

Larry Pontius