There seems to be a blog circulating on how to avoid telling a playwright you didn’t like his play. Nice post. Good thoughts. But here’s my rebuttal.
Writing a play is hard work. I congratulate each and every playwright who manages to complete a play----good or not. But let’s face it, some of them are bad.
I’m not saying this to be a jerk. I’m not thick-skinned. I’m the playwright who sits WAY in the back during a reading, often with my hands over my face in mortal fear. Desperately trying to gauge if what I put on paper is understood. Does it work? Does it suck? Can I make it better?
The first real play I wrote, I gave to my mother to read. Like a lot of first plays, mine was set in a bar. I knew it was a cliché, but tried to mock the cliché by showing how stagnant their lives had become in that small town bar. I thought the characters were interesting. That they had interesting things to say. “Let me just get my tea, honey,” Mom said as she settled into her dining room chair and turned to the first page. I had to leave the room. I couldn’t watch The Judgment of Mom.
Half an hour later she laid the play on the tablecloth and gave me my very first review, “That was nice, honey. I liked it. It was just like Cheers. But did you have to use all those bad words?”
I knew two things for sure. First, that my play was NOTHING like Cheers. And second, Mom didn’t particularly care for it.
I was okay with that. After all, it was my first play. But (outside of those bad words) WHY didn’t she like it?
I needed to find out. I went to The Playwright’s Center in Minneapolis. There, I learned how to give constructive criticism----and how to take it. Not “take it” like taking a punch in the face. But how to listen to what people were saying. How to take in all the criticism and then decide for myself what to discard and what to take to heart---and to paper.
After many years of hard work (and many bad plays) I think I’ve become a pretty good writer. But I still need feedback. I still cling to the audience’s reaction during a reading. I re-write. Cut. Merge two characters into one. Cut some more. Lose entire scenes. Add new ones. Rearrange the plot points. Cut. Cut. Cut. And cut some more. I try to listen to the audience, the actors, and ANYONE who will offer ANY constructive criticism of my play.
Sometimes I get my Mom’s elusive critique, “I liked it.” Sometimes I even get, “I LOVED it.” Sometimes my friends leave without uttering a word. Frankly, I don't know what any of that means. Maybe it's my Missouri roots---you've got to "Show-Me".
I’ve taken classes with some AMAZING writers. Writers who were NOT gentle in their criticisms. I once took a weekend workshop with Romulus Linney---a playwright I held in VERY high esteem. The workshop seemed informal, and no one at the theatre told me to bring material, so I assumed we’d be writing new stuff and working on that.
Though I’d assiduously checked my email for weeks before the workshop----I was stunned when I showed up at a cabin in the mountains and twenty playwrights pulled material out of their bags. I had nothing. Zilch. I gingerly pulled my blank notebook out of my bag and awaited my death.
Linney, though polite, was pretty honest in his critiques. Almost startlingly so. Rarely do instructors get so blunt when dealing with paying customers. It made me respect (and fear) him all the more. Luckily, there was only time for about a half a dozen writers that night. I was given a reprieve till dawn. I went back to my cabin room, shut the door, and started writing. Regurgitating, to be exact. I’d been working on a new play. And, like most writers, had spent an inordinate amount of time on the first scene. I only needed ten pages. I strained to remember those very carefully wrought words.
By four am, I had re-written the scene from memory by hand.
Three hours later, I got up, showered, and made my way to the only corner store within walking distance-----a gas station down the road. There, I bought a large coffee and a ream of paper. Back in my cabin room, I carefully copied my illegible scrawl onto a few sheets of college-ruled paper.
Half an hour later, I was sitting in front of Romulus Linney, waiting to be called to the stand.
In the meantime, he’d called several other writers to task. According to him, EVERY delicate jewel they’d brought in needed work. One piece in particular, he just came right out and said, “This is not a play. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not a play.”
Of course, he went on to say several other things that might help it actually BECOME a play----but I felt for the writer. Nothing’s as brutal as the master saying you created nothing at all.
Finally, my turn came. My hands were shaking. While everyone had had several lovely computer printed copies of their script, I passed my measly hand-written copy to the two actors and the stage direction reader, apologized, and asked them if they could sit together and share.
I was mortified at my unpreparedness. How often does one get the chance to study with a master and blow it by not only having no material, but also looking completely un-professional?
The actors read. They seemed to get the piece. The other students laughed in the right spots. Okay. So not a total disaster. Hopefully. I sat in silence waiting for judgment.
Romulus Linney looked around the room. A calculated silence. He asked what they thought of the play. Most of the writers remained quiet and terrified. I remember two brave souls commenting that they thought it was funny and that the characters seemed real. That sort of thing. It wasn’t looking good.
Then Romulus Linney leaned his elbows on the table, looked around the room, and simply said, “THAT is how to start a play!”
I was stunned. I think for an entire minute, I didn’t even breathe.
And then he went on about how wonderful it was. How the characters worked together. How the set-up worked. How EVERYTHING worked. “You’re very talented,” he ended. “That was a very, very well-written piece.”
I was in heaven for weeks. I sent query letters to agents, production companies, theatres, networks, pretty much anyone who might take an interest in my work.
But nothing. No one wanted me or my scripts. Maybe Romulus Linney was wrong. Maybe I stunk. I decided to take another class. Then another. All with amazing, talented, working writers. Writers who’d received prestigious awards. Writers I admired. On a regular basis, I was told I was talented, brilliant, a wonderful writer. Was always singled out in these workshops for having produced “the kind of stuff I really like.”
