In my ever-expanding quest to cover on these here Write All Nite pages EVERY show I see, productions from one of the most prominent off-Broadway theatres will always be left outside of this scope.
And omitting Playwrights Horizons from any discussion of New York City stages demands an explanation.
The short version: I somewhat work for them, proving an unavoidable conflict of interest.
Now, to unpack that “somewhat”:
Post-show talkbacks are a dime a dozen in the current theatrical landscape, from the biggest houses to the smallest, Playwrights Horizons included. Though they’re a godsend for those who wish to peak behind the curtain and ask the creators to definitively answer their burning questions, they too often focus on just that: peaking behind the curtain and definitive answers. These “process” questions hold some value, but they’re by no means the only way to engage with a piece of theatre. And usually, artists will be hesitant to provide any concrete enlightenment, believing their art should speak for itself, leaving it up to audiences to figure out their own interpretations of its meaning.
Or, should I say, meaningS.
And that’s where Playwrights Horizons, and myself, come in.
Last season, we started experimenting with what we’re calling PoP Talks. PoP stands for Perspectives on Playwriting, which generally describes what we’re after. Instead of providing a forum for audiences to directly query the artists — commonly forcing them to defend their work, turning them into representative spokespeople for it — a PoP Talk switches up who’s lobbing the Qs, and democratizes who holds the As.
Spoiler alert: there are none.
With traditional talkbacks, the audience remains in their seats after a performance, at which time they basically interview various members of the creative team, who are all sitting onstage. Since us theatre folk are obsessed with the positioning of bodies in space, us PoP Talkers feel that this spatial arrangement imparts an implicit power dynamic, an us vs. them relationship.
In PoP Talks, we are we; there is no us or them. We meet in the lobby after the show, convening in a circle of chairs on a level playing field. Two docents — I’m one of them! — host the subsequent dialogue. Since we’re not technically Playwrights Horizons employees — and, instead, just trusted members of the theatre community; I fooled them! — our unofficial affiliation casts us as just two more fellow audience members responding to the play. We’re not privy to any more information than what’s public knowledge, so we hold none of the keys people want talkbacks to reveal to them in their pursuit of total clarity, a concept smart artists shy away from revealing anyways.
Though PoP Talk is the official moniker, you can think of it as a TalkWith. This isn’t a Q+A; it’s a free-flowing conversation, a less-structured book club between a gaggle of new friends.
PoP Talks revel in the unanswerable. We’re not interested in how something comes together; we strive to dig deeper into the specific aspects of a play and production to discover, well, new Perspectives on Playwriting. We’re in the business of shared analysis, not direct lecture; we prefer to complicate, not reduce; challenge, not simplify. It’s a safe space to explore, communally, whatever the collected individuals so desire; no topic is out of bounds, be it a critical evaluation, a relevant theme, or a resonant design choice. Us docents might seem like the leaders of the discussion at times, but in actuality, we let the gathered determine the direction.
Needless to say, given this participation, it’d be difficult for me to fairly review a Playwrights Horizons spectacular. Does that stop me from recommending each and every one? Of course not! As much as I sound like a company man, I maintain that practically all of their output is worthy of some consideration, which is why generating discourse in our PoP Talks is so easy; there are always ample, even endless, layers to probe (thus the reason Playwrights Horizons has won six Pulitzer Prizes, an award that tends to recognize Important Plays wrestling with Important Issues).
This whole opportunity is a dream come true for me because A) I’ve loved Playwrights Horizons ever since it helped introduce me to the wild wonderful world of off-Broadway many moons ago, and B) I’ve long insisted that criticism needs to somewhat distance itself from the thumbs up/thumbs-down model, which is inherently-subjective and increasingly-worthless; who trusts the opinion of one person nowadays when accessing the aggregated thoughts of the masses has never been more convenient? Critics shouldn’t just be viewed, and view themselves, as taste-making arbiters of quality; we should enlighten art on its own terms, which is exactly what every PoP Talk aims to accomplish.
So come on down and visit a PoP Talk this season. Next up is The Thanksgiving Play, which boasts a synopsis that sounds ripe for our purposes. My session will take place after the conclusion of the 7:30pm performance on October 16, and other docents will be responsible for the ones on October 20 at 2pm and October 24 at 7:30pm.
If you can’t attend this round, no worries: another set are just around the corner for Noura, on December 4, after the matinee on December 8 (that’s mine!), and December 12.
If you can’t attend either of these rounds, not to fear: there will be three for every Playwrights Horizons production for the foreseeable future; dates can be found on each respective show’s performance calendar shortly before the start of their runs.
Come debate with us!