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The theater talkback: Why they're popular, and why playwrights aren't always pleased

The theater talkback: Why they're popular, and why playwrights aren't always pleased
Audience members stay to discuss Paul Rudnick's "Big Night" with the cast after a performance at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.

The final line is spoken, the audience applauds, the actors take their bows. But at an increasing number of theaters, the night isn’t over.

Audiences often settle back into their seats. It’s time for the talkback, a chance to discuss the play with the actors, the director or sometimes the playwright.

For theaters, the talkback can connect the venue to its audience, deepen understanding of the work and make the audience feel more like a participant and not merely an observer. Skeptics, however, fear that talkbacks can oversimplify the art onstage or discourage personal interpretation — the stage equivalent of didactic wall text telling museum visitors what to think about a painting.

David Mamet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” decreed in July that talkbacks within two hours of a performance of his work were forbidden. As first reported by the Guardian, the license to stage a Mamet play now states that violators could lose the performance rights and be fined $25,000 per talkback.

“It's a very extreme reaction,” said Andrew Leynse, artistic director of the off-Broadway company Primary Stages, arguing that talkbacks are especially useful for newcomers to theater, including students. “We're in a social business. We need to expand and diversify our audiences, and talkbacks are a useful way to engage audiences and deepen their experience.”

"Big Night" actor Max Jenkins, second from right, talks to audience members after the show.
"Big Night" actor Max Jenkins, second from right, talks to audience members after the show. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Gil Cates Jr., executive director of the Geffen Playhouse in L.A., said talkbacks are “essential” to the Westwood theater’s mission, “fostering a conversation between artists and the audience.” The Geffen has held talkbacks since it opened in the 1990s, eventually branding the events as Talkback Tuesdays.

But some playwrights said they understand what Anne Washburn calls “talkback exasperation.” She believes talkbacks need mending, not ending.

“Plays are very complicated events taking place in real time with no chance to rewind or to stop and reflect, and a lot of the new playwriting likes to toggle with the rules,” said Washburn, author of “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play.”

She noted that talkbacks can be useful for people sorting out what they've just seen, how they feel about it and why. The conventional structure is ultimately “a response to the fact that people are shy,” she said. She would prefer that theaters offer drinks in the lobby and allow people to stay and discuss the play informally.

Lynn Nottage, who won her second Pulitzer last year for “Sweat,” said by email that she’s “always a little suspicious of broad declarations and ultimatums in a medium that is designed to be agile, dynamic and adaptable.”

Theater, she said, should be inclusive.

“I see the audience as my final collaborator and sometimes the conversation spills beyond the proscenium,” she said. “It can be annoying, frustrating and a waste of time, but often it is illuminating.”

Sarah Ruhl, whose “Stage Kiss” was at the Geffen last year, said Mamet has the right to block talkbacks after his show — but he’s wrong to do so.

“I understand the concern about having your work explained. You don't have a docent at a poetry reading,” Ruhl said. “But theater is a more democratic art form, and talkbacks don't have to feed audiences a message.”

It can be annoying, frustrating and a waste of time, but often it is illuminating.

— Playwright Lynn Nottage, on hearing the audience conversation about her work

Ruhl added that some talkbacks are wonderful, led by profound thinkers, and some are terrible, led by facile moderators. But the same is true of college English classes, she said. The solution isn’t to eliminate the course. The focus should be on improving the process.

Washburn said the trick is not making the audience “feel that they have 'captured' and 'understood' the play.” Conversations should be “more about raising questions than about providing answers,” she said. “I think that sometimes that can help audiences make space for responses they might otherwise just have rejected out of hand.”

Ruhl agreed, favoring nuanced conversation over simple audience feedback. But she added that many talkbacks are less about the play's meaning than about the creative process for the actors, directors and designers — and that’s important too.

“Theater is becoming more cut off from people, so talking about how the art is being made can help bring audiences back so theater does not become like opera and ballet,” she said.

Susan Feldman, artistic director of St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, has advocated for broader cultural conversations for years. She brought Paul Rieckhoff, founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, to moderate discussions with veterans after the 2007 hit show “Black Watch,” about Scottish soldiers in Iraq. More recently, an all-female production of “Henry IV” featured talks about topics such as women's prison reform.

I understand the concern about having your work explained. You don't have a docent at a poetry reading.

— Sarah Ruhl, acknowledging why some other playwrights object to talkbacks

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Art can stimulate conversation beyond play analysis, Feldman said. These discussions can “deepen the moment for audiences,” but she cautioned that they must be thoughtfully structured or it can “quickly go south.”

Center Theatre Group in L.A. holds not only traditional talkbacks but also Community Conversations inspired by issues that arise in plays. For Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced,” the Community Conversation centered not on the specifics of the play but rather the wider issues of cultural appropriation, representation of Muslims in the media and Islamophobia.

The Geffen added a series last year called Raising the Curtain. Unlike Talkback Tuesdays, these free events occur separately from the performance to draw people who haven't seen the show. “Icebergs” had a climate change specialist on the panel, while other discussions centered on sexual assault, race relations and other issues.

“It's a way to further engage and foster conversation about the topic, but maybe people will also then walk over to the box office and buy a ticket for the show,” said Cates, whose theater held a talkback after Mamet’s “American Buffalo” in 2013.

Raising the Curtain would technically be allowed under Mamet's rules, but Cates said he would respect Mamet's wishes if the theater were to stage another of the playwright’s works. However, he added, “knowing me, I'd probably ask him once if we could do a talkback.”

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