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American Theatre, Dec. 05 By Laurie Brooks

How long did it take you to learn your lines?
How much do you get paid?

Recognize these clichéd queries from typical theatre talkbacks? Of course, we’ve all heard them, and while audiences enjoy chatting with actors and it can be instructive to know how a production was approached, are we underestimating our audiences’ need to explore something beyond the surface life of a production?
This question led me on a journey to explore another model that would avoid the banality of typical talkbacks. My work at New York University and Graffiti Theatre Company in Cork, Ireland, had convinced me of the power of drama techniques in post-performance workshops, but could these techniques be redesigned for use with audiences of any age immediately following a performance?

Building on the work of Augusto Boal and Dorothy Heathcote, I threw into the mix values clarification techniques and a hybrid model emerged that Artistic Director Jeff Church and The Coterie Theatre in Kansas City, MO, were brave enough to take on. The Wrestling Season (American Theatre, Nov. 2000) was the perfect vehicle for a first tryout. For this provocative play we were keenly aware of avoiding “drive-by theatre,” where difficult issues are raised with young people without responsible processing.

I set out to create an interactive model as theatrical as the play itself. Like a dance performance, I wanted it to feel like an improvisation, but be tightly structured to provide a safety net, while encouraging an exploration of ideas, values and ethics. The forum did not have a predictable outcome; it was not lesson-driven, but allowed the audience to reach their own reckoning.

Led by a neutral facilitator, the actors reacted to audience commentary remaining in role as the characters. In the first forum, audiences were asked to respond to morally ambiguous characters and their actions in the play, ranking their behavior from most objectionable to least objectionable as they were adjusted along a line of responsibility.

Considerable terror accompanied the first forum. Without a script, the facilitator was worried about what to say. He had been instructed to avoid making judgments or even praising, as in, “Yes, that’s right.” or inserting his own opinions. “Good,” seemed to cue the audience that there was a right or wrong answer. We found two strategies that worked: neutral responses and turning comments into questions to spark debate.

Jeff Church remembers another fear, “The stage manager and I worried about consistency, that the forum might be hit or miss. On the second day of the run, when I slipped into the light booth, the stage manager madly gestured for me to hurry; I was missing it. The audience was standing up in turn (not being called on, no raising of hands), busting one idea after another. After that, I was addicted. I watched the forum every day for the entire run.”

In diverse forums I later developed for a series of four plays, “The Lies and Deceptions Quartet,” audiences continued to generate divergent sympathies and alliances. In The Tangled Web, they argued characters in and out of a “box of participation” according to their culpability; struggled to determine which lies were most egregious in Everyday Heroes; and in role as counselors following Deadly Weapons, identified contributing factors to harmful behavior. In each of the forums, audiences responded to statements by standing or remaining seated, creating visual images of agreement and disagreement.

The success of The Wrestling Season forum encouraged me to develop others, but change never happens without drama. When Dallas Children’s Theatre (DCT) presented the American premiere of Deadly Weapons, they were eager to employ a forum, but the director’s wariness heightened the actors’ uncertainty.

DCT had partnered with the Dallas District Attorney’s Office. To jump-start a discussion on consequences, their representative would read a prepared statement about charges the characters might face. Artistic Director, Robyn Flatt remembers a moment of panic. “On opening night they sent a police officer. How would the audience, some of them inner city kids, respond to a cop in uniform? After reading the statement, the Officer announced that he had something to say. Oh, no, I thought, here comes disaster. But this buzz- cut officer spoke from his heart about caring for and protecting young people, a statement that deepened the pathos in the play and segued perfectly into a discussion of actions that led to fatal choices.” The audience gave him a standing ovation and the officer returned to speak at many performances. The power of the after-play event made a believer out of the director. The following year, he designed a forum for another play he directed.

Last year, Arden Theatre Company produced Franklin’s Apprentice, my comedy/drama about Ben Franklin, his apprentice and their shared pursuit of “electrical fire.”
“With Franklin’s Apprentice we had a specific problem,” says Director Aaron Posner. “The play was fiction. It was art. In other words, it was historically inaccurate on purpose. We were performing it in the Old City section of Philadelphia, just a stone’s thrown from where Franklin lived and worked. We felt the need to address the fact that we were taking liberties with the truth, not to apologize, but rather to explore and explicate. The Benjamin Franklin Fact & Fiction Forum was a brilliant way of doing just that.“

Performed by characters in the play, the forum challenged the audience to decide if statements based on historical elements were fact or fiction. Posner and I created the imaginative staging required, with ten chances for the audience to play the game. The forum ended with Franklin’s passionate statement about history, who writes it and who owns it. After one performance, I was introduced to a long-time supporter of the theatre, an elegant lady in her seventies. “That was the most fun I ever had in the
theatre,” she said. Was she speaking about the play, or the fifteen-minute after-play experience that followed it?

I hoped this hybrid event would build and (possibly) transform community, but as the model was tested, we discovered that it did something else: It built a bridge between the performance and the audience, offering an alternative form of entertainment that valued them beyond the role of spectator. On days the forum was not included, applause was appreciative. With the forum, audiences were on their feet, having taken greater ownership of the experience.

Imagine a talkback where the facilitator asks adults to give young people a turn because, in their eagerness to dialogue with the characters, they have taken over. Imagine a teenager praising a character’s cruel behavior and the facilitator turns the comment into a question, “Does everyone agree with that?” sparking a dialogue on ethics. Imagine a hush has fallen over the theatre as audience members stand silently and wait their turn to offer thoughts about a character’s future.

How can the holy space we call theatre be a more vibrant, necessary part of our culture? There are no easy answers to that question, but an after-play event that invites our audiences into structured dialogue adds ownership and transformative power to the theatre experience.

Daniel Renner, Director of Education at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, says the following about his experience with The Tangled Web forum: ”So often we lose sight of the fact that theatre is a communal event. We might discuss the play on the way home, but we are already removed from the experience we just had with strangers in the dark. What this simple but elegant design provides is an opportunity for strangers to become a community that wrestles face to face with feelings, values and reactions to the primal issues of a play. Actors and audience engage in a sophisticated conversation that allows them to speak beyond correctness to what is important.”

Since its inception, theatre has been an exploration of the complex questions that lie at the heart of our humanity. The buzz of opinion that follows a play is the surest indicator that the audience has been affected. Why not take advantage of that buzz, allowing it to expand and develop in the space where it was given life? Why not move talkbacks beyond banality to deep engagement?