Questioning the Q&A

imagesWhy are so many Q&A sessions around arts events so utterly pointless and/or grating? I rarely attend a talkback following a performance or other event which doesn’t feel stilted and where the line of questioning is fruitful. Post-event talks are so ubiquitous and yet yield such slim rewards.

Attending a particularly painful example of the format over the weekend prompts me to question whether it’s time for arts organizations to re-think the traditional Q&A, wherein artists and other relevant experts answer questions about their work fielded by some credible-ish journalist or administrator and the general public.

One of the main problems is the tone that’s set between the moderator, audience and artists. It’s usually ridiculously sycophantic, as the moderator and audience spend more time lavishing praise on the artists and trying to show off their own deep expertise than asking pithy questions.

The moderator is the first person to speak at these things, so he or she should be responsible for setting a smart tone. Unfortunately, the person who was charged with moderating the Q&A I attended committed both faux pas mentioned above.

Things got worse when the key artist at whom most of the questions were directed  — one of the country’s most well-respected theatre directors — palpably demonstrated her lack of patience with the moderator and her line of questioning. Instead of being polite and cordial, the director snapped, snorted and did everything she could to derail the proceedings.

For a bit, the scene was quite fun to watch. But after a while, I got bored and started feeling slightly queasy.

Following an inane question from a female audience member which was less a question than a breathless panegyric about how much she admired the director for being so successful and experimental and, gosh darn it, a woman to boot, I decided I couldn’t sit there a moment longer.

I fled, seeking momentary refuge in an adjacent room where a screening of a brilliantly weird and macabre animated narrative about a woman in an Arctic landscape who kills a walrus, guts it and climbs inside its skin, was being shown. The piece was part of a quintet of video artworks on display by artists Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg.

Perhaps arts organizations should give the time they would normally spend running these kinds of tedious exchanges over to ritually disemboweling a mammal on stage. A papier mache walrus will do. And I suspect  the thoughts that arise as a result of the experience would be way more profound than those that usually percolate.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. MWnyc says

    One of the main problems is the tone that’s set between the moderator, audience and artists. It’s usually ridiculously sycophantic, as the moderator and audience spend more time lavishing praise on the artists and trying to show off their own deep expertise than asking pithy questions.

    Boy, that‘s the truth.

    There’s a good reason for the lavishing-praise issue, though, and it may be a problem without a good solution.

    People on a panel or in a live Q&A interview sponsored by the presenting theater or organization – especially right after a performance, but at other times, too – won’t want to say anything that could be taken as critical of the performers or institution.

    Almost everyone would see it as rude, the panelists wouldn’t want to be the recipients of such treatment themselves, and they don’t want to offend anyone they might need to deal with later. And sometimes they just don’t want to be rude.

    Misunderstandings are simply part of human interaction, and it’s all too easy to stumble into them unwittingly. So panelists at these events have every incentive to say only nice things, however boring they may be to sit and listen to.

    As for audience members, the ones who turn up (or stick around) for discussions tend to be the ones who really liked the performance; sometimes, they just want to express their appreciation. (Serious thought about the implications of what they saw or heard may come later.)

    It’s certainly possible to have an interesting post-performance discussion, and we can always use more of them. But with these factors in play, it’s not easy to do, and we can’t be too surprised that it doesn’t happen more often.

  2. HA Beasley says

    Devil’s advocate: You have to come up with an “interactive component” of performance for funding reasons, as it’s specified by grantors. These grants are significant to your show budget, but the total is too small to pay your actors and creative staff or the rent for any additional separate events from performance dates and times. You thus have half-hour or less immediately preceding or following a performance to “interact”, and actors hate doing things right before performance as they’re preparing to go onstage. What do you do instead of a talk-back given those circumstances? The audience just reacting within minutes to live performance is unlikely to have anything profound to say. The artists just completing the work they really wanted to do aren’t going to fall over themselves to interact with an audience in addition to that work, particularly for harsh critique. And mammals are too expensive to purchase for disembowelling after every performance. Q&A’s will be with us as long as funders won’t be satisfied with performances as complete events in themselves. So: how could the Q&A be meaningfully improved?

