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On Talkbacks: Theater Artist Justin Jain Dissects The Form

Posted June 8th, 2012

Justin Jain is a Philly-based theater artist, member of The Berserker Residents, and a 2011–12 LAB Fellow.

Justin Jain, all set and ready to listen. And listen. And listen. Photo by Josh McIlvain.

Audience talkbacks and artist feedback sessions have always been tricky for me. Personally, if I am showing a work-in-progress, I will have already gained all the information I need for my future studio work during the showing itself. I read what resonates and what doesn’t by the audience’s reaction to the piece as it happens. The heat of performance changes everything–the performers step into a level of presence nearly impossible to recreate in rehearsal. It is this presence, and the physical focus of the audience, that allows everyone in the room to ride the wave of the piece together. I can hear the audience laugh at the parts that should (or shouldn’t) be humorous, I can feel the collective confusion or affirmation of moments in the performance, I can sense when the audience’s breathing changes—we all can.

On the other hand, more often than not, during feedback or talkbacks the information I am given from a particular audience is vastly mixed. Feedback participants need to know that the artist is in a very raw mental and emotional state. They have just shown their work—sometimes for the first time—and if they are not ready to receive general feedback, the comments made can indeed be detrimental to that artist’s process. For example, if the people giving feedback are not people I have personally gathered, whose opinions I truly value and whose tastes I understand (thus giving me an insight whether what they are responding to is genuine or simply playing into or against their aesthetic), sometimes the feedback reads as uneducated, uninformed, hurtful, or useless. And this goes for both positive and negative feedback. This is not always the case, but general audience members will speak to a moment I already know needs work, or they’re commenting on something that isn’t valuable at that particular stage in the process, or they praise something that suddenly locks that thing into place. I’ve participated in over a hundred talkbacks, both as artist and audience, and only a handful of those have been useful, practical, and poignant.

However, talkbacks are a now nearly ubiquitous part of the artistic process and can indeed be very helpful. And I, as an artist, will have to continue to participate in them. Different institutions have different models for these, and I have broken these into four models below. It is my hope that with the understanding of these models, the artists’ point of view, and how each of these can be helpful, we can all become better talkback participants.

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