A Model for Postperformance
Discussion of New Plays
The process of developing a new play typically involves some form of public
reading of early drafts. For the most part, this is useful; the experience helps the
writer answer questions about plot, character, theme, emotional involvement—all
those elements that we take for granted when we ask, “Does the play work?” While
sometimes these answers come to writers during the performance, it’s become
standard procedure to host public discussion afterward and to let the audience express
its opinions. And this is where things start to go wrong.
Over the years, I have been involved in many such discussions in one of three
roles: writer, audience member, and facilitator. Some of these sessions have been
successful: the writer actually took away good ideas and came back later with a
better draft. However, others have been so counterproductive and sometimes so
painful that they derailed the writer; in one case, a promising writer was so
discouraged and destroyed by her talkback that she stopped writing altogether.
Because many theatres and universities are involved in new play development,
and because, as Head of Playwriting at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, I
am responsible for conducting them, I decided to develop a model for managing
these talkback sessions.
I began with my own experiences. Thinking back to those sessions that helped
me, I tried to recall why. Two factors quickly surfaced: how prepared I was for the
session, and how well the facilitator handled discussion. In the first case, I had to be
honest with myself: I sat through most discussions only because I felt I had to. For
one reason or another, the theatre held them: “The audiences like them”; “It’s part
of our grant requirements”; “It’s how the artistic director decides what he thinks of
the play.”) All I really wanted to hear was how brilliant the play was and whether or
not the theatre would produce it. I wasn’t there for development: I was there for
glory. But on those few occasions when development was the issue, when I had gone
into the reading hoping to learn two or three very specific things about the play,
when I had some actual questions in my head—these sessions paid off. It is crucial,
then, that the playwright is prepared to engage seriously with the play as a work in
Similarly, the facilitator must be prepared to direct the discussion. In my
experience, the facilitator usually hadn’t prepared for the reading, but simply pulled
from his drawer that musty set of stock questions that everybody uses: “What did
you like?”; “Who was the main character?”; “How can we help this writer?” I realized
that when the audience was asked these vague, conventional questions, they responded
with answers that were equally vague and ultimately useless. On those rare occasions
when the facilitator and I had spent time together looking for answers to specific
questions, the discussion was vastly improved.
Also, the best discussions were those in which the facilitator was in control
and not the audience. I recalled that every public discussion attracted what I call
“destroyers,” those long-winded, digressive, nit-picking nuisances who quickly derail
a session. I catalogued these types (I’ll say more about them later) and tried to
understand how the better facilitators managed to forestall them and keep the
discussion on track. Once again, it seemed to be a matter of preparing and asking
the right kinds of questions.
The next step was to investigate what my colleagues were doing. To that end, I
hosted a panel on this subject at the Mid-America Theater Conference in l998, and
again at ATHE in l999. I also distributed questionnaires to members of LMDA and
the playwrights’ focus group of ATHE. I hoped to find, among all these responses,
some common threads that might supplement my own conclusions.
Analyzing the reports and suggestions, I did find several recurrent ideas that
helped me develop a preliminary model. I looked at this draft as a playwright myself,
asking which of these ideas I would find most useful; then I refined the model into
a form that could be tested during our annual Playwrights’ Workshop in Carbondale.
During our summer program, we produce graduate theses and dissertation plays and
offer staged readings of full-length plays. All of the plays are works in progress and
are usually accompanied by a talkback session. After testing the approach and
receiving feedback from the playwrights, I developed the following Five Step Model,
which I offer as a guide for discussion leaders and teachers.
I. Prepare the Playwright Before the Reading
All writers bring a set of expectations to their readings, and most of the time
they’re the wrong ones. This is especially true with beginners; they usually expect
the reading to be as finished as a fully rehearsed performance and are disappointed
when it’s not. If an actor gives a bad line reading, misunderstands one of those
subtle Chekhovian moments, or mistimes a laugh, writers frequently become
discouraged and sit through the discussion in such an emotional funk that they
can’t possibly hear useful comments.
You can prevent this by meeting with the writers to talk about the characteristics
of an audience and teach them how to listen during the performance. Audience
behavior during the reading can often communicate more than any discussion follows.
I’ve learned there’s no better sign that the play is boring than hearing an audience
start to cough, rustle its programs, or shuffle in its seats. On the other hand, nothing
more effectively tells me that a scene is compelling than the sound of absolute
stillness. Make sure that the writers understand that, as individuals, people in an
audience may be right or may be wrong, but collectively an audience-as-audience is
never wrong. In order to make sure I register audience involvement, I make it a rule
to sit in the middle of the theatre, where I can sense the mood of the crowd.