    • Chloe Veltman says

      Good devil’s advocating! My knee-jerk response is that funders ought to know better. But I think if these are the real circumstances that organizations have to deal with, then more creativity regarding how to spend those extra minutes needs to be found. If it were left to me, I would probably engage audiences in a more creative act for 30 minutes — picking a key scene from a play for instance and collectively figuring out a way to stage it differently. Or using a mobile app from Smule or some other interesting company in that space so that everyone can collaborate on something musical inspired by the piece. Or…? I don’t know. Just brainstorming here. But the old formula as far as it goes is pretty pointless. The main point is to get the artists engaging with audiences in a more immediate and hopefully meaningful way.

    • MWnyc says

      Excellent point about grantors.

      I think one option is not to make the poor performers do the Q&A. Get the director and/or playwright, if possible. (There again, though, you have the potential problem of panelists keeping to anodyne statements so as not to inadvertently offend colleagues.) Or ask critics, professors or dramaturgs to be the panelists instead.

      • HA Beasley says

        One of the problems with “interactive components” is assuming that audiences want to participate “more deeply” in the first place. Plenty of audience members would like to see a play and perhaps discuss it in the car or over drinks afterwards with their show companions, rather than with total strangers. I wish grantors would know better, too, but it seems rare to support performances without add-ons these days.

        We’ve tried Q&A and panel discussions with academics, dramaturgs, and other creative folk instead of the actors, but even less audience members seem to stay for those because they don’t want to be “lectured” or “taught” about the play. I love the idea of re-staging a scene or a moment, or somehow engaging the audience members in rethinking what they’ve just seen, but that might be pretty tough in the limited time allowed…still, valuable food for thought.

        • MWnyc says

          Ah! So you’re commenting as a professional (someone who actually has to figure out what to do to get these grants)!

          I understand what you mean about the Q&A sessions and the people with whom audience members typically do (and don’t) want to share their experiences of a performance. And even I (generally quite an enthusiast) am not always inclined to stick around for Q&As afterwards either, especially on weeknights.

          HA, do you by chance read Engaging Matters, Doug Borwick’s blog here at ArtsJournal?

          It’s all about audience engagement – the various forms it can take (and maybe sometimes shouldn’t take). sometimes the blog can even provide some insight into why grantors often don’t feel that just giving the performance is enough. (“Give us money so we can pay ourselves to put on our show,” for instance, doesn’t go very far when you’ve got zillions of companies saying the same thing competing for a limited pool of funding – and, by itself, it doesn’t do much to get your audience to care enough to keep coming back, let alone to fight in your corner when things get really difficult.)

  3. says

    Sometimes those involved feel that any direct criticism of a work much less a tough, frank or blunt question undermines the scholarly and artistic enterprise and is the equivalent of heresy. While we should treat all artists with respect – assuming they take their own art seriously – we hurt their personal growth when we try to ingratiate ourselves to them.

    I love when a Q & A gets a bit heated, people start to squirm, for often that is when you hear the real insights.

  4. says

    Excellent points, all.

    The talkback Q&A sessions I’ve experienced have mainly been at the Cabrillo Music Festival, where the panel is moderated by conductor Marin Alsop (who has a quick, sly wit), and the evening’s composers. (Some composers, such as John Adams, are verbal virtuosos, others don’t enjoy trying to talk about their music or are simply not good at it.)

    As Ms. Veltman accurately points out, the artistic/educational value of these sessions is mostly pointless. They are, however, well attended. This leads me to believe that the event functions mainly not to enlighten but rather to break down the “fourth wall,” building the sense of community with the audience, which (at least in this festival context) usually includes many local supporters and “regulars.” Surely that’s a valuable element in audience retention and growth.

    One easy way to improve both this and all such Q&A sessions is to ask audience members to submit questions on index cards, and let either the moderator or an assistant pre-edit the questions, or even insert some made-up questions to insure a lively discussion.

    • MWnyc says

      “the event functions mainly not to enlighten but rather to break down the “fourth wall,” building the sense of community with the audience”

      Yes, exactly!

  5. says

    Beckett refused to ever speak about his works, except for technical issues involving their performance. Art is by nature open ended, metaphorical, and even ephemeral. If an artist spells out the meaning of her works, her metaphors are destroyed. The cycles of thought art should create are shut down, the magical transparency of the fourth wall plastered over with reductive explication. If Beckett had even hinted at who Godot is, the play would probably have fallen into oblivion. Art lives through its mysteries. If you need a Q&A, something is wrong with your work. Grantors who require them are ignorant.