I’ll Disband My Roving Gang of Thirty Asian Playwrights When You Stop Doing Asian Plays in Yellow Face* (*Exception: David Henry Hwang’s play Yellow Face)
New post via Howlround. Click here to read.
There's been a lot of discussion about The Kilroys and the hoped-for impact of The List when it comes to entrenched unconscious bias regarding productions by female playwrights.
Overall I'm thrilled with what the Kilroys are doing. The fruition of this List and its spirit of artist-based advocacy are precisely what made me start up this blog in the first place.
But while much has been said about the absolutely necessary work of enacting gender parity and bringing more attention to the fantastic and chronically-overlooked work of female writers, I also want to point out something about The List that I think is equally revolutionary yet much less discussed, and that is the concept of communal curation.
The List was assembled in communal fashion, culled from the input of scores of theater professionals under a methodology that was open, numerically-based, and democratic. It's an artifact of (largely) unquestioned artistic excellence that was crowdsourced, a working model that doesn't rely on the curatorial taste of an individual tastemaker (such as a reviewer or a single artistic director). That's worth noting, because when it comes to season planning, a lot of our theaters have a problem with getting buy-in from the artistic community.
A lot of theaters claim to be "artist-based," yet today's not-for-profit theater has decidedly morphed from what was once a largely ensemble-based model (with company actors and resident playwrights and collective decision-making) to something a lot more corporate-looking (with an artistic/executive director, and a Board, and a roving band of contractor-artists). That decades-long march towards corporatization was absolutely necessary, for it has yielded great things like year-to-year financial solvency and state-of-the-art facilities. But what we've lost in the process is a crucial connection to the artists these theaters purportedly serve.
Artists have very little agency in choosing what gets produced year-to-year. Theaters tend to be relatively opaque about their selection process; there's little communication with the public around how or why they choose what they choose; and there is no solid system of metrics in place to assess the successes or failures of any given season -- no transparency beyond tax forms and grant reports. This leads a whole lot of artists feeling like they have no control over their careers and no impact over the state of their art form. Too often I see frustrated playwrights peddling their "calling card plays," these startling innovations in form gaining a lot of quiet supporters, but never any productions, due to the gray perception that the plays are "too risky." Too often I see entire Lit departments being ignored, their hundreds of hours of play reading and advocacy ultimately having little practical impact on what ultimately gets programmed.
I'm skeptical of the model of a lone artistic director picking out all the plays for a season. The stakes are too high for artists' careers, and I think that a single person's perspective can't possibly keep pace with all the innovations in theatrical form that are happening around us, or the changes in demographics that are necessitating the inclusion of a more diverse body of artists, or (as The Kilroys help illustrate) the simple fact that individual decision-makers have inborn biases that might prevent them from giving a vast swath of highly talented people their due.
It's funny to me that theater is such a collaborative art form yet the process of season planning is so closed off to outside input. Which is why the communal nature of The List is so refreshing to me, in its reliance on the expertise and passion of a large group rather than the proclivities (and potential biases) of a select few.
There has to be more room in our national season for all those great plays that we artists know and love - those "calling card plays" that have been kicking around for years but can't seem to find a production. Those plays that the lit managers love but producers find "flawed." There has to be a way to capture the groundswell enthusiasm of the community and translate that into palpable results - a model that pushes onstage the plays we collectively feel are ready, and worthy. Why does the endorsement of a single reviewer hold so much more sway than the endorsement of fellow artists? Shouldn't an artist-based theater demand more input from its artist constituency?
That The List draws attention to pervasive gender inequities in the theater is certainly noteworthy, and crucial. But that it honors the theater expertise of a wide body of people who spend their lives making theater. That's crucial too.
This post is about a problem I encountered last summer and have been struggling to put into words for a while now. At its heart it’s about respecting the work of the playwright. But it starts with an elaborate back-story including a brief sidebar on intellectual property rights.
