TYA Today, a publication of TYA/USA, Spring 2016
For additional articles and examples of The Forum, contact Laurie.
FORUM PHOTO FROM AFFLICTED: DAUGHTERS OF SALEM, "Tituba facilitates the interaction between the characters and the audience," by Robert Schraeder, Coterie Theatre
“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.”
Although Director Diane Paulus is not a TYA practitioner, her above quote, offered at TEDx Broadway 2014 asks a crucial question about theatre for all audiences in the digital age. In the time of Facebook, Twitter, texting, selfies and instant information, young audiences crave greater involvement in the theatre experience. They want to be more than spectators who are entertained and then sent home without having played a meaningful role in the event. Sharing thoughts and feelings about a performance is a basic human impulse and yet we bring people into our theatre spaces and then deny them the opportunity to dialogue about what they have experienced. The time has come to value our theatre audiences, as Augusto Boal would say, “beyond the role of spectator”.
So what’s stopping us? Why isn’t post-performance engagement an integral part of an evening of theatre, especially for young audiences? It is difficult to change the way things are typically done and have been done for decades. We have all seen the standard post-show talkback model, most commonly a dialogue between the actors and the audience, sometimes with the director or playwright. This model shares with the audience the inside workings of the creation and production of a play but the focus is entirely on the artists and their involvement rather than the audience’s response to the characters, actions and themes in the story they have just encountered.
A Different Post-Performance Model
Since the mid-nineties, I have been experimenting with another approach to post-performance experience born largely out of my own ardent impulse to dialogue with others following a play. I had an idea. I was not at all sure it would work, but I decided it was worth a try. The idea was a hybrid, inspired by Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed and his political street theatre, British drama in education practitioner Dorothy Heathcote, who would walk into a room filled with young people who perhaps had never been to the theatre and say, “What shall we make a play about today?”, and working in Ireland with Graffiti Theatre, a company that employed numerous forms of pre- and post- encounters with young audiences. I made mistakes, but in the process I learned a great deal about what works and what doesn’t.
I began by asking myself this question: Is it possible that a post-performance interactive model can be as engaging and thrilling as the play that precedes it? Nearly twenty years later I can say, yes, not only is it possible, it is immensely satisfying to witness an audience fully involved in a dialogue with the characters and ideas in a play. In all the work, one phenomenon remains true: When a play is performed with a carefully structured interactive forum, audiences are more engaged, applause is more enthusiastic and patrons leave the theatre continuing to dialogue about the play and the responses to it.
The Basic Forum Structure
A simple template for a forum 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. In the following description of the forum structure I have used two of my own plays as examples - Afflicted: Daughters of Salem, commissioned by The Coterie, Kansas City, MO, Jason Invisible (adapted from the book, Crazy, by Han Nolan), commissioned by The John F. Kennedy Center and Very Special Arts (VSA), Washington DC and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Pauline Flannery, produced at The Coterie. The interactive forum design keeps its focus on the audience - their ideas and opinions. The actors 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. A post-performance event works when there are ideas and issues presented in the play that will have meaning for the audience. A forum event must have what I call a “float down ending”. In the same way that a play has a satisfying ending, so should a forum. In the case of a number of my plays, including The Wrestling Season, Afflicted: Daughters of Salem and Jason Invisible, the resolve of the play is the forum, designed as a hybrid climax that the audience causes to happen. The forum flows directly from the action of the play and usually lasts for 15 or 20 minutes. I never halt the flow of action for a bathroom or drink break. The audience will not come back. As long as the audience is given some notice that the forum will happen, no one will be angry. They’ll be too engaged to care. Audiences are eager to reflect on a play that contains substance and ideas. It enriches their theatre experience and lays the groundwork for continuing conversation.
The forum model is based on these tenets:
1. Keeping the actors in role, usually scripted or partially scripted, not improvised.
2. Creating dynamic, theatrical visuals and action with the actors in role.
3. The non-judgmental sharing of audience values and opinions. There is no “correct” answer.
4. Careful structuring to keep actors and audience safe, i.e. no one is “called on” to speak.
5. No planned outcome. Exploration is the goal.
6. Distancing. The forum is about the characters, their actions and choices in the play.
7. “Back Door Education.” No didacticism, but as young people respond with conflicting ideas, they inform each other.
Five to eight statements (not questions) about the characters and their actions in the play begin the forum. The audience chooses 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, non- threatening activity warms up the audience before asking for individual response. This exercise is hardly new but is always involving and amusing for the audience. The statements are best devised with equal possibilities for agreement and disagreement. Actors are often not onstage during this exercise.
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:
Everyone has two sides to their personalities just like Jekyll and Hyde.
If you see a friend engaging in dangerous behavior, you should walk away.
Here, 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. Ideas that arise from the statements may be revisited. These examples demonstrate how the forum creates a dynamic space and fosters a deeper intimacy between the actors and the audience.
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 and the audience gains new insight about her feelings and motivations.
Crazy Glue, Jason’s imaginary friend, speaks directly to the audience, asking them 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 Heathcote’s “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 actors playing Hyde, Lanyon and Utterson. The facilitator asks the audience, “Were any of these people trapped like Dr. Jekyll?” The three characters are placed inside an actual cage. The audience, with their opinions, must literally argue them out of their entrapment or back into the cage.
