One of my favorite things to be involved with in the world of playwriting is the workshop. The playwright is there, you have a room full of actors, and sometimes a moderator or a leader of the session. Depending on where in the stage or the world the event is going on you may even have a prospective producer or two. The air is full of excitement and anticipation. You wrote the script, now you get to hear the words spoken aloud.
Unfortunately, the workshop can also be an incredibly uncomfortable if both the person giving and receiving criticism don’t understand workshop etiquette. So, here I intend to address things one should NOT do while giving or receiving feedback.
You’re in the session for a reason — you’re taking a playwrighting class, you’ve joined a club, you’re friends with the writer, there could be a plethora of reasons. But you’re there. You’re reading the script (or hearing it read), and ideas start to flood your mind. That piece of dialogue didn’t sound right. I’m not sure what I think of that character. I don’t get… the thoughts go on and on. The final scene is read, and now it is time to give the playwright what they expect you to give… FEEDBACK. Hang on though, before you give it are you gonna do any of these things? Because if you are — DON’T.
1. Don’t Write The Story For Them
Just stop. Please. Stop.
I’ve been in many workshops where the rules haven’t been laid out. Etiquette isn’t established, and people think they are being helpful, in reality they aren’t.
If you were to ask me what the number one problem I have seen in a workshop session is I would say it is the person who starts to write the story for author.
It usally goes like this:
MAN: So, I really like this scene (….blah-blah-blah…..) wouldn’t it be cool if… (or) you should add… (or) what if…
STOP RIGHT THERE COWBOY!
You are writing the story for the author. The session is about them — not you. If you think something would be cool, you write that damn story. This is NOT useful, productive feedback. ‘nuf said.
2. Don’t ONLY Give Positive Feedback
Listen, I know that some people are afraid of hurting peoples feelings. And hey, we need more of you in the world, because lets face it — there are a lot of shitty people in the world (you know who you are). But when it comes to the workshop the goal is to make a piece of are better. To take it to its limit. Just giving positive feedback isn’t gonna cut it.
Sure, you could frame your criticism positively (aka constructive criticism [though all critisism should be constructive — we’ll get to deconstructive criticism soon]) but don’t be afraid to say how you feel. If something didn’t work for you SAY IT! Keeping it to yourself and just responding with…
it was good
…isn’t gonna cut it in the world outside. Don’t be affraid of giving feedback, you’re in the room for a reason, so be useful.
That said, it isn’t a bad thing to give both “what worked” and “what needs work” feedback. See how I framed that? (This is the way we framed our feedback giving in my Directing 1 class) Sandwhich a criticism between two complements or start with a complement and end with a criticism. What ever you do find be critical at some point, no script is ever truly perfected.
3. Don’t Give Solutions
This is super similar to #1, but it is slightly different too. And, to be honest, this one is debatable as to whether it should be on the list.
This situation arrises when the playwright gets the chance to speak and they ask a question like:
PLAYWRIGHT: What Should I Call This Play?
…or something of that sort. They are asking a question that involves creativity and looking for answers. Don’t give it to them. An experienced playwright probably won’t ever ask that question, because getting an answer would not help them grow.
If you — as a playwright — can’t find the answer keep searching. This is nessesary. This is the only way you get better.
There are, perhaps a situation here or there where giving a sollution may be acceptable, but my advice is try to steer clear of it as much as possible. This is why, in most of the playwrighting classes I have taken the professor will very often not let the playwright ask any questions — especially direct questions like this one.
4. Don’t Only Look At Lower Order Issues
Hey, Kevin, on page 5 there is a typo — just thought you should know…
Thanks Meg. Thank for that verrrrrry important piece of feedback, I’ll get on that. *rolls eyes*
When I was a writing center tutor in California, we were taught about what we called “Higher order” and “Lower order” problems/issues. A “Higher order” issue would be (in the context of essay writing): A weak thesis, poor organization, poor transitions, not following the prompt, confusing sentence structure, etc. Whereas, “Lower order” issue would be (also in the context of essay writing): Spelling, punctuation, commasplice, missing articles, etc. The major difference between the two is understanding. Can the reader understand what you wrote? Sure, both are important, but Meg wasn’t called to the session to be the Grammar Police, she was her to give constructive feedback, so take off the badge and give some useful feedback.
5. Don’t Be Rude…or Petty
Do you want to be black listed? Because that’s how you get black listed.
Real talk. If you are an asshole in a workshop, you better be fucking Shakespeare because I sure as hell am not gonna be asking you to come back if you are just another writer but for what ever reason you never learned basic communication skills.
To be honest, I have yet to experience this in real life, but knowing people I’m almost certain it happens.
You may claim you’re just being constructive, but you aren’t. You’re being deconstructive — the opposite of what you should be doing. Being rude or being petty is NEVER acceptable. If you have beef with the writer for whatever reason, excuse yourself and come back when you have something constructive to add.
