DAVID RUSH
Writer
PROFESSIONAL ARTICLES

I have written articles, reviews, op-ed pieces and such for venues like PerformINK, The Loop, and others.  One of my most significant pieces is an article I wrote on the subject of how to conduct public talk back sessions after the reading of a new play.  The article first appeared in Theater Topics and was later reprinted in The Dramatist. I've included it here in the hope you may find it interesting and useful.  Please note that it is copyright protected.
 

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.Talking Back:

A Model for Postperformance

Discussion of New Plays

David Rush

 

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

progress.

 

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

journey.”

 

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

to ask.

 

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

said, “Boring.”

 

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

his personality?

 

• 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

that reading.

 

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

the end?”

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

wrong play.

 

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

preparation.

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