I should be writing about the two Woyzecks I’ve seen this week, and about Karin Henkel’s fantastic John Gabriel Borkmann. But the other thing I’ve been watching, other than plays, is Q&As – and I have a few questions.

They’re a funny ritual, those post-show talkbacks. At Theatertreffen, they’re obligatory: most of the cast, the director, the dramaturg, and sometimes the set designer as well, get to sit on a dais where they are questioned first by a critic and eventually by the audience. Not an unfamiliar format, to be sure (perhaps minus the critic), and yet quite different from what I’m used to from Q&As in the English-speaking world.


Here’s how these things usually go when I see them in Canada or the UK: directors studiously avoid saying anything that would imply that what ended up on stage was their doing, and refer back to the text (or better yet, the author). Actors dish anecdotes. The moderator encourages the dishing of anecdotes. As soon as the audience gets hold of the microphone, someone asks how X could memorize all those lines, or how Y felt about playing such an evil person. People are generally quite gregarious, but also quite superficial. If “why” questions are asked, they’re mostly answered with reference to technical reasons (rehearsal time; blocking; etc.), or, more frequently, with reference to psychology. That’s a mean-spirited parody, I know, but it’s fairly true to my experience of the genre – and if you listen to the National Theatre’s rich archive of production talks on iTunes, I think you’ll find many versions of the above.

In Germany, the ritual goes rather differently. In general, I find that Publikumsgespräche often have a very odd defensive atmosphere. The actors frequently are extremely reluctant to say much, if anything. Sometimes they overtly defer to the director, sometimes to the dramaturg. At Theatertreffen, there’s the added complication that a critic (aka the enemy) is asking questions. More often than not, I walk away with a sense that the entire production team wanted the production to speak for itself, and didn’t think that their post-show explanations could add to (let alone fix) what they put on stage. The answers people do give sometimes are startlingly divorced from what actually happens in the rehearsal room. Just the other day, I asked during a Q&A about a particular production’s choice to retain certain words in dialect pronunciation when none of the characters consistently spoke in dialect; the answer I got was “Well, that’s just how the play is written.” Which is true, and might be a credible answer in the English-speaking world – but coming from a German actor clearly bears no relationship to how texts are treated here, on stage or in rehearsal, by actors and directors. Quite often, most of the cast will come to these Q&As, but very few of them will speak. (Again, this is a distorted picture — not all talkbacks go like this. But often they do, and I wonder why.)

In neither culture do theatre makers seem especially keen to reveal the inner workings of their processes. Even in Germany, at least on those occasions, dramaturgs tend to gesture to the text to justify or explain decisions. The most that might emerge is what the fundamental “Setzungen” were – a word that’s extraordinarily different to translate. A Setzung isn’t really an approach, exactly; it’s more like a ground rule, or a basic decision – something the director puts in place to limit and enable actorly choices, and to define a perspective on the play (or for the production). But often, the answer ends there: “Yes, that was a Setzung.” “No, that emerged during rehearsal.”

What happens during Q&As in the English-speaking theatre is not all that strange to me: in many ways, it’s of a piece with mainstream theatre criticism in English, and the kind of discourse that dominates talkbacks is mirrored in the kinds of books directors and actors write if they bother to write their autobiographies. There’s also a fairly wide-spread trope among actors that “no-one wants to hear about process.”

But in Germany? It’s not that the anecdotal, the personal, the psychological don’t have a place in how theatre and acting are discussed here. But the mainstream critical discourse – the way reviews are written – is much more focused on questions of interpretation than in the English-speaking world. What a particular production did with and to a play, and what the point, the meaning even, of those choices may have been – and to what extent a production achieved its apparent goals – are questions most theatre critics regularly ask in their reviews. Dramaturgs regularly pen detailed program notes outlining an interpretative stance, and include in the program historical, theoretical, philosophical, or critical texts that illuminate the production or may have played a role during the rehearsal process. Directors aren’t usually shy to describe their approach to their job in general terms – and neither are actors. So in general, the discourse surrounding and animating theatre in Germany is steeped in questions of interpretation, and questions of process aren’t considered too dull to discuss with non-theatremakers. Asking what a text might want, what a production might want from it, and what particular choices might mean and do are just normal operations for theatre artists and theatre critics alike. And often, those activities can take place at a fairly sophisticated level: it’s not unusual for rehearsal processes to include the communal reading and discussion of philosophical or theoretical texts not directly connected to the play but regarded by director and dramaturg as helpful for the production.

