by ED RAMPELL
[dropcap]The[/dropcap] play’s the thing,” says the melancholy Dane in the second act of Hamlet. But sometimes, the plays themselves are not the only thing that theaters offer. Rather, it’s becoming more and more common to supplement performances with additional programming — often in the form of live, pre- or post-show discussions. But what’s the reasoning behind providing this type of additional engagement for modern audiences?
Jon Weiner — an author, academic, and ex-member of the 1960s activist movement, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) — was a designated speaker for the recent “Your Brain is a Bomb: A Revolutionary Conversation Series” that followed four Home/Sick performances at The Odyssey Theatre. Post-play discussions, says Weiner, “are typical of theatre groups that try to get audiences thinking and not be passive. To take a stand.”
Home/Sick, which runs through July 3, is indeed, the type of production that aims to “get the audience thinking.” A co-production of the New York-based Assembly Theater Project (which collectively takes credit for the writing) and the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, Home/Sick is — as the press notes claim — “a theatrical reimagining of the Weather Underground.”
First known as Weatherman, the Weather Underground was an extremist group of the 1960s and 70s — an ultra-Left faction that split off from the SDS in 1969 to pursue armed struggle against the U.S. Government in order to fight for racial equality and to end the Vietnam War, among other issues. Home/Sick follows six disaffected student radicals as they eschew peaceful protests in the form of mass movements and demonstrations, and form instead an underground cell that goes off the grid to pursue a campaign of violent resistance. The play shows how these philosophical and tactical disagreements split the SDS into rival factions, as Home/Sick’s six protagonists pursue “direct action” to “bring the war home,” instead of peaceful protest. The production prompts an audience to examine the merit, and pitfalls, of each tactic.
Sariyah Idan, who wrote and performed a likewise politically-charged piece, Homeless in Homeland — a one-woman show about the Israel-Palestine conflict — agrees with the idea that these talkbacks enhance the inclusive nature of “inter-disciplinary environmental theatre,” and that, by engaging the audience, “they have to become part of the play and are no longer spectators.” (So, perhaps, don’t expect fruitful conversations after the curtain drops for entertainment extravaganzas such as Cats, A Chorus Line or 42nd Street, that aim to get theatergoers’ tootsies tapping, not their neurons popping.)
Assembling talkbacks such as these involves careful consideration of speakers. In addition to Wiener (who also hosts both a KPFK drive-time show and The Nation’s weekly podcast), the Home/Sick talkback included Weatherman co-founder Mark Rudd, who chaired Columbia University’s SDS chapter and co-led the celebrated student revolt there, and later went on to write a memoir about his life underground.
“It’s very smart to have an expert come in person to the discussions,” says Idan of Rudd.
Weiner also makes the case for the value of having actors join these discussions. All but one of the Odyssey production’s actors are original Home/Sick cast members who, says Wiener, have been studying the Weathermen since 2011, when six Assembly actors first launched the hard-hitting drama.
But Idan believes there are pros and cons to thespians participating after the last act in Q&As. Idan originally took part in talkbacks after Homeless in Homeland, which, the actress said, she initially learned from. The discussions, she said, helped her to “tweak” the production. But, with the exception of campus presentations, the solo theatre artist no longer utilizes talkbacks.
“It’s sad the post-show discussions are about politics, not art. It does a disservice to the artists.” Indeed, these artists are not pamphleteers but creative performers who have chosen to express their singular visions through art, not through leaflets or manifestos. “It’s important for the art to say what it has to say,” adds Idan. “If I have to also do a Q&A, it has not succeeded.”
But not everyone agrees. Press notes call The Assembly “a collective of multi-disciplinary performance artists.” Accordingly, insists co-artistic director and dramaturge, Stephen Aubrey (who moderated the talkbacks), all members are both artists and politically active individuals.
“This satisfies our political needs. Art is a great way to make politics palatable,” he says. One suspects that Aubrey, Home/Sick director Jess Chayes and The Assembly cast would agree with dramatist Bertolt Brecht that ticket buyers shouldn’t “hang up their brains with their hats in the cloakroom.”
Home/Sick, of course, is not the only L.A. production that has featured talkbacks. After the 2011 premiere of the controversial docu-play My Name is Rachel Corrie — about a real life American activist bulldozed while protesting Israeli demolition of a Gaza Strip Palestinian home — Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum presented a panel that included the one-woman show’s director, Susan Angelo, and Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler. In 2013, renowned novelist Joyce Carol Oates spoke at the Topanga Canyon amphitheater following WGTB’s debut of her play Tone Clusters, about media exploiting violent crime. This summer, WGTB is eschewing afterwords in favor of pre-show “prologues” at select performances of this repertory season’s five plays.
But not every ticket buyer requires a talkback to make up his/her mind about polemical plays and disputatious dramas. Sometimes, as balladeer Bob Dylan sang in “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”