Monday, April 4th, 2011
43

How To Tell A Playwright You Didn’t Like His Play

I have a new play that starts in previews this week. That means I have a lot of friends, colleagues and acquaintances who are going to have to negotiate the tricky thing of what to say to me after my play if they happen not to like it.

Let me be clear: I’m totally fine with being lied to. I don’t long to be told what everyone I know truly thought of my play. But in my experience, many of them long to tell me. They may not be conscious of this, but that’s why God invented the unconscious. Deep down, most people really do want to tell me what they thought of my work, one way or another.

Over the years I’ve spoken to enough playwrights to gather that my experience is not unique. Therefore, I’ve prepared a little guide to help you navigate your way through the post-show interaction.

But first, there are people you don’t want to be after seeing your friend’s play.

The Projector
A good friend of mine was coming to see my play Dying City and we planned to see each other afterwards. I used the opportunity to check in on the show, which had been running a while.

I greeted my friend post-show with a big hug, and we expressed pleasure at seeing each other for the first time in ages. Then came the obvious next moment—the moment when someone says something nice about the play they just saw. Only he didn’t say anything—just smiled at me dumbly. Okay, a bit weird, I thought—but maybe he’s waiting to talk about it. So off we went to a nearby watering hole. And in a lull in the small talk my friend turned to me and said: “So what did you think of tonight?”

It takes great skill to use a question about what someone else thought to convey unmistakably what you yourself thought. Only the biggest assholes have this skill.

The Condenser
A colleague and someone I genuinely looked up to waited around the auditorium after one of my early plays, and when I saw him there I scurried over to say hello, eager to hear what he thought. He loved the play, it was remarkable, so moving, so interesting, I was such a wonderful writer… but there was a hesitation in his voice. What was it?

“One thing I didn’t like was the haircut,” he said cryptically.

“The haircut?”

“Of the main character. It should be spikier. It should look more like the hair that people his age have, when I walk around NYU and see these young people.”

“Ah.”

That wasn’t all. My colleague proceeded to talk about what was wrong with the lead character’s haircut for a solid three minutes—five times longer than he took when praising me. In fact, the actor’s haircut was entirely unremarkable. No one else who saw the play ever brought it up; no critic mentioned it. And so I as I sat there in the cold, empty theatre, listening to my colleague drone on and on about it, it became clear that the haircut was actually my play.

The Generalizer
A mentor gives me a big hug at the end of my first New York production.

“I’ve never seen anything like it!”

“Oh—thank you.”

“It’s so clearly your voice.”

“Thanks!”

“You really just wrote something that you wanted to write.”

“Yes…”

That is the generalizer. Ultimately you are left standing in an uncomfortable silence, when you can no longer deny that nothing that is being said to you can unequivocally be understood as praise.

The Magician
The magician disappears at the end of your play. You wait and look for him to no avail. Six months later, when he finally calls or emails to get together, no mention is made of the show. He’s made the play disappear!

The Globalizer
This is the worst of all because the most unexpected. The globalizer—a frequent theatergoer, perhaps a onetime practitioner—gives you a huge hug at the end of your play. He tells you how brilliant it was, how moving, how incredibly brave… you go out into the night feeling warm, protected—even loved.

Then around the second or third drink this happens:

“The problem with the theatre today is that these theatres refuse to take risks.”

Okay. Fair enough. Quite frequently true…

“When’s the last time a major theatre did a truly risky play?”

Yes. Well. You did just see mine…

“They’re terrified of anything authentic. As are critics. If critics like something universally, you know it’s not good.”

Right. Well. My play got pretty good reviews…

“At the end of the day, the theatre is dead.”

Note to fellow playwrights: Never give these people a second chance. They will just keep doing this. Trust me.

