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Stage Talks Bring Audiences Together After ‘Disgraced’

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(L–R) Emily Swallow, Hari Dhillon, J Anthony Crane, and Karen Pittman in "Disgraced" at the Mark Taper Forum.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

According to Center Theatre Group (and playwright Ayad Akhtar) Disgraced is a play in one act. But for cast members, our Concierge staff, and hundreds of patrons every night of the play’s run at the Mark Taper Forum (which closes on July 17, 2017), a second act began after the curtain call. The post-show Stage Talks we have held after every performance have been hugely popular and offer a crucial opportunity for audiences to share their thoughts and emotions—and ask the cast questions—about the intense experience that is Disgraced.

“I think the post-show discussions are sort of like Act II of the play,” said Behzad Dabu, who plays Abe, the nephew of protagonist Amir. “The amount of people that stay, that engage, and that later come up to me and say that the discussion was enlightening is truly amazing. Literally hundreds of people during my time with the show have come up to me to share thoughts about how the discussion impacted them as much as the show did.”

Hari Dhillon, who plays Amir, and Emily Swallow, who plays his wife (also named Emily), agreed that they were happily surprised—and inspired—by the sheer number of people who choose to stay for the Stage Talks. “This play is meant to start a dialogue, and having such a dialogue in a group gives people the opportunity to see things about the play they might not have noticed from their own perspective,” said Swallow.

Added Dhillon, “It’s very interesting to see the intensity of intellectual and emotional engagement that the audience has with the piece and is willing to share.”

Most of the Stage Talks begin with the Concierge staff moderator asking remaining audience members, who often filled the lower level of the Taper, for first impressions, and what they are thinking and feeling right after the play. Responses have ranged from empathy and admiration to shock and dismay at the violence toward the end of Disgraced. Audience members also offered their analysis of the characters and their motivations, digging more deeply into lives, relationships, and histories beyond their onstage actions.

Then, cast members—more often than not all five of them—made their way back to the stage to participate in the discussion. “We often have people ask us what certain things in the play mean, but it’s more interesting to hear their impressions than to voice our own,” said Swallow. “I am moved by how many people identify with Amir in terms of trying to find themselves in the midst of all the ideas about what the world wants them to be.”

Audience members from a variety of backgrounds have found that Amir’s experience resonates with their own, including questions about identity and Americanness as well as religion and faith. They’ve also had autobiographical questions for the cast and about the playwright, including how much of the play comes from writer Ayad Akhtar’s personal experience. (“Almost none of it,” said Dhillon. “There was an instance where Ayad was at a dinner party, and he mentioned Islam and he felt the room shift against him, but that’s largely it.”)

There was a lot of curiosity about how the actors prepare and decompress for emotionally demanding roles. “There is an army of people offstage to help wipe off the spit at the end of that [argument] scene,” joked J Anthony Crane, who plays the art dealer Isaac. “Seriously though, it’s actually our job as actors to let these things go.”

In the wake of the Orlando shooting, which happened mid-run, an audience member asked the cast how current events change their perspective on the play.

“I don't think it changes the actors; it changes the audience’s experiences,” said Karen Pittman, who plays Jory. “I am looking forward to when this play becomes another immigrant play that fits into the American theatre canon.”

Ultimately, the Stage Talks created a completely unique space for everyone in the theatre to come together around a play of provocative ideas and raw feeling. Swallow said a friend who came to see the play pointed out the importance of such a space in a society that can feel polarized. “In our day-to-day lives, we don’t take the time to listen; we are intent on expressing our own passionate point of view and being heard,” said Swallow. “But having the discussion in a group setting gives people a chance to listen and absorb without needing a retort. I hope it encourages greater understanding.”

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