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Strangle, Throttle, Silence

Talkbacks and Artist Safety

Here’s what happened.

The first question from an audience of about sixty who stayed for the talkback of one of my new plays came from a guy who looked post-middle-age, glasses, uncool hair, jacket. He was not threatening at all; he looked like a dorky dad. He shot his hand up as soon as he was prompted.

“I’ve seen two of your plays in the last two weeks and I hated them. They were so wordy I just wanted to strangle you.”

He flourished the word “strangle” by air-throttling the invisible effigy of me (I assumed). And laughed exasperatedly. Because that was very funny.

“But this play was great.” He went on. “I loved it, the characters, the…”

I stopped responding like a normal person after hearing “strangle.”

The other plays of mine are worth murdering me, silencing me, throttling me with his hands.

But this play was good enough that you’ll let me live.

Thank you, sir. You’re a fucking gentleman.

Now here’s what really happened. A man twice my age said he’d like to “strangle” the playwright in a room full of people because he didn’t like her stories. Strangle. That is not normal critical verbiage. That is violence. Moreover it’s an act of silencing. Moreover it’s an act that a man would not use in reference to another man.

Though I never feared for my safety during this incident, I did fear for something else. Dignity? The power of story? Casual misogyny? Integrity with audience members?

And why didn’t someone (me, for starters) stand up right there and ask him to leave or tell him that’s not the kind of feedback we abide? Instead, I just harmlessly nodded and the conversation moved on to a guy who thought the actors “looked up” too much, whatever that means. Good lord.

Now here’s what really happened. A man twice my age said he’d like to “strangle” the playwright in a room full of people because he didn’t like her stories. Strangle. That is not normal critical verbiage. That is violence. Moreover it’s an act of silencing. Moreover it’s an act that a man would not use in reference to another man.

It has been a few weeks since that incident and two things have stuck with me as I processed that man, the reaction I had to him, and the point of audience talkbacks.

1. Have Rules for Talkbacks and Explain Them Every Time
Audiences aren’t writing your play and everyone’s a critic. So structure is good. You cannot have talkbacks that begin with: “So what’d ya think?” Now, most of the times I’ve been part of talkbacks that employed some version of Liz Lerman’s critical feedback structure. Those have usually been very healthy and supportive experiences. Safety and generosity are key. I can’t create or respond to a creation if I don’t feel safe. It’s easy to hate something. It’s hard to make something. Protect your artists or don’t put them out there at all.

2. No One Threatens Your Artists
No person (no matter which board they’re on or how many years they’ve subscribed) gets to threaten an artist in your theater... Even if it’s a joke, even if it’s for emphasis, even if it’s just a turn of phrase, even if they hate the character and not a real person—not the real actor or playwright. No. You shut that shit down. You do it immediately. You explain why that’s not OK. You resume discussion.

When I was venting my shock with a friend I said:

“I mean jesus, that is not OK.”

To which my wise friend said, “Apparently it is. No one said anything to him. So now it’s OK. He thinks that’s OK.”

3. No Strangling
One would ideally not need to specify this. But here’s why it’s not OK to say “ I wanted to strangle you” to women.

“In the context of domestic violence against women, prosecutors know that attempted strangulation is the critical gateway crime to murder.”—Washington Post, May 12, 2012

“Strangulation is one of the most lethal forms of violence used by men against their female intimate partners.”—UPenn Study on Violence Against Women

“The act of strangulation symbolizes an abuser’s power and control over the victim. The victim is completely overwhelmed by the abuser; she vigorously struggles for air, and is at the mercy of the abuser for her life. Some have asserted that there can be few more frightening experiences than feeling short of breath without any recourse.”—Banzett, R. B., & Moosavi, S. H. (2001, March/April).

That kind of violence toward women is real and constant. It maketh not healthy banter.

And now I shall speak to that gentleman in the audience.

Dear Strangler,

It is completely valid for you to express your feelings about my plays. You didn’t like some of them. OK! But words mean things when you say them (actual things!). Words inspire action much as they describe it. Words are powerful, expositional, emotional tools. So please watch your fucking language when you put words into the world.

