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In Support Of Conversations Between Theatres and Audiences

May 26, 2008

Should audiences for performances be more vocal about how they feel about their experiences? Or should they keep their thoughts to themselves or the people with whom they attended the show?

I ask these questions in response to a conversation I had just a couple of hours ago with a few theatregoers following a trip to see a production of a new rock opera in Berkeley. I attended the theatre tonight with three articulate, brilliant people who see a lot of live performance and have strong opinions about what they experience on stage. One member of my party, a theatre producer with an eye for detail, mentioned that some of the lighting cues had distracted her from what was otherwise a terrific evening's entertainment. "Some of the actors were standing there doing things in the dark," she said. "I would have liked to see what they were doing."

The point she raised was a good one. And it was the sort of thing that few people without practical experience in making theatre are able to articulate. But when I asked if she -- or indeed any of the other people in my party -- had ever taken it upon themselves to write to a director or producer to let them know their feelings about a show, I was met with a chorus of decisive no's.

They explained to me that they don't see it as their place to offer such feedback. Out of respect for the director's vision and the production team's hard work, they keep their thoughts to themselves. "I see it as my role to go to a play, pay attention, clap and leave," my producer friend said.

Somehow, this seems all wrong to me. What is theatre if it isn't a conversation between the stage and the stalls? I don't think audiences should shy away from offering their thoughts, especially if those thoughts are well-thought-out, succinctly articulated and come from the heart. Audiences shouldn't feel that the only place to give an opinion or ask a question about a production is during sanctioned forums like post-show talkback sessions with playwrights, directors and casts. These sessions are generally a waste of time in my opinion as they tend to breed nothing but sychophantic praise. Very few people are willing to stick their necks out and offer constructive criticism in public.

I'm not suggesting that a director should change his or her vision in response to what one audience member's misgivings about the lighting design. And I think that theatre makers always have a right to ignore audience comments if they wish.

But the channels of communication should be open to the extent that members of the public should feel empowered to air their views. And under the best circumtances, artists should take the time to respond to the comments, if possible on an individual basis. Unlike fixed artforms such as movies, music recordings and oil paintings, live performances are mutable things. If enough audience members are bothered by the fact that they can't see the actors in particular scenes and these shadowy moments can't be justified by the overall aesthetic or theme of the production, then maybe, just maybe, there's a case to be made for incorporating the feedback to make a better show before the end of the run.

The theatre never used to be a polite artform. Audiences in Shakespeare's day threw rotten vegetables at actors if they didn't like what was happening on stage, after all. Down with politess, I say, and up with vocal audiences.


  • Yes. I agree. But...

    Talking about theatre just after the fact is a tricky thing. Not unlike sex-talk, offering criticisms and making suggestions to theatre folk is often better done over a glass of wine and in mid-chuckle. If I like the way you touched me but would prefer it a little more to the left, I might be doing us both a favor by bringing it up at just the right moment.

    I also agree with you about those post-show-talk-backs. They rarely move beyond self-conscious petting. Hence, in order to obtain the glass of wine and chuckles that lubricate our willingness to speak truths, we need...what? A new drug?

    Or something like the drug ecstasy. Something that will encourage us to reach out and touch the people who touched us without worrying too much about the consequences of a little constructive criticism/touching? I think we are all guilty of thinking or feeling a certain way about something but suffer the inability to communicate this feeling to the individuals who could use it most. Why are we so fucking pent up?

    I saw Beowulf. It was brilliant. I wanted to eat everyone on that stage, I was blown away. It changed me. I know what lighting cues you are talking about and if I were getting drunk or something with the makers or cast or crew or what ever, I might mention those cues but they probably already know about them. And they were so trivial in comparison to the big idea that worked so well.

    I saw it on what seemed an almost flawless night, but I also know the director was unhappy with a rhythm here or there. He didn't need to hear about the lights. I wasn't about to mention them. I just wanted him to know the show worked. It was funny. Smart. Silly. Important. Made me cry for the fist time in a long time. I ramble.

    Yes. It would be good for all of theatre if we could find better ways to be more truthful. Some, who we really do not respect, might actually get hurt along the way. And so be it. Not everything everyone does is so beautiful. And there is only so much time and space. What would Darwin say?