In addition, it’s important to help the writers understand that people in public
groups behave in unique ways. Discuss whether the group will be made up of
professionals who use specialized language, or lay people whose opinions may be
less informed and who may not have the same vocabulary the writer does. The lay
public can’t always articulate points in helpful language; you cannot expect the
average audience member to state an opinion in terms of “the arc of a character’s
Furthermore, warn the writers about the destroyers who might show up. I
point out that, when people respond in a public forum, they’re not only talking,
they’re performing. Because this may be their chance to show off or to air some
personal grudge, their comments may have less to do with the play than with their
own agendas. I warn my students to watch out for some of these: the grandstander,
who seizes the floor and babbles incomplete thoughts and unfinished sentences,
quoting Brecht or Artaud, and saying nothing; the wannabe, who declares she
“doesn’t want to rewrite your play for you” and then goes on to tell you how you
should open the first act and what Aunt Sally should really say on page 14; the nitpicker,
who specializes in molehills, launching into great diatribes over the fact that
“Davey said ‘miles’ when he should have said ‘kilometers’”! Other destroyers are
equally bad: the abuser, who spares no punches in telling you how much he hates
your play and what a rotten writer you are; the fulsome praiser, who has nothing but
praise which—nice as it is—becomes useless; the contender, who always disagrees
with what the lady in the front row just said; and the sidetracker, who responds to
the play you didn’t write by explaining why it should end funny and Davey shouldn’t
kill himself after all.
If the writers learn how to ignore these showoffs, they won’t let them destroy
the discussion. When you’ve made this clear, help the writers determine specific
goals for the reading.
Here is where honesty pays off. Force them to confess if they really want
responses to the play, or if the reading is only a forum for getting strokes or
auditioning the play for the theatre. Sometimes compliments are enough; we all
need boosts in our self-esteem. If that’s the case, it’s probably best not to have a
discussion after all. I’ve been in that chair and discovered that there is no discussion
that’s all strokes: somebody will come up with something that could be improved.
If I’m going to have a discussion at all, I had better be prepared for it.
What goes into this preparation? First, determine what specific playwriting
problems need to be addressed and what indicators would be useful. Exactly what
do the playwrights want to know, and how will they determine how they know it?
Some things you’ll be able to find out during the reading itself. This past
summer, one of my writers had written a dark comedy and wasn’t sure if the audience
would understand that they could and should laugh; she needed to see if the audience
would accept her offbeat sense of humor. We decided she would listen for laughs. A
second writer was dealing with problems of overwriting and wanted to see just how
“fat” a play he could get away with. We decided he would listen for signs of rustling
and boredom, especially during scenes of exposition. A third had written a nonlinear
play and wanted to know if the audience would be able to follow the timeline. While
we could simply ask the audience later, we looked for indicators during the reading:
if the audience laughed at one particular line, it was because they understood a
reference that had been communicated earlier; if the audience seemed surprised at
another line (one which it was important they understand), it was because they had
not followed the flow from scene to scene and didn’t know how old the character
was supposed to be in this moment.
Some playwriting problems, however, are best addressed by the discussion that
follows the reading. Sound preparation involves compiling the right list of questions
Have the writers—not you—generate a list of detailed questions. This is crucial
because it forces the playwrights to stop and think seriously about the play. In order
to determine what they want to learn, the writers have to articulate what they’re
trying to achieve. It continues to surprise me how often writers don’t really know
what they’re doing—and not just beginners but experienced writers working in early
drafts. Often the writers have written in the white hot flush of creativity, putting
down what “feels good.” They’ll declare that the character is intriguing, or the
climactic scene “just seemed to write itself.” The pieces are there, but they don’t
come together as a play. Therefore, forcing the writers to analyze the work before
the reading often teaches them more about the play than the reading itself.
Is the plot clear? Are the characters interesting and consistent? Does the
structure support the story? Is the theme (if there is one at this stage) communicated?
Do the scenes hold the stage? Is the dialogue effective? While these are typical
concerns, each play has its unique problems, and the more time you spend identifying
what exactly these are, the better the discussion will be. This summer, one of my
writers was amazed to realize that the person she had been most interested in writing
about was not the protagonist after all but somebody who reacted to somebody
else. Having understood this herself, she watched through the reading to see whom
the audience most cared about. When their reaction meshed with her insight, she
was halfway through the next draft in her head.
Once these questions are written, they’ll probably need to be carefully edited.
