Richard Toscan, who wrote “Playwriting Seminars 2.0,” posted on LinkedIn some suggestions for getting useful and painless feedback. They’re so good, I asked him for permission to post them here.
This is an excerpt from the section “Reading Your Audience.”
Phase 2: During the Audience Discussion
In nearly all development programs, the audience gets to have its say after readings and workshop performance. This can be gruesome without someone who knows what they’re doing leading the discussion. Never lead the discussion yourself. Most literary managers know how to control this “talk back” process.
Tips for Surviving Audience Discussions
Think of this experience as a kind of ritual, a reward for the audience that took a risk to see the first presentation of your new play.
- Take notes. This gives you someplace to look – and someplace to take out your aggressions – if you have the bad luck to get one of those types who’s determined to turn your play into his play before he’ll let you go home. You’ll hear some helpful ideas from the director and performers. Write them down so you don’t forget. This is one of the most stressful times for playwrights so having a few notes to jog your memory the next morning is a good idea.
- Never argue with the audience. Remember the Stoics and that story about the kid with the fox chewing on his gut. It may feel the same way, but you’re not here to argue – you’re here to listen. If the audience doesn’t get it, arguing with them won’t solve the problem.
- Don’t pay much attention to the specifics. You may end up being bombarded by love letters for the play, but that’s rare enough that you need to be prepared for the opposite. The more critical the audience is of what you’ve written, the more specific the suggestions for fixes will be. In fact, when hearing all this criticism, the more specific the suggestions get – “You’ve really got to have the dog sing Amazing Grace here” – the more essential it is to look for the subtext of their criticism.
In both stages, ask yourself this simple question (simple to ask, but complex to answer): What about my play is prompting these responses?
That’s the question you want answered. In most cases, the audience won’t be able to articulate what’s really bugging them about the play no matter how long this discussion goes on. You’ll need to read their subtext to unearth the answers. No matter how wrong-headed their comments may seem, it’s nearly always the case that in the subtext driving those comments they’ll have their fingers on the pulse of the play.
Best Practice: Remember that this is your play – and it’s always possible this is not your audience.
To Find Out More
Richard Toscan’s page is at http://www.vcu.edu/arts/playwriting.