Revision notes (7): feedback and other tricky customers

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Although I’m deep into the making of The Echo Chamber with The Llanarth Group, I’m very aware of life and work continuing, despite my immersion in what feels at times a parallel universe. I’ve learnt over the years to organise my time and tasks well, so I don’t have to juggle too many at this essential crystallising period, or continuously switch heads like some kind of demented Worzel Gummage.

I’m aware, at the periphery of my mind, the next project and its tasks lining up, creating, if I’m lucky, an orderly queue.

I’m particularly aware of the feedback document compiled by Andrew Loretto and Daniel Evans of Sheffield Theatres sitting in my in-box; a full, focused response to my most recent draft of LeanerFasterStronger. I haven’t opened it, nor will I until my creative focus is clear from this current production, so no influences can seep unintentionally from one project into the other. To receive feedback from the creative producer and artistic director of a company demands to be treated with utmost seriousness and respect, especially from collaborators who have already committed to production. But what when the work has not yet got a home? So much of theatre production and script development relies on relationships,  often forged over a period of time. What then for the young in career writer who wants feedback and constructive criticism, but who may not have connections to key ‘gate keepers’ or script development professionals?

These are central questions about feedback: how to get it and who to get it from.

I was recently on the writers’ forum of the National Theatre Wales community website and saw a playwright looking for other playwrights or theatre practitioners to read their recently completed play. This seemed to be a good place to pitch for opinion or support, especially if there is some knowledge of the other members and their predilections. I’ve found feedback is more meaningful if there is an understanding of where these opinions are coming from.

By that I mean it helps to know that the person you received that blisteringly damning comment on your experimental script is really really into character-driven naturalism. Likewise, the bemused or cool at best comments on the book of a new musical you’ve created will gain a focus and context if you know your critic is into postdramatic performance and hates John Barrowman. Having this knowledge can act as a compass, helping you navigate the middle path and interpret advice and feedback, which is especially useful if they are conflicting, and from different sources. Which can be common. So which do you follow?

After completing the second draft of my play peeling, I knew I was writing something beyond my experience of structure and form. I felt like I really didn’t know what I was doing. I genuinely had no idea how to proceed. I was in a fortunate position at the time, as I was working with two literary managers who I asked to read the draft and advise me on how to proceed.

Both felt the script had potential, and both said they had not read anything quite like it before. ‘The more ‘real’ and naturalistic you can make it, the more effective it will be’ one told me. ‘The more you push the convention, the more experimental and non-naturalistic you are, the better it will be’ the other said. Neither knew of the other’s involvement and I didn’t want to enlighten them. So what should I do? Having a sense of their tastes and preferences in performance style helped me contextualise their comments. I realised in the end it was down to me to plot a path between their perspectives, guided by my own opinion, interpretation and deconstruction of their feedback: what had prompted it, where it was coming from, and whether I wanted to follow that proposed path.

In the end, it was down to me training myself – reading and seeing work, building up an understanding of what I felt worked, what I liked, what I believed to be effective. I had to know and trust my own opinion – not in an arrogant, ‘I know it all’ way – but as a means to make feedback (which we will always need, no matter how big and clever we become) useful – especially when coming from knowledgeable, potentially intimidating sources such as directors, tutors, or literary managers.

But it is as equally valid if your critic has no formal training, understanding, or even interest in your chosen medium. I believe we can gain insight from any person we are lucky enough to get to read or see our work. My father, a butcher and a farmer who had left school at a very young age, was one of my most insightful, hurtful, and inspiring critics. Knowledge and perception can come from any place – but these gifts often come with barbs – so it really helps to know what forces are at work on the response – their tastes, preferences, but also whether a hidden agenda may be present.

I have friends who are members of writers’ groups for the feedback and camaraderie, but they tell me, like any close knit community or family, there can be tensions and antipathies as much as encouragement and sympathies.

A former colleague who writes historical fiction had to leave one circle as she found she was unintentionally pandering to the tastes of the group which were more conventional and cosy than the edginess she aspired to. A former student dropped out of his evening class owing to what he described as a bullying, homophobic hierarchical dynamic which even held the workshop leader in thrall. ‘I’m glad we weren’t twelve. It would have been like Lord of the Flies‘ he memorably told me, returning to his ‘proud pink prose’ which had been dismissed so readily in the group feedback sessions (‘I’m sure it’s fine in its place, but does anyone really want to read this? I mean, would you ever find a publisher, or an agent writing stuff like that?’). The feedback he received was making him doubt everything about his work, so he did the right thing: he ignored it.

But there is a caveat to that. We can’t go around ignoring every piece of feedback which hurts or makes us doubtful, especially if we keep getting the same comment.

As my friend the artist, writer, and choreographer Sam Boardman-Jacobs taught me many years ago: When ten doctors tell you to lie down. LIE DOWN!

And finally, if you are seeking feedback, give a comfortable context within which your reader/critic can respond. Specify. Do you want a full-on, no-holds barred free for all? Or do you want specific feedback on certain areas you can identify (‘does the dialogue sound credible?’), but not others (‘I know the structure’s wobbly, I haven’t yet found the ending, but I’m working on that and it’s too delicate to get feedback on’). Be clear what you want a response to. Set parameters if need be – be realistic about what you really want to know and communicate that to your readers. Don’t forget to pull on those extra layers of crocodile skin before you receive your feedback.

Hope this may be useful.

Good luck, all. And to put the shoe on the other foot: Take as much care in giving out feedback as you do in taking it in.

copyright Kaite O’Reilly 9/1/12

4 responses to “Revision notes (7): feedback and other tricky customers

  1. It is hugely enjoyable and insightful to read your blog posts Kate. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience so openly.

  2. Thank you so much for that, Carys. Often the only reward for writing these posts is the knowledge they are being read, or followed – I’m so pleased they’re useful (I’m not a great fan of contemplating your navel blogs). I’m a typical playwright, I’m afraid – once I know I have an audience, I will write – but this also serves a purpose, as this focus, and the awareness I have other writers/practitioners out there reading these posts, enables me to reflect on process and practice and externalise what I am learning. As I wrote recently on the National Theatre Wales community website, it’s a sort of writerly version of EM Forster’s ‘How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?’ So thanks for engaging. x

  3. This is possibly the most useful guide to receiving feedback on scripts. Is there any way I can re-post it on the WYP blog? Sign posted back to here obviously. I think it should get as much exposure as possible.

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