Now. If you truly, truly must convey to a playwright that you did not like their play, I have sketched out a few respectful ways to do so. Really—it can be done. And I’m sympathetic. People should not have to go through their entire lives lying about liking bad plays. There has to be a better way. Well, I don’t know if there has to be, but if you really can’t control yourself, be one of these people:

The Diplomat
At the moment of maximum vulnerability after the show, you are polite and kind. On the way to the bar you ask friendly questions about the experience of doing the play. By the end of the first round of drinks, now that you have established that you are basically a caring and compassionate person, you test the waters with a tentative criticism. Something that starts like “I wasn’t sure about…”

You say it in a way that the playwright can choose to pursue or deflect. You note the playwright’s response and direct subsequent comments according to how much he or she has invited further criticism.

The Anti-Narcissist
The narcissist believes his opinions are objective truths. He is afraid of speaking them only because he is afraid that his godlike judgment will irrevocably impact the recipient. And, when the narcissist speaks from on high it often does have this effect—the assumption of absolute authority reawakening one’s lonely, scared inner child.

But the anti-narcissist knows his actual size in relation to others. He knows his opinion is just one person’s point of view, no more or less valid than anyone else’s. And when he speaks, he effortlessly conveys that. When the anti-narcissist says he doesn’t like the play, it almost feels like an act of love. He says in a gentle voice something like, “I’m not sure I always understood what you were trying to say, but I’ll keep thinking about it.” The anti-narcissist knows what he felt but is also suspicious of his own reaction. With him, the playwright experiences a world of compassionate others who are tolerant and accepting even when critical.

The Pal
Which brings me back to where I started. At the end of the day, we all know the truth. We know what it feels like and sounds like. It isn’t something that can be faked. If you didn’t like my play, I’ll know it. And you’ll know I know it. So why not just be a pal? At the end of the show, wrap your arms around me and congratulate me. I’ll know what you really felt. And I’ll be thankful that my friends like and respect me even when they don’t like my work.

Happy theater-going!


Christopher Shinn's new play Picked starts previews April 6 at the Vineyard Theatre.

43 Comments / Post A Comment

brent_cox (#40)

All of these are true.

And I'm at least three of them.

djfreshie (#875)

Love this, and I think it strongly applies to musicians as well. I can always tell when friend/family audience members are just clamouring for something positive to say (despite maybe not being a superfan about the material) when all that will probably suffice is "That was awesome" "You rock" Even if dishonest. And I'll tell. But it's better than "Wow, you seemed really busy up there!" (Generalizer?)

Anyways, I think most artists are super happy to talk about stuff and have developed the thick skins needed to exist in that world…especially when the actual thing is done and there's the relief of completing something stressful. I just wish peeps could say "I didn't really like it," without feeling like they've crushed me, which they probably can't. And which also might open up an awesome conversation about what they do in fact like, or what didn't resonate with them. Or maybe something unrelated! Instead of awkward transparent smiles, which I've had pretty much enough of in this lifetime.

riggssm (#760)

Totally agree. Some of the most interesting conversations I've had were at (pretentious music college) where we felt close enough/trusted each other to critique without being personal. And when we didn't agree on the writing, or the execution, or what the phrase "contemporary music" meant, no one got upset.

It must be more difficult for writers, who maybe don't have that sense of collaboration the way (most) musicians do.

djfreshie (#875)

Possibly…I think there's also that performance factor/self-consciousness that comes into play with music. What I mean is that anyone that gets up in front of people and plays/sings a bunch of notes is going to know exactly which notes they screwed up (and everyone is going to screw up a few times. Even the most flawless classical performers probably think 'man I played that forte like a bigtime mezzoforte. What a jerk!) Even the most arrogant musicians are probably going to come off stage and spend an hour pissed about the note they flubbed or couldn't hit. Which means anyone they talk to who doesn't point out that note is going to be welcome company, and if they didn't like the source material…well who cares, because at least they didn't hear me play it wrong.

That's why I think it can't get personal between musicians…if I didn't like the material, it says nothing of what I think of you as an instrumentalist. Saying "I wasn't a big fan of those songs I just heard" isn't the same as saying "I think you're a shite bassist," right after aforementioned shite-bassist played a whole song in the wrong key. Performance is linked to ability…but the songs were written months, maybe years ago. If you didn't like em…well heck, I don't even like em anymore.

