-Cecilia CopelandLast week, I had been talking to some playwrights about giving and receiving feedback. Playwright A said that it was more helpful for them to hear what's not working and hear it straight from the hip ("too much pussy-footing") whereas Playwright B felt that certain types of critical and prescriptive feedback derailed them and wanted to learn how to create a more structured response. Cecilia Copeland was giving a lecture on the subject so I asked her to share her notes with Theaterspeak.
How to take a how to take feedback and make it useful or steps on surviving workshop and feedback sessions.
Let me preface this by saying there are all different types of workshops and feedback sessions. Some are designed to hold a play up to a particular rubric and see if it meets the criteria. For instance, identifying the Protagonist and pointing out if we understand the dénouement at the end, but those can ignore why such things have become part of the natural way we tell stories. Simply locating the identifying pillars of classic Aristotelian structure does not address whether or not they are functioning with artful impact.
Other roundtables are little more than pitch sessions, and that’s what they are meant to be! Some writers want to sit there and have other people, possibly other writers, directors or producers tell them what they should do. They hash it out together as a team. I’m not poo pooing that, it's just different. However, when it comes to Sole Authorship the best kind of feedback has nothing to do with hearing a pitch or a suggestion. In fact my immediate response when I hear, “What you should do is… if you changed that… what you could try is… what would make that better is if you… the easy way to fix that is just…” when I hear that it takes all of my strength not to say, “Shut the F**K up and write your own play!”
So for me, Step One: Do Not Attack the people giving you their opinions.
Aside from refraining from violence, this means don’t answer them unless you must. If you are talking, you aren’t listening to what other people have to say and this is a feedback session for your PLAY, not your soapbox session. The play speaks for itself and if it didn’t, you won’t learn that by talking for it. Try to remember it’s just an opinion, even if it’s Edward Albee’s opinion, he’s still just one dude. This doesn’t mean go ahead and let a feedback session deteriorate into a nonsense conversation on minutia because that’s also a waste of time.
If things veer too far away from your play, then step in and say something. The best thing is to have a couple of questions which are focused on where you want feedback. This will help steer things, and I suggest giving them to your director or dramaturg beforehand so they can help bring the conversation back to the play if it gets out of control.
Step Two: Take notes. This will help you not speak.
Organize your notes if you can. I’m a little OCD and that doesn’t mean my floor is clean, but it does mean that I try to have a method for everything that is usually based in a combination of avoiding screwing up and saving time. I don’t always follow it, like Alice in Wonderland giving herself advice, but I try. For Instance, I will get the list of the names of all the actors, the sm, the director, the artistic director, the artistic associates, potential guests and others giving feedback, and write down their first names or initials on the first page before the feedback even starts. Then I’ll jot down who is speaking when they start. If you follow that method, you will know who said what, and if somebody said something really helpful you will be able to find them later to squeeze their brain for more brilliant info. It will also help you to Consider the Source.
Step Three: Consider the Source.
The best notes I’ve received are those that come from people whose work I really admire and like. This doesn’t mean the note was easy to take, it just means it was a good note for the play. Usually, if there is someone in the room whose work I don’t connect with, they are the first person to give me a note that I don’t connect with. This is not a coincidence. Art is personal. Notes I got on one play included a searing comment card that said, “You have tainted the world ‘love’ for me forever. Your play is the most offensive thing I have ever seen. I was disgusted!!!!” Other feedback on the same play included, “It’s vampire lesbian pulp.” and “Let me start off my comments by saying, I’m not a misogynist…”, (Which clearly if you have to say that, you probably are.) An agent I adore said, “It’s just not for me.”
And then, I heard some things from some people whose work I deeply respect, “The word love SHOULD be tainted! Don’t give up! I see why they have such a hard time with it, but don’t listen to them.” And another pulled me aside and said, “You have a very beautiful, complex, deep work there. It’s frightening and poetic. It’s an important play.” A colleague who is a director said, “As soon as I can get the funding I want to produce it in Dallas. I have an actress who would be perfect in the lead. I LOVE this play!” A theater in New York, “We really want to produce this. It fits our mission perfectly! Let’s grab a coffee and talk about what to do next.”
Find opinions you trust and salt and pepper them with the dissonant voices. Consensus is not the goal, but concert is.
Step Four: Hear the note through the note. All notes have to be translated.
Note: "There was no clear strong protagonist in this piece."...(and that was bad.)
The problem with that kind of note is that there are good plays, excellent plays, that don't have one clear protagonist (in the conventional sense). The Colored Museum, Romeo and Juliette, Waiting for Godot, and many others.
Okay, here's a possible translation of the note: "It was hard for me to get into the play because I didn't have a strong way in with a character I liked or rooted for so I didn't identify with it or invest in it... If you want to get this play produced you might think about giving it a more classic structure to help people get it..."