One writer/teacher actually said to me, “Did you write this just to make me happy?”
Despite all this wondrous praise----I was STILL waiting tables. No agent. No nothing. Just $4.35 an hour plus tips.
What was I doing wrong? No one would tell me.
Finally, I took one more class. With another well-known writer. At the end of the reading, I sat onstage in a pool of light. I was the only one in the class who had NO criticism. Oh, he loved it. Everything about it was wonderful. Was told I was very talented. A wonderful writer. That I write the sort of thing he loves. “You should be very proud of yourself.”
I just sat in silence in the pool of light. It was possibly, the most depressing moment of my life. There was the requisite applause from the other students. I quietly said "thank you". And left the stage.
But inside my head was screaming, “IF I’M SO FUCKING WONDERFUL THEN WHY AM I NOT WORKING?!?!?!”
I told this to a friend of mine the next day. “Why didn’t you ask?” he said.
“I don’t know. It didn’t seem like the right place to ask.”
But the truth is---most playwright are NOT working. Well, we’re working---just not making a living at it. It was at that point that I stopped killing myself. Began to focus more on life. Yes, I still wrote. God, yes. It’s what I do. But life was important, too.
So I lived. And wrote. And lived some more.
But in the back of my mind, I kept wondering, “What am I doing wrong?”
More importantly, what were playwrights doing wrong? Plays are the essence of the human experience. The most vital vessel of understanding. Why are WE waiting tables and The Kardashians taking over the world?
Of course, if you’ve only been writing for three or four years, the reason you’re not working is because you’re not ready yet. Writing, like any profession, takes a good ten years to master.
But, like many of my friends, I’m not a newbie. I WANT to know what you did and did NOT like about my play. Because if I’ve put it in front of you, that means that I’m at the point where I’ve done all I can without advice. I’m too close to it. And your distance (and expertise) might help make it better. I REALLY want to know.
Perhaps I’m different. Perhaps most writers would prefer a simple pat on the back, good job, let’s get a drink. Not for me to judge.
But if we get a drink, and I ask you what you thought----that means two things. The first is that I honestly want to know. And the second is that I value your opinion enough to trust your judgment.
I can handle it. I’m not a hothouse flower. It will only benefit me AND my play. So TELL me! If you don’t like my play---for godsakes, TELL ME!
Here’s how you do it:
- Okay, go ahead and tell me what you liked about my play. It will make you feel good. I’ll know the bad is coming----but I’ll also know what actually worked. Sometimes, that's just as important.
- Tell me what you didn’t like. You don’t have to get in depth at this point. Just point out one or two things that didn’t work. Sure, you can back-track with the whole, “Maybe I missed this, but….” Just get it off your chest. It will only make us that much closer.
- Ask me a few questions. If you have questions, that helps me figure out where the problems are. Maybe I can answer them and we’ll both be satisfied. Maybe I can’t. If I can’t----then I know what I need to work on.
- Talk about the things OUTSIDE of the writing that worked or did not work for you. Again, a feel-good moment for you as you don’t have to critique me, per se. If you didn’t get an actor’s portrayal of the character, the lighting was too moody; the direction seemed “off”. Tell me what you liked and didn’t like and WHY. Sometimes it’s in the script and I need to fix that. Other times, we’ve let our theatre team go astray. It’s flattering to have a theatre pick up your play, but sometimes (bewilderingly) even THEY don’t get it.
- End by asking us what WE thought. This could lead to a great discussion. Or it could lead to another glass of wine and talking about great vacation spots. Even writers get sick of talking about their work. Don’t worry that opening a discussion will lead to an all-night unpaid dramaturgy event. We’re your friends for a reason---we like your company.
And those of us who genuinely want criticism don’t wear badges. We’re hard to distinguish from the guys who just want a hug. To make it harder----we want different things from different people. We ALWAYS want Mom to give us a hug and say “I love you”. We don’t always trust the judgment of the dude at our day job. And we react FAR too freakishly to the local critic who rushes out during the curtain call without uttering a word. As a side note, I used to do some freelance theatre criticism. If I ran out after a performance, it was because I was on a deadline. Had NOTHING to do with the value of your play.
But if you’re a friend. And we ASK you what you thought. What you REALLY thought. Remember that THOSE are the magic words, “What do you REALLY think?”
We REALLY want to know. We’re desperate. Think of us as a sad single woman who just broke up with her boyfriend. The sort who calls you late at night and wants to keep you on the phone for hours discussing what HE said and what that REALLY meant. Only difference is, we’re not sobbing on our beds with a cucumber facial, a pint of Hagen-Daas and a bottle of vodka keeping you trained to the phone for hours. We are right in front of you. Unlike break-up girl, we’ll happily buy you a beer and some mozzarella stix and listen as long as you want to talk. We’re trying to grow as a writer. We think you can help. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have asked.
Some say theatre should be a safe environment. What they mean by that is Safe To Take Risks. Not all hugs and kisses.
Playwrights risk their sanity everyday. All of us are mentally one play away from the crazy, smelly homeless man on the train screaming, “Chicken butt! Chicken butt!”
You can turn up your iPOD and ignore us, tell us we’re perfectly fine and explain “that's just the way God made you”, or you can lead us to the nearest mental healthcare facility where we can FINALLY get some help.
It’s your choice.
“So, what did you REALLY think of my play?”