Last summer, a director friend from a major summer stock theater company contacted me with some good news: the late-night intern showcase was coming up, and one of the directing interns had chosen to direct my ten-minute play The Roosevelt Cousins, Thoroughly Sauced. They’d already been rehearsing for a couple of weeks, and my friend wanted to put me in touch with the director to discuss the play. To which I said, “That’s great. Of course I’ll speak with the director. But that particular play is published by Sam French. Have y’all contacted them for the rights?”
[Sidebar for those unfamiliar with play publication.
When a play becomes published, the publisher typically purchases both the publication rights (i.e. the right to publish and charge for copies of the script), as well as the licensing rights (i.e. the right to charge a royalty fee to anyone who wants to perform the play).
Money-wise the playwright receives a very small percentage of book sales (traditionally 10%, split evenly if the book is a compilation). So in the case of Roosevelts, a 6-writer compilation, if the publisher is currently charging $9.95/book, my individual cut is $0.17. The percentage from licensing fees is much greater (traditionally 80% for an amateur production or 90% for a professional one). So if the publisher is currently charging $45 for a classroom performance, I would receive $36.
You might ask why a playwright would cede licensing rights to a publisher, since the publisher is taking a large cut. The answer is that the publisher – by virtue of putting the play in book form – can reach a wider body of theaters/performers than the writer can reach on their own. You might also ask why a theater/performer has to pay a licensing fee in the first place. The answer is that it takes the playwright time and effort to create the play, and art isn’t free.
Side Sidebar: thanks to Mark Armstrong - who has worked in both play publishing and the agency world - for burrowing into the above numbers. Two things Mark thinks are worth noting for any playwright entering a publication deal:
OK End of Sidebar.]
Regarding licensing, my friend said, “We never do -- it's a classroom presentation in a black box -- the culmination of the acting and directing classes every three weeks; no tickets, nothing like that.”
This sounded fishy to me, so I got in touch with my agent. My agent forwarded me Sam French’s licensing FAQ, and the language is pretty clear:
I got on the phone with my director friend and we had a pretty long conversation about this, and it was actually a very healthy and considerate conversation. She explained that they consider the internship program to be a classroom environment. I explained that this was essentially out of my hands. If this were an unpublished play, I could conceivably “donate” the play to be performed in the showcase. But once a play becomes published the licensing rights go to the publisher and it’s not up to me to decide. I encouraged them to pay the licensing fee, or at the very least contact Sam French for an educational waiver.
Here’s What Happened Instead.
At this point the managing director stepped in with the following four points (bearing in mind that I’m rephrasing here because I wasn’t directly involved in the conversation):
These explanations didn’t sit well with me, and I’d like to rebut each in turn:
So I got back to my agent, who encouraged Sam French to contact the theater, and didn’t hear any more about this until the end of the summer. At which point I found out that the theater had dropped my play and substituted a different (unpublished) work by another writer.
This too didn’t sit well with me. The directing intern and actors had already spent a couple of weeks rehearsing the project. This was a waste of their time. I also felt that by pulling the play the theater was ducking a critical issue about whether they are using the playwrights’ materials fairly. While I definitely prefer that they dropped the play as opposed to performing it unauthorized, I can think of several more palatable alternatives:
I get that it’s hard to come up with the perfect solution in the heat of the moment. Summer stock festivals are hectic and jam-packed with programming, and in the grand scheme of things the intern showcase isn’t the highest priority. But in an environment in which theaters operate on such tight margins, our principles are pretty much all we have left to offer each other. This felt a little unprincipled, and it isn’t the first theater where I’ve encountered the issue. I started my career as a director, and when I mentioned performance rights to another summer stock company, they said not to bother applying. “By the time they issue a cease and desist order, you’ll be done with the play.”
Here’s Why You Should Care.
There is an attitude of impunity in our culture when it comes to taking people’s artwork – this idea that art should be free. We see it in the way people pirate music and films online. We see it in the way people throw copyrighted works onto YouTube without attribution. But more disturbingly, we see it within our own community in the way that we treat young artists. There’s this attitude that free labor and free art are the price of entry for a career.
