After the show opens: the post-mortem

A post-mortem (in our case) is a meeting of the production team, after the show opens, to go over how things went and what can be learned from it. It’s also a way to formally “close out” the project for the team.

Although the term “post-mortem” is in common use in theatre (just like the term “punch list” in architecture), I’m not sure I agree with it just because of its usual connotation. To most of us who watch TV and movies, a post-mortem is a medical examination to find out why a person died, so we tend to think of it in terms of “what went wrong.” In other words, it’s all about “the past.” The fact that autopsy results are often used in research, to better understand how the body works and what we can do about it, is lost on most of us. In other words, there is also a “future” component to autopsies.

It can work the same way in theatre. A post-mortem can be just a kvetching session, where the focus is on finding out what went wrong and who was responsible. Or it can be a learning experience, where the focus is on what went right (and therefore should be done again), as well as on what didn’t go right, and why, and what we can do about it. We can learn just as much — and sometimes more — from what went right as we can from what went wrong.

I’ve worked with companies that always had a post-mortem and others that didn’t always have them. One or two companies even felt (although they didn’t come out and say so) that post-mortems weren’t “politically correct,” as previous ones had just turned into finger-pointing sessions. Like many other things, having post-mortems or not (and whether they are effective or not) is part of the company culture, which is driven by the company leadership.

Incidentally, I’ve found that most meetings can be more productive, and shorter, if the moderator spends maybe thirty seconds going over the agenda right up front, so everyone knows what’s coming. This is especially useful when new team members (i.e., outside designers or directors) are at the table.

Like I said in A Quick Guide to Production Meetings, the best meetings I’ve attended had three things in common, and post-mortems are no exception. They were the same three things I listed there: they were scheduled, there was an agenda, and they were short and to the point. We can even use the same agenda, with a slightly different focus. For instance:

  • Producer: was the show a success, how were attendance and receipts, what did the critics think, did the show stay on budget.
  • Director: how were the actors, was there sufficient rehearsal time, did the set/lights/costumes/props work out.
  • Technical director: was the budget realistic, was there enough time, was there enough crew, were the facilities and tools adequate, were shop drawings in on time.
  • Set designer: any specific issues.
  • Lighting designer: any specific issues.
  • Costume designer: any specific issues.
  • Prop master: any specific issues.
  • Sound designer: any specific issues.
  • Stage manager: any specific issues.
  • Publicity manager: did the campaign work as expected, did one form of advertising work better than another, were there any interviews or TV spots.
  • Concessions manager: how did concessions do, were the prices adequate, was there a favorite item.
  • Anything else.

Again, a meeting like this can be held to an hour or less, providing someone is moderating it and keeping it on track.

When is the best time to have a post-mortem? Opinions vary. Having it soon after the show opens means everyone is still thinking about the show and it’s all still fresh in their minds, but it tends to remove the “objectivity by distance” component. Having it after the show closes gives everyone a breather and lets them consider the overall response to the show (admissions, ticket sales, concessions, etc.), but by this time a lot of the team members will be off on other projects and focused on them. In either case, scheduling it up front will let everyone plan for it.

A post-mortem can be a wonderful tool for learning and improving a production company’s work; it just needs to be focused and have a clear reason — a clear goal — for having it.