I do.


PS If you hated my other plays so much why the hell did you come to that reading?

PPS No strangling.

PPSS – Check out this video. I think you’ll like it.


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I think there are two overreactions here - the audience member's, and yours. As playwrights we deal in the nuance of the spoken word. To extrapolate his response, which, by the way, is a common turn of phrase for quite a lot of people - "Oh, I just wanted to strangle him/her…" - to make a point about strangling women in real life? I think that defies common sense. To take it personally? Enough so that you stopped listening? That strikes me as someone looking to be hurt or offended. This is blown way out of proportion.

Horrifying. I'm so sorry this happened to you, Lauren. I was at an audience discussion of one of my plays where a commenter used the N word. The moderator asked her to repeat her comment (sure she had not heard correctly), did not acknowledge what had been said, and moved on.

We were, essentially, gobsmacked into silence. I also wonder if the facilitator may have been afraid a comment from her would escalate the language or the inflame the situation.

The facilitator might say, "Sir (or Ma'am), comments using hostile and violent language are off limits here" or "References to strangling (or racist language) are not okay, regardless of how you feel. Everyone, please use civil language." But what if this escalates things into a shouting match? Much harder to deal with, then.

One would think common decency would be, well, common. Luckily, that has been my experience so far in almost every live audience discussion in which I've participated.


2 things seem important to me reading this as a long-term theatre-worker. Firstly context. What is the so called talk-back being held to do? What is its purpose? Invariably these are held as a kind of customer liason excercise, which is not in-valid but is certainly not any kind of an arena for an artist to canvas genuinely useful feedback.
Other situations can be convened with chosen participants and informed artists especially for such feedback. The 2 situations are in no way synonymous.
I too work in an environment where the Liz Lerman protocols are used in forums but from conception these events are conceived as CRITICAL forums where participants are informed and able to make useful and articulate judgements. Your average punter cannot be expected or requested to participate in such a sensitive, informed and artistically supportive way. They have no responsibility to do so and often no tools to make useful commentary. More may happen serendipitously but to expect more is irresponsible. Taking the temperature of the consumer experience is a very different excercise indeed. It's not actually an educational situation and mustn't be confused with formally controlled forums where the 'expert' or artist gets to make an educational presentation to a group of peers and then dialog is invited.
Secondly we live in the age of the Troll. Shock language is normal. It's accepted in many places as a legitimate democratic act. If we want that to change then those mediating and those listening need to speak up. We need to say directly and in situ, NO, that is not OK, not acceptable, and its very cheering Lauren is trying to say that now. But better it were said at the time. Mediator, use your position to make the rules clear. Police your crowd. State what is and isn't acceptable with firm courtesy!
Sorry I sound like a curmudgeon but this article touches on something I see as deeply problematic.

The Playwrights Center of San Francisco allows playwrights to decide what questions they want answered after a reading. The questions go in the program and the facilitator of the talkback poses them to the audience. Makes for a very civil and useful conversation.

i find it very interesting that the people in this comment thread making remarks like "yeah, but he didn't literally mean it" or "it's only language" or "we should be allowed to express ourselves hyperbolically" or "get a thicker skin" seem to be all men. please correct me if i'm wrong about that.

guys, what this man did is a form of aggression. and it's absolutely unacceptable in civil society and public discourse. when a woman tries to point this out and receives this kind of insidious dismissive response, whether well-intentioned or not, it perpetuates the very problem lauren is trying to address.

Hi Lauren,
I was there at the reading of "Bauer" when I heard that comment. I was floored, but you certainly
handled it with enormous grace and humor. I’m sorry it cut so deeply. In retrospect,
something should have been said to the man. In fact, some of the feedback that
night was a bit strange. As a playwright, I understand the importance of
feedback, and that little is learned from one’s successes. That said, I thought
your play was powerful and engaging. It had amazing dialogue and economy. My
friends and I talked about the play many days later. We look forward to your
play’s premier! Don’t let this bring you
down. I love your work.

