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The Art of Teaching Theatre: Creating Vibrant Post-Performance Dialogues


The Young Audience Program matinee of "Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty" at the Ahmanson Theatre.

Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

For many audience members, Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, which plays the Mark Taper Forum through January 10, 2016, doesn’t end when the curtain falls. In fact, the moment the actors take their bows marks the beginning of an even deeper engagement with this play about the mystery of faith: it’s when the post-show discussion begins. Instead of leaving audiences to dissect the play on their own, Center Theatre Group’s concierge staff is leading conversations after select performances. Of course, it’s one thing to do this with paying ticket holders. It’s another to try to do it in a theatre classroom...

I know you all have a powerful urge to communicate. I know it. I see it.

—Pastor Paul in The Christians

Your students have thoroughly rehearsed their scenes and monologues. Now, the time has come for them to present the culmination of their work to their classmates. And it’s going to take quite a while to get through the performances of all 36 students.

How do we encourage our theatre students to be attentive, fully engaged audience members? How do we create an emotionally safe environment for the performers on stage? And how do we facilitate this process so that artists and audience members have a satisfying and meaningful experience?

Critical Response Process, a four-step method that nurtures the development of artistic works-in-progress through a facilitated dialogue between artists, peers, and audiences, can be helpful in this arena. It encourages student audience members to be good listeners, to cultivate critical thinking about the work presented in class, and to offer their views with sensitivity toward the artist on stage. It creates a positive environment for student artists to present their work and gives them opportunities to shape (or control) the feedback they receive.

Over 20 years ago, choreographer Liz Lerman, the founder and former artistic director of intergenerational dance company Dance Exchange, created this process because she wanted to “give and get better feedback about the work [she] was making as a choreographer.” Over time, she realized that Critical Response Process had value in other arenas. According to the Dance Exchange website:

The Process has been embraced by artmakers, educators, and administrators at theater companies, dance departments, orchestras, museums and more. The Process has deepened dialogue between artists and audiences; it has enhanced learning between teachers and students. By extension it has proven valuable for all kinds of creative endeavors, work situations, and collaborative relationships within and beyond the arts, from kindergartens to corporations.

Lerman also asks the question, “What makes good feedback?” and offers this response:

Good feedback is the kind that makes you want to go back to work. You cannot wait to get back into the studio. As opposed to feedback that may be highly positive, but that doesn’t make you want to work. Or that’s really negative and makes you feel terrible. I’m not so interested in that.

When it comes to theatre classrooms, Critical Response Process consists of three roles for participants:

Artist (performer, director, designer, playwright)
Responder (student audience member)
Facilitator (teacher)

Together, they go through four core steps:

1. Statements of Meaning: Responders express what was meaningful, evocative, interesting, exciting, or striking in the work they have just seen. For example: “It made me sad when your character was bullied in the scene.” “I really believed your character had won the lottery.” “What I saw on stage made me think of a situation in my own life.”

2. Artist as Questioner: The artist asks the responders questions about the work. Student performers might ask: “Did I project loudly and clearly enough?” “Did you believe that my character was angry at her sister?” “Did you understand what was happening in the scene?” “Is there another way I could have played that moment?

3. Neutral Questions: Responders ask neutral questions about the work, and then the artist responds. Questions are neutral when they do not have an opinion couched in them. Let’s say students were discussing the lighting of a scene. “Why was it so dark?” is a not a neutral question. “What idea guided your choices about lighting?” is.

4. Opinion Time: Responders state opinions—but only if the artist gives permission to do so. The responder may start out by saying, “I have an opinion about the costume that you chose to wear. Would you like to hear it?”

In Lerman’s words Critical Response Process is, “a simple process, with a lot of complexity buried in it.” It’s a place where you have “an opportunity to say everything you want to say, but to be patient about how and when you say it.” She adds that the tricky part is “figuring out when you’re going to say what, in the hopes that what you’re telling people, they’re going to actually hear, as opposed to a lot of feedback, which is great for the person giving it, but has nothing to do with the person who is on the receiving end.”

The arts, whatever they do, whenever they call us together, invite us to look at our fellow human being with generosity and curiosity.”

—Arts Administrator Ben Cameron

Theatre educators can tailor the process to meet the needs of their curriculum and classroom, and the age of their students, from kindergarten to college. Discussions may be short or long, and can take place at any point in the process of student work. So you might not wait until after students have performed their pieces but apply Critical Response Process during the rehearsal process. And dialogue can take place about any type of theatre work being created in class: improvisation, playwriting, design, etc.

For smooth implementation, offer students instruction before utilizing the approach.  Have participants write down their questions, observations, or opinions in graphic organizers or journals before the conversation begins. Once the teacher conducts a few rounds of discussion, students could alternate taking on the role of facilitator.

The characters in The Christians, which takes place on a megachurch pulpit, must step up to a microphone before they deliver any line of dialogue. “So much of the play is about announcing one’s thought process,” playwright Lucas Hnath explained in an interview about the play's structure. “The most dramatic decision is to say something.”

For students in a theatre classroom, the decision to speak can be very dramatic. They may feel extremely vulnerable when it comes to expressing their thinking about work they have witnessed or produced. Critical Response Process creates an emotionally safe and intellectually engaging environment where students are guided to develop their critical thinking and offer it in a compassionate and thoughtful manner.

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