On Playwriting: Dealing with Criticism the Collaborative Way

Playwriting is a collaborative art.

Once you’ve made the script as good as you can, you need to find some playwrights to read it and tell you what they think. After 6 or 106 more drafts, you then need to find some actors to read the script to you. Listening to them, you’ll hear the places where the dialogue goes clunk. And actors always have interesting questions.

After a rehearsal or two, find a place to show your work–it can be cheap, it even can be a living room–and invite people to the reading. Preferably fellow playwrights. Afterwards, have a discussion.

As a playwright, you must learn how to make this discussion process work for you, rather than against you.
“Against you” means a couple of things.

—You decide that you should never write another word.
—You rewrite the play to please everyone, and end up with a mess. What my in-laws called “a dog’s breakfast.” That is, everything in your creative refrigerator.

To avoid this, get someone else to facilitate the discussion. This person should have lots of experience. Or they should read Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process. Or both.

The Lerman approach has four major parts.

First, the Facilitator asks the audience (the “Responders) what the play meant. The Facilitator always tactfully deflects any one giving an opinion until step four.

Second, the Artist (in this case, the playwright) asks questions that they have thought out beforehand.

Third, the Responders ask neutral questions—that is, without an opinion attached. Useful: “Why does your script focus on the errors of physicians?” Not useful: “Why are you so angry at the medical profession?”

Fourth, if the Artist agrees, the Responders can state opinions. If you agree to this, remember that one opinion is only one opinion. But if five people say they hate the ending, you might want to take another look at it.

Also, when someone says “Scene Three doesn’t work,” understand that the problem might actually start in Scene One. Actors and directors also learn this. Suddenly, the show goes off the track—but often the problem happened several scenes before it actually hits.

Lerman doesn’t say this, but many others say it. Do Not Defend Your Work. Listen, take notes, say thank you. You may ask for clarification: “Tell me more about how the ending doesn’t work.” If someone asks “what were you trying to do?” you can answer them—or not. I often say, “what did you think I was trying to do?”

Recently, I’ve been considering taking an online class in writing the novel. The application guidelines point out, at length, that if you can’t manage feedback and criticism, you don’t belong in the class. It’s a skill that you can learn. I learned it the hard way. Don’t do what I did!

And remember, if you get the play into production, your script needs a director, some designers, some actors, a stage manager, and people to build the set, run the lights and sound, organize the costumes…that’s a lot of people supporting you and your script. Collaboratively.