Don’t Let This Happen to You

Creating Effective Post-Show Discussions

I recently witnessed a cringe-inducing post-show discussion. It was following the Off-Broadway matinee of a new play by a veteran playwright.

I should preface what I’m about to say with this disclaimer: Having recently published a book on the subject, when I watch or participate in a post-show discussion, I am filtering it through all the voices who have spoken to me, all the literature I’ve read, and my own experiences.

Quite frankly, this particular discussion had me crawling out of my skin. In the facilitator’s defense, no one really could have predicted what was going to happen. While some of what happened was unique to this particular event, I was reminded of how important structure and skillful facilitation is to post-show discussions, even when they are designed as an added-value benefit for the audience and not to provide a benefit to the artistic team or theatre.

The discussion started off with a breezy introduction from the facilitator who sat casually on the edge of the stage. He looked to be in his early twenties, while the majority of the audience was older. The facilitator moved into the interactive component by asking the audience to each think of a moment in the play that stayed with them. This is a standard opening question.

The first audience member to respond did not answer the question, but rather declared quite definitively a change she felt the playwright needed to make. The facilitator listened to the comment, repeated it for the whole audience, and then responded to it in defense of the playwright. The discussion continued with the facilitator taking moments from other audience members until the actors came out to join him. Questions were then directed from the audience to the actors.

Many hands were raised to ask questions of the actors. The audience member who had asked the first question began insistently raising her hand. She eventually moved from her house left seat to a center seat. One of the actors called on the woman, circumventing the facilitator. As the audience member asked her question, another audience member added to it. This enraged the first audience member who loudly berated the other person for interrupting while the audience gasped. The facilitator jumped in to calm things down. He asked the first audience member to repeat her question which was then answered. The discussion calmly continued while that audience member packed up her things and left.

While this is (hopefully) a pretty extreme example of what can go awry in a post-show discussion, it certainly got me thinking about my own cringe-worthy facilitation moments including the time I asked audience members to join me on stage—where I had set up a circle of chairs—for the post-show discussion and no one got up from their seats. Or the time I tried to gracefully and without causing too much embarrassment to him, stop an audience member from talking all about his own projects instead of contributing to the discussion about the reading he’d just seen. I’m sure anyone who has ever facilitated a post-show discussion has a collection of such moments. Thankfully, it is through such moments that we learn to hone our facilitating skills.  

Even though this was a unique situation, I wondered if there was anything this facilitator could have done to avoid what happened in this particular situation. Given structure of this discussion model, I believe he did the best he could, yet, I believe there were steps he could have taken at the beginning of the discussion, during the discussion, and even when planning the discussion that might have better helped serve this discussion and perhaps even avoided the disruption. These are steps that have helped improve my facilitation of post-show discussions. The following provides a snapshot gleaned from my research which includes insights from over a hundred theatre professionals. 

Although it’s easy to point the finger at the facilitator when a post-show discussion doesn’t go well, how we manage the overall structure and facilitation of the post-show from the planning stages through to their execution is the larger issue to address.

…the post-show discussion is often only contemplated near the end of a process, be it new play development or rehearsals for a full production. Instead, a post-show discussion should be integrated into the process from the very beginning. 

The poster for Proof
Proof, as presented by McCarter Theater Center, which hosted a series of sucessful post-show discussions. Photo by Culture Vultures. 

The first step in creating a post-show discussion is defining the goals of the discussion. I refer to this as establishing a foundation. This will involve aligning the discussion goals with the company’s mission as well as adjusting for where the play is in its development. Is the play still in process, in its premiere production, or a well-established play receiving another production? It is also important to know one’s audience when defining the goals. For example, a general public audience will respond much differently than a school group or theatre professionals. Although this may seem like common sense to define one’s goals, it’s an easy step to overlook. Unfortunately, the post-show discussion is often only contemplated near the end of a process, be it new play development or rehearsals for a full production. Instead, a post-show discussion should be integrated into the process from the very beginning.  

The second step is to then build the structure of the discussion. There are many factors to consider when one is structuring the post-show discussion, including: audience demographics, facilitator experience, playwright experience (for discussions done as part of the development process), how much time is available for the discussion, who will participate, where will it be held, and whether the format will be open (audience can ask any questions) or closed (audience is led through specific questions), or a hybrid format (some prepared questions, some opportunity for the audience to ask their own questions).

