What We Talk About When We Talk About Plays
How to lead post-show discussions for fun and profit
I’ve been leading post-show discussions at Steppenwolf Theatre for five years. When I started, it was a great way to insinuate myself into the Steppenwolf environment, and to try to be a regular presence at the theater. When I was in graduate school, leading discussions was a nice opportunity to come up for a brief breath while in the midst of building a toy theater or writing a paper. But I’ve been out of school for over a year now. And I’m less concerned about making myself a fixture in the Steppenwolf environment—I’m very happy doing the work around town that I do, and if an appropriate opportunity for collaboration comes up, I know that the powers that be have my phone number. And while the pay is good, it’s not a motivating factor (I am, after all, in theater).
So why do I keep doing this? I think it’s because leading post-show discussions at Steppenwolf has been a process of constant discovery. There are as many interpretations of a play as there are members in the audience, and those interpretations frequently surprise and invigorate me. And I enjoy leading discussions because in the rarified air of the post-performance theater, the audience and I hunt big game. In conversations about our current production, Time Stands Still, we talk a lot less about the cost of lofts in Greenpoint than we do about the role of photojournalists’ images in our thinking about America’s concurrent wars.
We are free to explore these issues because the somewhat heightened space of the theater after a performance is unique in that it is a leveler—by virtue of watching the same performance, every member of the audience is an expert. People seem to feel freer to discuss existentialism after a performance of Endgame than they might during lunch. There is no embarrassment or pretense, and there are no qualifications. And every single one of the opinions you have about the issues the play has brought up is valid because you, the audience, participated in the alchemy of performance.
It is my hope that every theater artist have the opportunity to have this kind of communion with theater-going audiences, and it is in this service that I offer these small lessons. If you find yourself leading post-show discussions, follow these rules. Or don’t: you’ll find your own way; audiences are usually pretty generous, even if they hated what they’ve just seen. In fact, these rules may reflect more about me than they may beat a path for you, but I hope this list helps you achieve some of the exhilaration and gratification that leading discussions has provided for me.
If you find yourself leading post-show discussions, follow these rules. Or don’t: you’ll find your own way; audiences are usually pretty generous, even if they hated what they’ve just seen.
I should note here that what follows are my personal opinions and do not reflect Steppenwolf’s philosophy. I’m going rogue.
RULE 1: Don’t lead a discussion for a play you’ve directed or produced. You will read into audience’s comments too much, and your stake in the performance may cause you to react to certain statements in ways are not conducive to discussion. Sometimes the audience will give you notes, and those notes probably come from a place of generosity, but you won’t (and shouldn’t) hear them because you’ll be defensive. You must moderate discussions from the point of view of the audience, not the other way round. (More on this later.) If you’re leading a discussion after a developmental reading or you’re looking for feedback after a preview, then do whatever you want. But if it’s just a discussion in the course of a production’s run, stay out of the room.
RULE 2: If you’re an actor in the production being discussed, and you want to come out for the discussion, please be aware that your presence affects the tone of the room far more than you know. You inadvertently change the kind of discussion that is possible. The audience wants to talk to you, and they want you to talk to them, and as a result they will ask questions that they don’t really care about (How did you memorize all those lines?). What’s more, the audience will hold back some of what they would otherwise express because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. I used to dread discussions in which an actor from the production would come out. I have a technique that I employ, and the presence of the actor would throw me. The best case scenario when an actor was onstage for a discussion was that the conversation turns into a moderated interview, and we would end up discussing what it was like to work with XYZ director, rather than the big questions the play asks. Some people are very good at conducting moderated interviews, and can do so such that the audience and the artist/s have a meaningful, revelatory discussion about the ideas to which the play points. I am not one of those people. But I am getting better at moderating discussions involving actors from the show. I try to partner with the actor to lead the discussion, rather than direct questions toward him or her. That way, everyone is participating in the same project. Plus: someone is doing half of your work for you.
RULE 3: You’re not an expert. You don’t know more about the nature of real love or about existentialism than the audience does, even if you think you do. This is not a lecture, it’s a discussion. The only thing you may know more about is details of this particular production—e.g., whether or not the playwright was in the rehearsal room, how the design process unfolded, etc. And when it comes to those details, don’t show your hand. Don’t lead off the conversation with why this production of Endgame didn’t include a curtain call. It’s far more likely that someone will ask a question about that within the context of discussion of another topic, and the inclusion of that question in that context will shed light on that topic. Plus, if you share details that exhibit knowledge of the production when asked rather than on an unsolicited basis, the audience will trust you more. Sharing these details up front or to lead of a new path of conversation conveys that you see yourself as a kind of expert. And you’re not an expert.
