The Playgoer: Survey Says...?

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Survey Says...?

I generally think that surveys measuring audience response are a bad idea. I care very deeply about what my audience thinks or feels, but I don't feel that surveys are the best way to assess this, and so don't use them. If the theater wants them, I consent, but I don't read them. This is not because I am a snob who is disinterested in what my audience thinks - on the contrary, I care very much - but because I think our contemporary culture has a weird fetish for quantifying everything, and something so delicate and ineffable as the relationship between artist and viewer can't even really be expressed verbally, let alone numerically. I am, in many cases, a believer in the wisdom of crowds and a fan of most open-source projects, but theater isn't computer programming or the collective hive-mind of Wikipedia. I find it much more instructive, actually, to watch an audience watch my work (as was easy to do at the Denver Center's in-the-round Space Theater in 2007), a technique recommended by the filmmaker Francois Truffaut, among others. Collectively, an audience is very intelligent, but not necessarily in a way that individual members can articulate - often I can better tell whether or not a play is working by observing body language. When are people laughing, crying, shifting, on the edge of their seats, dozing off, walking out? And who are they specifically, and when do I want or not want them to be doing each of these? This tells me much more than most of the feedback I get at "talk-backs," which is usually more about giving the audience a greater sense of involvement (a perfectly laudable goal in itself) than about soliciting "notes."
-Playwright Jason Grote, blogging from the National Performing Arts Convention, where one session dares to ask: "Aside from the buzz in the lobby, is it possible to define - and even measure - how audiences are transformed?"

Why do I worry that what "transform" means here is less spiritual than "transformed into repeat happy customers!"

This is a really salient point about talkbacks, by the way. (And of course "surveys" only bring to mind "test screenings" and "Fatal Attraction"-like surgical rewrites.) As someone who has moderated quite a few talkbakcs in my time, I want to go out on a limb say that they more often than not, suck. First, I'm also struck by how often audience members take it upon themselves to indeed "give notes" to the playwright or artists--unsolicited--as if they're playwriting mentors themselves, or, worse, Broadway backers. (Imagine patrons telling Joanne Akalaitis that her staging of Heiner Muller's "Quartet" better get more accessible or else people may not like it! Well, that happened, I was there.)

Also, the outright rudeness of some of the "questions" I've hear never ceased to amaze me. To wit: "Were those Southern accents intended to be inconsistent?" "Did you mean the characters to be unbelieveable?"

Obviously, it's just a few "bad apples," if I may use the phrase, who take over and, if they're lucky, get a groupthink going in the crowd that skews the perceived "response" one way or the other. For instance, at one new play I moderated at the first questioner could still not get over the first line (two hours ago) said the word "bullshit", which then became the only topic of conversation for the next twenty minutes. I'm sure the playwright was helped by that.

The tragedy of talkbacks (and really I'm not overstating!) is that the insightful people either leave or stay around to watch the freakshow, while the rest of us are held hostage by the crankiest, most throwback savants who insist that nothing good has happened in the theatre since Death of a Salesman.

Yes, we need to take down that fourth wall and let artists and audiences engage more. But somehow the more formal and structured the setting (meant to protect the artists) ends up privileging the looniest and least fruitful comments--often by sheer luck of the draw. Instead, it often is much better to just keep the bar open after the show and let people congregate on their own (un-moderated and un-mediated) and invite some artists to mingle.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Have you ever participated in/attended one of the post-staged-reading processes the NYTW does? I can't remember the name, but it's all very positive--the participants are basically barred from offering negative criticism. I was actually quite moved by it, though I have no idea how useful it was to the playwright and director.

J. Kelly said...

Yes! You're spot on about talkbacks... Though I do enjoy them at theatre for young people, as a show in itself.

David Cote said...

I've done a few postshows (and some preshows) at Montclair State University's Peak Performance series and it's true, they can seem really pointless or worse, a soapbox for cranky audience members. Still trying to work out a new model so that they can be fun and informative. Which leads me to... self promotional part ahead... a new preshow project I'm starting with Helen Shaw and playwright-essayist Jeff Jones. It's called the Program, it's a preshow event, and we're doing the first, casual one at PS 122 this Saturday night before Jay Scheib's Untitled Mars. More details: THE PROGRAM is David Cote, Helen Shaw and Jeffrey Jones— two reviewers and a playwright-cultural critic—who want the widest possible audience to feel welcome at the widest range of dramatically ambitious work. Armed with pre-show discussions and supplementary dramaturgical materials, THE PROGRAM roams from theater to theater, providing context to audiences at selected experimental productions. In the fine arts, museum-goers feel welcome at even the most abstract, difficult shows: docents, catalogues and wall text reach out to new viewers. But in the theater, we get tossed in front of the avant garde with little preparation. So, in the interest of deepening the conversation between audiences and those pieces pushing formal boundaries, THE PROGRAM offers a casual opportunity for enrichment and investigation and conversation—and maybe a glass of wine. For UNTITLED MARS, we’ll be talking to director Jay Scheib about his fascination with technology, his influences (many of them cinematic) and how his unusually collaborative process turns into the highly choreographed works that are his specialty. Join us! Sorry for such a long commment...

Anonymous said...

I think talkbacks are kind of insane as a rule (more humiliation for the artists) but I've found them to be sort of ok on occassion. But it does seem to mitigate the power of the artist -- I don't like having to account for my work; can you imagine Pinter having to go through talkbacks? "weasel under the cocktail cabinet" indeed...

bam34 said...

i'm pretty sure nytw uses the "liz lerman critical response technique," which when followed realy helps give positive shape to people's responses, because it focuses on giving positive comments up front and asking questions...