After working with writers and field-testing this summer, I’ve created a list of “don’ts”
that I find useful:
1. Never ask opinion questions. You don’t want people’s subjective reaction to
the play; you want to test their understanding of it. Furthermore, when you ask,
“Did you like the ending?” what you’re really doing is making people experts on
endings and asking them to measure this ending against some unwritten standard of
what they think endings should be, standards which may have nothing to do with
the particular play. A woman once loved an ending of mine because she thought it
was funny; a man in the same crowd hated it because he found it too predictable; the
lead actor declared it was great because it was happy—or maybe it was only because
he had the curtain speech. That afternoon, I learned nothing—especially since I had
hoped the ending would leave the audience with a satisfied feeling that was as close
to tragic catharsis as I could get.
Instead of looking for opinion, help the writers define exactly what the ending
should accomplish and then find out if it does. In my case, the question that should
have been asked was, “What emotion did you feel at the ending?” (Notice I didn’t
say, “Did you feel a sense of satisfaction at the ending?” See number 3 below.)
2. Never ask if people “understood” something. Force the writers to decide instead
what it’s they want the audience to understand and then decide on the indicators
that will tell you whether they did. Instead of asking, “Did you understand why
Paul hid the money?” ask, “Why did Paul hide the money?” Simply put, if they get
the answer the writers wanted them to, they understood. If not, they didn’t. That’s
all you need to know.
3. Rephrase the questions to make them open-ended and content-related. Openended
questions, of course, lead to better discussions. Looking again at the question
about endings, I would have received a dead-end “yes” or “no” answer to “Did you
feel a sense of satisfaction at the ending?” However, asking, “What emotion did you
feel?” would allow for any number of answers—“sad,” “exhausted,” “nervous,”
“curious.” If many people had said, “Satisfied, like in a tragedy,” I would have known
I had succeeded; if nobody said anything like this, I would have known I had failed.
In either case, keeping the issue open might have taught me some surprising and
useful things. Imagine what I would have learned if everybody in the audience had
Content-related questions help focus the answers and are the most effective
way of forestalling the destroyers. Don’t give them a chance to raise their own issues:
keep them talking about yours.
Below are some further examples from the summer. In each case, the question
the writer created is followed by my rephrasings.
• Does the relationship between Michael and Gabriel work?
What kind of a relationship did Michael and Gabriel have? What issues
did you see as separating them? Bringing them together? How did it
change at the end? How would you describe it to somebody else?
• Did the flashback scenes seem to belong in the play or were they
useless? Is it better to leave them in or cut them?
What did you learn in the flashback scenes? What emotional effect did
this one particular scene have? How interested were you in any one or
more of them?
• Did you like the character of Caleb or did his personality annoy you?
What sort of man does Caleb appear to be? How would you describe
• Did you feel you were properly set up for the murder in act 2?
What was your reaction to the murder in act 2? When did you suspect
who the killer might be?
4. Avoid jargon, short cuts, and too obvious questions.
For example, don’t ask, “Whose play is it?” (When people ask this question of
me, I always say, “It’s my play; it has my name below the title.”) The real question
is, “Which character held your interest most and why?” or, “Which character seems
to be the driving force of this play?”
Don’t ask, “Does this work for you?” or any variation. Make the writers identify
precisely what they mean by that ubiquitous and useless word. I asked the creator of
Caleb what it meant to say the character “worked.” Did it mean the character should
be consistent, useful, funny, clear in his motivation? I asked another writer to clarify
in what way his first act curtain should “work.” Did it have to be suspenseful, offer
a surprise twist, encourage the audience to come back for more? Again, avoiding the
dead-end, closed question, I rephrased these questions as, “What interested you most
about this character?” and “What was your reaction to the first-act curtain?”
Don’t ask, “Was it boring?” Instead ask, “What scenes held your interest most?
Which scenes seemed less interesting than others?”
II. Prepare the Audience with a Precurtain Speech
It’s important to prepare the audience at the reading almost as carefully as you
prepare the writers before it. I always make sure the audience members know this is
a work in progress and that their input is going to be valuable; this makes them feel
a part of the event and encourages them to watch and listen actively. More
significantly, if the playwrights let me, I also clue the audience in on what the
playwrights are interested to learn and offer some specific things to watch for. This
summer I told the audience that the writers were curious to learn how the characters
were revealed, how clearly the story progressed, what surprises they encountered,
and where they felt the climax of the story might be. These signpost remarks are
almost like study guides for an exam; they focus viewers’ attention and make them
more informed respondents. (Sometimes the writers may prefer an unprepared
audience, one that’s closer to the real performance situation.)
