Feedback – How to Take It

“It’s not the truth – it’s feedback.”
My acting teacher Carol Fox Prescott used to say that. She was telling us that no one person can know the truth about your performance. They say what they felt and thought, but that’s all they can do. The power is in you – you can do anything you want with that feedback – accept it, reject it, use it to grow your show, or use it to make yourself feel bad.
Another, less elegant way to put it is “Opinions are like a—holes; everybody has one.” This is also true. Lots of people will tell you what they think of your show – but only a small amount of that feedback is going to be useful.
So how do you separate what’s useful from what’s not? How do you reconcile the various –often conflicting—opinions?
When you get feedback – either positive or negative – always remember to consider the source. Is this person someone who knows about playwriting? Do you respect their opinion? Do you care what they think? Is their feedback based on what they actually witnessed, or on a personal bias?
When I am working on new material, I only accept feedback from a very select few – people who I trust to offer only what’s useful, and who don’t toss off those opinions without careful thought.
Once you have amassed all the opinions you find worthy, where do you begin? When I first started headlining as a stand-up comic, I asked my good friend Rob Bartlett for some pointers. He said, “When in doubt, question your performance.” This is a good policy. Before you go to your script and start making changes, be sure that you have fully expressed on the stage what you put on the page.
Try it three times, with variations on the acting choices. If it still needs work, then it’s time to consider rewriting your script. Remember that this is YOUR play – and use your gut response to decide if things need changing. You are not writing to please others. You are writing to communicate your vision, so be a high quality critic of your own work – take responsibility for your own tastes and opinions. Be willing to say no to feedback, even from those you trust, if it violates your vision. But also be willing to “kill your darlings.” Often we keep things in our plays because we love them, but if they don’t read with the audience then they are candidates for a cut. Keep it lean and mean. If it’s not essential to the play, you don’t want it in there.
Likewise, there may be parts of your play that people say are confusing or unclear. Often new playwrights have the world of the play fully populated in their heads, but much of that world didn’t make it onto the page. If you have left out essential information about character or plot, put it in. But remember that the audience needs to be invested in the action – they want to connect the dots. If you draw all the conclusions for them, then there’s no need for them to see the play.
President Lincoln borrowed the words of poet John Lydgate when he said, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”. It’s important for us as playwrights to acknowledge the truth of that quote – and to avoid trying to please everyone. The most important person to please is yourself.
These issues, and hundreds of others, are what we deal with in my Writing Your Heart Out workshop, every Tuesday at Stage Left. I’ll be sharing more of them with you in the coming weeks. As always, I welcome your comments and questions, on Page to Stage.


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