Those who know me well know of my lack of enthusiasm for talkbacks. I think they are often a waste of time. Even when the room is full of intelligent people, the event can descend into an orgy of opinion-giving that deflates and annoys me. So I tend to slip out at the beginning of them, and I offer my feedback (if it’s asked for) privately, at least 24 hours later, and I think carefully about how I phrase it, and what I am saying, before I send it. A new play is a fragile thing and easily contaminated by others.
This post by Lauren Gunderson (see link above) is a case in point. I urge those of you who click through to also subscribe to HowlRound, which I find to be a very useful resource.
Here’s the text in its entirety.
Strangle, Throttle, Silence: Talkbacks and Artist Safety
Here’s what happened.
The first question from an audience of about sixty who stayed for the talkback of one of my new plays came from a guy who looked post-middle-age, glasses, uncool hair, jacket. He was not threatening at all; he looked like a dorky dad. He shot his hand up as soon as he was prompted.
“I’ve seen two of your plays in the last two weeks and I hated them. They were so wordy I just wanted to strangle you.”
He flourished the word “strangle” by air-throttling the invisible effigy of me (I assumed). And laughed exasperatedly. Because that was very funny.
“But this play was great.” He went on. “I loved it, the characters, the…”
I stopped responding like a normal person after hearing “strangle.”
The other plays of mine are worth murdering me, silencing me, throttling me with his hands.
But this play was good enough that you’ll let me live.
Thank you, sir. You’re a fucking gentleman.
Now here’s what really happened. A man twice my age said he’d like to “strangle” the playwright in a room full of people because he didn’t like her stories. Strangle. That is not normal critical verbiage. That is violence. Moreover it’s an act of silencing. Moreover it’s an act that a man would not use in reference to another man.
Though I never feared for my safety during this incident, I did fear for something else. Dignity? The power of story? Casual misogyny? Integrity with audience members?
And why didn’t someone (me, for starters) stand up right there and ask him to leave or tell him that’s not the kind of feedback we abide? Instead, I just harmlessly nodded and the conversation moved on to a guy who thought the actors “looked up” too much, whatever that means. Good lord.
It has been a few weeks since that incident and two things have stuck with me as I processed that man, the reaction I had to him, and the point of audience talkbacks.
1. Have Rules for Talkbacks and Explain Them Every Time
Audiences aren’t writing your play and everyone’s a critic. So structure is good. You cannot have talkbacks that begin with: “So what’d ya think?” Now, most of the times I’ve been part of talkbacks that employed some version of Liz Lerman’s critical feedback structure. Those have usually been very healthy and supportive experiences. Safety and generosity are key. I can’t create or respond to a creation if I don’t feel safe. It’s easy to hate something. It’s hard to make something. Protect your artists or don’t put them out there at all.
2. No One Threatens Your Artists
No person (no matter which board they’re on or how many years they’ve subscribed) gets to threaten an artist in your theater.. Even if it’s a joke, even if it’s for emphasis, even if it’s just a turn of phrase, even if they hate the characterand not a real person—not the real actor or playwright. No. You shut that shit down. You do it immediately. You explain why that’s not OK. You resume discussion.
When I was venting my shock with a friend I said:
“I mean jesus, that is not OK.”
To which my wise friend said, “Apparently it is. No one said anything to him. So now it’s OK. He thinks that’s OK.”
3. No Strangling
One would ideally not need to specify this. But here’s why it’s not OK to say “ I wanted to strangle you” to women.
“Strangulation is one of the most lethal forms of violence used by men against their female intimate partners.”—UPenn Study on Violence Against Women
“The act of strangulation symbolizes an abuser’s power and control over the victim. The victim is completely overwhelmed by the abuser; she vigorously struggles for air, and is at the mercy of the abuser for her life. Some have asserted that there can be few more frightening experiences than feeling short of breath without any recourse.”—Banzett, R. B., & Moosavi, S. H. (2001, March/April).
That kind of violence toward women is real and constant. It maketh not healthy banter.
And now I shall speak to that gentleman in the audience.
It is completely valid for you to express your feelings about my plays. You didn’t like some of them. OK! But words mean things when you say them (actual things!). Words inspire action much as they describe it. Words are powerful, expositional, emotional tools. So please watch your fucking language when you put words into the world.
PS If you hated my other plays so much why the hell did you come to that reading?
PPS No strangling.
PPSS – Check out this video. I think you’ll like it.