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Catherine Love: Questions and answers

At their best, post-show discussions can illuminate our theatregoing experiences, so how do we enliven the Q&A format?

Mark Arends in 1984
© Tristram Kenton

Aside from sitting rapt in the stalls, having my little mind blown by something extraordinary I'm watching on stage, there are few things I enjoy more than hearing theatre makers talk eloquently and engagingly about what they do. I was reminded of that joy at the Almeida this weekend, listening to Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan intelligently dissect their creative choices in adapting 1984 for the stage. When done well, as in this instance, a post-show discussion can illuminate and expand the theatregoing experience.

So why is it that so often these discussions simply become a stilted, repetitive Q&A? This point was raised by one of my fellow audience members at the Almeida, who commented on what a rare delight that particular post-show discussion with Icke and Macmillan was. Inviting a dialogue between theatre makers and audiences should be about shared enthusiasm and curiosity (as we try to foster on WhatsOnStage Outings), yet all too frequently this dialogue falls flat. The same questions get asked, met by familiar responses.

On this specific occasion, it probably helped that the Q&A was framed within an event about adaptation, offering a distinct subject on which Icke and Macmillan could articulately riff. More often that's not the case, with everything up for grabs. I'm all for a bit of freedom and flexibility, but just as limitless choice invites indecision, an undirected discussion can end up going nowhere. People reach for the questions that jump most easily to mind - hence the repetition - or sit silently in their seats, scared of voicing the queries they really want answered.

This fear of speaking up without a clear framework can be hugely inhibiting, especially if you're worried about sounding uninformed or offending the people who have made the piece of theatre you've just seen. This is why the theatre club format, trialled by the Young Vic and now happening at theatres all over the country, is such a brilliant alternative. Like a book club, it offers an opportunity for theatregoers to get together and chat about what they have seen without the usual pressure of the post-show set up. Those who attend can also talk without censoring themselves for the sake of the theatre makers, who are barred from the discussion, instead encouraging an open and honest forum.

This is not to suggest that we all turn our backs on the post-show Q&A and permanently shut the makers out of our discussions. In an ideal world the theatre club and the post-show discussion would sit alongside one another, offering different but equally enriching ways to reflect on the theatre we see. But the post-show format needs to hold onto the excitement and creativity that propels both theatre makers and theatregoers, offering a space to explore curiosity rather than shut it off. Most of us who love theatre also love talking about it and listening to others talking about it; surely that shared passion can be directed into equally passionate conversations, leaving us all as fascinated and enthralled as I was at the Almeida.

Listen to WhatsOnStage's latest post-show discussion on The Weir and see what other events we have coming up.