Beyond the Role of Spectator: The After Play Forum
by Laurie Brooks
In the time of Facebook, Twitter and selfies, audiences crave greater involvement in the theatre experience. They want to be more than spectators – entertained and then sent home without ever having played a meaningful role in the experience. In short, they want to be makers and doers rather than be assigned the limited role of watchers. The time has come to value our audiences beyond the role of spectator. Sharing thoughts and feelings about experiences is a basic human impulse. Why not tap into this impetus for more involvement, inviting audiences into a shared dialogue based on the play they have just seen? A basic template for the Post-performance Interactive Forum that can be adjusted to fit any play with plot, characters and ideas is outlined here. All you will need is actors, a facilitator, who may or may not be an actor in the play and your imagination.
Beyond the Role of Spectator:The After Play Forum
“What is the theater experience? Too many people think of it as just the show on the stage. You go inside, you arrive with friends, but once it starts you’re not allowed to talk to one another. You’re either deeply moved or you’re bored, but when the experience is over, you’re asked to leave.”
This quote from Director Diane Paulus, offered at TEDx Broadway 2014 asks a crucial question about theatre in the digital age. In the time of Facebook, Twitter, texting, selfies and instant information, audiences crave greater involvement in the theatre experience. They want to be more than spectators who are entertained and then sent home without ever having been a meaningful part of the experience. In short, they want to be makers and doers. They are bored with being assigned the limited role of watchers.
Sharing thoughts and feelings about our experiences is a basic human impulse and yet we bring people into our theatre spaces for an event and then deny them the opportunity to fully engage in what they have experienced. The time has come to value our audiences beyond the role of spectator.
Brave attempts to make theatre spaces useful to communities beyond housing performances can be seen on many of our stages. Actors onstage, already in character, as the audience finds their seats is currently a popular mode of pre-work. Sometimes there is a lecture before selected performances. These talks can be elucidating, but typically, they involve the audience as questioners rather than actual participants. We have all seen the standard post-show talkback model, a dialogue between the actors and the audience, sometimes with the director or the playwright. In this model, the focus is on the artists involved in the creation of the production rather than on the audience who has experienced it.
Since the mid-nineties, I have been experimenting with a different method of post-performance experience. I began by asking myself this question: Is it possible that a post-performance interactive model (I never use the word talkback when referring to this work.) be as engaging and thrilling as the play that precedes it? Nearly twenty years later I can say, yes, it is not only possible, it is thrilling to witness an audience verbally engage with the characters and ideas in the play. This methodology is an ongoing experiment and I am continually discovering new approaches. Working mainly with young adult and family audiences, I have based this model on several simple rules: keeping the actors in role, creating dynamic, theatrical visuals, and the non-judgmental sharing of audience values and opinions. In all the work, one phenomenon has remained true: When a play was performed with an Interactive Forum, audiences were more engaged, applause was more enthusiastic and patrons left the theatre continuing to dialogue about the play.
Inspired by Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, drama in education practitioner Dorothy Heathcote, and my own need to dialogue with others about thought-provoking theatre, I fashioned the first forum at the Coterie Theatre in Kansas City, MO. Director Jeff Church (fearless, brilliant collaborator) and I offered the first forum design with my commissioned play, The Wrestling Season (American Theatre, Nov. 2000). The play, with its edgy issues for young people, demanded responsible processing with young audiences. When I am asked to describe that experience I say, ”Imagine 30 teenagers standing up in the audience waiting for their turn to offer an opinion. It was the same with adults, in fact, they tended to take over, crowding out the young people.”
A basic template for the Interactive Forum that can be adjusted to fit any play with plot, characters and embedded ideas is outlined here. All you will need is willing actors, a facilitator, who may or may not be an actor in the play and your imagination. The Forum flows directly from the action of the play without interruption and usually lasts for 20 minutes. Carefully structured, the Forum is focused on the audience and their opinions. The actors employed in the Forum remain in character throughout. No judgments, positive or negative are made by the facilitator about audience comments. The facilitator’s task is to create a safe space for all thoughts, making neutral comments or simply saying, “Thank you.” If a challenging comment is offered, the facilitator throws it back to the audience, saying “ Does everyone agree with that?” and other opinions are offered. I have used my two of my plays as examples – Afflicted: Daughters of Salem, commissioned by the Coterie Theatre and Jason Invisible, commissioned by The John F. Kennedy Center, Washington DC and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Pauline Flannery.
