Tuesday, January 03, 2006

After the Show

Over at Gasp!, Laura Axelrod posted a thoughtful response to the Frederick Turner manifesto that she called "Defining Art." Near the end, she responded to my own addendum: Artists should create opportunities for spectators to share ideas and emotions with each other and with the artist. Laura wrote:

"Speaking as someone who has written plays that have caused great reaction in people, I don’t find it helpful to present myself as a target for their emotional processes. If they need to talk amongst themselves, that’s fine. But I’ve been yelled at, raged about, sobbed on and have had a whole other range of emotions tossed at me after production of my work. When I given people an opportunity to discuss what they’ve seen with me, they’ve often put the focus on me rather than their own thoughts. “Why did you write that? How dare you write that! Did you experience that?” etc. I’ve found that it’s just not helpful or me to make myself available. I'm sure there are others out there who feel the same way."

I emailed a response thanking her for her thoughts and briefly explaining my reasoning, and Laura sent me the following:

My objection (and that might be too strong of a word) about your last point on that entry was based on personal experience. I've been a part of discussions, both as an audience member and as the writer. It seems that those "post" discussions can often become a car crash of people "processing" what they've seen. Perhaps if you talked a bit more about what you mean on the point, we might agree. Who would lead these discussions? What would be the point (besides building community?) What role would the writer/actor/director have in it? Would the artists be forced to "defend themselves"? What is the intention and what would everyone get out of it? I'd love to hear your answers."

Laura makes excellent points, and raises important questions. A post-show discussion that is poorly run, like a playreading or workshop that is poorly run, does more harm than good. I don't think a post-show discussion should be an opportunity for artists to be attacked, and in the case of a new play, I don't think it should be an opportunity for audience members to tell the playwright how to make the play "better." The best way for a playwright to learn what an audience thinks about a play is to do what playwrights have been doing since time immemorial: watch the audience during the performance. Spectator's reactions in the moment are more true than any attempt on their part to explain them later.

But I do think that a well-run and focused post-show discussion can be important for both the spectators and the theatre itself.

Recently, there was a study done that revealed that people went to different cultural events for different reasons, and that the majority of people went to theatre to socialize. Now, one way to interpret that is that people are looking for, in John McGrath's phrase, "A Good Night Out" -- going to a theatre to be entertained with friends or loved ones. But if that was the total meaning, then why not simply go to a restaurant or a bar and have a conversation? No, in this case, I think "to socialize" also means be part of a group, to share an experience. This desire is what Jill Dolan (quoted below) calls "utopian performatives," which she defines as "those moments when you go to see a performance and feel yourself in the presence of a group of strangers experiencing a moment together that fills us with hope that our world might be better than the way we currently know and experience it." My theory, which remains untested, is that often spectators would like that moment to be extended.

I believe people like to share experiences. They like to share their own thoughts, and even more importantly they like to hear the thoughts of others. They want to feel like they are part of a community, a group of people who together experienced that unique performance and who had specific reactions to it that perhaps were shared. Using a play as a common bond, for a little while the barriers between people that we have come to call privacy can be breached, and people can talk to each other.

I have been to quite a few post-show discussions, and I have facilitated quite a few as well. They all have had the same format: the spectators who want to stay and talk gather in a section of the theatre, and either some of the artists or a panel of experts chosen according to the play's subject matter gather on the stage; the facilitator either gets the ball rolling by asking a question first, or he opens the floor to comments. Either way, what transpires usually isn't a conversation, but an interview; and if a conversation does happen to evolve, it is usually spectator-to-artist-to-spectator mediated by the facilitator. These can be lively and interesting, but they are also rather artificial. And what is missing is what I consider to be the most important element: conversation between spectators.

I think that a post-show discussion would be more enjoyable and vibrant if the audience and artists were mixed together and broken into small groups of four or five, and perhaps provided with a focus question, or developed a focus question themselves. After a certain amount of time, everyone would change groups, and the conversation would continue, with each person explaining the main ideas discussed in the previous group and then extending the discussion from there. Depending on the amount of time you had, this could happen again. At some point, everyone would come back together as a whole and share the main ideas that had developed with the entire group.

The focus of the discussion would be the play itself, rather than how well the actors performed or how effective the designs were. Artists who were not onstage would have the option of revealing who they are or not -- they could either "lurk" or uncloset themselves according to their preference. In fact, except for a having a facilitator to organize the discussion, artist participation would be entirely optional, because the focus would be on the audience, not the artists.

The result, it seems to me, would be a more complete and satisfying experience for those spectators who chose to participate, and it would be an experience that could only be had in the theatre. I think it would create a stronger bond between spectator and theatre institution. If I were running a theatre and setting this up, I would provide free coffee and baked goods to create the right atmosphere. I'd set up card tables in the lobby with a votive candle on each for people to converse around. In short, I would make it a comfortable and enjoyable event.

None of this is original with me (although its application to theatre may be new). You can check out how this technique has been used for social and organizational change at The World Cafe. The idea is that we can shape our future through conversations that matter. I think theatre can not only be a part of those conversations, but be a catalyst for them. And I would like to see that happen.

Brecht's Lehrstucke were designed to lead into these kind of conversations. I think, if you wanted to go Brecht one better, you would insert these sort of conversations during the performance -- say, between the acts. Now that would be interesting...


Joshua said...

Regarding post-show comments and critique, this is my experience - I've attended hundreds, both as a spectator and as a participant, the past twelve to fifteen years, both for workshop productions and readings. I've even mediated some of them myself.

I've probably had a least a hundred of them featuring work I've written myself. That's a conservative estimate, the number is likely higher (staged readings are handed out like candy here, it seems) and probably is.

What I've learned about post-show audience critiques is this. The author and other artists involved rarely, if ever, learn ANYTHING of value from post-show audience critiques and comments. Mostly you hear people going about themselves, rather than the work, and arguing with each other around what the play meant for them, individually. Not always, but almost always.

The really valuable thing we learn from the audience generally comes during the performance of the piece. You learn the most from the audience by listening to how they react to the work

Now, don't take this to mean that I don't need and value feedback. I do, but when it's people whom I know, dramaturgically (directors I've worked with, other writers who know the craft, etc) - I absolutely need that kind of feedback, but it needs to come from someone with some sort of dramaturgical POV that I can communicate with . . . just because folks can feel the experience of a piece of work in theatre, feel it fully and gueninuly, doesn't mean that they can be articulate about it. Hell, I work in theatre and I ain't always articulate about it, either. I never understood why we put this onus and burden on audiences, asking them to break it down via comments and critique after they just sat through it. It's almost never been of value to this playwright, the post show audience comments.

Generally you know if an audience likes a piece because they're involved, breathing with the performers. If they don't like it, they're asleep.

Again, this is just what I've experienced.

Scott Walters said...

Josh -- I agree with you totally. I don't think the value of post-show discussions lies in what it tells the artists. That's why I propose this alternate model, which focuses on the ideas, images, and issues raised by a work of art rather than how the artists could improve their work. Now, that said, I think artists should participate in these conversations to get to know those in the audience, and forge a relationship with them. Converstaions, even artistic conversations, are deeper when it doesn't happen between strangers!

oldphort said...

The Met does "talkbacks" during their shows on Saturday afternoon - but they are rarely discussions. Rather, interviews, like you describe, or brief introductions of their artists with questions posed to such by a moderator.

I like the idea of small group discussions following a performance. I wonder if this is a small indicator of creating theatre for and with a community? Maybe the discussion need not occur after the show at the theatre? Maybe the discussions are ongoing, the play is simply a highlighting experience during a longer, group discussion?