Another Note: “You should have Jennie more integrated in the action in the second act.”... (Jennie should x,y,or z)
That’s a pitch. The translation, “Jennie disappeared in the second act and I wasn’t expecting that and didn’t know what to make of it... I spent time wondering why she had gone and felt confused as to what that had to do with the play, because it seemed to be just convenient or forgetful rather than meaningful and so it took me out of the action. So then I was looking at Jennie and wondering why she isn’t valuable as a person, and is that like me, and what societal factors play into that, and how does a person have value? I don’t know if that’s your play or not but I connected with Jennie so when she went away, that’s where I went.”
Just saying “Bring Jennie back” is a like putting a Band-Aid blindly on cut before doing a diagnostic. No one can do a diagnostic on the extent of the cut except the playwright who, has to figure out how deep it goes, if it’s infected, or what the correct treatment is for the injury. Maybe it had already been fixed, but not well enough, it might need amputation or stitches and not just a Band-Aid. Maybe Jennie was supposed to disappear, and it means something that she does, but the audience Didn’t Get It.
The goal is to be able to hear someone say, “Bring Jennie back more at the end.” And to write down, “A.E.: Jennie? Second Act? Disappears?” (And whatever expletives you want.)
Step Five: Isolated vs Popcorn and The Power Dynamic in feedback.
We neither write in a vacuum nor do we get feedback in a vacuum. The real truth lives in an audience where it’s dark. Nobody knows who is laughing or crying at what and when, while the show is happening. It just happens. Popcorn responses are ostensibly organic and that’s part of what makes Theatre such a beautiful thing. This is not withstanding the politics of ticket prices and other social factors, but the group hierarchy is lessened by the lighting and seating. What we are left with in the theater is just anonymous persons responding to something as individuals and as a collective.
No room is free of hierarchy. Not everyone will agree with a note and the dynamic of a room is always weighted so that when certain people speak everyone will nod and go, “Hm… yes… ooo… that’s right… that was a smart thing to say…” We are all human beings and when an important person in the room says anything that sounds even a little smart everyone else in the room jumps up and down in their chars like lemmings off a cliff to get that VIP to notice their ass kissing. It’s instinctual. I’m not judging it. Everybody does it, but as a playwright just be aware of it.
There will also be times when a popcorn style agreement like the one above happens spontaneously and it comes from an unexpected source, PAY ATTENTION! When the least powerful person timidly says something and the whole room suddenly opens up, That Is Gold! That’s a great note. It meant that a person, who was shyly struggling with their own inadequacy in the room, felt so deeply moved by something they had to share it, and then it landed like James and the Giant Peach! Conversely, when someone who is of great import says a note that gets no popcorn as they usually do or someone is brave enough to contradict it, Pay Attention to that as well! It could be just someone wanting to get noticed as tough or controversial, or it could be followed by another popcorn response of minds opening. This doesn’t mean discount what powerful smart people say just because other people jump on it to be liked, because they will often say things that are helpful, but maybe not always.
This must make it tough for really powerful playwrights to get honest feedback, especially when it comes from people who are nervously hoping to get a job or prove something. Fortunately, I’m not so powerful at this moment and so nobody ever feels the need to kiss my ass in a feedback session, ever. It also means that for me and other emerging writers, people feel more comfortable being harsh. We don’t have the gravitas to keep their egos in check. It’s just human nature and it’s often not a conscious thing. Know that, and try to chill about it. I’m saying we’re all people with egos, feelings, hopes, and dreams. We all want to write a great play, do a great role, direct an amazing show, and build great Theatre! If you can listen to feedback with that in mind, then it will help you hear what the note is instead of the words said or the tone used.
Step Six: My Play vs Your Play.
When most people give notes they want to help you make your play better, but they can’t read your mind. In that moment in the room, each person heard one particular play and are giving notes on the play they heard, and what they think it was and should be, but it's not theirs yet. The play becomes theirs when they see it in performance, just like a role becomes an actress's role when she plays it. On the page. it belongs to the author, and in the mind, it belongs to the audience or the reader, once it’s finished.
The best gift they can give you to help you write your play is to show you what they saw and heard, and what it made them think. Afterward, you can decide if it sounds like your play. Armed with good feedback, you can head into a strong rewrite and decide if you want to bring Jennie back, cut her from the play, have her walk around in the second act with a gag on her face and only utter nonsense, or if you want her to grow a set of winged stilettos and watch her climb then ice pick, skip, jump, and float her way to Finland.
Hopefully those survival tips were helpful. I've heard stories of lost plays and watched in horror as playwrights wrote themselves out of good unique plays to land in BORING mediocrity. I've had to take myself back an entire draft and start there because of all the advice I felt compelled to take after a feedback session.
I'm endlessly grateful to anyone who has ever given me feedback. Whether I used it or not, ‘I heard you and am grateful you listened and cared enough the share your opinion. Thank you.’
Theaterspeak is interested in a variety of opinions and voices, so if you have something you'd like to add to the conversation, give a hollah...