We are post staged reading of my most recent play. It is the moment where audience feedback begins. And that’s the point, right? To have shown my work to an audience and to receive their critical feedback so that my play can grow. That’s why we did it. That was the point. For the play’s growth and for my growth as a playwright.
Except, okay, actually? I just want everyone to talk about how great the play is, and not have any feedback except how amazing I am. So…why isn’t the feedback only about how amazing I am?
I am a theatre teacher, I am an actor and I am playwright. To me, my writing is easily what I am most sensitive about. As a teacher, I recognize that I am constantly making mistakes, and my students are quick to point out when I do. As an actor, I get that part of my job is to fit a director’s vision of a playwright’s vision, and that being open to criticism and direction is part of the job description. But there’s something about the creation of a play, writing it, that makes me super-defensive. I wrote these characters, so shouldn’t I know them best? Shouldn’t I get the intention of the script, understand where the arc is, know which moments are most impactful? And the answer is uhh, unfortunately not always, no.
Plays are meant to be performed. They are meant to be read aloud. They are meant to be heard. They are meant to be experienced. Which means inviting human beings to be a part of it, which means receiving their feedback. The issue is…what critical feedback is right? What critical feedback matters? How do we accept it?
The last play that I wrote was…divisive. It was a play about patriarchy and assault. I would say that the majority of women in the audience related to it or at least “got it”. Unsurprisingly, men were split. Some responses from men included:
- “That character would never do something like that!” (Turns out, he would. As this play and these characters were loosely based on my own life and experience.)
- “None of the men in this play are nice.” (The women aren’t either!! Pay attention, JERRY!!)
- “As a #goodman, who am I supposed to identify with?” (Oooh, you’re so close to the point!)
- “You bring up this sexism with women…but never acknowledge this super messed up thing that also happens to a man in your script.” (Well but!…..well, but that point!….okay, sure, but….oh. Okay….ugh.) They were right. He was totally right.
How do I acknowledge that my play is supposed to make people uncomfortable, is supposed to confront difficult topics, will naturally be divisive when it’s about patriarchy, has a history of making men feel defensive, and yet also–that those may be the people who have some of the most valuable notes about the script? Feedback that will allow my play to grow?
The point is, I took (and take) probably about 25% of the critical feedback I receive as a playwright. My initial reaction is to take zero. It doesn’t really matter who is giving the feedback or what the play is about. My instinct is to say, “NO, IT’S MINE AND I KNOW BEST AND YOU DON’T GET IT!” But sometimes…they do get it. Or at least get a piece of it that I don’t get.
Some things I’m always trying to wrap my brain around in the playwriting process:
- You may know your intention, but you may not realize how it comes across.
- Understand who your audience is, and how you want them to feel.
- Know that you can’t please everyone.
- Sometimes other people are right.
- Sometimes other people are wrong.
- Don’t make any decisions right away. Write down any notes or suggestions, come back to them when you’re able to set your emotion aside.
And occasionally…here’s the rough part…you may write something that’s not salvageable. It may have ideas that are useful. It may have pieces you can extract, but the play as a whole may not be a play worth keeping.
One of the best pieces of writing advice, I got from my college poetry professor. He said, “Delete the whole first stanza, it doesn’t serve the poem.” The whole first stanza?! That’s over ⅓ of the poem. How will my message be relayed without the first stanza? It’s like, the beginning?
He told me that I needed to write the first stanza to find my way to the meat of the poem, but now that I’d found that, it was holding the rest of the work back.
I will not post the poem here, because it is embarrassing and obviously talks about my unrequited love at age 20, but just know that it was pretty bad…and then became…kind of good? And that’s how critical feedback is supposed to work, I think. It’s supposed to help you improve…which inherently means that there is room to improve. There always is.
So, if they don’t like your play: listen to them. (Ugh, I know.)
Then take a break. Then check in with yourself. Let your guard down. You’ll know what to do.
For more tips and ideas on succeeding as a new works playwright, check out our Playwright Chronicles blog series! We interviewed Marco Antonio Rodriguez and Tom Attea, and chatted influences and inspiration, research and character development, moving from page to stage, and a typical day in the life with several of the new works writers featured on StageAgent.