Rinse and Don’t Repeat


One of the most important things a playwright needs to learn during the development process is how to filter feedback aka “notes.”

Some notes I take more seriously than others. Recently, I read part of a current work-in-progress, My Visit to America, an alternate history, at Fogcon I, a new local (to the San Francisco Bay Area) convention with a focus on speculative fiction literature. My goal was to find out whether the alternate history aspect was satisfying to speculative fiction fans. I got that, but what else I got was something that had been missed in earlier feedback from other sources.

That feedback, based on just the first 18 pages of a 90-page-or-thereabouts play, was that the play had a lot of repetition.

Wow! I had totally missed that.

Yes, I was aware there was some repetition. For instance, in the first few minutes, this exchange occurs:

JOCHI: Thou call’dst me into thine office. The least thou canst do is greet me.

TALKS WITH STRANGERS: (Correcting the previous speech) “The Liaison” called me into “his” office. The least “he” can do is greet me.

(Slow burn, or perhaps not so slow.)

JOCHI: Whatever thou art listening to, I-

TALKS WITH STRANGERS: (Correcting the previous speech) Whatever “the Liaison” is listening to.

See the repetition? Talks with Strangers corrects Jochi twice. I had put this in intentionally to make sure the audience got that the use of “thou” was somehow annoying to Talks with Strangers. And someone had mentioned this repetition a long time ago, and I had ignored it. But here it was coming up again. So I changed the opening dialog to remove the second pair of offense and correction.

The issue does come up again later, with the next response being a lecture to Jochi and the third response a threat, so I really didn’t need this repetition here. If an audience member misses it here, it will be clear soon enough.

But this latest comment wasn’t that I had put one repetition at the beginning of my play, it was that there was a lot of repetition. So I went on the hunt in my script. Sure enough, I came up with another one:

TALKS WITH STRANGERS: Until such time as we become close, should that ever come to pass, the Trade Minister is neither to thee nor thou me again. If the Trade Minister thees or thous me even a single additional time, I shall drag him from this office, haul his struggling body to a nearby forest and thrash him until he lies bleeding and broken, diplomatic relations or no diplomatic relations.

which I then rewrote to:

TALKS WITH STRANGERS: If the Trade Minister thees or thous me even a single additional time, I shall drag him from this office, haul his struggling body to a nearby forest and thrash him until he lies bleeding and broken, diplomatic relations or no diplomatic relations.

I intend to go through the play and eliminate as many of these repetitions I think I can get away with without making the play less clear.

So now you know a note that I implement without needing to hear it from a lot of people.

Another note that demanded such action is “I lost interest when Frank died,” said about the ending to my play Hemlock. I had seen Ken as the main character, but this comment made me realize that it was perfectly reasonable for an audience member to see Frank as the main character instead. So I made his spirit, which was already part of the play, more central to the resolution of the play. And sure enough, the next reading, that commenter didn’t lose interest.

So if you tell me you lost interest at a certain point, I will probably do something about it. I say probably, because My Visit to America, intentionally being of the type of play called the “difficult play” will likely be boring to some people and I accept that. But for other plays, “I lost interest when…” strikes terror into my soul.

Other comments might be called “majority rule.” If I hear the same comment over and over, I will probably do something about it unless it does serious damage to my play.

Other comments might be called “rewriting the play.” The commenter has an interesting (or not so interesting) idea that they want to shoehorn into my play. For example, “Why don’t you set the play in Spain?” Such comments are usually cheerfully ignored. If sufficiently interesting they might turn up in a future play. Sometimes this may be an indication that I didn’t put enough of what was in my head onto the page, so it could still instigate a rewrite. It’s just that the rewrite will probably be totally unrelated to what the commenter suggested. Then again, I may have intentionally left some detail out so as not to weigh the play down, so unless I hear the same thing from multiple people I may well decide that leaving the play as is will do less damage than resolving the issue would do.

Finally, sometimes a comment really means I didn’t do my job somewhere else. For my first play, Rice Kugel, I got the comment that I had too many coincidences in my play (see Warning! Lecture Ahead for my essay on Lectures on Craft). But the problem wasn’t the coincidences; it was that I hadn’t made it clear that one character’s through-story was a sex farce. So I rewrote with the intent of making the farce side of the play clearer.

Similarly, I have sometimes chosen an offbeat method of stage direction or casting. These will also tend to draw Lectures on Craft. For these comments I decide how important my offbeat choice is to me and adjust or ignore accordingly. An example would be providing specific information about which characters might reasonably be played by an actor with a gender contrary to the expected (usually a woman taking a male-identified role) or by an actor with a disability; this is a political choice on my part, so such comments are likely to be ignored. But I can understand why people would make them and I am trying to learn to take the note and not snap back.

I actually write down every comment I get — even the rewriting-my-play ones — as you never know when they will turn out to be useful. I take care not to try implementing them all, or even more than a few, lest the play go astray from my vision or have the life sucked out of it by being too tight or too perfect.

But repetition? Once again, it must be stomp—

Oops!

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One Response to “Rinse and Don’t Repeat”

  1. theactorvist Says:

    I actually like the rewrite of the TALKS WITH STRANGERS character that you posted above.
    Is there a scheduled time for another reading yet? I am hoping to be able to see/hear your new work.

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