Filtering Feedback

by Randy Petersen

About a year ago I attended the reading of a new play. It was a rather small affair—just three actors, three other friends, and the playwright.

I was the playwright.

While I hoped for affirmation, I needed information. Does the piece hold their interest for its full ninety minutes? Does it lag? Have I unreeled the plot in a pleasant way, providing the right amount of detail when it’s needed? Do they seem to care about the characters? Do they laugh at the jokes? Do they gasp at the surprises? Is there suspense?

A playwriting professor of mine once said that, during play readings, he watches people’s butts—not in a perverse way, but to see if they’re restless, squirming. This tells him what parts of his play need editing. People will always say they like your play, but their butts don’t lie.

Talkback

Yet there’s always a conversation after a play reading, whether there are seven in the room or seventy. The questions and comments in that time can be very helpful. Or not. The best comments are “I statements.” The worst are along the lines of “Here’s how you should fix your play.”

For instance, one of the actors in my play reading felt her character didn’t have enough reason to go to the place where the climactic scene occurred. She was worried about her husband’s safety, but why? In the script, I hadn’t given her enough reason to worry, and so it seemed contrived. I found it enormously helpful to know that the actor didn’t have what she needed for that big scene.

On the other hand, a couple of others suggested adding a new scene that would clearly show how crazy another character was. I thanked them and jotted down the idea, but I have no intention of doing it. I don’t want that character to come across as “clearly crazy.” In fact, their suggestion pushed me in the opposite direction. It let me know I needed to shore up the reasonable ambiguity of that character.

I’ve attended other readings where the questioners just wanted to display their own brilliance. This happens rather often. I remember one such feedback session where a college kid was going on and on about how the playwright should have told the story—a nationally produced playwright, by the way, whose meekness in that moment was earning some kind of eternal reward. Everyone in the room recognized that this kid was just trying to impress his date, who sat cringing beside him.

What We Need

And that brings me to the point of this musing. All writers need feedback. But we also need to be wise in choosing which responders to heed. Ignore the ones who just want to seem smart. Look for those who understand what you’re trying to do and will help you do that. You might even need to train them a bit—don’t rewrite it for me; do tell me how it affected you; don’t be nice at the expense of honesty; do tell me what parts of the piece didn’t make sense.

If you’re dealing with friends or relatives, you’ll probably need to give them explicit permission to be critical—and then respond graciously to their criticism.

What do you need most from the feedback you seek? Affirmation or information? If it’s info you need, then get it and use it—as you see fit. You don’t need to please others by taking their suggestions. Learn what you can from their responses, but then recraft the piece you want to write.

All writers need feedback. But we also need to be wise in choosing which responders to heed.

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