Since 2010 I have led workshops and talkbacks involving dozens of playwrights—some through the Mobtown Playwrights Group, others through the Dramatists Guild. If I may briefly set aside humility, I consider myself pretty insightful when it comes to feedback, and I am proud of my contributions, as director and dramaturg, to Come Out and Say It and Life Support. Yet I also believe that had Erica or Madeline followed my instincts on several crucial points, their respective plays would have been worse for it.
Life Support concerns a man's struggles to accept his impending death from cancer. Two members of the man's family appear onstage: his estranged son and his fifth wife. Nearly as important, however, is a character we never meet: the man's daughter, Melody, who "disappeared" long ago. "She wasn't kidnapped," the estranged son clarifies. "She ran away—her mom ran away with her. Because of my father." When I first read this, my instinct was that Melody is unnecessary—a distraction from the play's flesh and blood. If Madeline had asked me to rewrite Life Support, Melody would have been my first cut.
That "if" is the point, of course. Instead Madeline held firm, and Melody remained. Over the next few months, as I lived with the script, my attitude gradually changed—almost without my realizing it. Only as I watched the performances did I fully appreciate the role played by this absent daughter. Far from distracting, she pulls me in deeper ... and then she's gone. The plot doesn't hinge on Melody—structurally, she is still cuttable—yet she belongs in the play's world as surely as life and death, hope and regret. Madeline knows this because she created that world. For me to think I know better requires much presumption.
In Come Out and Say It, I had somewhat of the opposite experience: The draft Erica submitted to be workshopped seemed perfect already. Come Out and Say It has five characters—a mix of longtime and first-time crooks—dodging the fallout of a failed heist. Erica used the workshop as an opportunity to further explore the play's many relationships—every rehearsal, it seemed, she arrived with a new scene to stage. As she distributed the pages, my (private) response was the same: We learn just enough already; why dilute our experience of this world? And every time, as I heard the new material, the ground shifted and I fell harder for the characters. Erica knows this because she created those characters. For me to think I know enough requires much presumption.
A theme, a theme! I am not dismissing the value of feedback or a fresh perspective. But so much of new play development involves soliciting—and seriously considering—gut reactions. Never mind whether readers and audience members are trained dramaturgs or even artists—can anyone really trust their first impressions of a piece of theatre? Of course, here is where idealism smacks into reality. A play must communicate quickly and directly because, for most people, first impressions are the only ones; even among dedicated theatergoers, who has the time and money to see multiple performances? All of which incentivizes theaters to produce and writers to write cleaner, tidier shows. And, when a moment isn't immediately clear, to "fix" it rather than simply live with it. Or, when a moment seems good enough, to resist seeking better.