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David Mamet Doesn’t Want to Hear From You. Do Other Playwrights?

Got something to say about a play? Not in the theater, please.

At least that’s what David Mamet insists. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright stipulated recently that no talkbacks could be held within two hours of a performance of any of his plays, specifying a box office-rattling $25,000 fine for each offense.

Talkbacks — in which artists associated with the production (and sometimes an outside expert) have a post-show dialogue with ticket-buyers — have become increasingly popular and are seen as a way of developing audiences and encouraging community engagement.

Some talkbacks are tedious, some are contentious, but others are lively, surprising, even moving. The New York Times spoke to several prominent playwrights about their experiences with after-show discussions and their reactions to Mr. Mamet’s ban. (Speaking through a press representative, Mr. Mamet himself declined to talk back.) These are excerpts from the conversations.

Do you like talkbacks?

I love them because they are difficult. If they were easy I wouldn’t find them as delightful and delicious.

Your most difficult one?

When people get up in your face and yell at you, call you names. My own personal journey has been: I’m going to make every question a great question and to see what I can find. Because being a black woman in America, anger and bitterness can crush you. Got to build up my talkback muscles.

Your best?

We were doing “Father Comes Home From the Wars.” This one woman, bless her heart, she said, “I saw ‘Topdog/ Underdog’ and this play is so much better. What happened?” Everyone got quiet. They thought “Uh oh.” I said, “Well, ma’am, I guess I improved.” Everybody burst out laughing.

Do you stay for other people’s?

Some people go to the theater on the nights when there are talkbacks. I’m not that organized with my calendar.

Do you have thoughts about Mr. Mamet’s prohibition?

I’m not big on adopting too many prohibitions. But Mr. Mamet has his reasons and that’s cool. He’s one of the big dogs.

Do you like talkbacks?

The thing that bothers me about talkbacks is that they often seem to work to dissipate dissonance. The audience wants the takeaway, but the whole point of a two-hour experience is to resist that kind of simplification. So I don’t love them, I don’t love doing them, but I do love being with audiences.

Your most difficult one?

The worst is me not being in my best frame of mind and taking a question like “Don’t you understand how difficult it is for us as Muslims in this country?” or “Why are you writing about this?” and responding to it defensively. That I regret.

Your best?

At “The Invisible Hand” a woman was deeply perplexed. She said, “I don’t understand what you’re trying to say about Adam Smith.” And I said, “What do you think I might be trying to say?” And she said, “Maybe what you’re saying is that the rise of global terror is part of the invisible hand that is moving the free market.” I hadn’t known that. She sort of revealed it.

Do you stay for other people’s?

When the spell has been cast well, I want to remain in the spell. I don’t want to see behind the curtains.

Do you have thoughts about Mr. Mamet’s prohibition?

I think every artist has the right to make those kinds of demands, but it’s not always in the best interests of the theater. We’re all in this together. It’s not artists against theaters. We need to be fighting shoulder to shoulder.

Do you like talkbacks?

I generally like them. You can feel a little naked, as the playwright, but people who have questions or comments probably feel a little naked too.

Your most difficult one?

It was at a first preview in Sydney, Australia. There was an older woman who seemed very, very unhappy and she really let loose. But if the worst of it is someone saying, “I didn’t like your play, I hated your play,” then the worst of it is really not so bad.

Your best?

At “Wakey, Wakey,” a woman said, “I don’t want to say that now I’m not afraid to die, but I’m much less afraid to die.”

Do you stay for other people’s?

I mostly do. We’re all together in the dark seeing and hearing this thing. Occasionally you continue that conversation. Maybe I’m just in a really good mood right now, but I have nothing but fondness for the whole idea, really.

Do you have thoughts about Mr. Mamet’s prohibition?

I don’t know that the market in plays is doing so well that it’s time to start limiting access.

Do you like talkbacks?

I am not a huge fan. Broadly speaking, theaters use talkbacks to protect the audience from uncomfortable feelings the play may have aroused.

Your most difficult experience?

The worst experiences are those where you feel the discussion sinking into a narcotizing morass of ideological reassurance.

Your best?

After my play “Where Do We Live,” an actor’s father criticized the play rather vigorously. Suddenly the theater was really alive.

Do you stay for other people’s?

Rarely. They’re usually so boring.

Do you have thoughts about Mr. Mamet’s prohibition?

I imagine he wouldn’t mind them if they let the plays shine in all their contradictions and complexity. I remember his saying that you know a play is good when people walk out of the theater talking not about the play, but about their lives. That’s the kind of talkback I’d like to see.

Do you like talkbacks?

I enjoy talkbacks. It’s a way to open up the theatrical process for an audience.

Your most difficult one?

My most painful talkbacks were in my 20s and 30s when someone in the theater company would say to an invited audience, “What didn’t work for you?”

Your best?

On “Indecent”: Having Dr. Ruth dance in the aisles with Tom Nelis. Finding relatives of Sholem Asch in the audience.

Do you stay for other people’s?

I do.

Do you have thoughts about Mr. Mamet’s prohibition?

In my opinion it is censorship. I believe that artists are public servants and the play belongs to the audience. If we are not in a place to have the conversation, we playwrights can let the discussion continue without us. Hopefully it will continue without us after we’ve left this Earth, right?

Do you like talkbacks?

I don’t. I think they can be just awful for the author. Fully half the comments are irrelevant. And some people want to say, “Well, I didn’t like it. I don’t like plays like this.”

Your most difficult one?

With “’night, Mother,” I learned not to respond to “How could she do that to her mother?” My answer was always, “This is not a question that I was trying to answer.”

Your best?

I wrote a play about trafficking. A woman in the audience knew that there were three houses on her block that were used for trafficking. This woman helped me convince the audience that I didn’t make all of this up.

Do you stay for other people’s?

No, I never go to talkbacks.

Do you have thoughts about Mr. Mamet’s prohibition?

I absolutely think he has the right to do it. He’s a guy with very strong opinions and this is one of them.

Do you like talkbacks?

In the early, formative stages of a play I think they can be useful, provided the playwright gets to pose questions to the audience and not vice versa.

Your most difficult one?

Early in my career, an incensed member of the audience stood up and proclaimed, “Well, it’s certainly not ‘The Scarlet Letter!’”

Your best?

After a preview of “I Am My Own Wife” at Playwrights Horizons a dashing young man asked a terribly smart question. We’ve been together for 15 years and married for eight.

Do you stay for other people’s?

Only if I know the playwright — to offer empathy and support.

Do you have thoughts about Mr. Mamet’s prohibition?

If he’s single, he should reconsider.

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