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.
Less Talkbacks, More Drinkbacks
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.