Why can’t a theater that gets copious free labor from its interns be bothered to pay a small licensing fee on the interns' behalf, in acknowledgement of all of their work? Or in my case, yes I’m a relatively unknown writer, but why am I not worth the phone call to Sam French just to be sure that we’re all above-board? If my play is being performed unlicensed, then my work is being used as a de facto subsidy to the theater – a perk to the interns to offset their free labor. It’s just that the interns signed up to work for the theater; I never did. According to Guidestar, this theater’s annual revenue is $3 million dollars. Mine’s $30,000. Who should be subsidizing whom?
Frankly I find the idea that the theater didn’t want to set the precedent of paying licensing fees disturbing. I get that we’re all budgeted within an inch of our lives, but if we don’t value each other’s art as fellow theater-makers – if we fail to respect the time and effort we put into our craft – then no one else will value us either. And then we’ll deserve the pattern of arts piracy infecting our culture at large.
Whenever a theater (or a training program, or a school) ducks the licensing process, or whenever they so much as photocopy a published script to distribute to actors (which is also illegal), please know that you are taking the bread directly out of the playwright’s mouth. It's no different than going online and pirating a movie. Only the sad irony of it is that most playwrights – unlike a film studio – are usually so overjoyed whenever someone takes an interest in their work that they'd gladly participate in the process, so long as you've gone through the proper channels. Why bother stealing the play when you could bag the actual playwright?
More generally, when it comes to training young theater-makers, we’re so obsessed with teaching the craft of theater that we've completely neglected the business. In college I had multiple professors assigning me Aristotle’s Poetics or An Actor Prepares. I wish they'd also slipped me the Equity Showcase Code, or the Dramatists Guild Bill of Rights.
We think that adoption of standard industry practice will occur on its own, but clearly that's not the case. (I once saw a professional production of my play where the company had inserted new lines of dialogue without my permission or knowledge, because they felt that adding interstitial material would smooth out the scene transitions. This was a play I'd spent three years shaping into exactly what I wanted to say, and here were these random-ass lines inserted for the sake of furniture movement.)
An internship or apprenticeship may very well be a young professional’s first real exposure to living playwrights and new play development. So it becomes all the more crucial not to cut corners when it comes to honoring intellectual property rights, and all the more perverse when those rights are being violated in the name of "education." We're not just responsible for arts training here; we're responsible for modeling best practices.
In fact this showcase could've been an enormous teaching opportunity regarding how to approach a writer’s work. “Great, you’ve found a play that you like. Are the rights available? Is it published, and if so what is the licensing process? If it isn’t published, who is the playwright’s agent? Yes! You can talk directly with their agent – you’re a producer now.” This is an exercise that’s imminently useful to a group of early-career directors and actors who will invariably go on to form their own companies and become our next wave of producers, artistic directors, and company members.
To put it another way, playwrights will only generate new plays insofar as they can afford to keep doing it, and only insofar as they know that the community is protecting their work even when they’re not around to police it.
You may not think my 10-minute play is worth the $45. OK, I get that. But with the financial survival of playwrights more tenuous than ever before, with so many playwrights fleeing to LA for TV jobs, what is the price of further eroding our income base? What is the price of teaching young artists that it’s ok to just take someone’s art?
I’ve been avidly following coverage of The Summit and there’s a lot of FANTASTIC discussion coming out of that, but one thing that caught my attention that hasn’t been really dissected yet is the false notion that arts education will save the theater.
When confronted with the stark reality that “the youth” won’t buy theater tickets, theaters oftentimes place the blame on the school system. The argument goes that decreased arts funding in schools begets students who aren’t accustomed to coming to theater, and that by not being exposed to theater at a young age we’re losing all our potential patrons. It’s a chestnut that found its way into The Summit, and it’s a position that Isherwood floated in an article about Rocco Landesman’s tenure at the NEA.
It’s also a myth.
While it may be true that arts education is on the decline, is that really a primary cause for declining theater attendance?
