The Ideal Post-Show Discussion

The other day on Twitter, Theater J asked what I instantly thought was a great series of questions, which I will paraphrase here:

What would your ideal post-show discussion look like? Where is it? Who is it with? What is it about?

My ideal post-show discussion would not, first and foremost, be a talk-back. It wouldn’t be a chance for the audience to ask questions of the artists who created the show. That paradigm, I hope everyone will agree, is played.

Instead, I’d make it a collective discussion, moderated not by anyone involved with the creation of the play, but by some member of the community who in some way speaks to or engages with whatever ideas or issues are raised by the story that’s being told: for a play about an arsonist, a firefighter; for a play about breast cancer, a breast cancer survivor.

During my ideal post-show discussion, everyone would sit wherever they heck they wanted to sit. In the house, on the stage, wherever. There would be no distinction between where artists and audiences sit, because there would be no distinction between how they participate in the discussion. No one would be presumed to have any particular expertise or lack thereof.

The discussion WOULD happen in the theater, though, if only because sitting among or near the objects that helped create the story would likely inspire a deeper engagement with the discussion. Think of them as totems or icons.

And yet, perhaps there would also be a designated space outside the theater at which a further, even more informal discussion might continue, somewhere from which everyone might get some distance from the story, some physical and emotional and intellectual perspective on it.

In my ideal post-show discussion, artists would be welcome to attend, but not required; they would, however, be so engaged with the material that they would choose to stay and participate as often as their lives would allow. At least one representative from the creative team would be present to speak for the story’s creation every time.

And yes, my ideal post-show discussion would happen every single night. (This, I realize, will be the hardest bit of my vision to swallow, though I know of a few theaters that already make this a standard practice.) To my mind, a play is only worth the effort required to put it on if the story it tells wrestles in some way with the issues that are living and breathing in a community. A theater is only of service to its community if it provides a venue for those discussions to live and breathe. One post-show discussion a run, or even two, is valiant, but isn’t enough to make that happen.

So my ideal post-show discussion would happen every night of a run, include as many members of the creative team as possible (though on a voluntary basis), occur both in the theater (with participants sitting wherever they like) and outside it, and be moderated by a community leader of some sort. But that’s not all.

I would also dedicate one person — a writer — to attend every single post-show discussion in the run. Someone who’s job would be to listen, to take notes, to find threads of the conversation, to think and ponder and research, and ultimately to write something that both represents and challenges the collective mind of the theater’s audience after the run of the show is over. If not a writer, then how about a painter? A photographer? A choreographer? A radio reporter? Somebody to create something.

Oh, and refreshments of one sort or another ought to be on offer, too. (Extra revenue for the theater? A way to make the discussion lighter and more engaging?)

That would be my ideal post-show discussion.

P.S. As long as people are staying after, it might also be nice to ask them what sort of stories they’d like to be told, then find a way to use that feedback during season planning. Just a thought.

10 thoughts on “The Ideal Post-Show Discussion”

  1. Why do theatres like post-show discussions so much (or at least like to talk about them)? Is it because they give the institutions a sense of community building? Does it make the audience/donors feels more connected to the work? What’s at the core of the desire to implement more post-show discussions, which is a desire that seems to come up at every theatre. Are audiences asking for more of them?

    I ask, because as an audience member–not as an artist, mind you–I really have very little desire to attend post-show discussions of any variety. After the play, I want to go to the bar and discuss what I’ve seen with my friends. I enjoy striking up conversations with the people around me at intermission, even if they’re strangers, but I’m interested in conversation that happens organically. Am I in the minority here? : )

    Love to you and that cute baby boy!


    1. I’m beginning to think that this is a “different strokes” situation. Some people prefer to discuss, some people don’t, and there isn’t a right way.

      Personally, I love the idea of them… which is to say, I would love to GO to the kind of post-show discussion I’ve just described. I have, however, rarely experienced that sort of talk as an audience member, much though I’ve looked. The closest I’ve come, for what it’s worth, is Active Cultures in MD. They do a lovely job, and they do it every night. (But they still put the actors/playwright/director/dramaturg on stage and leave the audience in the house, which creates — for me — a false separation.)

      As an artist, I like them in a different way… though of course I’ve had my groan-worthy moments. (Haven’t we all?)

