The other day, I attended a theatrical event. You’ll see by my verbiage that it wasn’t a play or a musical, a reading or a workshop. I’m new to the world of theatrical events, which range from Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant (in which the audience is served a meal and encouraged to participate in various ways) to Dream of the Red Chamber (the one where the audience sleeps while performers perform) (on purpose) to whatever theatrical occurrences you know about and I don’t (yet).
The theatrical event was at a theater I attend regularly, one which presents all sorts of performance including mainstream, devised, and educational theatrical works, dance, music, and – yes – events. The theater and I are invested enough that I offer feedback on everything I attend.
I’d only attended one event-type-thing prior to the other day, and the two were each of quite different ilk. In my feedback on this one, I expressed approbation for its attention to detail and for its very existence. I also reflected upon what the event had made me think and feel, which were not positive outcomes. Given my limited knowledge/understanding of non-mainstream theater, I thought this would be the most valuable feedback I could give.
The artist took the negative part personally.
I’d offered praise, bookending the email with praise to start and praise to finish, but the artist’s respectful rebuttal answered my adverse, very personal reaction, which was to feel badly in remembrance of having felt nothing but badly on this subject for years-on-end. Perhaps I didn’t express clearly enough that I was responding to, not dissing, the artist’s work. And when will we have a gender-neutral third-person single pronoun, I ask, but yes, that’s a digression. Perhaps it’s true that people only hear one word of praise for every seven words of blame (Emily Dickinson’s word, blame). The artist and I did a little more correspondence and we’re fine (in case you were wondering), but this got me to thinking again on the topic of virgin ears.
The night before the event, I’d attended a reading of a new in-process play, and socialized/conversed/drank with that play’s company and audience afterwards. One of them mentioned that he wouldn’t be able to attend a reading of my new play the following week, but that he would come to the workshop-production of that same play a few months hence. Here was what I replied (more or less): “That’s great! It’s useful when folks follow the whole life of a new play, so they have context about the changes, but it’s also playwright’s GOLD (yes, I spoke with capital-letter emphasis) to have virgin ears in the house in later stages of development.”
Thought about that again this morning, after the event-email exchange.
I have a lot of experience with rejection. I’ve been acting since I was 8 years old and even stars don’t get every job they go after, much less vastly-lesser careers such as mine. Had I not learned the skill of leaving the audition in the audition room and getting on to the next thing, I’d have a far-less evolved philosophy of feedback on my playwrighting.
So here’s the advice embedded in this winding, long-winded diatribe.
When you receive feedback, first and foremost think what you think, feel what you feel, and take a Very Deep Breath. Second, consider the source. Are they a fellow professional? professional in a related field? a complete newbie? And third, distance yourself from your emotions. Remember what you were trying to achieve with your work, and reexamine their words.
While the feedback of my peers is also GOLD, the unfettered response of someone outside my field of expertise can teach me more about whether I’ve achieved my objectives than all the insider-feedback in the world. Not “will,” but “can.” I exist to learn, my primary objective is to improve, so removing my emotional reaction to feedback prior to considering that feedback is crucial. For me. You might have other objectives, and if my response to your work isn’t what you’d hoped, you can laugh in my face. I’ll probably laugh with you.
For me, it’s always about how I can use feedback to improve, which also sometimes means improving my feedback filters, not just my plays. And aside from helping me separate the gold from the dross, this technique has the added benefit of letting me avoid feeling badly.
I’ve done enough of that and can do without any more for the rest of my natural life.