Last week, I got an opportunity for anonymous feedback on one of my plays, submitted blind. Excited to get new eyes on my script and new minds responding, I took it. This was a play that I believed was one minor rewrite away from submitting. Surely feedback from someone outside of my immediate circle would help. What could go wrong?
Shortly after, I received the feedback. It was a page-by-page breakdown of everything wrong with my script, from small grammatical errors to lapses in logic. The feedback culminated in several sentences expressing that my play had no core conflict, none of the characters had a clear motivation, the core conceit was comparable to a board game, and the technical elements were impossible to produce.
This stopped me in my tracks. All of my confidence in this piece, all of my passion for shaping it, dissipated almost instantly. Even as I began to question aspects of the feedback - several clues led me to the conclusion these notes were written during a shallow first reading, with many criticisms addressed literally a page later - it still hit me hard.
With some help from friends and collaborators, many of whom had already read and given their own feedback on this particular play, I was able to get back on my feet. I'm working on a major rewrite of the play right now. But it also got me thinking: what went so wrong with this feedback?
I’ve recognized the fact that I have received training in giving feedback, specifically to playwrights, as part of my major. When it comes to dramaturgy in new work development, that’s just what you do. But not everyone has that training.
I don’t think anyone needs a degree in dramaturgy to give good, constructive feedback. And I’ve found that with the right tools and philosophy, everyone can both get and give good feedback.
One of the most popular mechanisms for critique is the Liz Lerman Critical Response Process. You should absolutely get and read the book, whether you’re a dramaturg or a playwright or a designer or literally anyone, but here’s a summary:
Statements of meaning: Responders share what stood out to them - what they found interesting, meaningful, exciting. Not necessarily what they liked - opinions come later.
Artist questions: As the name implies, the artist asks questions about the work, and responders give their answers. Opinions can be allowed as a direct response, so long as they are not prescriptive, and the responder asks permission.
Neutral questions: Responders ask the artist questions that don’t have opinions inherent in them. For instance, “what was your thought process behind the cake’s texture?” vs. “why was the cake dry?”
Opinions: Responders say to the artist, “I have an opinion about _____, would you like to hear it?” If the artist says yes, then the responder can share their opinion.
What’s wonderful about the Critical Response Process is that it displaces opinions in favor of both artist and audience expressing understanding and experience. But even if you don’t have a full audience of responders or a facilitator, you can modify the method to get better feedback on your play. One particularly elegant set of questions I’ve heard is “What did you love? What did you wonder? What did you wish?”
These sorts of questions and processes move away from any individual’s opinion shaping an entire piece of work. Too often, an individual’s idea of what a play should be ends up limiting creativity and shoving the piece into a mold.
But turning to pieces like Elinor Fuchs’s “Visit to a Small Planet” reveal the truth: every play is entirely its own. Feedback shouldn’t be diagnosing all the maladies with a given play and prescribing “solutions.” It shouldn’t be calling any given part of a play wrong. Instead, feedback should be to help the play move toward the best version of itself that it can be.
Ultimately, all these ideas aside, I believe there’s only one real ingredient needed to give good feedback: care. You have to support the play and the playwright. You have to step back from your own opinions, ego, and past experiences and live in the moment. You have to give feedback that is fully invigorated with the intention of helping the work grow. You have to care about bringing the art forward.
Otherwise, there’s a danger of stopping the play and the playwright. There’s a danger of suffocating a play by forcing it into a prescribed shape. That was nearly what happened to me.
But I’m still standing. I’m finding an increasingly larger group of people who I trust to give me feedback that will help me grow. It’s a group of people who care about me and my work. I wish that for every creator. And if not, I hope that we can build a culture of care field-wide, starting with good, understanding feedback.
Photo by Dylan Gillis via Unsplash.