The most popular model still builds off of the Liz Lerman Critical Response, but that is not the only model available. As I discovered in my research, many companies create their own models. For new play development, I particularly appreciate the Five-Step Model offered by David Rush. Flexibility is important when building structure, so that there is a logical order to the event that allows the audience to easily participate, while also allowing the facilitator to adjust if a question goes in an unexpected, yet engaging, or otherwise useful direction.

The third step is to develop the questions to be used in the discussion. The general recommendation from both David Rush and many of the theatre professionals with whom I spoke or surveyed is to ask open-ended content related questions. To ask a general audience, “What did you like?” or “What character needed more development” may not generate the responses one wants. However, asking audience members questions such as: Where they were on the edge of their seats? With what character did they identify? What they will remember three weeks from now? Who did they care about? Or to ask them to simply describe the play, can elicit useful information and/or engender a lively conversation among audience members. As playwright, educator, and artistic director David White observes, it is more useful to ask audiences “how they felt rather than what they thought.”

When it comes to questions, and even structure, it is important to note there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Each facilitator must develop his or her own style of leading the discussion within the goals established by the company. A question that works wonders for one facilitator may fall completely flat with another one. Similarly, a structure that works for one facilitator may not work as well for another. The same is also true for audiences. One of my favorite ways of leading a discussion is to get the audience on stage actively participating in the process through physically responding to questions such as using the length of the stage as a barometer on which the audience will place themselves in relation to a given question. Not all audiences enjoy that, though—at least not yet. I am hopeful that as we, the creators of post-show discussions, strengthen our engagement with structuring and facilitating them, our discussion models will become more dynamic and engaging for all participants.    

The fourth and final step is putting all the pieces together and rehearsing them before the actual event. At Emerson College, Department of Performing Arts faculty member Robert Colby is able to do a dry-run of their post-show discussions. Not all companies, of course, have the luxury of doing so. Still, I am a firm believer in the old stage manager axiom of “think of whatever could go wrong and plan for it.” So when I plan a post-show discussion, I run through possible scenarios in my head and how I would manage them. This allows me both to become more comfortable with the structure of the discussion and to be flexible to make changes if I need to.

If working with a new or inexperienced facilitator, an additional training step should be included. This training will need to include helping the facilitator reframe questions and respond to audience members more interested in hearing themselves talk than actually collaborating in the discussion process.

This brings us back to the discussion scenario presented at the beginning of this article and dealing with problems in the facilitation process. Given the particular challenges posed by this one audience member and the interruption of the enthusiastic audience member, the facilitator did the best he could do. Still, there are things he can learn from the situation—as all savvy facilitators do when things go awry—that will help improve his facilitation skills.

Set clear guidelines. Let the audience know much time will be spent in the post-show discussion and that audience members will only be called on once. Another useful guideline is telling the audience that the facilitator might interrupt them and/or reframe their questions. Given that some audience members will speak quietly, a handheld microphone relieves the need for the facilitator to repeat audience questions. I also think a microphone reinforces the communal aspect of the discussion in that it ensures everyone can easily hear the audience member’s question from their own mouth, rather than repeated by the facilitator. It also lends an air of theatricality to the discussion that reminds audience members that we’re in a theatre, discussing a theatrical event. Most importantly, the facilitator needs to convey to the audience that they are not being asked to take on the role of theatre critic. Unfortunately, many audience members assume that is their task in the discussion. When I facilitate, I tell audiences that we are looking for their impressions and reactions, not a critique of the play.

Reframe questions. The first comment of a discussion sets the tone for the remainder of the discussion. This is why many facilitators ask for audience members to share images and moments that resonated with them to begin. This also builds on the audience’s sense of community with each other through having witnessed the same theatrical event and moves the discussion away from a critique of the play. If an audience member moves into a critical commentary, the facilitator might gently interrupt the audience member and say, “I’m so sorry, but I think you are referring to a note for the playwright who isn’t here. I’d love to chat with you afterwards so I can hear your comment, but right now I’m looking for moments that stayed with you.” (For a play still in development, I might reframe a critical comment as “So what you’re saying is, for you, that information about the character would have been helpful to know earlier. Can you say more about how it felt when you found out the information?” That information—the audience member’s visceral reaction to the character reveal—is useful to a playwright.)