    Mr. Stick

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At May 26, 2008 at 9:42 AM  

  • Mr. Stick
    Funny you should bring up Beowulf. That was the very production where the lighting question came up. I don't suppose Darwin would care about a few dodgy frenels when the overall experience of Banana, Bag & Bodice's production is so thoroughly engrossing. I, for one, wasn't bothered by the fact that I couldn't see the actors' faces on a couple of occasions, as riled up as I was by the funk & spunk of the soiree. But the point is that audience members should feel that they can mention this kind of stuff to the theatre makers if they feel strongly about it -- no matter how seemingly insignificant their points may be in comparison to the greater whole. There's far too much separation of church and state when it comes to the people who make the work and the people who come and see it in my opinion. For the record, I too wanted to eat everyone on stage in Beowulf. Cheers, Queenie.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At May 26, 2008 at 10:59 AM  

  • I just realized that "a rock opera in Berkeley" more or less gives away the identity of the production I mentioned in my original post to anyone who follows Bay Area theatre. So no need for me to be quite so surprised by you mentioning Beowulf in your message, Mr. Stick.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At May 26, 2008 at 11:05 AM  

  • The word conversation is the right one and it's missing and the main reason I check this blog and comment sometimes is to have that ongoing conversation. Post-show discussions usually suck - too formal, too polite, too soon after if the show was good enough to overwhelm your senses & emotions. But I find it frustrating that the communication is limited to performance and applause with no conversation at all. Nobody brings rotten vegetables anymore or even boos a lousy show. You didn't mention the critic's role as mediator. As there is no forum for conversation between the audience and the theatre company other than whether there are asses in seats don't you think that feeds into the model of critic as buyers guide? But what's to be done? Writing a letter doesn't cut it somehow.

    By Blogger Tom, At May 26, 2008 at 1:43 PM  

  • Hi Tom
    I think you raise an interesting point. I firmly disagree that the critic's job should be to tell audiences whether to see a show or not, though a reader may make that decision based on the critic's case. The critic's primary role as I see it is to help to stimulate conversation about a show among theatre audiences and producers. But this should extend well beyond whether a theatre production is worth seeing or not. If I've done my job well, I've gotten people talking about everything from the health of the local performing arts scene to the relationship between the themes brought up by a play and the world we live in. Not sure if that answers your questio...Thanks for reading my blog and getting in touch.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At May 26, 2008 at 2:52 PM  

  • Thanks, but yes, that didn't really answer the question - I know you don't think of yourself as a consumer quide. Your next entry about KML and the role of the critic is excellent and I don't have any problem with your participation, by the way. My point was to agree that there should be more conversations between theatres and audiences, so your role as critic is more of a knowledgable voice in the overall conversation rather than one of the few voices speaking to both theatres and audiences. If we don't throw rotten fruit or boo bad shows and the only forms of communication between company and audience are marketing on one side and ticket purchases on the other, then the critic becomes a consumer guide whether she wants to be or not. To improve the situation maybe theatre company web sites could host forums for discussion. I haven't seen that done anywhere - do you know of any companies doing it? SITI Company's SEE forum is the only thing that comes to mind, but it's not really a vehicle for audience feedback. I'm grateful for your blog - this is a lot better than what used to be available for conversations with critics.

    By Blogger Tom, At May 27, 2008 at 12:48 AM  

  • Hi Tom
    Actually quite a few theatre companies have feedback zones on the their websites, though I'm not sure how often or who checks them or whether the people who leave feedback get real, individualized responses. One good example is the National Theatre in the UK:
    And at the other end of the scale, San Francisco's Crowded Fire company has a space where audience members can post their own reviews:

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At May 27, 2008 at 8:08 AM  

  • Went to an excellent "workshop presentation" of I'm Yours by Precarious Theatre at the EXIT on Friday while you were digging the Birth of the Cool and was treated to one of the best talk-backs I've ever been to, hosted by Kent Nicholson & Cassie Beck of Crowded Fire. Spoke with them about how they do talk-backs and the main tip was getting folks to share what they experienced and away from the idea that what the theatre company wants or needs is criticism or that the dynamic is a classroom. Sounds fairly simple but they were great at it and it was enlightening and fun - a lively conversation. And speaking of Cassie, wouldn't it be nice if the Weekly ran a story about the local girl winning a Theatre World award for her NY debut and doing Three Sisters in Williamstown this summer? Hmm .. who to write it?

    By Blogger Tom, At June 10, 2008 at 12:18 AM  

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