III. After the Reading, Establish Discussion Ground Rules
A vital question to ask the writers beforehand is whether or not they want to
be visible during the discussion. The playwrights may or may not choose to be
introduced or sit near the facilitator. Depending on the personality of the writers
and their experiences, it’s sometimes better to let them leave the room altogether
and tape the session. Because these open sessions can be intimidating, the writers
have to be as comfortable as possible in order to benefit from them.
Before I begin the actual discussion, I lay down these rules:
The writer is not allowed to respond. S/he will not answer questions nor defend
choices. The fact that you don’t understand something tells the writer what s/
he needs to know. S/he’ll fix it in the next draft, and we invite you to come to
Please don’t try to rewrite the play for the writer. Therefore, “You should”
statements are not allowed. You can only use “I heard,” “I saw,” or similar
statements. The writer will take your reactions and do her own rewrites.
Along the same lines, please try to be descriptive, not judgmental; the writer
wants to know whether the play is communicating what she wants. Therefore,
“I liked” statements are also not allowed.
Please be concise as possible. The evening is not about you but about the play.
If you want to be onstage, please write your own play, and we’ll try to give you
your own reading.
IV. Remember These Guidelines during the Discussion
1. Begin with a broad-based, overall question that serves as an icebreaker: “What
was the evening about?” “What is the play trying to do?” “What seems to be the
most important thing about this play?” “What one word (verb) do you feel best
expresses your sense of this play and why?” If answers are slow to come, try focusing
on a more specific area: “How would you describe the story to a friend?” “What
character seemed the most interesting to you?” “What feeling were you left with at
2. Follow your prepared list to be sure you’ve covered the necessary points. Yet, if
something comes up that seems useful, be prepared to go with it. This summer, a
respondent was making an observation and by chance used the word “overwhelming.”
Knowing that the play dealt with some powerful emotions about parenting, I followed
up on her remark and asked her if she’d define what exactly she meant by
“overwhelming” and what in the play had made her feel that way. Others responded
to her comment, and this led the discussion into an area we hadn’t planned on:
whether the play was too graphic or not. Later, the writer told me it was perhaps
the most illuminating part of the evening, telling her that she had indeed struck an
important chord in her audience. (This, by the way, is another good reason for
meeting with the writers beforehand; you must have enough familiarity with the
writers and their work in order to make these lucky accidents useful.)
3. Turn audience questions around. Even though you’ve asked people not to,
they will ask things like, “Whose play is it?” or, “Why does it have to have a sad
ending?” Don’t let the writers enter into a debate; instead, ask the questioner how
he interpreted the moment (“What character do you find yourself most interested
in?” or, “What about the ending struck you as being sad?”), and let the playwrights
learn from that answer. When an audience member this summer asked the writer
how much research he had done on his play (about Lizzie Borden), I turned the
question around to ask, “Did anything in the play seem inconsistent or implausible?”
4. Deflate abusive comments. Hopefully, if you’ve asked content-related
questions, you can avoid emotionally charged responses. Many facilitators will argue
that their job is not to protect the playwrights, and that writers must develop thick
skins and learn to listen despite their emotions. Still, turning an attack (“The play
was just boring!”) into a question for discussion (“Where in the play did you begin
to lose interest?”) can serve the writers better than trying to restore confidence later.
5. Arrange a signal with the writers to let you know when it’s time to move to
another point. A gesture, a nod, or some other signal should tell you that the authors
have heard enough on this topic and are ready for the next. (Along this line, I have
always reserved for myself, as a writer, the right to stop the discussion myself if I
need to. I have only used this once; the response during the reading told me how
awful the play was. By the middle of act 2, I had decided to junk the project and saw
no need to waste time.)
6. If you’ve arranged it, allow the writers some time at the end to ask the audience
any further questions.
V. Conduct a Postdiscussion Follow-Up
This final step, like the first one, is too often skipped, but I think it might be
the most important one. I schedule a meeting with my writers as soon as they’ve
had time to recover from the tension and to reflect on what they’ve learned. That
meeting typically includes several steps.
I first ask what they learned about the script during the rehearsal process (if
there had been any): did the director and/or performers ask any questions or
encounter any problems that were significant? Sometimes an actor will raise a
question about a character’s motivation, or the director will have a problem staging
a transition or building to a climax. These are, ultimately, playwriting problems.
Then I ask what reactions they had to the reading itself. Were they pleased by what
they’d heard? Did the performances meet their expectations and what did they learn
from them? Did the audience response answer any questions they’d had? Did the
audience laugh where the writers had hoped it would?