I personally didn’t receive much arts education as a child, and yet here I am in the theater. MFA programs are doing more robust business than ever before. (In fact they barely existed a generation ago.) Where did all those eager young applicants come from? I see hundreds of young audience members at black box theaters enjoying the heck out of off-off Broadway. But those same audience members won’t buy season tickets to larger theaters. Is it really a lack of education that’s stopping them from becoming subscribers?
Take the basic argument of “We need more theater in schools so more people will go see theater later in life” and substitute comparable forms of entertainment where young people are already dropping boatloads of money. The very logic of the construction collapses.
Consider the following assertions:
Now consider the converse, swapping out theater for things that we do teach in schools:
The truth is that no one needs to be trained to enjoy theater. Theater is primal. When a show is electric – when a play surprises and delights and actually says something new and truthful about the world that we live in – there’s a collective energy in the room that needs no explanation. It’s just that a lot of theater is terribly boring, and we're not doing all we can to respect audiences enough to present them with challenging work.
A lot of theater buildings feel inaccessible, too. A clubhouse for people already in the know, what with their arcane ticketing rules and inflexible schedules and clueless volunteer ushers and lack of lobby seating and strict bans on beverages in the house. I’ve heard theater people complain, “Young people will drop $100 on a restaurant, but won't buy a theater ticket!” Well would you go to a restaurant where you have to make a prepaid nonrefundable deposit, your reservation time can’t be changed, the host is just a volunteer who wants to eat there for free, if you buy a drink at the bar you can't bring it to your table, you have to be totally silent at dinner, there's only 5 items on the menu and the menu never changes, and you’re kicked out of the restaurant exactly 10 minutes after your dinner? If you wouldn't go to that restaurant, is it because you lack education?
Audiences don’t have a problem with arts education. Theaters have a problem with hospitality. Most efforts at bringing in young audiences are condescending at best. Designated Twitter Seats... because kids can’t stop tweeting. Free Beer with Your Ticket... because all kids want to do is get wasted. No efforts made at changing up the actual plays.
In truth theaters have a serious curatorial problem when it comes to choosing plays that a young, diverse audience can get behind. The fantastic documentary Miss Representation introduces the concept of symbolic annihilation in the media, and it applies exceedingly well to the theater. Why would young people (or people of color, or women) bother coming to the theater when they’re so rarely depicted onstage, and when they're so rarely in command of the artistic process? Is our dwindling audience truly a reflection of the educational landscape, or is it a reflection of a chronic homogeneity onstage exacerbated by an attendant homogeneity in our staffing?
Even if there were some correlation between arts education and audience attendance, it will take a generation to fix the educational system and even more time to measure whether increased arts education had any downstream effect. Whereas we are facing a crisis of audience right here and now. We are in a war of attrition – a war that we know we are losing. In the midst of losing a war, you don’t get the luxury of saying, “I wish we had more military education.” The only recourse is a quick strategy change.
Instead of blaming something so distal as arts education, let’s look at the proximal barriers that are keeping young people out of the theater, and consider fixes we can implement now:
Right now the institutional theater has the same demographic problems as the Republican Party: largely aging, largely affluent, largely White. If you truly want a young and diverse audience, you’re going to have fundamentally change up your programming in a way that may very well alienate your existing base. Which may be okay. Because that base isn't large enough to form a sustainable coalition.
It actually verges on arrogance, this tendency to blame arts education for our own shortcomings. It’s an elitist argument that absolves us of agency. “We can’t do anything about it! We’ve done all we can! They’re just too uneducated to appreciate theater!”
Am I arguing against education? Of course not. I’m just saying we owe it to ourselves to be more diligent about tracing causality. It’s easy to point the finger at arts education; that’s a factor beyond our control. But taking ownership over the factors we can control? That’s a much harder matter.
Ma-Yi Writers Lab just completed a benefit for the Philippines, in partnership with Playwrights Horizons, in which we wrote a series of new plays based on Filipino proverbs and donated all net proceeds to buy fishing boats for villagers affected by Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda. Above is a photo of the new fleet!