RULE 4: You’re not a teacher, either. You’re there to help, not to instruct. Post-show discussions ought not to fall under the auspices of the Education Department. There is nothing educative about the facilitator's role. You have nothing to teach the audience and to take a professorial or educative approach is presumptuous. Audiences that stay for post-discussions are savvy and well-seasoned playgoers, and you’re there to provide a service, not instruction.
RULE 5: Keep it short. You want to lead a discussion like an actor rides a laugh. You wait for the crest, and as the discussion starts to wane, you end it. You don’t want to cut it off too short, but you don’t want to sit there watching it die, either. In an ideal world, the audience will feel like there wasn’t time enough to get to all the questions the play has asked, and they will continue talking about the topics introduced in the discussion on their way out of the theater. You want to begin the conversation, not finish it. I try to keep my discussions under twenty minutes. If it seems like a lot of people still have questions or comments, I will sometimes stick around for a few minutes after I’ve ended the discussion to talk to people on a one-on-one basis. This is also a great opportunity for audience members to express to you what they didn’t feel comfortable expressing in front of the group. Just remember that the longer you stay there, the longer house management has to wait for you.
RULE 6: Ignore assholes. Occasionally, though not frequently, an audience member will make a comment that they feel is more valid than anyone else’s because they feel that they know more. And they will tell you why they know more (e.g., “I wrote my Master’s thesis on Beckett…”). Try to dig out the core of what they’re saying and turn it into a question and then pose it to the audience. Ignore their credentials. Do not ask them factual questions. They are not more qualified to speak about the performance we have all just witnessed than is anyone else.
RULE 7: Get out of the way. If audience members are engaged in an exchange, do not interrupt them to insist that it is you who gets to call on people. These are the kinds of conversations you’re trying to start. Plus, you’re getting paid not to do anything. Of course you’ll want to move on if their exchange becomes too heated or lengthy, but seriously, get out of the way.
RULE 8: Don’t try to be objective. That’s impossible. The way you lead the discussion and the questions you ask are founded in your interpretation, so don’t pretend you don’t have one. Ask the audience to challenge your interpretation and interrogate it—if you don’t present yourself as an expert, this won’t be a problem. Your interpretation may change or become more nuanced as a result of these discussions, since audience members will point things out that you missed. In fact, you will likely become humbled by the discoveries and interpretations of the audience, and your point of view on the play may well become unmoored. Did I mention that you shouldn’t lead these discussions if you’re the director?
RULE 9: If you really hate the production you’re discussing, just wait. I’ve found that if I lead enough conversations on a play, something will emerge that I will fall in love with. I have never liked a production less as a result of continued discussion.
RULE 10: Have fun. If you have fun, the audience has fun. If you’re uncomfortable being yourself in front of large groups of people, don’t lead discussions. The audience will know if you’re doing a kind of performance. You must enjoy a healthy debate. You must tolerate fools as well as you recognize profundity, though you will be asked to do the former far less frequently than the latter.
RULE 11: Here’s some miscellaneous, practical pointers.
- Don’t talk too much. Especially at the beginning. You don’t want to give the impression that you’ll be doing most of the talking. This is where I struggle the most. Theater excites me and I have a lot of big fat opinions.
- If someone asks you a yes or no question, give them a yes or no answer (or an “I don’t know”). People usually ask a yes or no question because the answer will help them explore a larger question.
- Make sure everyone feels heard. The best way to do this is to actually hear them. Listen and synthesize, and your job is pretty much done.
- When somebody asks you the question: “What was it supposed to mean when…,?” the answer is always “What did it mean to you?” There will be lots of opinions – let them flow.
- Like and Dislike statements are unhelpful and irrelevant. You’re there to discuss the big questions, and if people start talking about whether or not they “liked” a design choice, push them to connect their opinions to the big questions the play (and the design choice) poses.
- The audience will rise to the level of discussion that you set, so set the bar high. They want to participate and be heard, so they will find a way into the discussion.
I hope this list is helpful. Remember: if you’re ever stuck, ask questions about how the audience felt about something. How did the set make you feel when you walked into the theater? What did you feel when Hamlet performed the “To be or not to be” soliloquy with no pants on? Personal statements about feelings are inarguable, and getting at these basic feelings will start you on the path to larger questions. Hunt that big game and reap the rewards. And if you find yourself in a position to coordinate post-show discussions, hire people to lead them who are generous, inquisitive, and personable. And don’t fire them if they write prescriptive articles for internet publication.