We then discuss the responses to the specific questions that were raised during
the talkback. What did the writers find most useful? Most encouraging? What
confused them? What did they disagree with? I should note that when I use the term
“discuss” in this context, I really mean that I ask the question and listen to the
answer. I try to focus the writers’ self-analysis and then get out of the way. The only
times I offer a comment are in those situations in which I sense the writer might be
doing herself damage. Let me explain this.
By the time we get to the stage of a public reading, I’ve worked with the writers
long enough to have a sense of the play: why they are drawn to this material, why
it’s taken the shape it has, what they are trying to accomplish. However, the
information they receive from the reading is often confusing: the audience has reacted
to a small point in such a way that it suddenly becomes very significant, a minor
character is more interesting than originally thought, or an issue that was supposed
to mean one thing now seems to mean another. Because the writers may be vulnerable
at this stage, they find this new approach attractive, or find an old intent suddenly
“wrong” or “not working” in one way or another. It’s easy to start off the rewrite,
therefore, in a completely new—and sometimes wrong—direction. This summer, a
writer had created a minor character to add comic relief to the intense story of
euthanasia. The audience had found this character attractive, and the writer was
tempted to give him more jokes.
When I sense this coming, I stop the discussion and ask the writers to take me
back to the beginning of the process. I ask them to define for me what the play is
meant to be, to tell me again where it came from, and so forth. I ask if this is still
the play they want to write. If it is, I then ask the writers to tell me how going in
this new direction will help get closer to that play or whether it will lead to a
different play. If a new play is coming, is that the play they want to write, and why
has it changed? Asking the above writer these questions this summer, I helped her
see that she was in danger of shifting the tone of her play and letting this minor
character get out of hand. That is, she had a play that was funny, but she definitely
wasn’t writing a comedy.
The last part of this meeting is a bit more psychological than dramaturgical: I
ask the writers what plans they have for rewrites based on what’s been learned.
What’s the first thing they’ll do? How long will they let the play rest? What specific
new lines, scenes, or character insights will they work on? In the same way that
asking the writers to generate questions teaches them what the play’s about, this
last question focuses their thinking on the positive effects of the experience and
provides the motivation they need to send them back to the computer.
Finally, before we leave, I congratulate the playwrights on (once again)
successfully surviving a new play ordeal and wish them well on the rewrites.
The Next Step
After our Playwrights’ Workshop season ended, I asked my writers if this model
was useful to them, and how. I also sought feedback from my colleagues who had
been in the audiences (all of whom have had significant experience with talkback
sessions). Their responses revealed the following conclusions.
Forcing the playwrights to create discussion questions was clearly valuable.
Although all the writers—without fail—had initially balked at this task, each of
them privately told me they had learned good things from the process. In the case of
the nonlinear, Lizzie Borden play, the writer discovered a way to organize the events
into a more accessible pattern.
People in the audience appreciated the precurtain remarks, especially being
alerted to specific concerns. Most of them said it helped their enjoyment of the
event, making them feel “more important than just spectators.” One woman told
me that being “proactive” this way is “what makes theatre better than television.”
The writers also found the parts of the discussion that dealt with these particular
elements a bit more helpful than the parts dealing with areas that hadn’t been
mentioned in the precurtain speech.
Everyone thought the phrasing of the questions was effective. While several
respondents did express their personal likes and dislikes and offer suggestions for
rewrites, the general quality of the discussion seemed better. Two of my colleagues,
who had suffered through many sessions dominated by destroyers, commented on
how well they thought the questions kept the nuisances in check. Said one, “The
discussions were a whole lot shorter than usual because you kept things on track.”
Writers appreciated the follow-up, debriefing sessions, which helped them better
analyze the event and draw meaningful conclusions. The writer of the euthanasia
play decided that she wasn’t writing a comedy after all and avoided rewriting the
As of this writing, the playwrights have not yet completed their next drafts, so
it’s not possible to see how well the model actually influenced their rewrites; however,
it’s still possible to draw general conclusions and offer specific guidelines. Much of
the effectiveness of this model lies in those two elements that are often the least
used: extensive meetings with the writers both before and after the reading to prepare
and to debrief. These sessions should focus on identifying specific goals for the
reading and choosing key areas for discussion. In addition, preparing the audience
before the reading provides people with specific signposts. Finally, the most useful
device comes in the careful phrasing of questions: avoid opinion questions in favor
of content-related ones, offer open-ended rather than closed questions, and focus on
content rather than opinion.
Most talkback sessions are planned on the fly if they’re planned at all.
Facilitators are busy and it’s easy to rely on conventional questions and tricks.
However, it can take writers more than a year to create drafts that deserve a public
reading. Surely, if that reading is to be of any use at all, it deserves more thoughtful