By Jordan Scott Hardesty
My parti pris is that I hate talkbacks. I vehemently hate talkbacks. I go to every single post-show discussion offered. I am on my 153rd production since moving to Chicago. Maybe about 60 have had talkbacks. I’ve seen patrons throw obscenities at one another. I’ve seen grown adults cry because their opinions were being ignored by the group. I’ve seen others, not unlike myself, bored out of their minds. Why do I subject myself to that pain?
I accept that talkbacks are a vital part of the dramaturg’s role and I need to experience and learn from others as I discover my own dramaturgical aesthetics. The more reasonable explanation is that I have the Sisyphean desire that one of these days, I might get something out of these conversations. You would think that by now, I would have experienced the perfect talkback.
Well, I did. About a month and a half ago, I saw the Goodman Theatre’s production of We’re Only Alive For A Short Amount of Time by David Cale, a usual-suspect music theater artist at the Goodman. The semi-autobiographical one-man musical play documents Cale’s relationship to each of his family members which he tracks through alcoholism, death, sexuality, and Liza Minnelli. It was well received by critics, and the scant audience in attendance seemed to enjoy the piece.
I was quite lukewarm to the show, which I thought was a brilliant piece performed in a venue too large for the intimacy that it was trying to accomplish. Perhaps this complaint had to do with the fact that I saw this show alone, and I was the sole member of the balcony, or the cheap seats. There was no talkback held after the show, at least not in the theatre. So, I made my way to the Red Line.
The Jordan in-transit is a much different Jordan than one might experience in a more comfortable space. I am quite unapproachable when I travel. However, a middle-aged woman with a playbill similar to the one I was holding sat next to me and began to speak. She wanted to get out everything that she was feeling.
Her first question to me was whether I had gone to see the show alone too. I responded with a one-word reply. I had no desire to have a conversation with a stranger. But she insisted that a conversation must be had. She became extremely vulnerable with me. She said that she had spent the day cleaning her apartment and needed to detox. She wasn’t a usual theatregoer, but she thought a night at the theatre might be exactly what she needed. The conversation was already too deep for me not to respond. I asked her the dramaturg’s go-to question: what resonated in the play for you?
To this woman, the piece was very much rooted in the loss that Cale experienced in his life, and she related to that pain. She said that she did not think that she had had a comparable loss in her life, but she could latch onto that vulnerability and apply it to her own. I thought this was a really beautiful and astute observation. She then asked me what I thought, and I said something similar to, “It was fine, but it didn’t affect me.”
This conversation was immediately interrupted by a group of three men across the aisle of the train, who were also sporting their playbills. The men were closer to my age, and they were archetype of those who frequent Cubs bars in Lakeview. One said, “We heard you talking about the play and we wanted to join in.” It was around this point that it became clear that this was becoming a talkback.
The men all seemed to share the same opinion that the play was full of pretension and boring, but they could understand its appeal. One remarked that the music was the part he enjoyed the most. I agreed that the music was enjoyable, but I commented on how the orchestration was limiting to me. It really needed percussion. Another remarked that the music was actually the most redundant part and he began to sing the most notable leitmotif, or reoccuring theme, which we all laughed at like we were friends who had seen this show together.
I started to notice that the woman that I began the conversation with held the minority opinion. The unintentional silencing of a voice in the minority is common in more formal post-show conversations. I tried to become aware of how much or little I was validating her experiences. It was then that I realized that she had inadvertently accepted a dramaturgical role in our discussion. She started holding the rest of us accountable to our opinions.
“Do you believe that at a different point in your life, you might have experienced this piece differently?”
Silence. After some time, one of the men responded, “Probably.” He continued to say that he relates to musicals such as Next to Normal because he connects to that music more. Rock musicals, he said, tackle issues that he has experienced. This show, he observed, was about moving on from your past and he felt that he hadn’t much past to move on from yet. He then admitted that it probably wasn’t as bad as he had thought that it was.
This made so much sense to me. While my rock musical phase is many years behind me and I have turned my focus to opera, the stranger brought up an intriguing phenomenological idea. We all bring our own biases into our showgoing, and perhaps to truly understand a piece, we need to experience it communally. This justifies the talkback, despite my reservations to it.
Unfortunately, there was always a limitation to this talkback: time. The conversation could only last until one of us got off. I would have continued on with this conversation for many more stops, but at Belmont, I got off the train. We went on with our lives, and I will never see these people ever again. It was the strangest experience, but it made sense. Afterall, we are just individuals hoping that someone will acknowledge us and our opinions as we connect to the world.
I’ve been on many trains where I have seen other commuters with the same playbill as mine. I have never had the urge to talk to these people before, and they probably have not had the urge to talk to me. Since this moment, I have questioned what stops us from allowing a piece to live beyond the theatre walls.
I think about how I can use this unconventional post-show discussion in my own process. I believe that talkbacks must take place outside of the theatre: people are more reluctant to engage in a meaningful conversation there. Whether in trains, a local bar, or the Jason’s Deli across the street from the Goodman. Any of these places could be ideal spots for discussions too fragile to be had in earshot of the artists. Post-show conversations are not about the artists or the institutions. They are about the people who interact with the work of art.
We must take a leap into the controversial. We cannot be scared to make bold statements and we must not stop ourselves from holding others accountable for their bold statements. At the end of the day, “what resonated with you?” is a limiting question. I am guilty of using it. It inflicts upon patrons the idea that the conversation must contain pleasantries, and therefore become stagnant and banal. I prefer the more evocative question, “what did you think?” I imagine discourse, but unlike the run-of-the-mill talkback, discourse is welcome as long as everything can be held accountable.
I am reminded of my experience on the train constantly. I have never had a more rewarding conversation about a piece of theatre. Mostly because I did not see it coming, nor did I want it to happen. As a young early-career dramaturg, I understand that recreating this unconventional talkback might seem like just a dogmatic dream, but we have to try something new. The conversations that we have about art are the only things keeping it alive.