This benefit came from a variety of impulses: to find a way to donate in a thoughtful way, and to find a way to build community at home while helping people abroad. On Valentine's Day, Rehana and I wrote an article that TCG was kind enough to post about our philosophy behind the event. The original is printed here and it's also appended below.
Moments of tragedy call for community-building, not just financial rebuilding.
by Mike Lew
When the Philippines were devastated by Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda in November of 2013, Ma-Yi knew we had to do something. Ma-Yi Theater Company was initially founded by Filipino artists, and we still have several family ties there. Ma-Yi Writers Lab is the largest collective of Asian-American playwrights in the country, and our artistic impulse was to create a series of brand-new short plays inspired by translations of Filipino proverbs. It’s our hope that the audience will come away from this evening with a deeper appreciation of the Philippines – that the program will become a kind of primer in Tagalog, and that each play will serve as a powerful mnemonic for remembering each Filipino phrase.
All proceeds from the evening will go towards buying new fishing boats for villagers affected by the storm. Our goal is to raise the money on behalf of Negrense Volunteers for Change (NVC), a not-for-profit organization based in Bacolod, capital of Western Negros, an island hit hard by the typhoon. By providing funds directly to a private, non-government volunteer organization working with the communities, we will avoid unnecessary overhead costs and provide immediate relief for the victims of the typhoon. NVC will be able to restore and manufacture fishing boats with clean motors for every $500 we raise, with support going out to Negros, Cebu, Panay, Leyte, and Samar.
This is a chance for Ma-Yi to use our expertise in the Philippines to channel funding towards relief efforts that will directly and palpably affect the victims, and to handle the tragedy in a culturally sensitive way. Oftentimes we in the theater hold up this art form as a commons for discussing today’s political landscape, and the real-life impact of ongoing global events. Last year, in response to ongoing casting controversies in which several theater shows portrayed Asian characters in Asia without using Asian actors, Ma-Yi Writers Lab staged an evening of protest theater in partnership with the Signature, on the set of David Henry Hwang’s Golden Child. This year, the Lab was given the challenge of directly addressing the typhoon, if they dared. The theater won’t survive as a viable art form unless playwrights and producers keep pushing to create work that reflects the deep emotions and ideas presently rocking the world.
This benefit is also an effort at community-building within the NYC theater. In an effort to keep tabs on a rising crop of talented Asian actors, Ma-Yi held an open casting call to fill some of the roles in our ensemble. We received an overwhelming volume of submissions – so much so that we extended the audition process from one day to two – and made first contact with over 100 up-and-coming Asian actors. We’ve partnered with Playwrights Horizons, and they’ve generously donated space and logistical support for this evening. We’ve received publicity support from Ensemble Studio Theater, and several master playwrights – David Henry Hwang, Sarah Ruhl, and Chuck Mee – have all come forth and offered sponsored tickets for artists.
Financial rebuilding is crucial after a natural disaster. But so is community building. This benefit seeks to provide typhoon relief in a truly considered way, and present our collective response to the tragedy in a way that considers our larger theatrical community.
Telling Our Stories, and Sharing Them Too
by Rehana Lew Mirza
When the Asian American theater movement began cropping up in the 60s and 70s, it was an artistic response to a lack of Asian representation in the mainstream media, and was largely in keeping with the political “yellow power” movement. Ma-Yi Theater, now celebrating it’s 25th anniversary, was founded largely as a splinter from that, in order to recognize the ‘brown’ brethren – or the Pacific Islanders – who weren’t at the time considered part of that movement. The Philippines – with its history as an occupied power under the US – has always had a different relationship with the U.S. than other Asian countries. (In actuality, the Philippines as a country has a stronger shared history with other U.S. satellites like Puerto Rico, than say, Thailand.)
