another diatribe on feedback

I’m a member of the Cleveland Play House Playwrights’ Unit.  We meet every other week and read each others’ pages aloud and talk.*

This week, one of the scenes we read was from my newest play, at the point when the protagonist goes for a walk followed by her brother-in-law.  One of my trusted colleagues said he hoped that the brother-in-law wasn’t going to have an affair.  He couched, saying that the choice would be cliché, but what he was really telling me was that he had invested in that character.

It was maybe the most important piece of feedback I got from that reading.

Why?  Because in every play, there’s a character through whom the audience views the play.  I call this the ‘lens’ character.  We share that character’s wants and blind spots, prejudices and filters and loves, we go on the ride with them.

Often it’s the protagonist, but in many of the plays that interest me both as writer and director, that character is NOT the protagonist.  What I learned in last week’s meeting was, in this play, the brother-in-law is the audience’s lens.  He sees my protagonist and antagonist clearly, or more clearly than anyone else in their lives.  And, he’s funny.  Not rolling on the floor yuk-it-up funny, but attractively wry.  I already knew that he understands which battles to choose (as few as possible) and that he’s a bit slippery, but I didn’t know why until that reading.

I started on awareness of this phenomenon when directing Thomas Babe’sTaken in Marriage,” which occurs in a church basement and includes the women involved in a wedding – the bride, her sister, her mother, her aunt, and the wedding singer.  I had assumed that, as director, I’d be telling the playwright’s story via the bride, but at the first read-through, I realized that the aunt was my lens.  She has a huge investment in the other characters yet perhaps the most dispassionate view of all of their lives.  It was a great, funny, touching show that had success with audiences of many ages and both genders, largely because the aunt was attractive yet enigmatic enough to “like.”  (Parenthetically, the aunt was originally played by Elizabeth Wilson – what’s not to like?)

And this is why this playwright shares my unfinished, sometimes inchoate work with others: to learn about my characters and their relationships and situations through others’ voices, with a fresh ear.  When I listen to my work, it’s not to prove to myself that I was right, or to others that I’m funny or smart or know what I’m doing.  It’s to learn.  It’s to become a better playwright.  It’s to do my bit to repair the world, jot by tittle, by observing characters in their struggles to grow into more fully realized, compassionate human beings.  To teach by example, on a wider stage than I personally ever could.

I can not do that by myself, and argue that no one can.  As deeply satisfying as sitting here scribbling away is, taking these funny, dear, maddening, flawed, beloved characters out into the world to hear and see what others’ minds invest in them is the ultimate gift of being a playwright.  And the next steps, to public readings and workshops and productions?  That many more artists with whom to collaborate in the ultimate team sport, my erstwhile religion, that place we come together to laugh and cry and evolve, the theater.

*this is not the whole of how we support each other, but suffices in this instance.

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