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.

an actor on stage
Sally Murphy in Steppenwolf Theatre's 2012 production of 
Time Stands Still. Photo by Michael Brosilow

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.  

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Thank you so much for this post! As a young dramaturg, I've found it a bit tricky to moderate effective post-show discussions and cultivate an atmosphere conducive to open discussion. Learned a few rules by trial and error, but I have never actually heard anyone discuss techniques or lay down guidelines for post-show moderators until now (aside from some very smart advice from Bryan Doerries of Outside the Wire). This list is truly fantastic. Also I really wish more theatres paid attention rule # 2--nothing kills a good discussion faster than questions about process, which I find many actors do not want to discuss in detail anyhow. Thanks again!

Great post Brant! Hear hear! I know that I joined the postshow talkback team at Steppenwolf later and was a part of it much more briefly than you have been, but I just wanted to add that while I was postshowing as an apprentice at Steppenwolf I was really impressed with the program that Joy Meads formalized during my time there. She trained me for the ENDGAME talkbacks and I really loved her methodology as well. She covered a lot of the things that you mentioned here. I know that Joy was partially inspired by techniques acquired from Lincoln Center Institute's Aesthetic Education which Hallie and the education department were using at the time. Might be another good resource for people to check out.

Great stuff Brant - thanks for all this. I've been running talk backs at Seven Devils for 11 years and I agree with everything (I have one tiny quibble - but I'll get to that.)

About education, what I took from rule number 4 is just that the talk back isn't an opportunity for us to educate the audience about they should have gotten from the piece, or what they could have gotten if they were smarter or more informed (as I like to say, it's an opportunity for us to educate them). Certainly someone from an education department could be the right person - it's a matter of skills as a facilitator, not a lecturer or teacher.

The thing about actors or other artists - to me - isn't a yes or no question. It depends on what the goal of the talk back is. As you point out, that is something that is often lost or left vague. At Seven Devils it's all about feed back for the playwright - so the artists aren't on stage. They are totally welcome in the conversation, they go and sit in the house. But we want - all of us, not just the audience - to remember who we are there for. If we were doing talk backs for some othe reason it might be totally appropriate to have them on stage. I think you have to decide what he point of the talk back is and make choices accordingly.

But here's the other thing - I have to say that those of us working on a play can talk to each other all day and night about the play (and do). The talk back is the one time when we get the audience in the room with us. I often find it odd when people get into it over wanting to be able to talk more at a talk back. Maybe is should be called a listen back?

My one quibble is in regard to the like/dislike comments. Often when I get one of these my response is "Why?" - that's where the real meat of the comment is. If the answer is "because I'm an optimistic" that is useless and I can movie on. But the if the answer is "because in act one she said a-b-c and then z happened," that is useful.

For me, these are the kind of situations allow everyone to think about how they are responding - and those who are struggling to figure out how to make sense of their reaction beyond like/dislike get a glimpse of how they might think a bit more about their own responses.

I'll end is seconding your comment about really listening to people when they talk. One tip - when I see a bunch of hands go up I'll often count off the next few people to talk, 1-2-3-4, so that I'm not looking ahead to other hands. Then I can really pay full attention to what is being said, rather than trying to listen and play traffic cop at the same time.

Again, thanks for these great and thoughtful guidelines!Jeni

Lots of great points and advice here, and very clearly put. Thank you, Brant.

I do question the repeated emphasis on artists involved in a production being kept out of the discussion of the work they've made. I understand that impulse, of course, since we've all either witnessed, or as artists experienced, members of the creative team creating a counter-productive atmosphere in a post-show discussion via their defensiveness, desire for praise, or mere presence. But the idea that the artists should not be involved in the public conversation of their work is absolutely counter-intuitive to me. It's their work! They are responsible for it, and should be held responsible for, among other things, their end of the discussion that comes of it. How else are artists AND audiences, both, going to learn how to respond to one another if not by putting themselves in a position to deal with each other? It's true that it's more personal, and difficult. Great! What an opportunity, this personal difficulty! Art that's personal and difficult is doing what art does best, after all.

If anyone, artist or audience, finds speaking to one another challenging, then, in a tough-love mood, I'd say, "Tough, get yourself a backbone and get out there." In a love-tough mood, I'd say, "Great! Read Brant Russell's Howlround post for some great pointers, ignore the part about artists avoiding audiences, then go for it! It won't kill yuh. And if you embrace it, it will make you stronger!"

Artists and audiences need to talk to one another. It can only make the art better.

Thank you for this. Great pointers, many of which are core principles I held true/dear as I led discussions for adult and student audiences at a number of theatres across DC for over a decade.

