No writer wants to hear “The play needs another draft,” but it’s frequently true. Willingness to go back to the board is often the difference between a half-baked work and one that really says and does what I, the writer, intended when I first had the idea.
So the question is, how best (and most fruitfully) do I take, or respond to, a producer’s note about the strengths and weaknesses of my play?
I’m not referring here to random feedback from an audience (“Why doesn’t your character have a cat?”), but to carefully thought-out notes (or not) about structure, intention, arc, character, action and cohesion offered by a team that wants me to write the best play that I possibly can. (But may not speak my writer’s language.)
Few theatres, artistic directors, literary managers and dramaturgs, it seems, are acquainted with formal theatrical criticism, such as Liz Lerman’s wonderfully structured Critical Response Process, a facilitated four-step method of dialogue and inquiry between artists and note-givers that Lerman (with John Borstel) designed to maximize the helpfulness of any reading, workshop or dramatic presentation. This means, I must be ready, with aplomb, for anything: An artistic director who hasn’t really read the play but feels empowered to hold forth on it; a dramaturg who is prescriptive (“If it were my play, I’d do it this way!); a literary manager who doesn’t know how to ask the right questions; or their respective biases tumbled together with legitimate criticism that might ultimately be useful if only I can hear it.
There’s an art to this: Taking the note and remaining non-defensive – listening with a neutral mien, no matter what is said, and separating the wheat from the chaff later, at a distance.
All of this restraint of tongue and face requires experience, so I turned to my Southland colleagues to elicit their principles and Best Practices on taking the note.
1. Manage your reactivity. Develop neutral phrases that acknowledge the note without betraying your judgment of it. These phrases might include “Hmm, interesting,” “Let me think about that” or “I hadn’t considered that.” The most common suggestion: a simple “Thank you.”
“‘Thank you’ is always nice, whether I agree [with the note] or not,” said Thelma Virata de Castro (The Goddess of Flowers). “I don’t defend or explain. I listen but don’t necessarily … use [the notes] in my rewrites.”
“I just nod and pretend to write it all down,” said Wendy Graf (No Word in Guyanese for Me), underscoring an approach favored by many writers surveyed. “I don’t think writers should talk back in a critique session. They should listen and absorb. If I have to argue about it, it’s not on the page.”
“I’m grateful people have taken the time and energy to try and help make my work better, so even if the note is crap, I’ll thank the person and move on to the next,” said Vince Melocchi (Lions). “No need to be rude or disrespectful.”
2. Keep an open mind. If you hear the same criticism multiple times, there’s probably something to it. Look for the note beneath the note.
“I’m a big believer in learning how to take the note by looking under the note,” said Graf. “Let’s say someone says, ‘Cut this part: It’s too long,’ What they may mean is I’ve been redundant.”
“Sometimes I’ll get a stupid note but will step back and say, ‘Something is bothering this person.’ Their solution might be idiotic or cause seventeen other problems, but it’s worth taking a minute to try to see their point of view,” said Ken Levine, (A or B?). “Then I’ll do some prospecting and find the real problem. But I would never have gotten it without that bad note.”
“If someone gives me a note out of left field, I sit with it for a bit and if it doesn’t ring true, I don’t use it,” said Nancy Beverly (Handcrafted Healing). “But I do say to myself – and I learned this from Marsha Norman, in an interview she gave years ago – ‘WHY did that person give the note?’ There might be some underlying problem that they can’t verbalize, but their random note is a flag that there is SOMETHING amiss.”
“I try to apply what I learned as an actress overhearing an exasperated stage manager during a notes meeting: As an actor blathered on about why he made a certain choice, she said under her breath, ‘Just take the note.’ I try to do this as a writer,” said Aleta Barthell (Window of Shame). “A note usually will come to a section I know isn’t working right. The note may not be the best way to solve it, but it’s pointing to a problem.”
“Even if just two people say, ‘I got a little confused here,’ I know that they are on to something I should pay attention to,” added Shanti Reinhardt (Otis).
3. Take what you find useful and leave the rest.
“In TV,” said Levine, “they often demand you do their notes, or else. In theatre, I have the luxury of receiving input and using whatever I feel is helpful. One carry-over philosophy I’ve brought to the stage from the small screen is ‘the best idea wins.’”
“As playwrights, we can’t take every note: Many are well intentioned, but they’re not necessarily right for the play we’re trying to write,” said Jonathan Dorf, (4.A.M.). “For me, the test is this: Does the note hit on something I was feeling but hadn’t quite been able to articulate or admit to myself?”
4. No pain. No gain.
“Criticism can be painful, but that’s where the play grows,” said Vincent Terrell Durham (The Fertile River). “None of my plays have grown from compliments. Notes, critiques, workshops, rehearsals and Q & A’s all produce a better play. I don’t have all the answers, but if I open myself up to the process, the answers will come.”