But as is the case with all good theaters, Ma-Yi has evolved over the years. Their mission has changed as the needs of their community changed. (Ahem, theaters, take note.) In 2004, Sung Rno founded the Ma-Yi Writers Lab, now the largest collective of Asian-American writers in the country, and what began as a Filipino company began to embrace all Asian-Americans under its umbrella. As South Asians began to immigrate to the country in larger masses, they too felt left out of the Asian-American Theater movement, and yet Ma-Yi again expanded its ranks. When playwright Mike Lew and I first joined the Writers Lab in 2005, Mike not only fell in love at first sight, but also thought, “Wait – she’s Asian?”
What all of this means is that Asian/Pacific/American identity is fractured and not homogenous by any means. Within the umbrella of “A/P/A” hundreds of languages are spoken. That movement encompasses 52 nations, and thousands of different culinary delights.
So when a group of Asian-American playwrights approaches a benefit for the Philippines, it feels both natural and foreign. In some ways, Ma-Yi is the absolute authority on creating an evening of theater around Typhoon Haiyan. Or are we? What do we have to say about the Philippines? Sure, we have 3 1/2 Filipino playwrights, all of varying levels of connection to the homeland, but so what? And what about the rest of us?
Ultimately this benefit will include a gamut of stories that are incredibly diverse, all showing our unique perspectives even as all of us used a Filipino phrase as a jumping-off point. While we have the freedom of not being ‘responsible’ for representing a culture (which, even if we were of that culture, no one can really represent an entire culture), we also have access to sensitivity gut checks and honesty from those who have a decided stake in how their ancestry is represented onstage. When Asian-Americans are so often underrepresented in the mainstream, it helps to have a clever combination of both flexibility and authority, imagination and knowledge.
With five New Dramatists residencies, two PONY fellowships, and a boatload of awards including the Leah Ryan, Kendeda, Laurents/Hatcher, and Helen Merrill Awards – Ma-Yi Writers Lab is kicking ass and taking names. But I think it’s largely due to the heterogeneous make-up of the term “Asian-American” and our need to acknowledge differences and commonalities amongst one another. Innovisor, a consulting firm, conducted research in twenty-nine countries and found that “diverse groups often perform better.”
Hell yeah we do. Our art is all the better for our differences yet united by a common sense of purpose, and this benefit shows that.
Mike Lew and Rehana Lew Mirza met and married in the Ma-Yi Writers Lab. Mike is currently Co-Director of the Lab alongside Rey Pamatmat, after Rehana stepped down from Co-Director duties earlier this year.
Mike’s plays include Tiger Style!, Collin, Bike America (Alliance, Atlanta; Ma-Yi, NYC; Juilliard and Lark workshops, NYC; Kennedy Center/NNPN workshop, DC; Playwrights Foundation workshop, SF); and microcrisis (Ma-Yi, NYC; InterAct, Philly; Next Act, Milwaukee). He is a former resident writer for Blue Man Group, an EST member, and recipient of the second annual Lanford Wilson Award (via the Dramatists Guild), the Helen Merrill Award, NYFA Fellowship, and Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Award. Training: Juilliard, Yale.www.mikelew.com
Rehana’s plays include Neighborhood Watch (NNPN/InterAct commission),Soldier X (2012 NYSCA Commission; Lark Development Center Studio Retreat);Lonely Leela (workshops with Magic Theatre, Desipina/HERE, and New Georges; reading at 2G); and Barriers (productions at HERE and Asian American Theater Company; Princess Grace Finalist; included on the curriculum at West Virginia University, Yale University and NYU). She is the recipient of an IAAC playwright residency with The Lark Development Center, a Tofte Arts Residency, a TCG Future Leader fellowship with New Georges, the NBC DiverseCity ShortCuts Audience Award, P2 for a Cause Grant, Leopold Schepp fellowship, a 2G residency, and an LMCC artist grant. Training: Columbia, NYU.www.rehanamirza.com
My previous post on creating a common app for summer development conferences has now found its way to the Kanjy blog. Read it there if you haven't seen it before.
