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.