Often when I remind the cast that we have a talkback coming up, I am greeting with a groan. People begin questioning how many folks will stay and telling horror stories about that one talkback they did where there were more cast members than audience members. Soon they start placing bets on how quickly the audience will ask the most infamous question, “How do you learn ALL THOSE LINES?”
Kris Joseph wrote about his experience doing talkbacks after every performance of Doubt last year and one of his points was this:
2. I believe talkbacks are about the audience. So is theatre in general, really. But in the world of the talkback I like to imagine that the play was 90 minutes of my character’s chance to speak; the post-show chat is the audience’s chance to speak…. It’s natural for some (if not all) audience members to be left with questions, but I don’t think the people on stage really have many more answers to offer than other audience members do.
In the last week I have moderated two talkbacks for Pacific Theatre’s production of Refuge of Lies. Refuge of Lies is about a man who has a dark history of wartime secrets which are hidden now by his religious conversation and subsequent immigration to Canada. He is confronted by a dutch journalist and his life begins to unravel. The play was inspired by the true story of Jacob Luitjens, a UBC professor whose history caught up to him in the early 1990’s.
The first talkback was on Wednesday night and was a special event for a school group that had attended the show, but we invited the rest of the audience to stay as well. That night 75% of the audience stayed to interact with the show. The question of how lines were learned never came up. But the students were very engaged with the story. There are places where the play leaves things open to interpretation and a couple of times they asked about those moments, and the cast always flipped it back to them: What did they think happened? And good discussion came out of it.
Last night was a very different story. Pacific Theatre does a talkback on the second Friday night of every run. Patrons choose to attend that evening so they can be a part of things. When I did a headcount during the talkback last night, I would say it is the largest that there has been in my 5 years working there – over 60 people stayed (out of our 90 person audience). We had members of the church Jacob Luitjen’s had attended, including one of the pastors. And the conversation became heated (more heated than the play where a father euthanized his daughter; more headed than the play where a convicted pedophile is released back into the community and begins hanging out with a young girl). What did it become so heated about? Ambiguity (which we all know, I love).
Very early into the talkback a man stood up. “”This play talks about mercy, but is it talking about mercy at the expense of justice? What did [Rudi] do?” the man asked, “I’m just so angry!” The cast began to pose questions back to the audience: “Does it matter what he’s done if we know he’s committed some sort of crime?” “What do you think he’s done?” “I’m glad you’re angry – that means we’ve done our job. I hope you came with someone so you can argue it out on the way home.”
But for this man it wasn’t enough. He was agitated and wanted black and white answers. The other audience members began to engage with him: “I think the point of art, of theatre, is to ask questions, not to answer them” and the man stood up and began to yell. All of the sudden the audience was not comfortable with this turn of events. The apprentices were starting to fidget in their seats.
“We need to move from this topic of discussion now, but you can continue your conversation in the lobby once this is over.”
“Or in the streets!” chimed in a patron.
Terrence Kelly, the man playing Rudi Vanderwaal looks at the audience and says, “Doesn’t anyone want to know how we learned all our lines!?!”
[For anyone wishing to follow along with the discussion, it is currently continuing in the comments section of Plank Magazine between the reviewer, the patron mentioned in this post & one of the cast members.]