Having been through this process a few times (though not with anyone threatening bodily harm on me for my work), my first response would've been "You wasted another unsupervised night from the halfway house on seeing my plays?"

audience DOES censor "us". With their dollars. If they don't like what
we do, they don't spend their dollars to see what else we do. If he didn't like the first piece he saw, there was enough of something in it he did like that he came back for a second shot. YOU SHOULD BE THRILLED.
If an audience
doesn't enjoy a a painting, a ballet, a poem, book, tome, blog post, play,
musical WHATEVER - they don't usually go back to the source of it. It is called
free will, or self determination or Shut the hell up and get on with
your life.
when you invite an audience to "talk back" you get what you get - and
YOU need to listen (as they listened or watched what you've put out) and
then similarly, take something from it or not and move on.
Who the hell are YOU - someone who wants to be free to express yourself how YOU want, to tell an audience
member how to express themselves? Granted it wasn't the most appropriate thing to say to anyone - but who the hell are YOU? His teacher? His mother? Get off your high horse.
It would appear that his statement was
colorful as opposed to actually dangerous. If you don't like the way 1 in a
million audience comments comes at you she do not engage an audience
in a "talk back" as you are too sensitive and too fragile to hear what an uncensored, possibly unrefined
and definitely 'un-sanitized for your protection" comment might sound
For all the incites and sensitivities artists provide to audiences, being an artist sometimes requires a tougher skin. Presumably he came to you for entertainment. He now leaves the target of a passive aggressive blog post that falls under the category of "I'm to going to teach you a thing or two, you ignorant person." You might save such rants for your friends and family as opposed to a public forum. Those people might understand what made you so delicate, fragile and/or sensitive. Hopefully they care and will help you to find your way through dealing with this one persons word choice.

find your blog post to be a self-important, holier than thou and obnoxious. I will now avoid your work.

Dear 'regular joe'

Under no circumstances is it appropriate to threaten violence just because you don't like someone's work. This should not even be an issue. I know Lauren, have worked with her, and know she is not 'fragile' and I think her editorial was terrific. This man made himself a target by saying he wanted to strangle her. This crossed the boundaries of respectable discourse, and no artist, and no person, should be subject to that kind of treatment.

Lauren, I am very sorry you went through this.

I completely agree with you that a critical response process like Liz Lerman should be employed. While apparently there are a lot of detractors of response process (it's so much better when we're all "honest" and learn how to "take crit" and "get a thick skin", right? I mean, sitting back and letting someone insult us for 20 minutes is SO USEFUL), I think with an audience not used to giving or receiving criticism, it is 100% necessary. It protects the artist from useless, insulting opinions and facilitates actual discussion rather than just people talking at a playwright who has just seen new work, possibly for the first time.

That guy is especially creepy, though, and any moderator worth their salt should have shut that down immediately.

One thing I was also trying to get at in my response to Lauren's experience is the tendency in audience response sessions, whatever you want to call them, for audience members to treat it as a separate entertainment. There seems to be a "Simon Cowell Syndrome" spurred by the numerous television shows that provide immediate judge responses to contestants, which are part of the entertainment itself. Here is the performance; here is the judge response, sometimes saccharine, sometimes cruel, where the audience "ooos" or guffaws at the pleasure/expense of the contestant. In post-play discussions, I am acutely aware of this and guard my playwright/director/cast against the audience "critic" who wants to garner a laugh or "ooo" with his or her witty comment: "Thank you for that, but that's not what the playwright was wanting to know about the play and the performance." Now, with the "Cowlishly" cruel remark (I've never had strangulation but "I wanted to vomit" or "the playwright needs to start over" or "where did she get her dramatic license?" kinds of clever or not so clever cruelty), there is a bit of a tightrope walk--I don't want to set up such a barrier by censorship that other really insightful comments get withheld out of fear that the moderator will quash them--"Your personal response is certainly valid for you, but what we're looking for are comments that will help the playwright when she goes home and wants to work on this again." I've been asking myself, "how would I deal with Lauren's audience member. I might ask for immediate clarification: "I'm sure you don't literally mean you want to strangle the playwright." Would that diffuse incipient violence? "Get the hell out of this theatre!" I'm not sure I could do that unless there was something in the tone or look that said this audience member was not just "Simon Cowelling" it.

