Speaking Up

by Carlyn Aquiline,
Literary Manager and Dramaturg

For the past couple of weeks, Blackbird audiences have been talking—not during the show, but after, when City Theatre has hosted a number of post-show discussions. During the run of a Mainstage production, our usual norm is to have audience talk-backs after the second and third Sunday performances. These are a chance for the audience to meet the artists, most often the actors, in a forum where they can not only tell us their responses to the play and production but they can ask questions, both production-specific and more general, about the theatrical production and design process, acting, play development, a career in the theatre—whatever they’re interested in. We get the chance, too, to ask the audience about their interpretation of significant moments in the play and to discuss the issues and themes contained in the play. With Blackbird, however, artistic director Tracy Brigden and I anticipated that it would spark strong opinions and questions, a real desire and even a need among many audience members to talk after the show. So we planned a series of discussions for Blackbird with a few goals in mind: to give the audience a forum to explore the issues and themes in a highly complicated play in which the search for truth continues after the curtain has come down; to make the topic of sexual abuse less taboo by providing a more open discussion and honest examination of the issues and affects of abuse, hopefully leading to a greater understanding—rather than a further victimization—of abuse survivors (both female and male); to enhance and deepen the discussions by inviting the knowledge and insights of two local organizations who work with survivors and offenders—Pittsburgh Action Against Rape (the former) and the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime (both). (We knew we would also be grateful for the presence of the staff from these organizations in case there were audience members at the discussions who needed emotional support that we, professionally, are not qualified to provide, though we have not encountered that situation.)

Steve Pickering and Robin Abramson. Photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons.

So the post-show discussions after Blackbird have not been the usual talk-backs with the artists. Instead, Tracy or I have moderated with one or several guests from PAAR or CVVC and the conversation, rather than being a simple Q and A, has gone all ways—questions are directed from and to us and the PAAR and CVVC staff, and everyone is welcome to respond to anyone else. As we had anticipated, audience members want to talk afterwards—we’ve heard how the play has sparked shock, fear, anger, confusion. We’ve talked about abandonment, hiding and exposure, memory, the search for truth, moving forward (or not), having to live in your own mess. Audiences have told us what they think Una wanted from Ray—why she came back to confront him after 15 years; how they interpreted the fragmentation of the dialogue; what the play’s setting, especially the trash strewn about the stage, communicated to them; and how they interpreted the last few minutes of the play. They have struggled with the fact that they have believed and sympathized with Ray at times, while at other times they have thought Una to be complicit in her own suffering. They have asked about the reality of the U.S. court system, whether the PAAR counselors think it’s a good idea for a victim to confront an offender, and whether offenders can be cured or have enough services to support them in their rehabilitation. I’m the moderator for our usual Sunday talk-backs and I really enjoy speaking to our audiences about what they have seen, heard, and interpreted in what we’ve put onstage, what they are emotionally affected by. But these Blackbird discussions have been meaningful and important in a different way—by encouraging audience members to respond to the play, they have guided them to a discussion of some difficult issues that most people don’t want to talk about. For most people, the complexities of sexual abuse and its aftermath remain obscured in the shadows and misunderstood—we hope to have brought the discussion into the light. PAAR and CVVC have been generous partners in this outreach, and special thanks go to the staff who coordinated their participation and who participated in the actual discussions: at PAAR Julie Evans, Jayne Anderson, Jennifer Hill, Christie Hudson, Anita Mallinger, Larry Miller, David Perini, Jennifer Sims, Leah Vallone; and at CVVC LaVerne Baker-Hotep, Dawn Lehman, and Mary Volkar.

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