I love talking about theatre and hearing audiences' perspectives, but generally tend to dislike post-show discussions and don't stay for them unless I am facilitating or have supervised the facilitator because: they are universally way too long and unfocused. Appreciated that you addressed length, so I will touch on the focus. Not sure if this runs counter to some of your points, but I strongly believe there should be an objective or purpose to every discussion. Even if the goal is open exploration of the personal resonance of a play--that still allows for enabling constraints in which to have rich conversation. The job of the facilitator is then to, well, facilitator--to shape and guide the conversation toward deeper exploration and, hopefully, insightful discoveries. The facilitator should have a plan and bring a few starting questions to provoke and stimulate. I know I have gotten “in trouble” with audiences—and rightfully so—when an audience member/ artist/ guest speaker has gone wildly off-track and I have not redirected or even interjected.

(ps I have gotten in similar hot water when I dodged direct questions with “What do you think” and so frequently revert to an “I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours…you go first” approach.)

SORRY - TYPOGRAPHICAL ERROR

Thanks so much everyone - it was fun to write.

I want to reiterate that what I've laid out above is not necessarily a reflection of Steppenwolf's ideology. This is just a list of stuff I've learned over the years.

Sarah - Really good point. I guess I'm reluctant to put post-show discussions and education departments under the same banner because the former is a conversation between adults, whereas the latter usually deals with younger audiences.

I'd also be interested in other pointers or advice for leading post-show discussions that others might have.....

Thanks for reading.

Thanks so much everyone - it was fun to write.

I want to reiterate that what I've laid out above is not necessarily a reflection of Steppenwolf's ideology. This is just a list of stuff I've learned over the years.

Sarah - Really good point. I guess I'm reluctant to put post-show discussions and education departments under the same banner because the former is a conversation between adults, whereas the former usually deals with younger audiences.

I'd also be interested in other pointers or advice for leading post-show discussions that others might have.....

Thanks for reading.

Really GREAT article. A lot of what you've said resonates with me. I've long admired Steppenwolf's approach to post-show conversations and their value to a production. I have modeled a lot of the work I do based on their format. While I don't subscribe to EVERY tenet you've laid out, the general form, reasons for doing, and flow of conversation you've discussed have been very valuable to us in our work.

Thanks again for writing this.

Amen, brother. Particularly nos. 3, 4, and 7. But all very on point. Should be required reading for moderators--and actors, too.

This piece does a great job of summarizing the best of post-show discussions. Thank you! I take issue with your point about education departments not leading discussions, though. While post-show discussions should never be didactic, often education departments are in the best institutional position to model good facilitation, which is at the heart of the best post show discussions. Yes, include artistic and other staff, but look to the strengths of good facilitators, often in your education department, to create a template for a post show discussion that provides a satisfying experience for the audience.

I'm glad to see someone else tackling the difficult task of running good post-show discussions. So many people complain, playwrights particularly, but it doesn't have to be hard.

Thanks for the article.

I have found it very helpful to observe a true master of group discussion in action, and learn from him/her. My favorite is Michael Sandel in the 'Justice' series on PBS (available on YouTube), or his TED talk on 'The Lost Art of Democratic Debate'. He is able to lead 200 or so Harvard undergraduates in a discussion of the ethical issues surrounding hot button topics like gay marriage or affirmative action enrollment policies without pandemonium ensuing. One of his favorite tactics is to poll the audience when someone brings up a point - who agrees? who disagrees? - then state the position as clearly and concisely as he can in the form of a question, and invite members on both sides of the issue to state their reasons for agreeing or disagreeing. This style may not be for everyone, but it has certainly helped me in my own practice.

Great article and a very informative breakdown of what should happen during a post-show conversation. I agree, actors shouldn't wander in and I laughed out loud when you brought up the "How did you memorize all those lines" question, because I've never understood the reason for asking that (and I hear that in post show Q&A a lot).

I was lucky enough to catch a post-show conversation at Steppenwolf when they were doing Lisa D'Amour's 'Detroit' and it was the best post-show I've ever seen go down and the girl leading the conversation handled an argumentative audience member very well, while making sure that others got a real chance to talk about such a big topic as the American dream that I didn't know could happen among thirty strangers and not have to direct the dialogue back into a critique of the production.

I think the big problem I see it smaller theatre companies around the country is that they don't have an outside person on staff to lead a post-show discussion to this kind of extent. And it's almost always the director looking for validation, in my opinion. It might be nice to see some companies bring in volunteers from a local university to try their hand out at something like this. Would be a fun experiment.

This article did remind me of a time I heard Mac Wellman say, during a post-show discussion, that "the people that have something legitimate to say are the ones that leave right away and talk about it at the bar across the street".