Given this culture, you might expect that post-show talkbacks would be welcome opportunities to continue this kind of discourse – to reflect on what the show did, to fill in conceptual gaps, to produce a fuller understanding of the meaning or the effects of a performance – for audiences and actors alike. But not so. Partly, it’s that German audiences aren’t actually all that much more sophisticated than audiences elsewhere. I haven’t heard the “how did you learn all those lines” question here, but I’m reliably informed that it does get asked. Very often, you do hear simple “why” questions. And more frequently than one might expect, people complain about shows that seem to do violence to the text. (It’s also true that German talkback audiences seem much more willing to speak their minds if they didn’t like the show, so a degree of defensiveness on the artists’ side is perhaps understandable.) But still.

What genuinely puzzles me is why actors are so reticent in this format. The best explanation I’ve come up with goes something like this: no matter how conceptually involved the early stages of a rehearsal process are, ultimately, the show comes alive when actors get up on their feet and play. And play sooner or later begins to elude rational explanation – at least for the player. It may seem like evasiveness for actors to say that they made a particular choice because it “felt right” or “made sense,” but on a fairly fundamental level, it probably isn’t – it’s probably just honesty. And I expect that the reluctance to go further and come up with a reasoned explanation for why something “felt right” is partly a fear that such a thinking-through would reduce that feeling of rightness – would reduce playfulness, presence, in-the-moment-ness. If the process of putting a show together moves gradually from thinking to doing, if a show is ready when it just is, then making the very people who’ve spent two months working through that process retrace their steps and go back to the thinking stage may be a bit too much to ask. It’s not that German actors are unwilling to think about their work, to approach performance conceptually; it’s that that thinking happens in the privacy of the rehearsal hall, at a stage of the process that precedes the coming into being of a show as a performance, and is left behind once the show is on its feet. Thought informs and enables play, but as a catalyst not as a prop.

I suspect for directors, the answer is different: there, I would guess that the relatively straightforward “the work should speak for itself” is in fact what’s at work. And I suppose I understand that position, too. After all, if a director didn’t think that the thing that wound up on stage represents her best way of saying what she wanted to say with or about that particular play, she’d probably be better off writing an essay than directing a play. Still: as a scholar interested in actorly and directorial processes, ways of thinking and ways of making, all of these hang-ups are terribly frustrating.

Frustrated as I am sometimes about all this, though, at least I’d like to have some certainty that I’ve more or less understood what’s causing the problem. So, actor and director friends: what precisely is the problem with Q&As? Warum sind Publikumsgespräche so eine Tortur? (Or have I just been really unlucky in the talkbacks I’ve seen?) Is it just that you’re all really tired at that point in the evening?

2 Responses to The Talkback Dilemma / Das Publikumsgesprächsleiden

  1. Martin Julien says:

    Ah. The dreaded talkback.

    As a young actor, I ‘signed up’ to attend them whenever i could. (In Canada, at least, they are always voluntary, except in children’s theatre.) Now, I avoid them like a bad virus. And you know that I am passionate about public discussions regarding process.

    The last several paragraphs of this post elucidate some very salient ideas with regard to the talkback’s problematic nature, so I won’t re-iterate them here. Following are a few observations that may augment or lightly challenge your own thoughts.

    1. The kind of people who stick around for talkbacks. In my experience, there is always at least one querulous person who has a bone to pick. There is something(s) they don’t like about the play/production, and feel they are a self-proclaimed expert who must argumentatively enlighten everyone about this problem. Often, their understanding of the theatre is that of the dilettante.

    2. People who stick around after the show are often the same people who like to read reviews. And like to quote reviews back to the actors, directors, and playwrights on stage, where one has no escape. Sometimes, they are very well-meaning, and vociferously complain that they completely disagree with the critic who wrote that “your performance was a travesty”. Etc.

    3. Audience members who stick around often consider themselves as sensitive aficionados of acting process, and ‘fellow travelers’ who acted in their youth. In considered tones of complicity and mentorship, they wish to discuss the challenges of your role, the choices you made, and just how your efforts — though skilled and sincere — came up short. In their opinion. As one artist to another.

    4. Actors, at least in Canada, have a very labyrinthine and rhyzomatic methodology and catechism with regards to what can and cannot be communicated to other actors regarding their process and performance through a play’s rehearsal and run. It’s basically a ‘live and let live’ thing. This is a delicate and nurtured ecosystem which can be decimated — as by a bulldozer — with a single well-placed remark by someone who has just spent two hours in an audience making judgments. While on stage, in a talkback: best not to say anything.

    5. Actors, at least in Canada, have to recreate their role eight shows a week. Recreate the choices in a role which they likely had less than a month to understand and commit to. Choices that they are most likely dissatisfied with, but cannot fundamentally change. There is not much room for criticism and debate when one is in such a position.

    6. Actors — at least in Canada — often haven’t got a clue what the director (or designers) wanted, in the big picture. Not a clue. With the playwrights….well, there is sometimes mystery and conflict, but playwrights and actors tend to secretly understand each other. Shhh! It’s a secret….

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