A Playwright’s Guide to Audience Feedback

February 4th, 2014 by

Three keys to gracefully getting what you need (without getting depressed)

Whenever I am in the middle of a new project, I can’t help the flights of fancy. I daydream about opening nights, rave reviews, and the answers I’ll give about my inspiration and creative process when I sit for interviews. With that as the typical backdrop, I invariably find a first reading a coming-to-earth experience.  Just hearing a piece out loud is usually enough to break the spell, to show me the finish line is further then I thought, and to remind me how much work, and re-work playwriting is. Then comes the feedback. And though, in my daydream reveries, I imagine the only thing audiences will be able to say is, “Wow!” in fact, they say a lot more.

It can be an ego bruising experience.

So, I am happy to share, what have emerged from my experiences sharing work and getting feedback at Playwrights’ Platform, my three keys to getting what I need without getting depressed:

  1. Ask for the feedback you want: Be specific about the kind of feedback you need (and are ready for). If it’s new and raw and you just want encouragement to keep at it, don’t be bashful about saying so. Ask what they like about it, what they think is working, and what they’d like more of. In my experience, the best moderators always open audience feedback by asking the playwright about their reaction to hearing a piece, and, “What questions do you have? How can we help you?” Even if they don’t, remember this is your time. Frame the conversation in the way that will be most useful to you. Don’t just ever say, “Tell me what you think.” You’ll get that without asking. But you can also steer the conversation where you want, and need it to go.
  2. Stick to the script: Whether they like it or loathe it, whether they are well behaved and restrict their comments to their reactions (or wade into suggestions about how to rewrite your play), in my experience, the best strategy is to avoid getting lured into defending, debating, or discussing your choices (or possible new directions). This is air time for other’s reactions and feedback. It isn’t pretty to argue with others about their experiences and impressions. Nod your head to show you are listening. And stick to this script (disclaimer – acting sometimes required)“Thank you.” “I hear what you are saying.” “I understand your point.”
  3. Take some. Leave the rest: At the end of the day, it is your play, and your call about what feedback to heed and what to ignore. Some will hit home, and you won’t be able to shake it until you deal with it. The rest comes and goes and, in time, it’s like it never happened at all.