Theater Around The Bay: Swell. Thanks!

We gave Barbara the day off and instead bring you local playwright Jennifer Roberts, reflecting on being thankful for that ever elusive animal… good critical feedback.

Two and a half weeks after Death Of A River in 3/4 Time was staged for the 2014 San Francisco Olympians Festival, I received a thoughtful email from an audience member. Her email came during a writing retreat and I couldn’t take it all in at that moment as my focus was on The Killing Jar (and hot tub), but I keep going back to it and becoming more and more grateful that she had been thinking about the play for this long and took the time to write me. Her letter was kind. She was interested in what the play had to say, but she was also blunt. She pointed out what hadn’t resonated with her and why. Typically, when an audience member writes to me I have one of two reactions: “Who asked you?” or “Swell. Thanks!” Usually critiques fall into the former and compliments in the latter. Hey, I’m human. My ego has an ego. But her letter of critique was swell. Here’s one reason why: she was right.

Her criticism was exactly what I knew already wasn’t working in the play (basically, I brought a hammer). Okay, now it sounds like if you agree with me, swell. If not, buh-bye. But that’s not entirely true. Not all emails that fall into the “Swell. Thanks,” reception are there because they align with my own awareness or are complimentary. In fact, I’m not always open to random emails from folks telling me what would have made my play better. If I’ve invited you to give feedback, that’s one thing, right? If I hadn’t, then I probably don’t want to hear it. “Who asked you?”

So why did I take this particular email well? I can’t say for sure. Maybe it’s because it was careful and considerate. I could tell she wanted to like the play. Maybe it’s because I know her. Maybe it’s because she, too, is a playwright, but avoided telling me how to write my play. She simply stated what hadn’t resonated and why. She didn’t offer fixes or suggestions. I respected her for that. A lot.

I wrote back and thanked her for critique.

I also let her know that I was challenging myself with this play and hadn’t gotten it to where I had hoped it would be, but was proud of it. (actually, I’m more proud of myself for attempting it). The play was problematic for me in many ways, so I decided, in the end, to let it be what it was for it’s first reading. I let her know that I doubt I’ll revise or revisit it. She responded that she was disappointed because, the subject is an important one and “one worthy of fuller treatment in your hands.”

And I agree.

However, sometimes you have to acknowledge when you don’t yet have the skills to pull off something. That’s what I learned with Death of A River. But also, if you don’t try, you’ll never acquire the skills.

I have to say, finding myself in a place of acceptance over not achieving the perfect play hasn’t been easy. I’ve always been a little embarrassed of the ones that didn’t quite hit the mark. But something has shifted for me. Perhaps it’s growth as a writer or growth as a person. Perhaps it was a blog post (I believe it was a SF Theater Pub post written by Allison Page, but I can’t locate it) that was about embracing your failures because of what they can teach you. Or, at least, that’s what I recall it saying. And I whole-heartily agree. Now.

A shift.

I still want to write a language play (on a subject I’m passionate about, while leaving my soapbox at home–it’s too heavy to lug around, anyway), and I will. Anyone who knows me knows if I set out to so something, I will do it. Eventually. I’ve already made the first step.

Jennifer Lynne Roberts is a playwright and producer and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from California College of Arts. She’s a past president of The Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco and an Associate Artist with Wily West Productions. Her latest full length play, THE KILLING JAR, was a 2014 finalist for Dayton Playhouse’s FutureFest. Find out more at</em>