Just as the ending of a play must be satisfying, so must the closing of a forum. For this section the audience may be asked to imagine the future for a particular character or offer hope and advice. Often the facilitator invites the audience to negotiate this section themselves without raising their hands. Instead, they stand and wait to take their turn. It’s remarkable how well audiences negotiate this direction by themselves. The space becomes hushed as the audience focuses on each other.
Afflicted: Daughters of Salem:
Tituba draws audience attention to the names of the dead written on the trees and 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 remain seated with their arms crossed if they do not forgive. Tituba closes the forum: “If you understand these girls and their story, take a length of red yarn as a reminder of their story, told now for the first time.” Lengths of red yarn that replicate the girls’ sisterhood bracelets are offered to the audience as they leave the theatre.
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?” After hearing the audience’s suggestions, Jason chooses one hopeful response and says, “Okay, I’ll try that.” In essence, the young audience has resolved the character’s dilemma and the play ends on a celebratory note.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:
The facilitator asks, “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 instructs the audience to take turns standing and offering their single sentence response.
Mistakes, Experience and Lessons Learned
For the purposes of this section, the example of the forum that followed The Wrestling Season offers a good example. This Interactive Forum was presented in 2000 at The Coterie and chronicled in my subsequent article, Put a little Boal in Your Theatre: A New Model for Talkbacks, American Theatre, Nov. 2000. With its embedded issues targeting young people, this play demanded responsible processing with audiences. As a result, Director Jeff Church (fearless, brilliant collaborator) and I decided to offer the first forum design.
*Work with artists who believe in your work and are willing to take risks for greater support and greater confidence. I often brainstorm parts of the forum with the director and the actors. Church and I developed the play at NYU’s Provincetown Theatre. We decided right before the reading to try out the forum design I had created for the play for the first time. I quickly prepped the actors without the now usual amount of forum rehearsal and we charged into the reading. The forum went well until two of the actors (in role) began an argument that spiraled into a shouting match that I, as facilitator, attempted to deflate with less than stellar results. The audience said little because the focus was on the actors, exactly the opposite of our goal.
*Keep the focus on the audience. Even if the structure of the forum is solid, prepping the actors carefully and firmly is crucial to the success of the forum. Actors are often nervous about this new experience. It is wise to allay their fears with encouragement and careful preparation. After the first forum, actors are eager for the next performance and forum.
The Wrestling Season was invited to The Kennedy Center for New Visions/New Voices, one of the best development experiences ever. Again, Jeff and I decided to follow the play with the forum. The audience of professionals was expecting the typical talkback of 1998 and it took much of our talkback time for the audience to understand what they were experiencing.
*If the audience has expectations about what will happen, it is wise to give them a heads-up that they will experience something different.
When the play premiered at The Coterie, Jeff and I were not at all convinced that the forum would fly. Now, when asked to describe that experience we say, ”Imagine 30 teenagers standing up in the audience waiting their turn to offer their opinions. Surprisingly, it was the same with adults. In fact, they tended to take over, crowding out the young people.
****Listen to your artistic impulses and be brave enough to follow them.
If adults tend to take over, have the Facilitator suggest, “Let’s hear from the young people first.”
At Arden Theatre in Philadelphia, Director Aaron Posner was adventurous enough to accept a new forum idea for my play, Franklin’s Apprentice. Since the play is a comedy, I devised a game show based on history, led by the actor playing Ben Franklin. Still in character, he offered the audience questions. If they found the question to be true, they stood. If they thought it false, they remained seated. Much laughter ensued and the play ended in a joyful all group experience. It bears mentioning that when The Coterie produced Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Sue Greenberg, Church, as producer, asked me to create a forum for the play. It was performed as a revival meeting complete with musical call and response. The focus was on racism in America.
*The forum must fit the mood of the play and although the basic structure outlined here is tried and true, there is no end to the successful possibilities.
When Jason Invisible premiered at The Kennedy Center’s Family Theatre, direct address was already built into the play. It made perfect sense to continue that trend in the forum. In the deep space with several hundred middle school students, we were not sure we could achieve a sense of intimacy. The direct address in the play had already formed a bond between characters and audience. That connection became more intimate during the forum as the middle school audience helped the protagonist in the play. Because we had two other characters in the play move among the audience with microphones, the size and shape of the theatre didn’t matter.
*The forum can be successfully facilitated by members of the cast remaining in role rather than functioning as a more formal facilitator. The power of characters asking for help is evidenced in the audience’s eager, heartfelt responses.
Make the Theatre Space Dynamic
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 young audiences but how we engage them after experiencing a play. Imagine the possibilities: actors in role engaging in a structured dialogue, making additional use of the set, creating a deeper connection between characters and audience, embracing the play’s metaphors through exploration and inviting the audience to become a central part of all it.
Change is hard. Fear marches alongside attempts at new methods. How much easier it is to offer the tried and true. It’s much scarier to step into the murky pool of the unknown. The risk is great, but the rewards are rich. Mistakes will be made, but along the way, much will be learned.
Today, more than ever, young audiences 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 involvement? Why not tap into this impetus, inviting audiences into a shared, theatrical dialogue? To those of you out there working on new ways to engage young audiences post- performance, I applaud you. This template for the After-play Interactive Forum is offered from my experience but the possibilities are limited only by the imaginations of future creators. I urge others to build on these ideas and with their own passion and expertise create new methods of post-performance engagement.