Ok, I may be the only one, but I think there is a flaw in your reasoning. Look before I write why, I'll say this: Expressing that much resentment to a person about past work that she/he has put their soul into is pretty freaking dickish. I'll also acknowledge he would probably would have been a lot more careful with his words if you were a 6'1'' man who might have taken exception to his words and become confrontational..

However, having said all that, if one makes the argument, that extreme rhetoric should never be said out loud to explain the extremity of feeling one has for a subject, then does that go for what is written as well? Does that mean for instance a playwright shouldn't write a play expressing how angry domestic violence makes her by writing about a battered wife getting even by having her husband mauled by a bear? Because bear mauling is pretty freaking violent. Bear Mauling as an image has power.

Once when broke, not knowing where my next meal was coming from etc.. a friendly neighborhood meter maid came along and booted, then towed my car. I told the guy if the parking enforcement building ever catches on fire, I'm coming and roasting marshmellows.. It was hyperbolic language to express the degree of what I felt. Not a threat. In actuality I'd be horrified if someone went and decided blowing up the office of parking enforcement was a legitimate protest I don't want anyone hurt. I'm guessing you wouldn't want anyone taking your farce as a manifesto of how to deal with their problems either.

Lauren, thank you for this post, which must not have been easy to write. Reading it has helped me to understand my reaction to one of the plays that will be in this weekend's SF One-Minute-Play-Festival (I saw it in rehearsal because it shares a "clump" with one of mine.) In my view, this play treats a woman being throttled as a joke, and--to use your apt phrasing--"it maketh not healthy banter." In this instance, the act of domestic violence is carried out by a woman against another woman, which did not make it less troubling to me. I will be very curious to hear your (and anyone else's) reaction.


Thank you for sharing what seems to have been a disturbing, vulnerable, and challenging situation, as well as being a catalyst for the various thoughts, ideas and comments your story has generated. My intention with my comments is to be respectful of other person's experience and perspectives while offering my own. Various perspectives can often expand and clarify awareness as well as options.

There is a part of me that can easily go to a place that would believe and say "what an unfortunate experience for you to have gone through." However, is it really unfortunate if you learn something from it? Does the way you look at, perceive, and interpret what is occurring affect how you are in relationship to it? How you respond instead of react? These questions are perhaps useful for all of us not only in terms of the 'theme' of this blog, but in various other types of situations and circumstances we may part of. I've read a lot of should have's and should not have's in the comments. There have been some good and valuable suggestions and ideas on how to organize and structure a post-show discussion, who to have involved, guidelines to secure safety and respect. I certain those who read this post and many of the comments will take these useful ideas with them into future events. And by these kind of actions, little by little, people will be further educated and empowered [audience and theatre's and creative artists] alike.

I am a playwright, director and also have been a participant in several 'talk-backs', and like other's here have found these experiences varied in how well structured and thought out they were,, and also found a fair amount of the audience comments were an expressed opinion not particularly well informed by either the craft of playwriting,acting, or human interaction. Hopefully as playwrights and theatre artists we can discern these comments when we hear them and have the sense to simply let them drift by. An while I hardly advocate that it's OK for audience members to simply say what they want to say, without consideration of it's appropriateness, I also understand how people [men and women] can say some pretty stupid things, that can even seem shocking, but are not consciously intended as an actual threat. This does not make it OK; it also does not make it OK for us to assume all manner of things. Like: "The guy is just an ass hole" or "he obviously has issues about women" or "he should know better" or "why is no one in audience coming to my defense and allowing this to happen" or "someone should insist that he leave" or "where is the dramaturg?". As you can imagine the list could go on and on.

So, what's to learn from this encounter that can be useful besides making the guy wrong or bad or worthless. It's so easy to waste our time with blame and making someone the "bad guy" when something happens that we think should not have happened, or that we don't want to happen. The fact of the matter is that it did happen - so how are you going to relate to it? Why did it happen to you? Is there something about speaking up for yourself when feeling attacked or threatened that is challenging and that you could benefit from by bringing that forth more into your life? And if so, are you empowered enough as a person, with your own dignity, your own integrity [that no circumstance can take away] to communicate to that person in such a way that does not shame them but illuminates how their words affect others so that instead of leaving in shame or anger or resentment, they leave wanting to be a more informed, thoughtful, better person? Because if not, we [and of course I include myself here] are on some level living the role of victim instead of the role or creator.

