DISCUSSION CHAIRS
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Guidelines for Discussion Chairs

All AWL members, regardless of professional status, are invited to put their names forward as possible discussion chairs. Note that discussion chairs are not admitted to meetings free of charge but are expected to pay the usual entrance fee. 

Effective Chairmanship Skills Essential

The role of discussion chair is a particularly challenging one. Poor discussion chairmanship attracts more negative feedback than any other AWL role.

Members invariably complain if:

  • the discussion chair expresses his/her views first, thereby prejudicing the discussion,
  • the writer or any other speaker is allowed to dominate the discussion,
  • the discussion chair fails to scan the room repeatedly looking for hands-up,
  • the contributions of the director and the actors are not duly recognised or
  • the discussion is allowed to over-run.

AWL insists that all would-be discussion chairs “sign up” to the following conditions and agree to abide by them. Any discussion chair who attracts more than the usual amount of criticism is unlikely to be asked again.

Facilitating Communication between Audience and Writer

The discussion chair’s role is essentially to ensure that the writer hears what the audience has to say. Accordingly, the discussion chair simply invites audience members to speak in turn:

  • encouraging members to temper their more negative comments with some positive, encouraging ones;
  • giving priority to those who have not already spoken in the course of the discussion;
  • tactfully cutting off long-winded, irrelevant and repetitive contributions;
  • ensuring that all members with a burning desire to speak have their chance to do so within the limited time available (usually fifteen minutes at the end of a full evening play or ten minutes for a shorter play).

Introductory Formalities

This central role leaves little time for anything else. However, the discussion chair must perform some simple formalities:

  • The writer must be invited onto the stage and introduced to the audience by name.
  • The director, actors and writer must be applauded for their work. (The writer may wish to do this.)
  • Any particularly important contribution by the casting directors (such as recovering from a last minute cancellation by a leading member of the cast) must be acknowledged.

 

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Managing the Writer's Contribution

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The discussion chair may invite the writer to say a few words about the play, for example to state the questions that the writer may hope to have answered in the course of the discussion.

Opening contributions by writers constitute a dangerous moment, however. The audience has already earned its turn to speak by listening to the writer’s words for the previous hour and a half, and many members view further lengthy contributions by the writer as a misuse of precious discussion time.

If you intend to ask the writer to speak, please observe the following guidelines:

  • The writer’s contribution should be no longer than the average audience contribution to the discussion.
  • The writer’s contribution should be written down and agreed with the discussion chair before the discussion begins.

Further contributions by the writer in the course of the discussion should be discouraged. Audience members’ specific requests for the writer’s comments must obviously be honoured. However:

  • The discussion chair must take great care to ensure that the writer’s responses are pithy and brief. The audience will not forgive any discussion chair who allows a writer to indulge his/her opinions.
  • Defensive or aggressive remarks by the writer must be quickly cut off. Some writers mistake honest criticism for attack, and instinctively fight back. Experience shows that the quality of discussion degenerates quickly if this is allowed to happen.

In short, the discussion chair should not be afraid to remind the writer if necessary that :

  • his/her role is simply to hear what is being said;
  • there will be an opportunity to discuss the point in greater detail afterwards;
  • the writer has complete discretion in deciding which points, if any, to accept and which to ignore.
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Keep Your Views to Yourself

Last but not least, the discussion chair must take great care not to abuse his/her position by making a disproportionate or prejudicial contribution to the discussion. For example:

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  • the whole discussion may be compromised by an opening speech in which the discussion chair praises or damns the play;
  • the audience will be irritated if the discussion chair appears to use the role as a platform for his/her own views.

The best advice of all, when you’re in the chair, is to keep your views entirely to yourself and concentrate on policing the discussion. This is particularly true at the beginning of a discussion when every audience member seems to be waiting for someone else to speak. Instead of filling the silence with your views, it is much better to ask a question that is specifically designed to get the discussion going.

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