Borrowing a Technique: What Dramaturgs Can Learn from Reporters

          I am currently taking a class called Writing for Magazines. In it, we are actively reporting, writing, and pitching our work to different news publications. Each week, our professor (Noah Isackson, contributing editor at Chicago Magazine) sends out a group of readings. In last week’s group was an article entitled “Fifty-Three Ways to Improve your Writing” (random fact: there was a study done among magazines that found that seemingly odd-ball numbers like fifty-three are more satisfying than rounded numbers, like fifty) by esteemed reporter Mike Sager (who has written for Esquire, among others). While reading the list, I realized that many of the tactics employed for reporting are also highly useful when thinking about post-show discussions.  Since I have my own post-show for Pinkalicious: The Musical this Thursday, I have taken many of the tips to heart. I have listed below the ones I find most useful, and have added my two cents in italics. Here is the list:

 

 

 

Fifty-Three Ways to Improve Your Reporting

 

Always arrive ten minutes early. I try to arrive during intermission if I am giving a post-show. This way, I get a feel for the audience: the type of people they are, how much energy they have, how big the audience is in general, etc.

 

You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. True for just about anything.

 

Apply the laws of dating. More on this later.

 

Look deeply into their eyes. Eye contact can be tricky down at DePaul’s Merle Reskin Theatre since it is so large, but it is still important to connect with whoever is speaking. They are sharing their ideas and thoughts, and they should be paid deep attention to. It is often easy to get distracted by everything that is going on, but your focus should be on who is speaking.

 

 

 

Be still and rapt. Do not fidget onstage, do not have grasshopper legs (when you change which foot you are putting your weight on over and over and over…), do not be afraid to stand on your own two feet. If you stand still, you are more likely to be perceived as an authority and, thereby, get the audience’s attention.

 

 

 

Respect your source, no matter how lowlife. You have no story without him or her. You must respect the responses of the audience, no matter how incongruous they are to your own. Instead of showing your opinion, ask the audience “does everyone agree with this? Does anyone have another point of view on the subject?”

 

 

 

Be aware of your own body language. See # 8. No one wants to listen to someone who looks like they would rather be anywhere else.

 

 

 

Employ the pregnant pause. Whether the rule is 5 seconds, 7 seconds or 11 seconds (all of which I have heard), do not be afraid to wait after asking a question until hands rise. It may take awhile. But trust that the answers will come.

 

 

 

Learn to listen on several levels at once. Creating a mental (or physical) map of ways the conversation might go is helpful. I know a director who will cross his fingers every time he has a note to give so that he will remember it. Also, during a post-show discussion it is important to keep track of the audience: is one person taking over the conversation? Does the lady in the pink suit look like she has something she’s dying to say? Is there something the lead actor’s cousin said in the beginning of the discussion that directly connects to what the lady in the pink suit said?

 

 

 

Treat everyone the same. You might want to hear what the young hipster sitting house left has to say, but the opinion of the elderly man center stage carries just as much weight.

 

 

 

It’s not about you (until the typing starts). The purpose of post-show discussions, as I currently understand it, has more to do with the audience than the dramaturg. Your purpose is to facilitate the discussion: you make sure that the audience speaks productively and thoughtfully about the themes of the play. A lot of talkbacks could be greatly improved if the dramaturg only spoke up when they absolutely had to. Plus, to me, listening to what the audience has to say is much more interesting and fulfilling to hear as the dramaturg, than the sound of my own voice.

 

 

 

Be easy to get along with. Don’t be pretentious. You may know an incomparable amount of information on the topic at hand, but if you can’t explain it in a way that will make sense to the general audience, then what good is it?

 

 

 

Don’t be one of those reporters who ask questions because they love the sound of their own voice. The answer is the thing that’s important. See # 17.

 

 

 

Give good foreplay, however limited the time. You talk first– explain, inform, charm, introduce tape recorder. Undress them slowly. Then ask questions. During the majority of our professional lives we are caught up in a world of ideas. The post-show discussion is one of the only times we get the chance to use our voices to explain our research. Cherish this.

 

 

 

Be yourself– only a little less so. Your reporter-self should be more humble than your writer-self, more of a wallflower than a star, more of a follower, a watcher, a true believer, someone willing to try on an idea and wear it around the room, just to see what it feels like. Be graceful. Be professional. Be patient and poised. Your relationship with the audience is somewhere between that with an old friend and that with your boyfriend’s grandmother.

 

 

 

Be present. Be in the moment. For the duration of the interview, it should feel like the universe consists only of you and your source.

 

 

 

Lay your groundwork before asking the tough question. This relates to #5. Don’t start out with your most difficult question unless you look out into the eyes of the audience and feel that it is the right choice. Sometimes a big, thematic question is just what an audience needs to be put in the mood to think. Often, a buffer question is needed. My favorite is to bring up one of the last moments of the play (usually the biggest, most dramatic, or most spectacular) and connect that thematically. What works best about this is that you can count on almost everyone remembering the moment since it just happened. Also, if you pick a clearly important moment (which you should for obvious reasons), then all of the smarty-pants audience members will be chomping at the bit to answer.

 

 

 

How you ask is very important. Don’t speak too fast. Choose your operative words carefully. No yes or no questions. Also, if the question is longer than the answer…rewrite the question. Be wary of pre-ordering your questions. You may think that your preconceived order makes the most sense, but when you get into the room you might have to fly by the seat of your pants. Relish in this, don’t be afraid of it.

 

 

 

Save the most offensive question for last. While it may not always be last, you should know which questions are the most offensive.

 

In natural conversation, people cut one another off. Don’t be afraid to cut off a long-winded answer by redirecting with another question. If one audience member (or actor) has been talking for too long, don’t be afraid to intervene. You are the facilitator. The conversation is for everyone, not just one person.

 

 

 

What is your objective: To catch them misspeaking or to reach a deeper understanding? Phrases like “you’re wrong” or “actually, the answer is…” serve no purpose.

 

 

 

When you’re finished your interview, don’t dress and leave so fast. Spend a little extra time on pillow talk with your source, even if you’re in a hurry. Don’t love ‘em and leave ‘em. After your talkback you may want to rush out of the theatre. But, if you stick around on the stage, there are usually audience members who will come up to you and either thank you or ask follow up questions. Sometimes these people can be infinitely valuable to your career, or they might simply brighten your day.

 

 

 

Reach forward and gather your things, but don’t turn off your tape recorder until you’re out the door. You often get something good during the more-relaxed chit-chat at the end. See # 51.

 

 

 

You can view the entire list here: http://www.czarjustice.com/fifty-three-ways-to-improve-your-reporting-2/

 

 

 

Article copyright Mike Sager. All rights reserved.

 Thank you for reading,

Brittany Jean Squier

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