The dreaded TALKBACK

I write plays as often–or more often–than I write novels, and on a few occasions, when I’ve been fortunate enough to trick some unwary theatre company into producing some of my work, I’ve been asked to come up onstage following a performance to conduct a “talk back” with the audience.  And generally, the audience is more or less held captive at these things… Only a few bold souls are brave enough to get up and leave, saving themselves a painful experience.  Most people feel obliged to stay, which forces them to participate in the ghastly ritual of an audience staring blankly at a playwright who is returning the favor by staring back at them with a “deer in the headlights” kind of look.

Nobody really knows what to ask, or what to say.  There are a few “safe” questions, beginning with “Where do you come up with your ideas for your stuff?”  I’m sure better writers than I can respond with cogent, well-composed responses.  I generally come back with, “Um… oh, you know… all kinds of places.”  Which, as it happens, is the truth, but it doesn’t make for a very compelling answer.

I have never been quite certain why theatre companies want to foist talk backs on a perfectly innocent audience who hasn’t done anything so criminally wrong as to be forced to endure one of these strange interactions.  The theatre has already collected its box office receipts.  Most everybody involved with the production is certainly ready to go home.  Presumably the audience got what they came for, as well.  But now they’ve been conscripted into active participation.  They have to wrack their brains for things to ask the playwright.  From my vantage point in my folding chair in the middle of the stage, I’ve seen it… the nervousness, the shuffling of feet, the averted eyes, as if some of them are actually afraid that the writer might actually CALL ON THEM.  It’s seventh-grade civics class all over again.

I participated in a talk back just last weekend.  It was one of the better ones, because it lasted under five minutes.  Nobody could think of any questions to ask the playwrights (there were three of us), which I believe came as an enormous relief to everyone involved.

So, bottom line… as a playwright, I will no doubt be asked to participate in more of these things.  (In fact, there are three more of them on my calendar even as I type this).  But if you are reading this and you are an audience member, heed my words.  It may be too late for me, but you can still save yourselves!  You don’t have to stay for the talk backs.  Nobody is going to judge you if you get up and leave, even if it means making your way across a row of seats, scrambling around the knees and legs of your fellow theatre-goers still in their chairs, too timid to take action of their own.  No; they aren’t judging you… ENVYING YOU, certainly, for not having your courage, but not judging.  And if this should happen to be one of the talk backs where I am the playwright up on that stage, let me assure you, I am silently applauding you, as well.  Fly, little one!  Be free!

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