This week resulted in the project’s first instance of a visitor hiring me (or any of the other dramaturgs, that I know of) for a gig. A playwright came with the goal of finding somebody to give him feedback on a script he’s been working on, we talked for a bit, it seemed like a good fit, and we shook on it. It’s not the only reason I started this, but I’m glad it’s happened, and that a writer seeking feedback for his script was able to use the project as a sort of interview/test drive/first date. I also suggested how he could go about finding other dramaturgs who live in his geographic area, since I feel that it’s more beneficial to support a culture of dramaturgs being accessible and utilized than to hawk my own wares.
He’d been given feedback on the play recently by a colleague that was harsh and didn’t indicate anything that the colleague liked about the play. The writer had sought out this person’s comments after having been on a script evaluation panel with him, and feeling that he possessed strong critical abilities. I asked whether this feedback had been helpful, and the writer replied that he had a thick skin.
I tend to avoid giving feedback on plays I don’t connect to (which is a gentler way of saying, I suppose, “don’t like”), and I encourage generative artists to be more particular about whom they invite feedback from, and how they facilitate the giving of feedback. If someone dislikes entirely what you’re doing, I presume that means they don’t understand it (because to understand would be to connect to it, which would probably mean they’d like it). And if they don’t understand it, how is their critique going to help you get where you want to go? You’d do just as well to walk down the street and ask every stranger what they think of your haircut. (Although, if that sounds useful or pleasant to you, you may disagree with my point of view entirely.)
It’s certainly possible to find someone at the other end of the spectrum—who loves your play so much that their 100% positive feedback might be the supportive boost you need to keep going but not useful in figuring out how to achieve your artistic goals for it.
But negative criticism is especially unlikely to help if it is relayed as comments about what the critic doesn’t like or “what doesn’t work,” as opposed to questions sensitively posed based on their personal experience of the work, or to gauge what your intentions are.
To expand on this, there are two distinct ways to give feedback: by articulating your personal experience of and response to the work; and by engaging with the artist about how their intentions played out in what they've created. These can be expressed in several ways: asking questions, stating impressions, offering suggestions.
The safest, most benign—but still useful—way to give feedback, is by giving personal impressions, as questions or statements: “I connected to this moment when….”; “I found myself a losing focus in the moment where…”; “I was curious as to why your protagonist ….” It takes more sensitivity and care to articulate your personal responses than to offer suggestions. It keeps your feedback to an area of your expertise--your opinion--and leaves the artist to do what is ultimately the artist’s job of figuring out how your response relates to their vision of the play.
This sort of feedback is the kind that, in general, is most helpful to get from general audiences in talkbacks or surveys—if any feedback is desired; or from anyone who isn't close to you or your work.
A dramaturg, or any confidant to you and your play, can get in deeper with you and the work you’re doing of telling the story. In addition to sharing personal responses, they could incorporate their understanding of your intentions, and of structure and craft, to have a deeper discussion about whether you are communicating what you want to communicate.
The steps bridging these two sorts of critiques include a discussion of what your intentions are, what you want to communicate, and how you’re imagining the play’s relationship to the audience.
The dramaturg can be an advocate for you, your project, and the audience. The feedback can be about the work itself, or about process: a suggestion to give yourself a short vacation from working on this piece, or that you might have reached an opportune moment to bring other collaborators on board for conversation or a workshop, or to explore some aspect of your project in the real world (travel, research, exploration of some kind).
Offering suggestions or prescriptive advice is something I've witnessed more often from audience members who are simply unaware of how best to show their support or interest in a play or artist, than by dramaturgs. As with any relationship, the ability to understand the other person and your responsibility to be supportive of and frank with them, increases over time. And as with any personal topic, it is necessary to consider the purpose, value, and results of any comments/advice offered. There are times when, with a close collaborator who has entrusted me with giving advice when I have it, offering suggestions is indeed the right move. It's territory I enter with care.
I'd like to add that the process I've described above is similar to that of most of the dramaturgs I know. The process of bringing someone in that deeply to the creative process--maybe before other collaborators enter in, or in a different way--is not for everyone; but when the match is a good one, it can be incredibly satisfying and productive.
I find that my most useful feedback is for the plays where I can pretty easily connect to what the artists seem to be after, which helps me to identify for myself the parts of the piece which are helping me (as audience) and them (as creators) get there and which aren’t.
Please, artists, get in the driver’s seat here: select with care whom you ask for feedback, and guide how you want it to be given. Whether you’re enlisting a dramaturg or just a friend, surrounding yourself with helpful, supportive voices is a good idea personally, as much as artistically.
So, the beginning of my dramaturgical relationship with this writer involved my asking a lot of questions: about his writing, what made him write this play, what he’s focused on with it going forward, the theater he’s seeing, where he grew up. He asked me questions. We had a good conversation. When I get to the first page of the script, I’ll have some insight into him and the work, and some guidance about how I can help him. I did my best to ensure that I understood and appreciated what he was after so I could be one of those helpful, supportive voices to him.