I tend to agree with Michael on this. Expressing a desire to strangle you was, I'm guessing, a very unfortunate, dumb choice of words, but probably not reflective of the guy's real intent. And I think other audience members got this, which is why they didn't respond to him. I do think that the statement reflected the guy's high level of frustration, which also means he cared about what he was seeing/hearing. I think he prefaced his compliment with the negative hyperbole in order to make a point about how much he liked the new piece. For most people it was a poor choice. But as someone who has participated as a playwright in many "talk-backs", I do agree that there should be ground rules to the process.

Of course strangulation wasn't the guy's real intent. And Lauren makes it very clear that she did not, in fact, fear for her safety. But to say that it's "a very unfortunate, dumb choice of words" ignores the facts about strangulation, women survivors of violence, and women murdered by men Lauren outlined above. Misogyny and violence are so casually embedded into our day to day conversation that we may not even realize it. I'm more interested in a world (and a post-performance discussion) where people take responsibility for their feelings and responses (how about "I was so infuriated by your plays!"?) rather than articulating their opinions in terms of violent things they'd like to do to others, however hypothetical or hyperbolic those actions might be. It's not just "dumb" or "unfortunate" word choice in some non-specific way. It's misogyny.

You know what? It's vulnerable to talk about how you were moved (even to frustration or boredom). It's vulnerable to say, "I saw two of your plays in the last month and I felt so XYZ" and then explain, actually take the time to wonder to yourself and consider WHY you felt that. You know what's not so vulnerable? You know what's lacking in self awareness and reinforcing patriarchal power tropes? Saying, "I hated your play so much I wanted to strangle you" to a woman who's just given you a gift in the form of her creativity and labor.

A truly enriching post-performance discussion is one that allows the discussion to be a continuation of the communing, the bonding, the shared experience of catharsis, delight, transformation that hopefully everyone just experienced in the theater. It's one in which audience members ask questions and listen. Or, if they're going to *share* something, they step up to the plate, take a risk, and say something about what they saw, felt, and heard. They do it in a way that invites as much possibility for human connection, insight, and empathy as the artists who made the performance for them aspired to do. Isn't that why we're all in that darkened room together anyway, even after the house lights come back up?

I'm so very sorry that this happened to you. I recently acted in a play that included some pre-show, in-character audience interaction. One man in particular did not appreciate our interaction and after the show told me he wanted to strangle me, then proceeded to physically "show" me what he meant. While my self-defense training kicked in and I was able to safely extricate myself and tell him why what he'd just done was wrong, I completely understand why you might not have had those words in the moment. Why anyone might not. Things like that happen so quickly, you're not sure they even happened. I was laughing off his words until there was physical action backing them up. I mean, he couldn't really mean that, right? Especially if no one else is responding as if it's a problem? It must be hyperbole! Add in the fight-or-flight response, which shuts down the kind of cognitive functioning that makes *talking* to someone in a reasonable, polite manner possible, and it's almost impossible to respond with something intelligent. That's one reason we keep thinking about these things long after they happen.

The fact is, we're not trained to expect that kind of verbal or physical threat — after all, it's not a stranger following you on the street at night. You're in a theatre, likely a place you feel quite safe, surrounded by people. But sometimes it does happen, and when it does, it can take everyone by surprise.

Everyone who even thinks it's a problem, that is. Your points about domestic violence are spot on. The fact is, the language might not sound so threatening to someone who doesn't see much threat in the world in general. Many people know intellectually that violence against women occurs, but they don't have any experience of it and don't see those connections easily or quickly. That goes for women, too, who might not see or be able to acknowledge the daily threat that so many other women live under. They might think that's something that only happens to poor women or women of color or stupid women or weak women — anyone but them. Statistically, some, if not many, women in that room have been victims of violence or stalking (1 in 6!). Those women may not have felt safe speaking up against a strange man in front of so many people. Even a well-trained moderator, administrator, or other theatre professional might not have felt safe speaking up in that moment, even without having had any personal fear. In general, we don't like to confront others in that way, and without having practiced that kind of scenario, we may not have the words at our disposal to quickly diffuse the problem and reset the discussion.

