Lately, I’ve been questioning my assumption that post-show discussions (PSD) are vital to new play development. So I recently surveyed and interviewed theatre professionals about them. The results revealed a wealth of information about structure and facilitation in the use and understanding of PSDs.
When I am facilitating a PSD, I use the curtain speech to invite the audience to stay for it. I assure them we will not ask them to be critics, but merely offer their reactions. After the reading, I repeat my invitation while handing out feedback forms. After 2-4 minutes (any longer and they leave), I invite folks down to the front of the house. I review the ground rules. I tell them I have questions I can ask, but I want to make sure their voices are heard, as I utilize an open structure. I inform them the playwright has the right not to answer a question and I may even stop him from answering a question. I then ask a question of the playwright (sometimes one to the director and/or actors, if appropriate) to help the audience understand the development process as well as to role model question asking. Then, I open to audience questions. When needed, I jump in to clarify or reframe a question. When our time is up or I sense the playwright or audience is tired, I stop the discussion, even if there are hands still up. I inform folks they can ask me more questions before they leave or email them to me.
In creating the structure of any PSD, once the foundational structure is determined, the facilitator has to weigh a number of factors before modifying that structure. This includes knowing the playwright, facilitator, audience demographics, and the script itself. For example, is the playwright a novice who has no experience in receiving audience feedback or a veteran who is seasoned in doing so?
In determining structure, perhaps the biggest challenge is rethinking the ubiquitous discussion format. In TYA, we are often dealing with a wide audience variety including theatre professionals, families, and youth. Thus a discussion-focused structure may not allow all those voices to be heard. As one survey respondent noted, “Adolescents are generally reluctant to start to give feedback–they look for direction before diving in. Very young audiences and the college-age-and-up crowd generally jump right into it.” Theatre professionals, especially artistic directors and producers, may focus too much on what they would do with the play, turning the reading and discussion into an audition.
How can we modify the traditional discussion format? The following are a sampling of strategies being used.
- Pair and Share: Educator and director Robert Colby has audience members respond to questions about the theme or content of the play with a partner before sharing with the larger group. This strategy lets a playwright hear the audiences’ reactions as well as gives less-outspoken audience members a chance to be heard.
- Role Play/Hotseating: Colby also employs this strategy to facilitate interaction between the audience and the actors in role as their characters from the play.
- Use observations of the audience: For example, “I noticed when (character) left abruptly in the second scene, almost everyone leaned forward. What were you reacting to in that moment?” This models the type of response sought and helps remind audience members of their visceral reactions to the reading.
- Plant a question during the curtain speech: embedding a question into the audience’s minds that relates to the theme or another aspect of the play helps focus their attention during the reading.
- Embed the discussion within the play: For example, if a playwright is uncertain if the story is progressing the way she thinks it should, having the characters speak directly to the audience and solicit where they think the story will or should go next, can help the playwright see if the story is working as envisioned.
In addition to altering the structure, there are alternatives to the PSD entirely. Those include informal gatherings, online or social media feedback, casual conversations, focus groups, and connecting the playwright to a classroom of target youth who see a rehearsal and/or reading and offer their observations in their classroom or separate from other audience members.
This was just a sampling of the information gathered during my research. But one question that comes even from this brief sharing is “Should we throw out post-show discussions?” In some cases, that might be appropriate. But I believe that would be akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. With a concerted effort to shore up and expand how we structure these discussions, with more training of facilitators, and clarity on the purpose of these discussions, I believe they can be successful in helping playwrights or, alternatively, be used to successfully cultivate stronger audiences.