Friday, January 15, 2010

Should Literary Managers Be Developing Playwrights?

Mead Hunter asks:
Do playwrights really want unvarnished honesty? If I say to you, “We passed on your play because we felt your ending was lame,” what subtext do you hear? If you rewrite that ending under the impression that now Theater XYZ will gladly produce it, and that doesn’t happen, then you will really feel had. The danger of specific criticism is that will be received as advice -- or even as a promise.
Isaac responds:
I will respond to this by telling a story, a story of rejection! Rejection of me!
The story is a pretty simple one about an agent who took the time to gave Isaac five pages of quality, incisive, honest feedback. Says Isaac:
This is the important part [of the story] here though: These notes were far, far blunter than I have ever seen notes given in theatre to anyone working in any field other than design. And I'll tell ya... it didn't feel awesome. It took a couple of days before I could get through that I was kind of upset at the rejection to actually see what the notes were. But at that point, I dusted myself and the proposal off and went to work. That project has laid dormant for awhile, because of other writing needs, but when it's time to go back, I'll reexamine those notes and see how I feel.
From Isaac's perspective, the downside from the perspective of playwrights is a bit of bruised feelings, and the upside is higher quality work.

I always favor the honest, polite, incisive commentary. The key, of course, is in the politeness. I believe that there is always a way to phrase criticism in such a way as to remove any of the personal rancor from it. There is no need for you to pretend that things are not wrong when they are wrong, but there's also absolutely no need for you to use the sort of language such as "your ending was lame." In fact, the more specific your criticism, the less likely the playwright is going to be insulted.

The times that criticism really hurts, emotionally, is when you realize it is both right and difficult to fix. If someone gives you a straightforward, clearly true criticism, you tend to just implement the change and be done with it. If someone gives you a complex and clearly wrong piece of criticism, we tend to ignore it. But when something cuts down to the core of what you're working on, boy, that hurts like a raw nerve. They don't have to insult you, or be brusque, or dismissive--the truth and the depth of the criticism does all the pain itself.

I had that recently myself. A friend of mine sent me back a draft with the note that, from moment to moment, the play stands very well on its own, but the logic behind the characters' motivations are confused and conflicted. I stared at the script for hours with a terrible, sinking feeling that the hours and hours of work I had put into it was worthless. It's a really painful feeling.

But what's the alternative? That I walk around with a terribly flawed script without knowing it? Without being so trite as to say "no pain no gain"... wait, I just said it.

Anyways, a separate issue is whether literary managers have some sort of responsibility to do this. And the answer is no. They are busy. It would be nice if they could. But they are not our parents, or our friends, or our mothers. If a theater decides we have potential, then we should be developed. But theaters and their literary managers have the right to decide how to spend their time. I know how much time I spend just responding to my friends' work, and I get something on the order of two or three plays a month. It takes me time to give good criticism. How much time are we expecting a literary manager to spend giving criticism?