Kakapo (#2,312)

Why does everyone hate your plays so much?

Kidding, kidding.

City_Dater (#2,500)

Exactly! Everyone should just be The Pal in the lobby and keep it zipped on specifics until a later, calmer time.

And, it could be noted, anyone who tries to pump comments (well, praise, really) out of friends and colleagues who are trying to be The Pal immediately after a show pretty much gets what he or she deserves.

Nick Douglas (#7,095)

I have nothing to say but "those are two really wise and thoughtful insights."

I like pickels

shaunr (#726)

This just the Eye's 'Luvvies' in a whiny American voice.

NinetyNine (#98)

Though we're not friends, I'll avoid this problem in the future by not attending your plays.

#SORT OF SORRY I KEPT DEFENDING 'DYING CITY' TO PEOPLE

6h057 (#1,914)

Who needs praise when you can just hire a prostitute to step on your genitals while you do lines of ketamine off a glossy magazine cover?

BadUncle (#153)

Make that happen for me, and I'll be your pal.

Debussy Fields (#9,962)

Intimates who go drinking with the playwright after the show were probably comped tickets and therefore have some obligation to be polite guests.
But if I paid to watch, then it's the playwright whose job it is to please, shock, thrill, move, tickle or devastate me. The audience has a right to its reactions, which need not be mitigated by a sense of responsibility for the playwright's emotional well-being. Anybody can jot down a crie de couer in their journal, but if you charge people to watch, the only person who owes your ego any stroking is your agent.

Nick Douglas (#7,095)

They still, though, shouldn't go up to the playwright and tell him what he did wrong, because that's not constructive. I mean, everyone acknowledges this, right? Four of us came out of "Idiot Savant" going "what the *fuck*?" but we didn't stick around to voice our complete dismay to anyone involved.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

(hugs)

screamname (#8,683)

Wow. Very thin-skinned, pass/agg, this. "Very good friend…biggest asshole," etc. Also, erm, must point out that this item doesn't live up to its title ("How To…") – it's more "How *not* to…" So, in the interests of forwarding the public discourse, having seen 'Dying City' recently myself, I'll make a stab at "How to Tell a Playwright You Didn't Like His Play":

I didn't like "Dying City." I thought it was simplistic and histrionic. After 80-odd minutes of predictable, two-dimensional shoutiness & school-child dramaturgical tricks, the only emotion I felt was regret that I had encouraged two very good friends of mine to come. How is that?

caw_caw (#5,641)

I strongly encourage you to get yourself a bitch blog and tell it to no one who cares

@caw_caw: perfectly said.

fek (#93)

This is perfect. And so, so true. Worth noting: The people here who said they didn't enjoy Dying City were no doubt bragging about having seen it up through now, as theater "people" – who think they're god's gift to man because they're patronizing an art that needs it – often will. Fuck 'em.

NinetyNine (#98)

That's right, people who actually pay for their tickets have no right to pass an opinion on the work.

taibhse169 (#10,598)

This is far from perfect. This is whiny. This is pathetic.
If you are putting art you have created into the public sphere, you have lost any right to attempt to dictate to your audience how they can or cannot critique your work. No matter how good you are, people won't like your work. If you can't deal with that, then stop making it.
My favorite: the Anti-Narcissist, who is less a counterpoint to the Narcissist as suggested by Shinn, and more a manifestation of Shinn's own narcissism: if the audience didn't like your play, of COURSE they should go away and think about it some more!

djfreshie (#875)

@Screamname and Taibhse169:

The article is clearly about friends' and families' reactions to one's artistic output. Not random general audiences. So the idea is that it is harder for people with whom you share a familiarity to tell you that they don't like something. Which is fairly accurate. It is much more difficult to tell a friend you hate their thing. Clearly, as Screamname proves so eloquently, it is super easy for anonymous strangers to express their thoughts as such. Often the artist doesn't really care about individual reactions from complete strangers. Well sometimes. But definitely not enough to write a whole whiny pathetic article about it.

So yeah.