      It’s interesting that you say you want to go to the bar and discuss with friends. I think that’s what most people prefer… but what I’m trying to create is the same thing IN the theater. What would happen, in other words, if the audience WAS your friends, or you treated them like friends, or you were at least familiar enough in some sense — because you’re part of the same community served by the theater — that there’s a common ground for conversation? That’s what I’m trying to imagine…

      Love to you and to Karl and to BOTH of your cute babies!



  2. I am with Catherine T. I don’t get the infatuation with going to a play, and then immediately having the people who created this imaginary world answer your every conceivable question about it. Meant to be chewed over on your own time. Something like 100 percent of the time, what came out of my students at GW in our classroom arguments over productions was more useful and enlightening than anything I’ve ever heard at a talkback, including the ones I’ve been asked to preside over…

    1. But I think we’re talking about different things here. A talkback isn’t what I have in mind. A talkback — the very premise of it — seems dead to me. The implication is that “the play has talked to me, now it’s my turn,” which is why we put the artists on stage to “speak for the play,” instead of letting the play speak for itself.

      The play can speak for itself just fine. What I want is to let the play inspire audience members to speak to one another. That’s what I’ve yet to *really* see put into practice.

  3. Marisela Trevino Orta

    First, I love “To my mind, a play is only worth the effort required to put it on if the
    story it tells wrestles in some way with the issues that are living and
    breathing in a community.”

    Second, the Twitter convo yesterday got me thinking that I know of 2 distinct types of talkbacks. A talkback after a staged reading, which is used by the playwright to further the play’s development and then a talkback after a produced play. I like your idea of using that second type of talkback to further delve into the subject the play discussed, rather than answer dramaturgical questions the audience might have. At a workshop production I had a few years ago we did that, we had a panel that discussed the immigration raids in CA (the play was inspired by such a raid).

    I do like the idea of a theatre feeling more like a community’s space. Not because we want to impress funders, but b/c we as artists crave more connection with our community. A lot of us get our inspiration from the community life around us, so to interact after a show, it becomes a cyclical process where we present and interact and get inspired. And for those artists who aspire to be engaged in a dialogue with their community, such a talkback would be wonderful.

    1. You and I are so often of one mind about so many things. Have you noticed that?

      I agree: the sort of “talk-back” that happens after a staged reading (or whenever a work is still in progress) is a very different thing entirely. Important, in its own way, but very different. The discussion you describe about the immigration raids sounds exactly like what I’m talking about — I wish I’d been there!

  4. I think what I’ve learned in doing discussions for many different theatres and types of performance (I’ve done 100s now) is that there is no one show fits all model. One of the things I’ve enjoyed as I’ve started doing discussions at STC are the variety of discussions we hold for each show. There are discussions for audience members who want to learn from experts and there are discussions for audiences who want to drive the conversation. There is no singular type of audience; different people need to connect in different ways.
    Beyond that, I think that just as every play requires an approach specific to the production, every play requires a new approach.  There should also be a “mission” for a discussion.  If you are holding a post-show or pre-show discussion then you should know why you are holding it, what you are trying to accomplish and how it relates to the experience of the production as a whole.

    1. I think this is definitely a case in which one size does not fit all. That’s why I tried to be careful (despite the title of my post) to talk about what would be MY ideal post-show discussion, rather than trying to establish some sort of Platonic ideal.

      I also think you’re right to note that different plays probably require different approaches, as almost certainly do different theaters. (Your current employer’s post-show discussions likely differ in significant, important ways from your previous employer’s post-show discussions, given both subject matter and audience demographics.) In general, though, I’m personally pro-discussion, however they look.

      1. Rachellyngrossman

        G and H: 
        Tossing in the additional thought that a live-discussion is not always the right/appropriate way to engage audiences before or after a show. We are sort of in a perfect storm (in a good way) with all our post-performance conversations in the theatre after CLYBOURNE PARK because they do stem from the play and the place it puts the audience. But conversations around other shows this season have taken place much more over email between patrons and the theatre or on FB or Twitter. 

        1. You are definitely in a perfect storm: you have the perfect play (and such a fascinating piece of work!) to inspire the kind of discussion I’m talking about.

          My best conversation about Clybourne Park, I must admit, happened (with Jamil Jude) on our cell phones while we were both running errands… weeks after we (separately) saw the play.

          In any event, I do agree that there are digital versions of what I’m talking about, and we should investigate those as well.

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