Friday, April 24, 2015

Ten Tips for Your Post-Show Discussion (from your audience member)

Pillsbury House + Theater Breaking Ice Series
One of the best things about theater is the opportunity to continue the discussion past the curtain call, whether through social media, sharing experiences and thoughts with other theatergoers, or via the more formal post-show discussion.

I LOVE a good post-show discussion. I love that it gives the audience members an opportunity to share the effect that the show had on them, and the questions they may have about the work and how it was created and performed. I always appreciate the investment in time that the company is willing to give to discussions like these--it shows a lovely generosity of spirit and willingness to actively engage.

A few theaters stand out for me for their consistently engaging, thoughtful post-show discussions: Pillsbury House Theater (such as their recent Death Tax discussions that focused on various aspects of the health care system), Penumbra Theatre (always engaging and thoughtful), Theater Latte Da (especially in the Next: New Musicals in the Making series and even the Guthrie Theater (where else could you chat with Mark Rylance and Tony Kushner?).
Students listen to live discussions about Penumbra Signature plays. Photo by Asha Shofner

Having said that, I'd like to present my dream list of what I, as an audience member, love to see in a post-show discussion.

1) It's All In The Timing. 
Give audience members who aren't interested in participating time to exit the theater, but not too much time. Wait too long to get the discussion started and you may lose engaged audience members who are tired of waiting.

2) Who Are You Again?
Introduce everyone who is participating in the discussion (on the theater side). Facilitators, company members, creative team, everybody. Please give us your full names and your role in the company or discussion. You may think we all know you, or don't care who you are, but we do. Knowing who is speaking lends much needed context to the discussion.

3) Why Are We Here? 
What is the intent behind your post-show discussion? Are you looking for compliments and comments? Do you want something deeper to help you mold and shape your production? Do you want to give audience members an opportunity to process what they saw and provide insight? How about providing insight into your process? Let us know the purpose of the post-show discussion, so we can do our part effectively. We want to be useful!

4) A Gentle Start. 
Occasionally, post-show discussions start with the facilitator simply asking for comments about the play. It can be hard for audience members to throw out their opinions immediately without having some sense of where the discussion is leading. Also, sometimes it takes us a bit of time to process what we're feeling and thinking and feel comfortable sharing. I love a discussion that starts with a little background from the company about the show and the creative process. It seems to spark effective discussion.

5) Speak Up! 
It's true that theater audiences are aging. If you have a microphone, use it. If you don't, repeat questions or statements that audience members say so everyone can hear it. You can do it! You've got those lovely classically-trained voices. (That said, I personally hate in any setting when someone in the last row complains they can't hear. Move up, man!) It's nice to encourage people to come to the front rows for the discussion--even shy and retiring theatergoers.

6) Get Involved. 
It doesn't hurt to make sure that your facilitator is prepared to lead the discussion totally on their own. Sometimes an audience just isn't responsive, or aren't prepared to discuss what we just saw. But they're interested! That's why they are staying for the discussion. Also, if you've gotten the entire cast to stay for the discussion, make sure they are involved as well. Often, it's just director and writer talking about the process. We love to hear from the actors as well.

7) Actively Listen. 
I understand there's a school of discussion that involves just listening to comments without responding in any way. I find this baffling and frustrating. Responding and building off comments and questions is the work of excellent facilitators and helps the discussion feel like more of a two-way street. Even if a question or comment is out of left field or unproductive (see number 8), it's nice to make sure the member knows that their comment was heard (see numbers 5 and 10).

8) Don't Be Delicate.
"Now for my favorite part of the show....What does that say? Talk to the audience! Ugghhh, this is always death..." -- Krusty the Clown, The Simpsons: I Love Lisa (4.15)
You've invited the audience for a discussion and you are directly inviting their comments. Try not to be too sensitive. You may not hear what you want to hear and you may get unexpected criticism but try to accept the comments with grace and an open heart.

I know! It's easy for me to say that. I didn't put my heart and soul and hours and hours of my time into creating a theatrical work only to have people criticize some tiny point about it. But remember, these people not only paid to come to your show, they are interested enough to stay afterwards and engage with you in a discussion. They mean well. (Usually.)

9) Keep It Short. 
Your audience has already invested a few hours in your theater, and has voluntarily offered to stay even longer. Everyone wants to feel that they are using their time productively. Letting the discussion drag on past a productive point is hard not only for us, but for your company. We want their time to be used effectively as well. If you keep the discussion short, you will leave us wanting more and pursuing these conversations in our own lives (and encouraging our friends and family to come to your show! Bonus!)

10) Appreciate It.
Nothing wrong with a few thank yous--on both sides. If, as audience members, we've been terribly moved by a production (I'm thinking specifically of These Old Shoes at Transatlantic Love Affair), it's wonderful to have the opportunity to thank the company for their work and give them some props. And we like to be thanked too, for our comments and time. We love feeling that we've contributed in some way (apart from the time, money and attention that we've already willingly and joyfully invested.)

So once more ... on behalf of your audience members, thank you to all the theaters who invest time, energy, passion and thought in these post-show discussions. Thank you for including us and giving us the opportunity to make theater a two-way street.

Image from