Info You Can Use: There Are No Dumb Questions, Just People Who Attract Them

Audience Engagement being something of a buzz word du jour, (yeah, I have used it a bunch of time here and am aware I am complicit), one of the easiest ways to make your audience and community feel involved with an event is to allow them to ask questions.

In the last two years, we have had some really good audience discussion sessions with our touring artists. Some of the questions and observations that have been made have blown my socks off. However, the greater part of my career experience has left me a little cynical about the experience. Most of the time the conversation and questions have bordered on the inane (and quite often jumped over the border.)

I often attributed it to people’s lack of familiarity and comfort with the material and attendance experience. Maybe they weren’t as savvy as I assumed.

However, according to a recent piece on HowlRound, the audience is plenty smart, the wrong people may have been involved in the discussion sessions. Brant Russell who leads the post-show discussions at Steppenwolf Theatre offers 11 (or so) rules for post-show discussions, writing:

“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….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…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…”

He has a similar rule about leading the discussion if you directed or produced the work because criticism will color the way you conduct the conversation.

My assumption has always been that people will want to have someone who has been involved with the artistic elements of the performance present at the discussion. While that certainly is the case, Russell’s observation that their presence will limit the scope of the conversation makes perfect sense. The audience is perfectly able to conduct a discussion in the absence of artistic personnel.

Most of his rules are to basically get out of the way of the conversation – Rule 3 – You are not an expert, Rule 4: You’re not a teacher, Rule 5: Keep it short, Rule 7: Get out of the way. Basically, you moderate an exploration of the production and keep it from being hijacked or waning, but otherwise let the discussion continue.

The one rule that intrigued me most was number 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.”

I like the idea that the audience can help those involved with the creation of the production to appreciate it more. We often think of an arts event as something we offer to audiences for their entertainment and education. Typically our end of the transaction involves receiving money and applause.

The idea that audiences can teach us something about our own work makes the exchange seem somehow more complete. Perhaps the next iteration of the intrinsic value of the arts survey should ask the arts organizations what things they learned from their audiences.

It is probably a good piece for leading discussions pretty much anywhere, including conference panel discussions and the like. If you are like me and feel you haven’t been thinking enough about how you could do the post-show discussion thing better, the article is definitely a good place to start.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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