The cannier theaters on the international landscape have, for some time now, been utilizing the new web media as a means of enticing audiences into their seats, through use of evocative online trailers or other viral marketing. Indeed, the recent failure of the much-lauded Broadway production of Brighton Beach Memoirs, directed by Chicago wunderkind David Cromer, may be in part due to an example of how there is simply no bargain good enough to eschew even the most basic of e-mail marketing campaigns.
The especially astute theaters have also built a significant social media presence via blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and the like, understanding that part of what drives an audience to see your work is the sense not that they are being sold to, but being spoken to. At its best a theater uses these tools to build both a conversation and a relationship with its audience that goes beyond seller/consumer dynamics. The theater itself becomes the friend, the somebody who you actually apologize to when you cannot find the time or money to attend their production.
And it is good to use the social media to build these relationships, to innovate the conversation.
But sometimes all you need to do to innovate the conversation is simply innovate the conversation.
Unless I have somewhere very important to be immediately afterward, I tend to stick around for a post-show discussion, even if I didn't particularly enjoy the play. Part of the power of live theatre is that it has no rewind, that every moment occurring is occurring only at that moment and never again happens exactly that way, whether or not your show strives for consistency night after night. You cannot press the back button or reread that detail you missed on the previous page...you simply missed it. It's over. It's gone. In your subconscious you understand the tragic beauty of that because that is the nature of life itself. If you failed to catch one thing because you caught something else, that is your experience of the play, and it is just as valid as the experience of the person who missed your detail while catching the one you missed. A post-show discussion can be the closest approximation live theatre has to the commentary track and the special features menu. It is the opportunity for both artists and audience to delve into those things that simply couldn't be discussed in the moments of the play, in the woefully inadequate medium of linear time.
Yet. If you've been to a post-show discussion, you know that by and large they follow the exact same script.
Show ends. Cast bows, audience applauds, cast exits. Before the audience can stand up to leave, the artistic director/play director/stage manager announces to the room that five minutes or so from now there will be a post-show discussion.
The audience who is leaving is allowed to leave. The audience who is staying settles themselves into a comfortable location. The director and other artistic personnel gather some chairs and sit onstage. Actors either decide to stay onstage in full makeup and costume or go backstage to change, and then either depart the theater quietly or join the discussion already in progress.
Questions occur. Odds are decent that somebody will ask the actors how they memorize all those words, a strangely ubiquitous inquiry, the thespian's equivalent of a writer being asked where they get their ideas from. Somebody makes an observation about what they saw in the design or direction; said observation may or may not be enlightening. If you're a high school production of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None performing for a field trip class of junior high students, you will be asked no fewer than three questions about the romantic relationship status of your dead handsome leading man.
The moderator says there is time for one more question. One more question is asked and answered. The moderator thanks the room for sticking around, and then the evening is over.
This is not a terrible model. It works fairly well. But is it a conversation? No. It is simply more presentation. With the artists onstage and the audience in the seats, you retain that gulf between the two camps despite the obliteration of any fourth wall. You propagate the illusion of a college lecture hall, you subliminally imply that the patrons only have Something To Ask while the artists have Something To Say.
This is false. Everybody in the room has Something To Say. Even if phrased as a question, they have Something To Say.
Thursday night was New Leaf Theatre's first-ever post-show discussion for the audiences who attended that evening's production of The Man Who Was Thursday (and the invitation had also been extended, via the social media, to anybody who had attended a previous performance). Due in part to the Park District Building's need to close down for the night, the discussion was moved to a back room at nearby Rocco's Pizza.
The image at right was photographed a few moments before the formal discussion began.
This crowd includes both patrons and members of the cast and crew. Now tell me...outside of myself and director Jess Hutchinson, mugging for the shot, could you tell me who in this picture is audience and who is artist if you haven't seen the show?
The discussion was delightful. Questions were incisive and observations by both the production staff and the audience contained some revelatory insight. The really great thing was that it didn't feel like a deathly serious Art Discussion--it felt like dinner with friends after everybody had seen the same show. Even maintaining a modicum of Q/A format, there was a comfortable enough atmosphere for people to turn to each other in the room and agree with them directly, instead of channeling their thought at the actors onstage first. It was lively and contained a number of enjoyable quips. We were able to both discuss the thoughts behind the design/narrative elements and be entertained by the actors taking the piss out of each other as they've been doing throughout rehearsals...which essentially opened up the process of the production without making a big deal that the audience was being allowed to witness the process.
In hindsight, as I said, it's obvious. We are stagecrafters. We do understand a thing or two about the subtle importance of objects and people in space, about how they affect reactions. We have all experienced an incident when a towel being draped over a chair makes, for no discernible reason, a flat joke become funny.
Post-show discussions are more commonly known as talkbacks, which implies to me an innate sense of conflict. You have been talked at, audience, now here's your chance to get some TALKBACK. If that's what you want, then that's what you'll get.
But maybe, if you want to have a conversation, you need to create an environment in which a conversation can be expected to occur.