Aside from our basic societal need to learn to call each other out when we do and say inappropriate things (in my opinion, we've become too polite and live-and-let-live), I think contingency planning should be part of the moderator's/dramaturg's process for these kinds of discussions. I'm assuming they know how to redirect a conversation if it veers too far off topic, but is there actual practical training for how to handle a situation like this, that might trigger an artist or make her feel fear for her safety? If not, there should be. That kind of training is what will kick in should something like this happen again.

I guess I had to be there, but it sounds like this guy was simply exaggerating for effect to tell you how much he really, really loved your new play and how much you changed his expectations. I wouldn't have batted an eye because I would presume, as others probably did, that it would be ludicrous to strangle someone simply because they wrote a bad play. The most offensive thing anyone might do is get up and walk out in the middle of it.

I agree, he was probably exaggerating. But he was using pretty violent language to do it, and while it may seem ludicrous to hurt someone over a play, the fact is that men hurt women all the time, for all sorts of seemingly ludicrous reasons. And when someone actually describes an act of violence, making everyone in the room imagine that act, using his hands to mime it, it's really hard to know whether he's serious or not. But more importantly, if it makes the target of that act feel unsafe, as she obviously did, it becomes a serious thing. Threatening as a "joke" is a gaslighting technique that many men use to make women feel powerless; and it works. When we're constantly reminded that we might be raped for wearing the wrong thing or going to the wrong place, it's hard not to see someone miming strangling you as a threat. And being threatened is scary as hell, whether the man was exaggerating for effect or not.

What an excellent batch of comments. Thank you, Lauren, for sharing this awful story.

I have conducted post-reading discussions (not talk-backs!) for years at Chicago Dramatists. I think it's essential to tell the audience right up front just how this works the best, the guidelines, the rules if you will. And I try never to call on people I don't know for the first couple of comments. Those first couple of comments can set the tone for the whole discussion and can lead by their example. If there is a large element of non-artists in the audience, I sometimes pull aside one or two people I trust and ask them to hold their hands up first.

Russ Tutterow, Artistic Director, Chicago Dramatists

Russ, I was always impressed with the atmosphere of respect you create with your talkbacks. I think what can be hard as a young playwright is feeling like I am allowed to set any kind of boundaries, and it's great to have that support and assurance from a company.

First, as a discussion moderator, I want to express my sympathy and sorrow that you were put into the position to receive this comment and my disappointment that this person decided to be so hurtful when you generously allowed yourself to be exposed in an open forum. This kind of negativity should never have been allowed to happen to you as an artist and as a person. Where was the dramaturg?

The dramaturg should act as a "5th wall" between the artist and the untrained audience, a bodyguard for the work that can filter the maddened crowds' opinion and help distill it into something useful. Hence the term "moderator." The dramaturg in the room should never have let him get past his laugh at his own bullshit; you don't get a "but..." after you say something like that. Where was the dramaturg?

As an audience member, the opportunity to interact with the artists after witnessing the vulnerability of their art is a privilege, and it is often a privilege for which audience members are unprepared. The dramaturg needs to establish with the artists what they want from the post-show discussion and then, before the artists come onto the stage, establish the rules of the discussion with the audience that foster the kind of discussion that the artist needs. Where was the dramaturg?

These kind of discussions should never start with audience comments, and they should certainly never start with the person most eager to say something. In fact, the audience should do very little commenting, but instead, be encouraged to ask questions. All of these strategies are designed to minimize the very real damage that audiences can do to art. Which is why there should always be a trained dramaturg, familiar with the production and the theater's audiences, that can serve as a moderator. If a director or an artistic director sent you up on that stage without that kind of protection, they are at least partially liable for the damage that even one ignorant and insensitive comment (such as this one) can cause. So the question I want to ask that person is: where was the dramaturg?

where was the dramaturg?

