Never say “no” to a note


When engaging in public feedback sessions after a reading of my plays or scenes, I follow a nearly invariant rule: never respond to a note other than to say “thank you” or to write it down (and yes, I really do write it down, not my shopping list). 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 rule.

But when I’m discussing it with somebody one-on-one, I will sometimes break the rule and tell them why I’m not doing x. I suspect that is still a mistake. Because sometimes comments need to percolate.

In this case, Gary Graves, my instructor of the wonderful Berkeley Rep School of Theatre Summer Playwright Workshop, and I were discussing my work-in-progress My Visit to America, an alternate history play in which the Mongolians conquered Europe and, as a result, Europe never conquered America. The first act is set in Miami, the second in London, in the present day.

In the reading for that workshop, one or more audience members had raised the issue of why they were talking English in America. Gary suggested that I have the visiting bureaucrat Jochi comment on the fact that the American Talks With Strangers speaks English.

Well, actually, it’s more complicated than that. How do we know they are talking English anywhere? How do we know English even exists anymore in the world of my play? Nobody questions that in Christopher Hampton’s play Les Liaisons Dangereuses, set in France, all the characters are talking in English. It’s just that Christopher Hampton is an English-language playwright and so the play is in English. I am an English-language playwright, so I write in English (well, mostly — my first play Rice Kugel used bits of several languages, but it was mostly in English).

But actually what I said was this is a complex world and I don’t want to weigh the play down. It will probably come up in the 20-volume graphic novel anthology series (yes, I really do envision a graphic novel anthology series — it’s that kind of world), but not in this play.

Bad move.

Because it shuts off discussion.

Because it discourages further notes which might turn out to be useful.

Because notes are a gift. Whether you use the gift or hide it in the closet is up to you, but you always say thank you for a gift.

Because it often turns out to be wrong. Sometimes it emerges in some other ways different than what the commenter had in mind.

As it eventually did.

So now Jochi says, referring to Talks With Strangers (at this point in the play they are referring to each other, as etiquette requires, in the third person by title), “The Liaison’s English is very good.”

This is something white folks in the U.S. often say to Asian folks, including to native-born Asian Americans. It is considered insulting. It is also something I use in my Gay Asian-American play Rice Kugel (I have immigrant Asian Ming say it to Asian American Richard). I like reusing lines from one play in another, so it suits my sense of humor to reuse it in My Visit to America.

Talks With Strangers responds, referring to Jochi, “So is the Trade Minister’s.”

Which is certainly better than getting into an argument about it. But it is a sort of slap-back, so there’s plenty of underlying conflict. So I was able to use this suggestion to increase conflict.

Furthermore, I wound up adding a later discussion that Talks With Stranger’s Executive Assistant is an English-speaking immigrant from Eurasia who has left because he is white (monoracials are discriminated against in Eurasia). So it gives me an opportunity to introduce the theme of racism in Eurasia, which becomes important to the plot later on, as well as exposing Jochi as one of those Eurasians who engages in discrimination, which also becomes more important later on.

Without this added scene, when those conflicts explode they could seem to some to come out of left field.

So this simple comment which I so readily rejected actually wound up strengthening the play.

You never know.

So say “thank you” and write it down.

You don’t have to use it.  But you can’t use it if they never say it because you argued with them on an earlier comment.

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