NinetyNine (#98)

Maybe he should circulate this note to family and friends, rather than random general audiences.

djfreshie (#875)

Or maybe there are people who make art and have experienced the awkwardness of being in proximity with an acquaintance who didn't like a piece but is awkward about expressing or not expressing it, and this 'note' might resonate with other people who have had a similar experience?

Is it getting all Meta up in here, or is it just me?

screamname (#8,683)

#BOTTOM OF PICKEL BARREL

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

(hugs)

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Some of the types in the post would make very nice theater themselves. The Condenser (the haircut guy), for instance.

But okay, here's an honest question related to the post & to several of the comments; by "honest question," I mean to say a question I don't think I know how I want to answer (anymore). Viz.: Are we (whoever that is) to be assumed to be all supportively warm and fuzzy towards whatever is on offer here, or brutally frank? Opposition being true friendship and all that. — Some posts implicitly pick a fight whereas on certain others, every now and again, the sound of commenters trying to tiptoe on eggshells can be pretty deafening.

djfreshie (#875)

I would say as frank and honest as can be not to the point of being a dickhead. Like anything, really. Same way when your friend walks out of the barber. Maybe not "Hey, you look fucking stupid" but more "I'm not a big fan of your new haircut" which says many things without being dishonest, or douchey or making it awkward. "Your play was not my bag," is probably perfect.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@Tull: It's all "(hugs)" now.

Utter rubbish, and hopefully more tongue-in-cheek than I suppose.

In the software business, I've had to dance around my own "playwrights" for years. Executives who think they know how the product should work. Marketing people who KNOW they know how the product should work. Engineering managers (like me) who think they know how the product should work. Arrogant engineers who think just because they're smart and write delicious witty efficient code, they know how the product works and how the audience (users) think.

I always say the same thing: put it in front of a customer/focus group/audience, do not let the author(s) say a bloody word, let the audience experience it, then have them quizzed in a non-confrontational way by an uninvolved third party. Be sure that the uninvolved third party leaves the room on some pretext for quite a few minutes, and eavesdrop to see how the audience talks among itself.

That audience, focus group, what-have-you will give you a brutally honest assessment that no peer, no colleague, no competitor, no fellow suffering author will ever give you. And they'll do so without any hints, suggestions, explanations of motivation, etc etc that you would DIE to give them. Because they're an audience watching a product of your work, not a class taking a seminar in an evolving process of yours with your ongoing guidance.

Then you can either slink home to get properly drunk and do a rewrite, or go out with any and all of your friends/colleagues with your head held high. You can know that no matter what direct or backhanded or passive-aggressive or silent-assent criticisms they may levy, you have produced a play that makes the audience laugh. Or think. Or cringe. Or whatever you might have wanted to evoke in them, and perchance even a bit more.

This requires intestinal fortitude, but it is ever so much more rewarding than taking one's cues from one's colleagues and friends, no matter how much one may respect and/or fear them.

Finally, if you are the type who feels that critical and collegial acclaim is more important than audience accolades, you are likely in the wrong business. Pontification complete!

Moff (#28)

You seem to be deeply confused about the nature of the post. It isn't about the best way for creators to get feedback about their work; it's about the inevitable tendency of a playwright's friends to share their unsolicited feelings about his or her play.

There are other problems with your comment, too, but I mean, just, Jesus Christ.

TrilbyLane (#1,318)

Unsolicited feelings? Really? Why would you put something out there if you didn't want it to stir feelings? He desperately wants people to respond – he just only wants to hear it if it's positive, or at the very least framed in a sort of 'I don't like this but that is because I didn't understand it and I am lame' kind of way.

karen ivany (#10,927)

Great tips for any after-performance encounter. However,the writer of this article contradicts himself. Though he states that he "doesn't long to know what anyone thinks of his plays…" he clearly DOES in his own description of the hostility and annoyance he feels at the bungled attempts by his colleagues to discuss his plays post-performance.

