Thursday, October 20, 2016

How can we work more closely with the University of Iowa? How can we bring voices beyond those of the actors and directors into the conversation?

These were some of the questions that Sean Lewis, the new artistic director of Riverside Theatre, and Jennifer Holan, Riverside's Executive Director, asked the Obermann Center earlier this fall.

Opening Up the Talkback Model

Often, a talkback is a conversation among actors, directors, and audience that focuses on theatrical choices. This year's lineup of Riverside plays offers such a deep array of immediately relevant and tangible topics that Lewis wanted to expand upon model. Including the voices of University of Iowa scholars and artists offered one way to add a different kind of expertise to the topics, as well as to approach the event in a new way. 

"Theater talkbacks are often loose and un-moderated with a group of actors talking about theatrical process," says Lewis. "I am more interested in life application. When you see a great and challenging piece of theater, how can you apply or challenge its ideas in a meaningful way."

Unflinching Conversation

For this season, the Obermann Center is organizing and sponsoring one talkback for each play in the Riverside season. The first talkback followed a performance of Black and Blue in September. The play, which looks at issues of policing and race, was written by Lewis less than two months after Riverside lost the rights to another play dealing with the same issue. It was definitely a topic around which Lewis wanted an authentic conversation. Featuring Lisa Covington, a PhD candidate in sociology, and Gabriella Blanchard-Shreck, an officer with the University of Iowa Police Department, the conversation did not disappoint.

Lewis says that the Black and Blue talkback is still referenced by audience members "because it was very unflinching in bringing experts from the community who were at times in agreement of the play but sometimes antagonistic or frustrated by it."  This is exactly what Lewis hoped for, saying, "A talkback isn't supposed to just be a second period of applause for the creative team; it's also not a point where that team should just be attacked for their creative interests (ie. 'Why did you write this play?'). Instead it's a place where the core issues can be honestly and deeply wrestled with."

Political Farce Up Next

The next Obermann-sponsored talkback is scheduled for November 10 following the performance of The Taming. This political farce--while referencing Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew--places a conservative senatorial aide, a liberal political activist, and a newly-crowned Miss Georgia in a bar together. The smart comedy is intentionally placed at election time.

Focusing on women in politics, the talkback will feature Iowa Representative Mary Mascher and UI Student Government President Rachel Zuckerman. Both women have participated in the Iowa N.E.W. Leadership program, Mascher as a "den mother" and Zuckerman as a participant. Designed to empower women across the political spectrum and increase the participation of underrepresented groups in all sectors of public leadership, the N.E.W. Leadership program currently includes a network of 23 college and university campuses. The Iowa program is administered out of the University of Iowa's Women's Resource and Action Center, which has hosted the week-long residential institute every summer for the past ten years.

In conversation with Angie Toomsen, director of The Taming, the two women will share their experiences as women in politics, as well as reflecting on the play. To attend the talkback, contact the Riverside Theatre box office to purchase tickets for the November 10 performance.