Five to eight statements (not questions) about the characters and their actions in the play are offered to the audience. Audience members choose to stand in support of the statement if they agree or remain seated in protest if they disagree. As the statements are read, a sea of movement washes through the theatre space and we see a powerful image of audience opinions. This all-group activity warms up the audience and gives a preview of some of the issues that will be revisited in the reflection section. The statements are best devised with equal possibilities for agreement and disagreement.
Example statements from Afflicted: Daughters of Salem:
Hysteria, lies and rumors cause less damage today than in 1691.
Betty is lying when she says she did not tell her father about the red bracelets.
It is unfair for kids to have to be parents to the adults in their lives.
It is better not to get involved than to step in to help someone and lose a friend.
Jekyll and Hyde:
A good friend is supportive even when they dislike a friend’s decisions.
Everyone has two sides to their personalities just like Dr, Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
In the Reflection part of the Forum, drama techniques such as hot-seating, image theatre, thought-tracking, box of blame and many others may be employed, so that the Forum becomes a staged event led by the audience.
Example Reflection from Afflicted: Daughters of Salem:
Tituba, in character, asks the audience to remember the moment the girls became accusers. A drum beat sounds and the girls form a tableau of that moment. Tituba asks the audience a series of questions including, “If you believe that the adults in Salem Village were also at fault, what are some of the ways they oppressed these girls?” After the dialogue, Tituba taps each girl for her inner thoughts at the moment she became an accuser.
Crazy Glue, Jason’s imaginary friend, asks the audience to help Jason understand why his friend Shelby betrayed his confidence. “How can it be wrong for Shelby to break her promise not to reveal Jason’s secret but, at the same time, right for her to tell?” This challenge lays the “mantle of the expert” on the shoulders of the audience, asking them to function as counselors for Jason.
Jekyll and Hyde:
In the story, Dr, Jekyll was trapped by his darker, animal side. Lights reveal the characters Hyde, Lanyon and Utterson. The facilitator asks the audience, “Were any of these people trapped like Dr. Jekyll?” Characters are argued by the audience in and out of a “cage.”
Just as the ending of a play must be satisfying, so is the closing of the Forum. For this section the audience may be encouraged to share hopes, advice or counsel for a particular character. Asking the audience to imagine a particular character’s future is equally effective.
Example of closure for Afflicted: Daughters of Salem:
Tituba asks the audience to decide if these notorious girls who caused the deaths of 20 people should be forgiven. One by one the girls come forward and the audience stands if they forgive or remains seated with their arms crossed if they do not forgive.
Jason writes an anonymous advice column for his school paper, so Crazy Glue suggests that if Jason is going to give advice he’s got to be able to ask for it, too. Jason turns to the audience to ask them if he should trust his friends Pete and Shelby again. “They broke their promise once. How can I be sure they won’t do it again?” Jason chooses one hopeful response and says, “Okay, I’ll try that.” In essence, the audience has resolved the character’s dilemma and the play ends.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:
If all of us have both good and evil in our personalities, in our world, which do you think is stronger – good or evil? The facilitator encourages the audience, without being called on, to take turns standing and offering their thoughts.
Audience engagement beyond the role of spectator remains a largely untapped resource across the US. Change happens at its own pace, but the prognosis for continuing growth is positive. Those of us who make theatre must continue to be fearless and imaginative in our work, not only in the performances we offer our audiences but how we engage them after experiencing a play.
Today, more than ever, people want to be active. They want to participate. They want their opinions to be valued. They want to be heard. Are we missing an opportunity for deeper engagement? Why not tap into this impetus, inviting audiences into a shared dialogue based on a play they have just seen? This template for the Interactive Forum is offered from my experience but the possibilities are limited only by the imaginations of the creators. I urge others to build audience engagement with these ideas and, with their own passion, imagination and expertise, create additional methods to further involve our audiences in post-performance experiences.