Richard Nelson has quite beautifully captured the pervasive notion of helping the playwright - the idea that playwrights are incapable of finishing their work on their own and must therefore be put through a development hell of readings and workshops in order to get their plays up to snuff.
In my experience, most writers that are tossed into the crucible of a production tend to do this play development work on their own. With the incentive and pressure of a looming production, the writer will get their script into shape regardless of and perhaps even despite any previous readings/workshops. Which is why I think it's so necessary we focus on vastly expanding production volume rather than ceding resources to go-nowhere development work. Not that development can't be useful, it's just that development in a vacuum is frustrating and inefficient. At its best, development should be writer-driven, with clear goals in mind. When we fall into the theater, we say things like, "I want to be onstage," or, "I want to see my work up in lights." We don't say things like, "I want to be in a weeklong closed workshop," or "I want to see my work micro-scrutinized the moment it's been cold-read for the very first time."
Development hell is a relatively recent phenomenon in this industry. When New Dramatists was founded in 1949, it was because a bunch of writers needed a place to workshop their work before it went up on Broadway. That's right: there were too many Broadway production opportunities and not enough development opportunities. Now, of course, it's practically impossible to get a new play production without enduring a vast onslaught of developmental readings and workshops (if you're lucky!). In my mind, this is really about a lack of money in the theater rather than about any intrinsic flaws in the scripts. Play productions cost a lot of money. Reading series don't. (In fact, they are grant bait.) But in order to justify a reading series in lieu of productions, you have to label the plays unfinished. You have to create an atmosphere of "helping the playwright." Which of course comes alongside the most torturous circle of development hell: the talkback.
I haven't once heard a playwright say, "That talkback was really useful for my process." In fact, talkbacks tend to be painful, boring, awkward, and antithetical to the continued maturation of the play. Seeing the play in front of an audience can be incredibly useful, even in a reading setting. But the talkback afterward? Not useful.
I'll pretty much never integrate anything that's been said in a talkback. Not because I think my plays are perfect - far, far from it. It's just that:
A) I'm probably too wired and preoccupied to hear anything you have to say, and
B) The audience has no skin in the game. I've worked on this play for what's probably several years. You've worked on it for 2 hours. I can't trust off-the-cuff reactions from strangers. I need to check in with people like the director, actors, and dramaturg - people who have a palpable stake in the ongoing life of the play.
Even in a talkback comprised of industry members, the comments at the bar afterwards tend to be far more interesting than the ones in the talkback itself. Everyone needs time to process what they've seen. A play is not a snap poll; it's a sensual experience meant to be savored and reflected upon. It is completely anti-art to go see a play - something that is meant to be surprising, experiential, and above all emotionally resonant - only to start picking it apart the moment the lights come up. After I see a really good play I'm usually speechless, stunned into silent reflection. I could never for the life of me shake that off and start firing off a bunch of random potshot suggestions.
But if talkbacks aren't useful as a play development tool, they're tremendously useful as an audience development tool. Theaters love doing post-show talkbacks because they give the audience direct access to the artists, making the audience feel more integrated in the artistic process. It's good for individual giving and it's good for ticket sales.
But aren't there better ways to engage the audience without alienating the playwright? For instance, I've never met a playwright who enjoys a talkback but I've met plenty of playwrights who enjoy a reception. I'm highly unlikely to accept a plot tip from a stranger, but I'm slightly more likely to accept a free beer.
Which is why I think we should do away with talkbacks and institute drinkbacks. After the play, let's send everyone to the bar and see what conversation arises naturally, rather than forcing everyone to sit still for another half hour. In a non-formal setting, surrounded by fellow artists and audience members rather than being shoved up onstage, let me wander the room and pursue what conversations are of interest to me. Let me follow a line of inquiry that sparks something new, rather than thinking in sound bites.
The formality of a talkback, the condescending tone, the feeling of being scrutinized during a moment of great vulnerability: these things aren't helpful. But if I'm building personal relationships with an audience while you're thinking about the work in a substantive way, and we're actually having fun doing it?
That's helpful to everyone.