Every playwright struggles with feedback. We need it to be able to discern what, of the world in our head, got onto the page. But what feedback is really useful?
Early on, I’m betting we all made the mistake of listening to a learned, experienced friend or colleague and thinking, “I can do that! And if I do that, my play will be solved!”
I made that mistake not so early-on, took the advice of two colleagues literally, rewrote my play, ran it by them again, and was eviscerated for the mess that had resulted. Horrible experience, utterly awful, I went home alternately raging and ripping myself up for everything from trusting others to ever having wanted to be a playwright. That went on for a couple of days, and then I just got mad. I’d written a play that had faults, sure, but I’d thought it worked, so I put the play back to what it had originally been, made a couple of minor clarifications, and submitted it. It has turned out to be one of my most-performed plays. But I digress.
Aside from encouraging me to take back my power, that awful experience taught me more about feedback than I’d learned in my playwrighting life to that point. Here’s what.
FILTER YOUR FEEDBACK.
- Is the feederback addressing the play you mean to write or the one the feederback thinks you should be writing?
Fairly easy to discern once the question is asked. Inside your head, that is, it does no one any good to be telling a feederback that their perceptions might be askew when they’re doing you the great favor of responding to your work.
- Who is the feederback in the theater world?
Are they primarily audience/observers? If theater-folk, are they from a theatrical/experiential or an academic background? Are they early-, mid-, or late-career types?
Recently, a feederback glommed onto the time-of-year of one of my plays as being the single, signal symbol through which the play was meant to be viewed and interpreted, a play rife with metaphor and conflict. Also, the play I mentioned earlier was ripped to shreds by feederbacks in the habit of making an academic decision about a play within the first few lines, and then comparing and contrasting the play with that assumption whether or not it turned out to have anything to do with the play. And we all know what happens to those who assume.
- Who is your feederback in the world?
Is your feederback a deviser, a theatergoer, a visual artist, a colleague – and even that begs the distinction, is this a colleague who supports others’ work or one who’s unable to wish anyone else more success than they have achieved? Are they primarily working-class? middle-class? the 2%? Are they a social animal? political? intelligentsia? a craftsperson? some combination thereof? Do they have a bias or crusade, e.g., are they a recovering addict, or does their life’s-work revolve around gender-parity or equal-pay, or or or?
- What’s their POV vis a vis the play?
Actors, for instance, will identify strongly with one character (particularly if they play that character in the production or reading), and will defend a script based on that investment. Audience members might identify with a minor character and give feedback that would change the play into another story utterly, one that makes their favorite the protagonist. Writers, directors, academics, and designers might have a strong set of beliefs about how a play should be written, and want you to rewrite based on their idea of structure.
- What’s their investment?
Are they a friend? colleague? family? teacher? student? producer? collaborator? Are they giving feedback to show how learned or theater-savvy they are? Or maybe they want a job, acting or directing or designing?
I’m not saying that getting caught in any of these caveats precludes useful feedback. If you discount feedback based on these filters, you’ll have thrown out most of what you’ve received.
I am saying that there are gems of wisdom and usefulness in every utterance. Maybe you should be writing a different play. Maybe your protagonist should be a different character. Maybe you are using too many metaphors or symbols or styles, maybe your dialogue is all first-level or third-level. But you must filter all feedback contextually to understand whether it’s useful to the work that you are wrighting.
The point is, LISTEN to everything everyone wants to tell you about your play. Everything. Write it all down. Resist the impulse to rebut – but do ask questions for clarification. Particularly listen to the questions you are asked – if you answer them, just be aware that you’re derailing the point of the conversation. But do note what the questions are and who asked them, and maybe even why.
And always, always thank your feederbacks. Theater is the ultimate team sport, and they’re a precious part of your team, no matter their motive or bias or POV.
As long as you filter the feedback, all feedback is valuable.
In the mid-19th century, prospectors mined for gold in the mountains of western Nevada. The veins weren’t as rich as those in California, but some men were able to earn a modest living. Their work to extract gold from the terrain was hampered by a gluey blue mud that gummed up their machinery. It was regarded as a major nuisance. But on a hunch, one miner took a load of the blue gunk to be analyzed by an expert. He discovered that it contained rich deposits of silver. So began an explosion of silver mining that made many prospectors very wealthy. ~Rob Brezsny, Cancer, week of March 14′ 2013
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