Talking Back

Well, the reading of Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews went well last night (you can read a bit about the play in my previous post). Our small invited audience of subscribers seemed very receptive and enthusiastic about the piece. We had the opportunity to chat informally with some of the audience members afterwards, and then to participate in a more formal talk back. The talk back in this instance was geared towards assessing whether or not this show would appeal to their subscribers in a future season. The literary manager kept it to three questions:

  1. What did you like about the play?
  2. What didn’t you like about the play?
  3. What questions do you have about the play?

The simple structure was actually quite revealing, and really seemed to highlight what this particular audience was taking away from hearing the play.

But, despite the simplicity of the questions, the first thing that struck me was how difficult it was for people to answer them directly. Everyone wanted to expand upon them, or talk about something different—an experience they had had, or a specific suggestion they had for our performances. Folks seemed to be brimming with things they wanted to discuss. Which I took as a good sign.

People enjoyed the tone of the play (its balance of humor and drama), the dialogue, the distinct voices of the characters. But overwhelmingly the thing that our audience found appealing was its applicability to their own lives. Everyone wanted to share how they had experienced the same thing when a family member died, or how they were struggling with the same issues with their son marrying a non Jew (they love her, but how would they preserve their family history?). Some people identified more with the sibling rivalry, others more with the preservation of culture, others with how to navigate their own sense of identity. But almost everyone who spoke articulated some way in which the play reflected their own lives. People had different ideas concerning what the play was fundamentally about, ideas that were no doubt shaped by the ways in which they identified with the material.

One woman wondered if the play should be made more generic (less about Judaism), so that it would appeal to a more “universal” audience. This was met with tremendous resistance by the rest of the audience. The statement was a bit on the offensive side, but I think the woman was just trying to find her own way in. I was glad it was met with such resistance though.

The questions people had tended to surround certain unspoken mysteries in the text. People wanted answers to these questions, but the conversation got interesting when the lit. manager turned it back on the audience, and asked how the audience interpreted these questions.

One thing I was nervous about was the fact that I was playing a role I would never be professionally cast as. I think because of the limited number of actors available to the theater, they asked blonde haired, green eyed me to play Daphna, the devoutly Jewish character. I have to say this made me a bit nervous and I wondered how the audience would respond to this casting. Surprisingly no one brought it up. In fact, many of the audience members requested that our specific cast come back and do the show next year. Interesting that this did not seem to matter to them in a play that was so much about the significance of one’s culture and heritage. I’m not sure if that is applicable to a larger conversation about “non traditional” casting. But it’s curious how it very much weighed on me, and seemed to concern no one else in the room

So what are the takeaways?

It was great fun to play a meaty role in a richly written and complex script in front of an audience it really spoke to. It was amazing how much people wanted to talk. How much they wanted to process what they play meant to them, and how many of their own experiences they were eager to share. How willing people were to share some rather personal stories. It was exciting to be in a room where a piece seemed to resonate with an audience so deeply—even if it was resonating in different ways for different individuals. It was exciting to feel how hungry they were for that. The play seemed to open everyone up. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to be in that room.

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