Updated: Sep 24, 2019
How getting audiences on their feet can deepen new play development
When I was the Artistic Director of New Leaf Theatre, my then-literary manager Josh Sobel and I began experimenting with how audiences for our Treehouse Reading series shared feedback on new plays. Our methodology drew heavily on teaching artist and storytelling process work I had learned from Amanda Delheimer and Megan Steilstra at 2nd Story (and damned if those women don't continue to inspire). During grad school, I largely put this feedback methodology to the side, but in the last few years, I've been revisiting, refining, and reintegrating this process into my new play development work and finding the Walkback, as I've started calling it, to be a positive and productive tool in my toolbox.
Recently, a colleague who'd been to a reading I directed that included this kind of feedback structure asked me for a primer on it so that he could use it for a reading he's directing. This made me wonder if other folks might be interested in using/adapting these strategies, too. This blog seems like a good place to put these thoughts in order to share them.
And if you, dear reader, do try this methodology out, I'd love to hear what you think.
How to Lead a Walkback
1. Introduce the Form Before the Event Starts
I recommend introducing the idea of the Walkback format - without explaining what it is - at the top of the event with your welcome and introductions. I usually say something like, "We're going to do something a little different for feedback - something I like to call a Walkback - after we hear this play" (and then I make a joke about how there's no need to be scared. But then I tend to try to diffuse tension with humor).
2. Getting Started
After the reading/sharing of material, I get folks together on their feet (as they're able - more about accessibility below) in as open a space as we can manage. Something about getting on your feet before you know what you're in for is often helpful and creates a bit of buzz in the room. This sometimes involves a group rearranging of the chairs, but that's usually pretty exciting for folks. Once we're standing together, I introduce the Walkback notion as a different way for folks to think about and respond to the play they've heard.
3. The Relief of Not Rewriting
Even if I'm not using a Walkback format, I like to start all feedback sessions for new plays like this: I ask the audience to relieve themselves of the burden of rewriting the playwright's play for them, usually by asking them to collectively take a moment to feel the weight of that task lifting from our shoulders - ah what a delight! - and a reminder that the writer is the expert on how to revise their play. The gift we can give them is in reflecting our experiences of what we've heard today. Then they get to decide what to do with that information.
Next, I explain that I'm going to be asking folks to respond to some questions by literally taking a stand - by putting their bodies at a point in space. For anyone with mobility issues, that person can stay where they are and then point to where in the room they'd put their body, and then it's up to the facilitator to keep eyes on them when inviting verbal response. I start with some easy, low-stakes warm-up examples: Imagine the floor is a now a continuum, a spectrum, with (pointing to one side of the room) THAT wall being "cat person" and (pointing to the other side of the room) THAT wall being "dog person" - now go to where you personally fit on the spectrum. The middle of that spectrum might be "I love both!" or "Horses!" - some of this is getting the audience to make meaning as a community. Make them solve outlier problems - don't give them another option. I'll do another spectrum question or two - keep it simple "Morning Person/Night Owl," "Coffee/Tea," or similar. If there's something simple that is thematically relevant, that's fun to use for these. Then I'll do one four-corner one: my go-to is favorite season, because you can also practice working on the diagonal (you tend to get people who like summer and winter or spring and fall - but you also have to tell them that it's not just corners, but the gradients in between that are up for grabs, too). With the four-corners/seasons, I open the floor to have someone tell us why they're standing where they're standing so that they can practice responding after they've put their body in space. I like to use the phrase that people are "invited but not obligated" to tell us about where they're standing. If someone articulates something that changes your mind/wins you to a point/sends you further away from their point of view, you're invited to change your physical position in response.
5. Crafting Questions
Once you've gotten folks warmed up to the notion of how they're going to be responding, it's time to dig into the specific information you're after. Even if no one says a word, they're giving you information just by putting their body in space - and this part of the process is, of course, deeply customizable. When choosing points in the room, I try to avoid more than 5 options if possible, just for clarity. And I try to make the initial ask something that can be responded to driven by a gut-feeling/impulse (and then, potentially, dug into once folks are sharing why they're standing where they're standing). For me, it's about getting a sense of where the writer's curiosity for this draft is alive, and then crafting spectrum-based questions that can lead us to reflective conversation (rather than prescriptive feedback) on those topics. It's the most exciting when the audience starts talking to each other and arguing on different characters' or events' behalfs.
I often like to start folks off with something like "what most drew you in: characters, story, issues/politics of the play, language/imagery in the writing?" with folks using the same geography as the seasons - so that you can triangulate if you'd like. Diagonals are super useful in this question.
If there is something germane to the play that's a little more esoteric, that can be a fun way to start or just before you wrap up. (This also helps you get a sense of who's in the room). I once used "I am a person who stays" on one wall vs. "I am a person who goes" and it was fascinating to watch people grapple with that having just seen a play that was thematically resonant with those poles.
Another multi-point sequence I find helpful is asking which character's team audience members were on. This allows you to get a sense of which character was most resonant, especially once we started hearing about why people were where they were. You can also use Teams (where you pick a spot based on a character) to assess where folks still have questions or - as I prefer to frame it - curiosity. This can keep people from jumping to asking questions in a more typical response-y way that can devolve real fast.
Interspersed with these spectrum question, I add things like:
As you go home and check in with the person you check in with about your day, how will you complete the sentence: "Today, I heard a great play about..." (this one I often ask after we've gone to which aspect of the play was most alive for us)
What are the specific images/moments/lines that are really alive to you?
What's the big idea from the play that you're going to put in your pocket to take out with you today? (this can be a good closing question)
I also tend to pepper in follow-up questions while folks are sharing, or ask someone to say more about something they share. Don't be afraid of letting a little silence into the discussion; sometimes the silence happens right before we drop into a deeper level of discussion.
What I find useful about all these questions is that they're all about information/response mining and tend to shut down the "well, actually..." crowd because there isn't a spot for those notions. And if someone tries to take the mic, it's vital that you stop them and remind them of the format the very first time it happens.
6. Keep It Moving
Like any good standing meeting, keep it contained and specific. This format is ideal for feedback that wants to be 30 minutes or less - and it's also useful for scenarios where there is time/space to continue the conversation after the formal feedback time is finished.