Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Severe Clarity!

 “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?”  - Stephen Speights
The topic of constructive criticism is an excellent one.  I love Stephen’s post and the question he poses in it.  I’m also completely blown away by the phrase ‘severe clarity’ as a way to describe the aim of an artist.  I’ve never heard that before, but am now adding it to my bag of references as a reminder of what I’m after when things seem lost.

Readings are an invaluable part of the writing process for me, as they probably are for every playwright.  I had two in January for plays that are in two very different places.  One is finished and has had a production already, the other is the piece I’m working on for Blue Coyote, which is in the early, fifty-pages stage.  The two projects feed into each other plotwise, so it’s good fortune to have to work on them at the same time. 

The first play is in pretty good shape - it is a total and complete play.  A director and I are working on it together and the informal reading marked the real beginning of our collaborative process.  Going in, there was a section that didn’t feel quite right to me during the play’s production in 2011, and I knew I wanted to look at it during this reading.  The director had his questions too as this was the first time he was hearing it out loud.  We were lucky to have wonderful actors, some rehearsal and a great audience.  All in all, questions were answered and the director came away with some notes, four to be precise.  They took me forever to understand, but in the end were insightful and spot on.  I can… now hold on to your hats people… I can be very defensive when receiving notes.  It’s definitely much better than it was, but I tend to have a terrible “oh no” feeling right before, like perhaps it’s going to be a big battle or I’m really going to disagree or be upset.  I’ve had to learn how to really listen through my nerves and consistently seek to understand what’s being said to me.  In this particular case, I can see in hindsight (after reading Stephen’s post) that what the director was aiming for in his notes, and why I appreciated them so much, was to aid towards that ‘severe clarity’ of what’s intended.  His notes were constructive.

The second piece for the CCP is not a play yet.  The reading I had for it had no audience – just the actors and myself.  It was the first time it was going to be heard at all, which I find to be a very tender time.  At the earliest stages, such readings are for my ears only and not open to criticism.  It’s just a baby, after all.  Plus, my main question going in to these first-read-of-pages things is - does this suck or not?  Not suck to anyone else, but to me?  After getting over that hurdle, I can ask the great, smart actors who graciously read for me questions about this or that, if they got certain elements, do they want to know what happens, etc.  It offers me incredible clarity on what’s next, what works and doesn’t, a general sense of the gathering storm of a complete play. 

When I began writing the finished play mentioned earlier, I would attend a weekly actors group that invited writers to bring pages in they wanted heard.  I had done this for the first play I’d written and found it helpful, so it made sense to do the same with this one.  But the voice, the intention for that first play was very loud and strong right off the bat, so even though it was difficult to hear comments (I was just learning!), I could take them or leave them.  But the second play was different.  It didn’t start as sure as the first and it had an unconventional structure.  As a result, the un-moderated comments, hard to take to begin with, were not at all constructive.  They tended to be in the vein of what should be instead of what was, an ‘it’s not going to work if you do it this way’ type of thing.  And I remember reacting very, very badly.  Everyone involved meant well, but it became clear that if I was going to listen to my own voice in writing the play, there could be no outside voices for a time.  Not until it had a real shape, a real, solid intention.  So I stopped going to the class and asked actors to read for me when the need to hear it came.  And that play has ended up doing well for itself - I’m proud of it. 

So, if it’s still brewing, if I still don’t know quite what it is, there is no criticism that will be constructive.  It just ends up offending me, which is ridiculous.  Therefore I’ve found it best not to open up that part of the process.  There are a few trusted people who look at pages early on, but that’s it.  For me, criticism is only actually constructive once what is intended is firmly set.  Then it’s vital.

- Christine Whitley

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