No matter how much a writer tries to seem like he doesn't care what people think, they always do! Which naturally feeds all these awkward post-show conversations. Audience member-friends know we gotta say SOMETHING! This writer admits to caring what critics believe, too. (Only when it's a GOOD review, though…)

The point is, there's only ever ONE thing to say to anyone in the theatre after a show: "CONGRATULATIONS! Let's drink!"

Tom Witte@facebook (#10,960)

The three approaches at the bottom are quite helpful, though they are more attempts at hedging bets and minimizing the inevitable damage than they are surefire fixes. This isn't to say that they're not worthwhile, just don't expect them to completely defuse the situation and work like a charm.

If you really didn't like the play there's still likely no way to come out of this thing smelling like roses: even if you Diplomat/Anti-Narcissist/Pal it up like a champ, it's still possible that your friend (the one who thinks you're a narcissist for either saying, or not saying, what you think) is going to hate you despite your efforts, at least temporarily. This is because after the show it's just as much about what's going on in the artist's head as in the viewer's.

More often than not, the artist hates you much more for disliking their work in the first place than they do for the way you express yourself; they simply can't help it any more than you can help disliking their output, and there's likely no way you can frame the truth in order to make them happy. That's why the playwright has just as much of a responsibility to read the viewer's cues as the viewer does the playwright's in their post-play contact, and a graceful artist must take partial responsibility for guiding the conversation away from things they will personally take issue with hearing when they sense that their friend is floundering.

For many people, lying to friends is very hard to do, especially when it's about something big, something that matters. And this is a good thing, a big part of what makes them worthwhile friends in the first place – that, along with the fact that they showed up for the play in the first place because they care. Requiring a friend to lie to you is asking a lot, and when a habitually honest person tries to lie in order to spare their (understandably raw and hypersensitive) friend's feelings, they are almost guaranteed to come across as twenty times the asshole they would have if they'd simply told the difficult truth in as polite a manner as possible and battened the hatches.

I'm not saying they shouldn't/can't try to lie if they think they can pull it off; but when an artist sees their friend crazily going through all sorts of awful social gymnastics when it comes time to weigh in on content, it is important for them to understand that these contortions are for their benefit and that they are almost certainly dealing with a person who is in every bit the crisis that they are.

I'm sorry, but this sounds like a "Sally Field" moment. "They like me, they really like me"! Being a writer myself and an actor, truth is important in the arts. We may not like what we hear. We may not agree with it, but it's important to be thick skinned enough to listen. I don't think people should have to walk on the proverbial egg shells around artists. The problem with younger artists is that too many have been raised with only praise and encouragement but not having someone reveal to them that the "arts" are a man eat man field and one must toughen up. My theatre directors and critics came from the school of "reality". Quit your cryin' and yes, it's okay to be brutally honest if someone asks.

Petulant and thin-skinned. How can you be eager for your audience's opinions and, at the same time, unwilling to really listen or accept them? Man up!

marklondon (#11,064)

The piece is spot on.
Those up there who don't get it – I cannot believe you've ever truly done something creative in public.

That moment just after, when you are trying to read your audience, especially those you know well, is utterly terrifying.

DJ Robbie (#11,099)

It's brave (if a little foolhardy) of Mr Shinn to post this just before his new play opens. Judging from the reactions to this post he'll either have a lot of jerks coming up to him after the show, or his friends who didn't like it will run away because his requirements are so outspoken and specific. Navigating the post-show of a friend's play is like walking through a minefield. Writer's tend to be even more needy than actors when it comes to approval. I've written a play or two that's been produced, and I think playwrights should do themselves a favour and do one of two things: Either tell your friends outright "I don't care if you loved or hated it, I'm just so glad you're here to support me" (who could be mean after that?), or just don't linger around after the show looking for handouts. Just like when you choose to read your own reviews, you gotta take the good with the bad, right?

How to Tell a Playwright You Didn't Like His Play? Shouldn't there be an "or Her" in there?

I think the playwright should grow a sack, admit he is not Arthur Miller, and accept the fact that maybe he sucks sometimes. BTW Shinn: your plays SUCK!

@Joe Brofcak@facebook Just Kidding! :)

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