Warning! Lecture ahead!


Rant/lecture alert. Yes, this is a lecture, but at least you have been warned. It’s a lecture about using, or rather not using, feedback sessions to give Lectures on Craft. It’s about keeping feedback sessions constructive rather than demeaning.

I have a love/hate relationship with feedback sessions after play readings. I love them because I can get more specificity than I can possibly infer simply from watching an audience watch my play (or someone elses). I get different perspectives. I find out where there are things I had in my head that didn’t make it onto the page. And often something somebody says can trigger an inspiration or revelation. So there are definitely things to love about feedback sessions.

Then there’s the, well, not quite hate, but…where somebody tries to rewrite your play, as in “If so-and-so fell in love with them instead of walking out” or “If x was male instead of female.” Or, in the case of feedback on an excerpt, as is typical of my work because I so rarely write 10-minute plays, the comment was already addressed in my play two sentences before the start of the excerpt or two scenes later. Or somebody just doesn’t like your choices. And you learn to chalk these up to artistic differences or file them for use on another play where the comment is applicable.

But where the hate factor comes in is when somebody chooses to interpret the playwright’s choices or the rawness of the scene, due to wanting to hear works in progress, to a lack of craft on the playwright’s part, and proceeds to deliver a Lecture On Craft. I capitalize intentionally, because it it is clear in their tone of voice that they are giving a lecture. I find such lectures demeaning and not in the spirit of feedback. Giving feedback as a Lecture On Craft:

1. Puts you above the colleague you are giving feedback to.

2. Assumes the playwright does not know what they are doing, rather than that the playwright made a different choice than you would have made or that the work is in an early state.

3. Implies there is one right way to write plays. (If that were true, I would become bored very quickly and stop writing for or attending theatre.)

4. Takes the position that the playwright has come to take a class from you, when actually they have come to hear feedback from their colleagues.

5. Assumes that all right-thinking playwrights would agree with you.

6. Takes advantage of the feedback forum to deliver an unsolicited lecture.

In the course of feedback, if you are tempted to deliver a Lecture On Craft, I hope you will stop yourself and deliver it as feedback instead, as that is what the playwright has come to hear. And if you are a playwright on the receiving end of a Lecture On Craft, I hope you can learn as I am trying to learn to de-elevate it to simple feedback, and not take it as a challenge to our right to call ourselves “playwright.” That is, snapping back never improves the situation.

Here are some lectures I have run across, directed at my plays or others’. I approach this list with some trepidation, in that some people whose non-lecture advice I highly respect and whose work I enjoy have also at time fallen into this trap of giving a Lecture On Craft. I am not going to name names, since it does not accomplish anything and in any case, there is no Lecture On Craft in existence that has been delivered by only one speaker.

Coincidences

Lecture: You are only allowed one coincidence. (Said of Rice Kugel.)

Restated as feedback: I found the many coincidences in the play unlikely and unconvincing.

Counter-examples: Farces live by coincidence.

Productive take-away: 1. I hadn’t gotten across as of that revision that one face of Rice Kugel is as a farce. 2. Some audience members would be distracted by the coincidences in my play. 3. I needed to make it clear that the large number of coincidences in the play are an artistic choice that is part of the heart of this particular play rather than a writer’s convenience.

Solution: Make the opening monologue focus on the subject of coincidence:

MIKE
(To audience)
Coincidence. If this story were fiction I’d be restricted to one. Real life isn’t like that. Jung called it synchronicity…it’s not that coincidences don’t happen, it’s that we ascribe meaning to them. Christians say there are no coincidences, only God incidences. We Chinese speak of “round friends,” friends who are destined to meet. And in San Francisco we talk of two degrees of separation. Or one degree. Or zero. Tonight, however, is not a coincidence. We’ve been working towards this since 1997. (excerpt)

Fine tuning: I added the monologue shortly before the staged reading of Rice Kugel. I then got feedback from another audience member puzzled at why I had made such a big deal out of the coincidences in the play, and that they would have expected there to be a payoff involving coincidences. I wound up adding, toward the end of the play, a mother-son exchange involving the nature of coincidences which I feel illuminated their conflict to the betterment of the play.

