The most important question to answer when you present your work in front of an audience is:
How was it for you?
Very often you will know what bits worked and which didn’t. You will be able to tell instantly how a scene went, whether the audience were with you or if they were restless; whether that comedy moment you worked on for ages made anyone laugh. You will know from their silences whether they were moved or just confused.
It’s important that you obtain feedback from your audience in some shape or form but what’s even more important is that you and your fellow performers reflect on your own experience and their comments and decide what action to take further. Don’t just present your show, get feedback and then carry on. Let the feedback sink in, decide what you will take and what you will ditch (yes, of course it’s ok to ignore some feedback) and then decide on how you will let it shape your piece.
You can use questionnaires to get audience feedback, but the most effective way of gauging what an audience has to say is by organising a discussion straight after they see your piece (a post-show discussion), or soon after. Don’t forget though to seek the opinion of those people who didn’t say anything during the group discussion, as they might well have very interesting things to say but didn’t really feel like talking in front of everyone else.
It’s important to gain feedback from others once you’ve got most of your piece down, let’s call it “work in progress”. As a group, you are creating something that you will become very familiar with. During rehearsals you will discuss the plot, characters, themes and therefore understand the piece regardless of what the piece turns out to be. You want to make sure that the audience takes something away from it without having all the information that you have used during rehearsals.
Before you begin…
Before you submit yourself to the interesting experience that is having people telling you what they think about your work (I use the word “interesting” because it describes a wide range of reactions: some people love having others telling them what they thought about their piece; others feel exposed; others just don’t care), you need to know what you want feedback on.
- What sections are you least sure of?
- What do you want your audience to feel/think?
- Do you want them to understand every single element of your story? How important is narrative?
- Do you want them to feel empathy for all/some of the characters?
- Do you want to hear their different interpretations?
Once audiences start telling you what they think about your piece, the discussion can go on forever, so it’s important to get the answers to the questions you might have as soon as possible. A good idea is to have one of you chair the discussion. You can start with “We’ve been thinking about the kind of things we’re struggling with and we’d be especially interested in knowing what you think of x, y and z; although we really value anything else you have to say we might not have thought of.”
Try and understand where people are coming from when they give you their opinion. Are they trying to tell you about the piece they would have created or do they really understand how to help you create your own piece? Remember that, in the end, you are the ones who need to be completely happy with what you create. Having said that, give full consideration to all comments as you might learn something from them just by reflecting on them.
Once audiences get going, they will provide you with contradictory comments (one person might say they really liked that the story was clear whereas others will say they would have liked a little bit of mystery to make them think harder. And if your discussion goes well, you will hear one people say, “I wasn’t sure about the last scene” followed by someone else saying “Oh, that was my favourite bit!”), so be prepared for this.
Listen to what makes sense to you as well as to those comments that take you completely by surprise. Above all, listen for common themes or recurring comments. If many people are agreeing on the fact that your character’s reaction came out of nowhere, there’s probably something that needs to be added early on in the piece. Or if nobody seems to be moved by the last scene, when you think it’s the most poignant bit in the piece, then you’ll need to address this.
Although I’m not a great fan of questionnaires, they do give a voice to every single member of the audience. They also allow you to look at what people have to say whenever you feel ready, and not just straight after the performance, when you’re likely to be tired or buzzing and not quite taking everything in. So do give some thought about whether you want to create some questionnaires for your audience. A good question to ask is always: “How would you describe this piece to a friend?”
Which reminds me: take notes (questionnaire – writing – taking notes…). Don’t rely on memory to remember all the feedback given. There will be things that slip your mind. Get a pen and paper out and scribble down what people are saying. If you’re getting feedback from your classmates or people you know, even initial who says what, in case you need clarification later. If someone says something of special interest, approach them later about it to get further thoughts.
I think that’s it from me. Obtaining audience feedback during the creation of your piece is essential. It will accelerate your devising process. In addition to evaluating what you already have, there is nothing like performing in front of an audience to make you work extra hard.