In the event one is faced with an audience member reluctant to redirect, I would likely ask the audience member to stop and tell her that I needed to move on. In a worst case scenario, if the situation escalated, I would inform the audience that regrettably I needed to stop the post-show discussion, but would remain in the space so they could come and ask questions. While that may seem a harsh step to take, I am not willing to let one audience member undermine the experience for others and thus prevent the desired goal of the discussion from being met. 

That being said, if one too closely handles the audience, they may stop responding. If not handled gently and with grace, reframing or interrupting an audience member will be off-putting. However, I believe that a well-reframed question opens up more possibilities for discussion than letting someone potentially hijack a discussion by promoting their own agenda or by speaking to hear their own voice. The challenge is in making sure the audience sees the pay-off from the facilitator’s redirection. If the audience buys into the structure, including any redirecting and reframing, the discussion is more likely to be successful.

This is also why I recommend using strategies that do not ask audience members to be in the spotlight without support, such as having a quick sharing with one or two other audience members (known as “pair and share”) before opening up to large group discussion. As alluded to earlier, it is also possible to structure the post-show discussion in a way that circumvents the traditional question and answer format. A 2013 TYA/USA blog post I wrote includes a few of these ideas.   

Set limits for the discussion and then adhere to them. As a facilitator, it’s important to follow the planned structure, including the guidelines so that the audience knows what to expect and how best to participate. This is not to say the facilitator cannot be flexible or must maintain a slavish attention to certain rules. Rather, it’s about finding the best way to build on the community established when the audience saw the play together and provide an opportunity for all voices to be heard. For example, if an overly enthusiastic audience member tries to monopolize the discussion, I might interrupt and say, “I love the enthusiasm in the room, but I’m going to ask you to hold on to that thought until we’ve heard from other audience members so as to get some more voices in the room. If we run out of time, I will be sticking around after the discussion and am happy to respond to questions we don’t get to then.” On the other hand, if you ask a question and no one responds, you may be wishing for a chatty Cathy to jump in! One of the “aha” moments I had as a facilitator was recognizing that if I waited long enough, someone would respond to my question and that would prompt another response and so on. Relatedly, one has to learn to recognize from looking at the audience members’ faces if they are simply just processing the question (and screwing up their courage to speak up) or if the question needs to be reframed.

Post-show discussions are not easy to facilitate. Facilitators are juggling many different priorities all at once. Without a firm structure and adherence to it, discussions can easily get away from the facilitator and ultimately benefit no one. On the other hand, well-structured and skillfully presented post-show discussions build a stronger theatrical community and enhance the theatre-going experience for all participants. 

 

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Image attached: A well facilitated post-show discussion of Proof at McCarter Theatre Center. Photo by Matt Pilsner.

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Useful article and insights into post-play facilitation. Over the past 30 years I've had many opportunities to facilitate audience discussions for films and plays following performances at festivals and workshop productions and readings. This has created a treasure trove of anecdotal stories like this one you describe as "cringe-worthy." What I've learned is that particular audiences, specific communities (on the spectrum of other artists and through to just people who walk in off the street seeking entertainment to politically active and involved audiences seeking a public hearing) - they all have a unique dynamic and composition on the particular night that cannot be controlled. In a sense, that is a great thing about life as you never know what the unique dynamic will be coming out of a performance or screening of art. I've seen actors, writers, directors, and creatives involved in the process engage audience members, even hostile audience members, brilliantly and astutely in the exchange in the post-play discussion moves forward. I do think the audience has in their mind a fairness principle, that first and foremost wants to honor and engage a wide variety of voices and perspectives. If one voice or audience member seeks to dominate or shout down other voices that is a point for a moderator to intervene. One particularly poignant moment was in 1990 when Barbara Kopple's academy award winning film "American Dream" opened the Mpls/St. Paul International Film Festival, many members of the town of Austin, Minnesota felt they had considerable comment to make about the making of the film. As facilitators, we made sure there were buses that would bring them up to the premiere in downtown Minneapolis, that unionists on both sides of the issue, an historian, and witnesses from the stockyards, streets and factory, artists involved with its making were on hand to engage in a lively community discussion. Often a great community post-performance discussion has as much to do with turning the forum over to the community as controlling it. I look forward to reading your book.

Thank you for these thoughts! I find it's when we forget that audiences are not simply a collective hive mind, but a collection of individuals that we can get into trouble. By celebrating the uniqueness and perspective each audience member brings into the theatre, we really do enrich the theatrical experience for everyone.