GREAT! YOU DID IT! YOU DIDN’T FUCK THIS UP! I’m proud of you. High Five! Damnit, now there is a smudge on my monitor. Anyway, these are super important things to keep in mind when giving feedback. I hope they will be useful in sessions to come. Now, lets talk about recieving feedback…
The table has been turned, and it’s your turn to shine. You spent hours and hours slaving away on the script. Bottles of wine and cartons of ciggaretts deep in thought until the wee hours of the night because you just need to finish that last little scene, but for some reason it just isn’t working. But you finally got it. You went to Kinkos and you had them print several copies — there goes a hundred bucks — you bought snacks invited some fellow playwrights and actors (maybe you were even lucky to get a producer in on the fun) and now it is time to hear it read aloud. You have put your blood, sweat, tears, and hard earned cash into this project only to subject yourself to criticism. It almost seems like something a fool would do. But these are the sacrafices we make for our art.
Here’s the thing, you aren’t a fool. You are doing what every smart plawright does. You are asking for feedback. That said, if you aren’t careful, you can quite easily look like a fool in front of everybody. That’s why I made this list of five things you SHOULDN’T do when recieving feedback. Let’s jump into it…
1. Don’t Justify Your Work
You see, what I was trying to do was…
Quite possibly the most anoying thing I have seen new playwrights do in the workshop is justify their creative choices. Just don’t do it. If you feel the kneejerk desire do do it, stop your self, nod, say: “OK,” and note the criticism on a piece of paper.
If someone doesn’t understand something then they don’t understand it. Justifying it doesn’t change anything and it wastes time. Instead, try to figure out why something didn’t work.
There’s a chance it’s just an anomaly, and generally in that sort of a case another in the session would push back on the first critique and say that they disagreed with the criticism and why. The goal of a feedback session is to make a play better and if something doesn’t make sence, well it is your job to figure out whether or not you should fix the issue or let it be.
2. Don’t Believe All Feedback
I don’t care if Lin-Manuel Miranda is sitting in the feedback session, you should never believe every piece of feedback you are given. Remeber, this is your story not theirs. You know how the story is supposed to unfold and why, they don’t. So, don’t believe everything someone tells you.
Instead, what I like to do is jot the notes down, and think about it at another time once I get a chance to sleep the nerves off. So, make a note of the feedback, and critically think about it when you are alone infront of your screen making revisions on your latest draft of the script. Hey! Maybe the notes are perfect, but at the same time, maybe they aren’t.
3. Don’t Dismiss All Feedback
The exact opposite of #2, I don’t care if Joe Schmoe read the script and gave you some feedback, and Joe Schmoe doesn’t even have a highschool degree — don’t dismiss all feedback.
Humans have an inherent inclination to tell stories, and we intuitively know what we do and don’t like. If Joe gives you some advice about something that he doesn’t feel works jot it down, and critically think about it when you are alone in front of your screen making revisions on your latest draft of the script. (This feels like Déjà vu doesn’t it?) Maybe the notes are perfect, but at the same time, maybe they aren’t.
4. Don’t Take It Personally
I feel like I shouldn’t need to point out #4 and #5, but I have a sinking suspicion that there are some playwrights out there who just can’t handle feedback. They see all criticism as a personal attack on them because their work is an extention of them.
They also probably havn’t learned a damn thing in ages.
Feedback, especially the constructive type is by it’s nature not personal. Everone in the session is there because of the love of the craft. The goal of the session is to grow your piece. No one is out to get you. Bannish such thoughts from your mind and don’t ever let them back in.
5. Don’t Assume Criticism Means Someone Dislikes the Play
An extention of #4, just because someone gives you criticism doesn’t automatically mean they dislike the play. Sure, at times you may be in a sesssion and you may recieve feeback from someone who clearly dislikes the play, but I would argue that for the most part the people either like the play or are indifferent to it. To outright dislike it seems a bit of a stretch. So don’t assume it is automatically so.
YOU MADE IT! You survived your first — or 89th workshop session. How do you feel? Did these things help? I hope so. Because the work isn’t over. Now you gotta take your notepad full of scribbles and take your script to the next level. Then, back to the workshop for more feeback. #thecircleoflife
The workshop is an important and safe space — it’s a holy place for the soul of the writer, and it should be treated as such. We should respect the craft as much as possible and actively seek create the most nurturing of environments for our work, and that means to practice proper workshop etiquitte.
Kevin is a Navy veteran who has been writing for many years, and has an interest in helping others realize their talent. He has been published in an anthology of short stories which you can purchase from Amazon. Currently he lives in NYC and studies at Columbia University. Kevin also produces music under the alias of Bass Savage and you can listen to his music and find his affiliated social media on his website. You can also connect with Kevin at his LinkedIn and support his work at Patreon.