Good morning! Please enjoy some displaced Marissa Skudlarek to start your weekend!
On Tuesday night, I attended a developmental reading of my play You’ll Not Feel the Drowning. As one of the four plays that Custom Made Theatre Co. selected for the first year of its new-works development program, it is undergoing a process that includes public readings, talk-backs, written feedback — in short, lots of people whom I may or may not know have the chance to tell me their opinions about my still-in-process script. And considering that the last time I had a talk-back, several years ago, someone publicly accused me of slandering the memory and reputation of a good man… I was feeling a little nervous about the whole endeavor.
By their very nature, even the best-run developmental readings and talk-backs can leave you feeling incredibly vulnerable. Here are some thoughts and tips about how to offset that vulnerability. Note that this isn’t about putting your fingers in your ears and saying “I don’t want to hear your feedback!” Rather, it’s about learning how to accept the feedback from a place of grace and strength, so that you and your script can grow and improve.
First, be sure that you’re in a good head-space before the reading. This is something that I could have done better on Tuesday night. I had hoped to leave work on the dot of 5 PM, which would give me over an hour in which to drink a hot beverage, write in my journal, and examine my anxieties and try to set them aside. But, you know, life and the Day Job have a way of intervening, and I didn’t leave the office till after 6. I felt a bit rushed and un-prepared. I started babbling about random stuff on Twitter, as I do when I’m anxious, and then started worrying that all my Twitter-babbling would make me lose followers. Waiting for the bus would’ve compounded my anxieties, so I took a cab to the reading instead. I hoped that this would make me feel like a fancy glamorous playwright, and it didn’t quite do that, but it was still money well spent.
Plan your outfit carefully. This advice might be more relevant to women than to men: in our society, women have more types of clothing options than men do, and unfortunately, many female outfits that read as “pretty” or “dressed-up” do so by enhancing the wearer’s vulnerability. I’m not saying you can’t look pretty or be comfortable at your own talk-back, but I am saying that those qualities are not of primary importance. What should be your priority is to find an outfit that makes you feel powerful. I have a gray knit dress that I pull out whenever I need psychological armor. It’s flattering and comfortable, yes, but it has become my chain-mail. I wore it to a staged reading in 2014 where I had to stand up onstage in front of the guy who’d dumped me six weeks previously; I wore it in early March, when I was on my first assignment for American Theatre magazine and met producer Carole Shorenstein Hayes; and of course, I wore it on Tuesday night. With high heels and brazen bright-red lipstick, no less. It’s not a frivolous frippery; it’s war paint.
Take notes during the reading: this will focus your attention and give you something to do. Note when the audience laughs; note when they seem lost or distracted. Note the moments where you yourself get lost or bored, and ask yourself honestly: is it the actors’ fault, or is it a flaw in my writing? Remember that, just as your primary purpose is not to be pretty or likable, the actors’ primary purpose is not to be entertaining or virtuosic. Rather, they are there to interpret the script in such a way that you gain a better understanding of its virtues and flaws. Hopefully, your actors (like mine) will be talented and committed people who ask you good questions in rehearsal, but the point is that they are there to serve your work. Listen to your actors, and maybe at the reading, something will click for you, and you’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, that actor was totally right, this monologue is way too long and I need to rewrite it” (or whatever).
As for the talk-back itself, I hope you have a strong moderator who knows how to structure the session and lays out solid ground rules. (Stuart Bousel did a very good job of this on Tuesday night, structuring the talk-back in a focused and precise way that allowed for some give-and-take between me and the audience, but kept everyone’s power in balance.) The moderator should emphasize that while you are interested in hearing thoughts and reactions that may spark your imagination, you are not interested in hearing suggestions along the lines of “This is how I’d rewrite your play.” Continue to take notes during the talk-back, especially when audience members make comments that fire your imagination or reveal a new layer of the play to you. The paper and pen are your shield and sword here.
A word about self-deprecating humor. It’s a defense mechanism, and I use it frequently when I have to speak about my work in front of an audience, but I realize it’s not the strongest armor. Essentially, self-deprecation says “I am pointing out my weaknesses in a humorous way so that you don’t point them out in a vicious way.” Yes, self-deprecation fills awkward silences and can make people think that you are charming, but you’re not there to be charming, you’re there to write a fucking awesome play. I wish I were better at talking about my weaknesses honestly and humbly and without giggling. Or, perhaps, waiting for other people to mention them rather than doing it with my preemptive self-deprecation.
More dangerous than the actual talk-back is the informal discussion about your play that happens afterwards. Maybe someone comes up to you and offers unsolicited feedback, in a format that would never have flown with the talk-back’s moderator. Prefacing everything with “Well, this is just my opinion, but…”, this audience member decides it’s time to tell you everything that’s wrong with your play and how he would have done it better.
Perhaps the best strategy in this case is to say “I don’t want to hear it,” but it can be very hard to tell people to just shut up. An alternative strategy that I try to use is to put up a front. Mantras help: anything from “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” to “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds” – whatever makes you feel powerful. Chant that phrase to yourself as you listen to the criticisms. Smile and nod and say “okay,” like a sweet-natured robot. And let his words go in one ear and out the other, as you put up an invulnerable facade.
If that wasn’t quite effective and some of the criticism got through, niggling at you and sapping your writerly self-confidence, this where esprit de l’escalier comes in handy. Walking home, replay that conversation in your head. Feel the shame and anger. And, after having to listen to that “just my opinion” litany of everything that’s wrong with your play, imagine retorting: “Well, it’s just my opinion, but I think you are a tremendous jerk.”
After all, your words got you into this situation; your words can get you out again.
Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. For more: marissabidilla.blogspot.com or Twitter @MarissaSkud.