What Does the Audience Really Think?

Some of you may have read my blog last year that shared the many ways that adult devisors gathered feedback from their audiences. Recently I have been running a lot of devising workshops with IB Theatre students, and we have managed to add to and refine the ways that the adults did it!!! Below is what we managed to develop. Included in this blog are ideas from Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process, which you may be familiar with. Happy reading!!!

Colour etching of a theatre audience 18th–19th century.
Source: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Gathering and capturing audience response

When working on the creation of original work, as a small devising company, it is important that while you are developing your own approaches to developing theatre, you are also considering what your intention is (if your audience understands your story and what the characters are communicating i.e. the purpose of the piece) and also what your impact is (what you want your audience to think, feel or take away from the experience).

There are many ways to determine if you have achieved your intentions and intended impact, but it is important to be aware that what you ask and how you ask it is going to determine the depth and clarity of the audience’s responses. This document will explore some ways that devisors have gathered audience feedback to evaluate intention and impact on their audiences.

Before we start, let’s look at some advice from Liz Lerman in Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process. I have edited this document a little so that you have a chance to consider what type of response you would like from your audience.

Statements of meaning

Responders state what was meaningful, stimulating, surprising, evocative, memorable, interesting, exciting, striking, touching, challenging, compelling, delightful, different, and unique in the work they have just witnessed.

Philosophy: ‘…the Critical Response Process begins with the philosophy that meaning is at the heart of an artist’s work, and to start with meaning is to begin with the essence of the artistic act.’ –Liz Lerman

Tips:

  • Avoid stating opinions (though it is often difficult to avoid this).
  • Be specific.
  • Avoid using the word ‘like’ but keep it positive.
  • ‘Nothing is too small to notice.’

Examples:

  • I found the pacing of the play to be exciting.
  • I found character interactions evocative.
  • I found the stage pictures compelling.
  • I found the concept of the scenic design to be stimulating.
  • I found the sound design challenging, yet memorable.

Artist as questioner

The artist asks questions about the work. After each question, the responders answer. Responders may express opinions if they are in direct response to the question asked and do not contain suggestions for changes (also called ‘Fix-Its’).

Philosophy: ‘By having the artists ask questions first about the intent of their work, the respondents will be better able to frame the discussions around the needs of the artists. These questions are asked because they want to know.’ –Liz Lerman

Tips:

  • Give artists examples of possible questions.
  • Artist questions can be general or specific.
  • Artists should ask open-ended questions about specific things.

Examples:

  • We worked particularly hard on the way we expressed character objective throughout the play. What did you think of the clarity of the characters’ journeys?
  • We chose the colours of the costume design for very specific reasons. What was your interpretation of those choices?
  • We had the challenge of cutting down a three-hour play to 90 minutes. How effective do you think our cutting of the play was?

Neutral questions

Responders ask neutral questions about the work. The artist responds. Questions are neutral when they do not have an opinion couched in them. For example, if you are discussing the lighting of a scene, ‘Why was it so dark?’ is not a neutral question. ‘What ideas guided your choices about lighting?’ is.

Philosophy: ‘For many people, forming a neutral question is not only difficult, but a seemingly ridiculous task if criticism is the point…Often these are the very questions that the artist needs to hear.’ –Liz Lerman

Tips:

  • Practise creating questions to be sure your opinion is not evident.
  • Artists will learn more through a discussion than through a lecture.
  • Avoid questions that might cause defensiveness.
  • Ask questions that encourage reflection.

Examples:

  • If you were given another week of rehearsal, what would you work on?
  • What lesson do you want your audience to walk away with?
  • What did you do in rehearsal to develop your character?
  • What guided your decisions about hairstyles?

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Tried and tested ways to gather feedback:

  1. 3 words (written): Hand out post-its after the show and ask the audience to write down 3 things:
    1. One thing they remember, one thing that they heard, and one idea that were evoked.
    2. One thing that was said, one image that remains in their head, and one technical aspect that had an impact on them (lights, set etc.)
    3. One colour and its meaning, one object they remember and why, and one thing said by a character.
  2. 2 questions (spoken): The actors asked the audience 2 questions after the piece and asked volunteers to answer them. The questions were ‘What relationships did you observe?’ and ‘What resonated with you?’ – obviously, the questions will change depending on the intentions of the piece. Spoken answers were written down by the company. You may want one that focuses on intention and one that focuses on impact.
  3. The senses (filmed): After the performance, the actors came amongst the audience with cameras and filmed the audience completing the three sentences: ‘I saw…’, ‘I thought….’, ‘I wonder…’ This may lead to discussion with the audience or amongst the performers.
  4. Think, pair, share (spoken/physical): Think alone what you will take away from the piece, share this with a partner, share with another pair. Share one idea you all have in common & create a physical image to show this. Explain your image. Again this could be guided more.
  5. Create a pose or poses (practical & filmed): After the play has finished the audience members go and stand in the performance space and take up the position of the moment that had the most impact on them emotionally/a character line they remember/a gesture or facial expression that struck them. They take up the position and verbally explain why this resonated. This could be developed to a series of images & writing.
  6. One question (verbally/written): One question was asked before the play started, and the answer written down. Once the play was over the same question was asked, and this was written under the first answer. Papers were then collected. This could be done with different age groups or other groupings depending on what you want to analyze. Could also be filmed or spoken.
  7. One question (verbal/written): Once the piece is over what question do you have for a) one of the characters b) all the characters? Actors then answer the questions.

Once you have received your feedback (on work in progress or on completion of the work) then you need to consider the following:

Follow-up and follow-through

Artists then share with the responders what their next steps are in the development of their work. If this is a final performance, they can share a reflection of what they will be sure to focus on with their next project.

Philosophy: ‘Theatre is a living art, where we as artists grow with every new experience. To maximize this benefit, stating future goals guide us on that journey.’ Liz Lerman

Question to consider: based on what you’ve experienced in this conversation, what goals do you have for yourself in working on future projects?

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Some ideas taken from:

  • The TSM Activity 10 in Task 4: The Collaborative Project on the PRC 
  • Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process
  • Capturing the Audience Experience: A Handbook for the Theatre. TMA (Theatrical Management Association). The Society of London Theatre

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