Friday, February 10, 2012

Constructive Criticism

I was in the audience at two different work-in-progress presentations these past weeks. I’ll start with the second experience, as it helped me to pinpoint my feelings on the first.

THE ART OF THE ARIA was a master class led by the composer/librettist Mark Adamo. Working with a small group of hand-picked writers and musicians (friend and collaborator David Johnston among them), Mr. Adamo invited us to sit in as he, along with his students, critiqued the arias created for the class.

Mr. Adamo started with rules-of-the-road regarding their evaluating comments. I’m paraphrasing from memory, but what struck me most went something like this:

  1. Avoid using the phrase “I LIKED THIS”. Avoid “THAT DIDN’T WORK.” Something is SUCCESSFUL when something INTENDED OCCURS, and occurs with clarity. 
  2. In your critique, speak descriptively about what you SAW and HEARD, then let that lead to comments of what you experienced. Let your opinion about the work/scene/moment follow from how successfully the work expressed what was INTENDED. 
  3. The goal of the artist is SEVERE CLARITY. And the work should limit, rather than expand, the possibilities of its presentation. As the artist you guide us to what you want it to be.

These guidelines were revelatory to me, and made me wish I could have bent space and time to switch Mr. Adamo’s class with the invited staged reading I had attended a couple of weeks prior: John Yearley’s first fifty pages or so of CLEAR HISTORY, the script he is working on as part of the Coyote Commission Project.

John mentioned in introducing the event that what we were to hear/see was still unformed in its structure (there were a couple of scenes, in fact, that he simply had the actors read at the end, still not knowing where they should go, or if he’d even keep them), and indeterminate of tone (did he want this to be a romantic comedy, something more serious, or a combo of both? John didn’t yet know…). His introduction made clear that the script was not yet at a stage to be judged or critiqued.

Nonetheless, as one of the producers of the CCP, I took John up on his request for feedback, hoping that my impressions and comments would help him clarify where he wanted to go with CLEAR HISTORY. I saw it as my-end-of-the-deal to let him know what I thought.

So I wrote him an email, insisting that he discard, out-of-hand and immediately, any of my comments that seemed to miss the mark or that he disagreed with. Then I told him what I thought worked and what didn’t. I pointed to where the story surprised me, where I thought it would go, where I thought it SHOULD go.
He emailed a response the next day — prompt and appreciative — addressing my comments and offering his own about what the reading had revealed. He thanked me for my thoughts and assured me that they had helped to clarify for him several aspects of CLEAR HISTORY.

But…for all the warmth and respect of our exchange, it felt, in my gut, somehow inappropriate for me to have evaluated his still-forming work. It occurs to me that he may feel, and rightly so, the same way I feel when someone comments on my work when it is cooking — outwardly appreciative of someone’s well-intended comments, and inwardly peeved.

Of course I fail the artist when I reflect back to him or her information that is unhelpful—my personal taste. My job, instead, is to honestly reflect back to them whether or not what I have seen is what they want me to see—not to suggest a different direction in the plot, say, or a different setting, or different characteristics in the characters I’ve witnessed. In this, I now understand, I misapprehended my role in my notes to John.

If criticism is meant to speak to the successful clarity of what was INTENDED, as Mr. Adamo suggests, what is the helpful way to speak of a work in process that is still brewing, still deciding what it is supposed to be?

Given that public readings for works-in-progress seem destined to remain a part of the playwright’s process these days, I would love for the CCP participants, and any other playwrights out there, to comment on the lessons I took away from these two experiences as audience member / feedback giver. What kinds of observations are helpful to you, and what kinds of observations serve only to derail you and infuriate?

- Stephen Speights

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this, Stephen. I've passed it on to the people at American Lyric Theater, who definitely enjoyed your take on their process. And (in a plug) be sure to come to the next FRESHLY BREWED event on Feb 26 at Opera America.