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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
A mentor gives me a big hug at the end of my first New York production.
“I’ve never seen anything like it!”
“It’s so clearly your voice.”
“You really just wrote something that you wanted to write.”
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 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!
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:
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 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.
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.