How Teatro Vivo in Austin, Texas Embraces the Talkback
The lights fade to indicate that the play is over. The post-show music plays, a light comes up on the stage, and a facilitator walks into the light. The facilitator motions for the music to fade, the house lights to rise, and invites the audience to stay for a very valuable ten minutes of talkback time. The Teatro Vivo talkback has begun. "What was one moment in the play that you connected with?" A 50 year-old Latino raises his hand and responds, "I just wanted to..." He pauses, his voice cracks, he answers, "I see myself and all the times I told my daughter ‘NO’."
Wait a minute. What about the announcement that says: “If you can't stay for the talk-back it is okay to leave,” or “If you have some other event that you have to make,” or “We will give you a few minutes before we begin.” What happened to that announcement? Teatro Vivo doesn’t do that. We expect them to stay. We let the audience know at the opening curtain speech that they will have a ten-minute opportunity to engage in talkback after the show and we invite them to stay. We also let them know how very important their comments are to our work. Routinely, about 90% of our audiences stay.
How do we conduct our talkbacks? How do we get audience members, some of whom are first time theater goers, to talk about their experience with the production?
We use an experienced facilitator as well as have the playwright or director present. Our interest lies mainly in keeping the talkback focused on the play, the words, the story, and characters. We use three basic open-ended questions for our talkbacks. The first one is, “What is one part of the play that you connected with?” We also use terms like “What was touching”, and “What did you relate to”. The second question, “Is there something that you have a question about, didn't understand, and would like it to be clarified?” The third question is, “How would you describe this play to a friend or co-worker using one word?”
When we first started three years ago, we weren’t sure if people would commit to staying and actively engage. It’s important to note that about 70% of our audience is Latino, primarily Mexican American. Our audiences are also very diverse in age, education, occupation, and theater going experience. We have been pleasantly surprised at the level of participation and how audience members engage in cross conversation with one another. Now, when audiences come to our plays, there is an expectation that we will give them an opportunity to engage. What also helps spark the conversation is that our shows have high social/political content. Generally, aesthetics of the play are not discussed to any great extent. Most of the comments and conversations are about how individual audience members relate to the struggles and the conflicts in which the characters are involved. We do keep the clock, and most of the time we have to stop the talkback at twenty minutes even if people want to keep the conversation going.
Earlier we shared an example response taken from a talkback for Mariachi Girl by Roxanne Schroeder-Arce. This theater for young audiences play is about an eight year old, Cita, who wants to sing in her father's all-male Mariachi band. Her father insists that Mariachis can only be men and overlooks her musical ability. Throughout the six-week run of this play, we had both men and women share their own stories and how they related to the father or the daughter. One audience member even asked our facilitator if he was a trained counselor (He is not.) What works in our favor is that our facilitator is comfortable listening and guiding the wave of the strong emotional response, while keeping the conversation alive and ongoing for everyone.
Teatro Vivo's mission includes these rich conversations after the performances. Our commitment to bilingual, socially relevant plays that are available to both Latino and Non-Latino audiences allows for these conversations to thrive. We like to think of our audience as part of Teatro Vivo's familia and maybe these talkbacks are like having that cafecito (coffee break and chat) with Mamá on Sundays. They certainly feel that way.
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For those interested in audience engagement (which includes talk backs and much, much more....), I highly recommend Lynne Conner's book Audience Engagement and Arts Talk in the Digital Era published by Palgrave. She's got the bead on where this all should be heading.
The questions used by Teatro Vivo keep the talkback approachable for all audience members. It is all about the audience sharing their experience and helps bring to illuminate that the audience is a vital part of any play or performance. A great example of engaging community as part of theatre-making!
It's great to hear about your approach and see how it aligns with ours at Adventure Stage. We, too, include the talkback as part of the experience and find an extremely high rate of participation. We refer to the experience as a "Curtain Conversation" since I think the term "talk-back" doesn't go far enough in expression the full dimension of the experience--the give-and-take--we are trying to shepherd. I am intrigued by the choice to converse with the playwright and/or director instead of the cast. I've often wondered if the presence of the playwright and/or director skews the conversation in that audiences might withhold feedback in deference to the creative team's perceived expertise. At least with actors, an audience feels a certain kinship, having spent that last couple of hours with them. A felt relationship has been established which, we've found at least, is helpful in getting underneath the surface of the experience. I'd love to hear more about that. And, thanks.
I really like your 3 questions. I will definitely use them the next time I have a talkback. And I really think it's valuable how Teatro Vivo has created this expectation that a talkback is part of the theatre going experience--that we're going to process what we saw together.
I did it. I followed Teatro Vivo's lead and had a talkback for one of my plays.
I was struggling with the question if certain plays of mine should be produced or if they only served study and documentation purposes.
And I have never gotten such helpful and confirming feedback on my writing.
I highly recommend them!!
I've actually been doing a lot of research into post-show discussions (you can find my book on Google Books - "Post-Show Discussions in New Play Development" ). What you've outlined here matches up with what I found talking to theatre professionals in the US and abroad. Knowing your company's mission and making your talkbacks align with it is the first step. Having a great facilitator is, as you pointed out, key to the success. Having open-ended, visceral questions is also crucial.
This is wonderful. I have been in several of these--and they are so inspiring.
So happy that folks everywhere may be able to use some of Teatro Vivo's tips. As someone who has led and seen these helpful discussions led, I can vouch for how effective they are. A perfect example of how investing in your audience facilitates their investment in you. So worthwhile!
Great read. Glad to learn more about the necessary work that Teatro Vivo is doing in Austin, Tejas and how they are better serving their comunidad through talkbacks.
Marc, just go for it. We were tentative at first as we had been to some less than engaging talk backs. We committed to them and found what works for our audiences. One thing I can add is that silence is ok. When we start it is good to wait, for what may seem like a long time, for the first comment. Once it starts, then we are usually good to go. Happy to share any other info.
Yes, being comfortable with that silence is hard, but ultimately so rewarding! Of course, you have to remember to tell anyone else on stage to sit with it, too, as I've had a person on stage break the silence and inadvertently hijack the discussion. :-)
We often do not invite the actors to be on stage during the talk backs. It is usually just the playwright or director with the facilitator or just the facilitator. This helps with keeping the conversation on track. To connect actors with audience members, actors greet and chat with the audience in the lobby after the talk back. This has worked well for us.
Very interesting and clear article. I run a company in Tucson and we are also trying to get our first time Latina/o audience members introduced to the benefits of talkbacks. Helpful information.