Absolutely the right question to be asking.

The dramaturg's role in this particular circumstance was to protect the playwright from bullying and abuse, and furthermore, the stage manager, house manager, and the director, given their leadership roles, all had the responsibility to enforce an order where bullying and threats are unacceptable in their theatrical space.

And if they failed, why were the audience members silent?

This isn't just an issue of one man and his abusive language, this is an institutional and cultural failure to properly respond to him. We can talk all we want about modeling "positive feed-back" but if we do not directly address a genuinely abusive situation, that talk is useless.

Having formally worked in K-12 education, where I had to both model good behavior and respond to bad behavior, my experience tells me that not responding immediately to harassing or threatening language, and deferring it to grousing with largely sympathetic colleagues is only encouraging the malefactor into thinking that it's fine for him to want to assault playwrights.

The "gentleman" needed to be spoken to, right then and there in front of the audience, in no uncertain terms about his language-- if not from you, then from the stage-manager, the dramaturg, actors, director (seriously, no one from the presenting organization came forward?), or an audience member-- because the likelihood that he is going read the HowlRound and understand that your open letter is addressed to him is minuscule.

Even as someone who enjoys both the back and forth of vigorous debate, and probing, even incisive criticism, I view bullying is unacceptable, no matter the age of the target, no matter the age of the bully, and no matter the setting. Unless we have the courage of our convictions (I would like to think that most of the folk in the room didn't want anyone to strangle you) to have zero-tolerance for bullying, it will continue.

Thanks for this useful artictle and commentary everyone. I have read Teresa's book and recommend it highly. I am a playwright, educator, and director who has participated in several "talk-backs" as audience member, artist, or faciitator. I, too, am a big fan of the Liz Lerman process, although Teresa's book mentions some useful alternatives. One aspect of this conversation that I do not see discussed here that I recently experienced, is how a talk back can be destructive to other artists involved in the process of presenting new work. An audience can feel entitled to attack acting and directing as well as the playwright, and those artists should also be taken into consideration by the facilitator's process and boundary setting. I feel it is not ever useful to open the talk-back to a general "What did you think/ask anything you want" conversation that so easily can turn into a feeding frenzy.

Grim and horrible. Many's a time I wanted to crawl under the table to get away from the audience talk back.
The audience guy was a jerk, but where was your production staff? Who was leading this discussion? Where was your protection?

Thanks for sharing your experience! I have a book coming out in the spring from Palgrave titled "Post Show Discussions in New Play Development" in which I address the very concerns you raised (although none of the playwrights to whom I spoke had quite the violent "feedback" as you received) and offer not only a structure for post-show discussions, but also alternatives to doing them. In response to Ilana's comment, I actually have a whole chapter on terminology -- I leave "talkback" for audience cultivation events and use post-show discussions or post-show reflections (when using an alternative to the traditional discussion structure) instead. I also have a chapter on facilitation. Was there a facilitator for your discussion or were you facilitating? And, while Lerman is great, there are actually some really great other alternative approaches out there that I detail in my book. I briefly discussed them in a September 13th blog post, "Post-Show Discussions: Structure and Strategies", on TYA/USA's NEXT blog: http://nextusa.wordpress.co...

Oh man... I hate that your wise friend is right. No one said anything; apparently this is OK. And I'm in total agreement with everyone who has already commented that even the term "talk-back" is a bad start. Experiences like this are perhaps why the word "community" makes my radar go off. Theaters seek ways to engage their audience, and the talk-back has become a favorite tactic. But it is far, far from my favorite as playwright or audience member.

This is why I never, ever stay for any artist discussions. I spend most of my time enraged that whoever arranged for the discussion showed so little regard for the artist and her/his work. The remainder of the time I am fuming at the artist for not proactively caring for herself in advance--insisting on a strong facilitator, preparing questions for the audience in advance, determining how to educate audience in the moment on how their words affect (or injure). Thank you for sharing this story and your lessons. Let me know if you ever want to create an artist's guide to taking-back the talk-back. :)

Lauren, thanks for writing about this. It's hard for anyone who hasn't ever seen or been the object of one of these "talk-back" horror stories to understand the damage they can do and how unnerving they can be.

