Last week I succumbed to a torturous and necessary ritual of playwriting called the reading. A ’reading’ in playwriting parlance means gathering a bunch of actors to read your play, with a critical audience to give feedback. This time it was at Donna De Matteo’s playwriting seminar at H-B Studio on Bank Street. I consider this my ‘home group.’ Although the audience can be tough, they are never mean. The terror here is mostly self-inflicted. The class had heard pieces of THE CAREGIVERS before. This was the first time for a read-through of the entire 80-90 minute full-length.
There is a cadre, notably led by Nancy McClernan of NYC Playwrights, that believes the purest, most effective ‘feedback’ a playwright gets is from unfiltered audience reaction, not skewed and baggage-laden critique. Do they clap, laugh, glower, fall asleep, groan, fidget? How is the audience, the ultimate arbiter of the value of a play, reacting? What else do you need to know?
I go the other way. I believe you need verbal feedback to get insight into your play. In fact, you should crave feedback as much as the infielder who wants the ball hit to him, no matter how wicked the hop (Sorry, I’m thinking Derek Jeter, the Yankees). Critique can be a hellish experience, full of extreme terror and psychic humiliation … but no pain, no gain. In the critique process you absorb pain, try to identify the most useful comments and dominantly espoused points of attack. What hurts most is usually the most useful. Lee Blessing is right (see Lee Blessing on Playwriting). It’s about causing discomfort, a play is a disturbance. If that whirlwind tension is not there, what do you have?
The goal of this process is a fully rounded play that is a complete experience, believable in its own world; a play that sets an expectation and achieves it, ready to get ‘on its feet,’ into production. So far, just a dream for me. Why? Because everybody was ready for my reading – the actors, the class, me … except the protagonist. He didn”t show up. “It’s like having a party without the guest of honor. We kept waiting for him to show up” – one comment. “You can’t write a protagonist who is inaccessible.” And then the unkindest cut – “Maybe your protagonist is too normal.” Normal? Not that. They all loved the female lead – specific, quirky, believable, accessible. I spent the summer on her, digging into her history, psyche, culture, physicality, spiritualism. It was a huge accomplishment to ‘get’ her – but I forgot about him, the guy who is driving the action. Whose story is this anyway? Maybe it is really hers. Forget the protagonist? How stupid is that? That’s a hole so big you can drive a Hummer through it. There is always a period of self-flagellation that occurs after a critical reading. The reaction you want – the reaction all playwrights want – perfect, don’t change a word, you don’t need to do anymore, let’s get it on the stage immediately – is really a fantasy. How many versions of Leaves of Grass are there? How many versions of Shakespeare’s plays?
I knew something was missing in the first three scenes, despite all the activity. I scribbled in my notebook: It’s Flat. Why is it flat? It’s in motion but it’s not moving anywhere . It’s not the actors – although good casting helps immensely. You can ‘hear’ flatness because actors don’t have the dramatic elements to work with. Actors develop and train by running great scenes, finding the truth in the words as they are acted in Death of a Salesman, Streetcar, Strindberg, Chekhov, et al. Ultimately this has to be on a stage and experienced by an audience that is highly critical, moment to moment.
A credible reading, if it serves its purpose of improving the play and not as a destination unto itself, can shave months or years from the process. You never really know what your play is worth until you hear it read by actors, and hear it critiqued by playwrights and dramatists who, hopefully, are invested in your success.
Last year I did not have this perspective and readings were tougher. In the Playwriting Lab, Freehold Theatre in Seattle, summer, 2008, my first readings of pieces of THE CAREGIVERS felt like descending the gates of Hell into a sulfurous torture pit. To give voice to my terror, I wrote my raw feelings in a notebook as my play was being read. Here they are, as written IN CAPS:
- I WANT TO DIE.
- PLEASE MAKE THE PAIN STOP. I CAN’T TAKE IT.
- I WANT TO PUKE AND COMMIT HARI KARI AT THE SAME TIME
- I CAN’T WRITE. WHY DID I THINK I COULD WRITE? I HAVE TO STOP! SOMEBODY PLEASE STOP ME.
- WHO WROTE THIS CRAP. WHAT AN IDIOT.
And this is my favorite …
- IF I QUIETLY LEAVE, DO YOU THINK ANYBODY WILL NOTICE?
Yeah, but what’s underneath that? And underneath that. A great scene or play can be run through one of those checkout laser scans – every angle you look at it, it fits together, there is some logic, even if the world of the logic is invented, as it is in a play.