Chekov’s Gun

Lecture: If you put a gun onstage in act one, you have to use it in act two [or three].

Restated as feedback: I expected the [whatever] you introduced early on to play a part in the climax or outcome of the play.

Counter-examples: Red herrings, MacGuffins.

Productive take-away: I’ve only observed this particular lecture, not had it applied to my plays. I suppose I might ignore such advice or have the object play some peripheral role that disposes of it in a dramatically interesting manner. I rarely even start a play until I know how it will end, so the chances that I would impose the object on the resolution is slim. Actually, a camera does play a Chekov’s gun role in My Visit to America, and it does get revisited at the end of the first act. But virtually nobody delivers Chekov’s Gun lectures about cameras.

Related blog post: Repeal Checkov’s Law

Optional stage directions/casting instructions

Examples (from Rice Kugel):

Stage direction: He might be unclothed.

Casting instruction: Gary is a male of color, possibly female-to-male transgender. Could be played by a transgender male or a male-appearing female.

Lecture: You have to make a choice. Directors ignore stage directions anyway and will cast whoever they want.

Restated as feedback: I’m surprised at your use of optional stage directions/casting instructions.

Counter-examples: Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia: “Possibly she smokes; if so, perhaps now.” Marsha Norman’s ‘night Mother: “and maybe Momma clears her throat.” Han Ong’s Bachelor Rat, specifying that the lead actor cannot be white, but not saying what race he is.

Related blog post: I haven’t done one yet, but expect to do one in the future. I find the idea of playwrights carefully crafting instructions only to have them ignored to be particularly dysfunctional on both the playwright’s and the director’s side of the aisle.

On what a play is

Lecture: That is not a play.

Restated as feedback: I didn’t find that dramatic. (or) I had difficulty with the structure.

Counter-examples: I was going to say Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, but he called it an anti-play so perhaps even he agreed it wasn’t a play. But it is.

Thus ends my lecture. Please resume your normal feedback activities.

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5 Responses to “Warning! Lecture ahead!”

  1. Never say “no” to a note « Exit, Pursued by a Lark Says:

    […] I’ve only broken it when I’ve felt someone has said something insulting (see my post on Warning! Lecture Ahead), and even then I would do well rise above it and follow my usual […]

  2. Ian Thal Says:

    I use the optional stage directions in cases where the action as I conceive it could not be portrayed within the confines of “naturalistic” theatre but I can imagine several different devices that would be effective and I simply don’t want to tie the director and actors down to one or the other.

  3. Rinse and Don’t Repeat « Exit, Pursued by a Lark Says:

    […] For my first play, Rice Kugel, I got the comment that I had too many coincidences in my play (see Warning! Lecture Ahead). But the problem wasn’t the coincidences; it was that I hadn’t made it clear that one […]

  4. Playwright, sheath thy checklist | Exit, Pursued by a Lark Says:

    […] Often, one playwright or another, sometimes several, provides feedback objecting to the lack of one or more of the following: a clearly-identified strong, single protagonist who takes rational, active steps to overcome significant obstacles toward their clearly-identified want, a difficult but achievable, significant goal. Whether the protagonist will achieve this goal must serve as the clearly-identified major dramatic question (MDQ) of the play and the play must focus on that question. The protagonist must succeed at their goal or not based primarily on their own efforts, and be changed by this journey, their arc. There is also often an expectation of consistency in form from beginning to end; for example, if you have direct audience address near the end you must also have one near the beginning. There is also sometimes an expectation that all information be in the dialog. Sometimes, the commenting playwright takes omissions as an opportunity to deliver a Lecture on Craft. […]

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