I like what you wrote, David (Muschell), about starting on a positive note in response sessions. I believe response sessions should be for the artist to learn about her piece, not for the audience to blow off steam or blurt out opinions about a play they've only just seen and have thought about for the scant few minutes it took the cast to take off their make-up. The artist should be able to control the session through a facilitator (moderator), and that facilitator's job should be, first and foremost, to guide the conversation in a way that's useful for the artist. I stopped attending "talk-backs" long ago unless I or someone else was facilitating in a way that prevented artists from becoming a verbal punching bag for random and unknown audience members. I found that women and People of Color were often attacked in "talk-backs" for having a voice that the audience experienced as "other." While this response by the audience might be useful information for the playwright — and information the playwright might be seeking — it mustn't be allowed to be expressed as an attack.

I prefer response sessions guided by the Liz Lerman Response Method (Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process: A method for getting useful feedback on anything you make, from dance to dessert by Liz Lerman and John Borstel). So many Lerman Method sessions in which I've participated have grown into deep, useful conversations — without abuse or threat — that yielded information and inspiration for playwright and audience.

As a moderator of many "talk backs" (even the term sounds confrontational), the first thing I ask the playwright before we begin is "what kind of feedback do you want? What are some specific things you're interested in hearing about?" As moderator, I'm there to help (and protect) the playwright. I've been in those audience response sessions where the moderator seemed to feel a glee when someone in the audience wanted to show off his or her critical expertise by being scaldingly "insightful" about what was wrong with my play. It might make for a separate entertainment for the evening's festivities, but it certainly didn't help me re-vision my work. I've always kept that in mind when moderating. One playwright told me, "I'd like to know what was working for the audience, what moved them, made them laugh, uplifted them, or was just memorable." Starting with that kind of opening threw the audience into a totally positive mindset, and I could even see the critical "show-offs" cross their arms and purse their lips in stifled disgruntlement.

Totally agree, David. I have seen everything you mention, including the "show-offs" disgruntlement. After having participated recently in a discussion of the workshop presentation of a new play where I felt attacked as a director, (thankfully it was not a terribly violent attack, and the moderator swiftly moved on), I want to add my realization that directors should be involved in the pre-faciitation discussion with the moderator and the playwright, and that they and the rest of the production team deserve to be allowed to set some boundaries. I have been a discussion facilitator several times, and it was not until this recent experience as a director of a new play, that I realized the importance of including all the artists before launching into a "talk-back".

As a playwright who has felt reamed by a "talk-back", and as a teacher of playwriting and facilitator of talk backs, I strongly support having the playwright dtermine what kind of feedback they are looking for. That isn't asking for sugar coated comments. In general the following questions work for the playwright, avoids the show-offs from showing off or the comments of the people who want to rewrite your play themselves because clearly you've hit a nerve-- or comments that will make you put that play in a drawer, which is what happened to me:
- what intrigued you? what made you lean in?
- what do you want to know more about?
- what confused you?
- what made you drop out or lean back?

That's it. If the purpose is to serve the play and the playwright and not the audience's ego, that's all you need.

I think that writers (or really any artist) who wants to put their work out there needs to be able to take criticism-- but there is a huge difference between "I had problems with the underlying narrative structure", "I felt that character was too one-dimensional", "I found all the literary allusions too much", or "I found the profanity to be gratuitous" and "I want to cause physical harm to the playwright"-- the latter is not criticism; it's abuse, and we should not confuse one for the other.

Ugh! Thank you for sharing this - and I completely agree with your ground rules. This is definitely one of the worst talk-back horror stories I've heard.

Oh Lauren, this is just... wow. In addition to agreeing with everything you just said here, I'll offer this:

Let's stop calling them "talk-backs."

I do not think this is the invitation we, as a field, want to be offering our artists and audiences.

Post-shows, artist talks, discussions, etc: fine.

"Talk-backs": please no.

I do not want people "talking back."

Thank you for speaking about your experience.

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