Embarrassments lurk in these occasions, which is why sometimes lecturing seems a safer or easier course. I’ve given thought to where the embarrassment creeps in. Partly it’s my embarrassment for audience members who don’t know that their special knowledge is common knowledge or who are having responses my students have been educated out of having—responses that ignore historical context and difference or conflate lived experience with the stylized representations of canonical texts. I can also be embarrassed for myself when I feel trapped between correcting people who never entered a contract to be corrected or feigning agreement with uncomfortably naive responses. But I have decided to accept my embarrassment—after all, I can’t unlearn my academic training, nor do audiences begin anywhere but where they begin—and consider how better to structure these occasions so that they are productive.
What do we want from such events? Should the performing arts simply speak for themselves, and is any attempt to frame or extend a performance a diminishment of its power? Or can talkbacks initiate conversations among people who temporarily constitute a public body whose interactions can deepen the meaning of what has just been experienced? Because anyone can leave once a show is over, I view the voluntary coming together of a postplay audience as an opportunity. It can create exchanges that reveal things at once simple and important. For example, people talking together discover more than people locked in their own heads. Often, plays fully reveal their complexities and challenges only when one dwells with them—converses with and through them—extending their lives beyond the fall of the curtain.
My most vivid memory of a successful talkback occurred during a brilliant evening at Theater for a New Audience in New York, when Caryl Churchill’s highly controversial fifteen-minute play, Seven Jewish Children, was given a staged reading. The play is constructed of seven vignettes in which Jewish parents discuss what to tell their young daughter about events in Jewish history and in their lives, from the Holocaust to their journey to Palestine to the creation of the new state of Israel to the Israeli bombing of Gaza in December 2008. This staged reading was followed by an hour of talkback facilitated by Alisa Solomon and Tony Kushner, and then the play was staged again. The most striking part of this event, which was attended by people of widely different political views, was that stridently partisan tirades gradually gave way to something much more thoughtful. A certain community formed that was collectively discovering things, though not necessarily agreeing.
So how did this change happen? Solomon and Kushner moderated the conversation but did not lecture about the play or anything else. They set clear ground rules: no one could be interrupted or speak for more than two minutes; they invited responses to controversial points before letting the conversation move to a new speaker or topic. In this way, the event gained momentum as ideas were developed and modified. Solomon and Kushner used the play to triangulate disagreements by getting participants to think with and through the play, asking them how the play spoke to the issue at hand and asking for counterinterpretations. By repeatedly pointing back to the text and the staged reading, the facilitators helped the audience collectively make discoveries about the language and form of the play, the complexity of its political engagement, and the difference that performance choices made to its meaning. This attention to the performance interrupted people’s tendency simply to repeat their deeply held feelings about Israel and Palestine and to take account of a complex event that challenged those feelings in unexpected ways.
It was widely agreed that this talkback worked. People learned from one another. When they saw the play a second time after all the talk, they saw it differently. They felt they had experienced something together, not just the work of art but also the conversation, the way of conversing, which the work of art had stimulated. People felt that they were part of a group; they still differed in their opinions, but the differences were opened to revision by engagement with the play and with other audience members. Maybe, after all is said and done, what had been created was the conditions that obtain in a really good humanities classroom.
The public humanities is not only about making humanistic texts and performances widely available in communities large and small, in prisons, town halls, school auditoriums, and the off-off-Broadway stage, but also about finding ways to engage with art by engaging with one another in public conversation.
The Charter of Brown University. Brown University. Brown U, 1945. Web. 8 Oct. 2014.
Churchill, Caryl. Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza. Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 26 Feb. 2009. Web. 8 Oct. 2014.
Posted November 2014