Responding to the work

Last Wednesday we hosted the third in our Whistler Wednesday series, a reading of John Greiner-Ferris’ Red Dog, directed by Becky Webber and featuring Victor Shopov and Melissa Barker.

For the Whistler Wednesday performances, I often haven’t re-read the scripts between the time we approved them last summer and the reading, so I spend the evening rediscovering what I thought was so exciting about the script the first time through, and learning more about the script through the director’s and actors’ interpretations of it. Apparently, the rest of the audience is just as engaged and alert as I am, because both of our talk-backs (for Red Dog and A Brief History of the Soviet Union) have featured passionate responses and questions for the playwrights.

These talk-backs are, for me, simultaneously the most rewarding and the most frustrating part of our reading series. Rewarding because so much passion and belief in art pours out in these conversations. Frustrating because I don’t think that we, as audiences, are prepared to respond to a play-in-progress in a way that is constructive to the process. We often get mired down in our own personal tastes and preferences, and can lock ourselves out of seeing the work as it actually exists. The passion that we feel is actually a challenge to be overcome in the talk-back.

As we’ve moved through these conversations, I’ve discovered that the responses that seem the most useful to me are the ones where the playwright gets to question the audience about specific moments within the play, or the moments when the audience member responding is able to give a response or reaction that isn’t based in emotion or personal preference.

A lot of this circles back to Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process, a 4-step method of gathering feedback that I was introduced to during a directing workshop at New Rep last year.

The Critical Response Process takes place after a presentation of artistic work. Work can be short or long, large or small, and at any stage in its development. The facilitator then leads the artist and responders through four steps:

  1. Statements of Meaning: Responders state what was meaningful, evocative, interesting, exciting, striking in the work they have just witnessed.
  2. Artist as Questioner: The artist asks questions about the work. After each question, the responders answer. Responders may express opinions if they are in direct response to the question asked and do not contain suggestions for changes.
  3. Neutral Questions: Responders ask neutral questions about the work. The artist responds. Questions are neutral when they do not have an opinion couched in them. For example, if you are discussing the lighting of a scene, “Why was it so dark?” is not a neutral question. “What ideas guided your choices about lighting?” is.
  4. Opinion Time: Responders state opinions, subject to permission from the artist. The usual form is “I have an opinion about ______, would you like to hear it?” The artist has the option to decline opinions for any reason.

What I really like about this process is that it focuses so strongly on the work, and not on the personal feelings of the audience – or of the artist for that matter. It moves the audience from the perspective of getting to help “fix” the play (which often happens when the feedback starts getting prescriptive) to the place of getting to respond to the play as it exists and share what the effect of that play is.

For me, this seems like the aim.

Playwrights? What is your feeling on this? Would you relish a more guided response to your work? Or does the framework seem artificial?

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3 Responses to Responding to the work

  1. nawd says:

    Meg,I forgot about the Lerman Critical Response. Thank you for the reminder. It may just need to make an appearance at my next reading.dms

  2. meg…i think this is a wonderful model…first, though, i got great feedback from the reading that i'm able to use…what i like about this is how it strips away the personal, emotional aspect, and injects it into its own category, because the passion that i experienced that night also is leading me (in a very good and positive way) but it did get in the way at times…i think i had the good sense to just ignore it when people suggested ways to rewrite…it still doesn't address the one thing that surprised me, which is after the reading three people contacted me who didn't feel comfortable or confident to speak out during the talk back, but their comments were outstanding and i think if they had voiced them the conversation would have shifted markedly…not sure what can injected into this model to help people get over their shyness–maybe nothing, but the fact that some people are reluctant to speak up should be at least identified…–john

  3. aforementionedproductions says:

    I think a guided approach to feedback would be incredibly helpful for all the artists involved (playwright, cast, director), but it's difficult to enforce, for lack of a better term.Most audience members will react to any piece of artwork–be it visual, audio, or theatrical–by describing how it makes them feel. And that's, of course, what most theatre artists strive for: an emotional response from the audience.A possible solution would be prefacing the reading by saying the talkback will follow, then at the beginning of the talkback, having a description of what it will entail. That might encourage the audience members who are not necessarily accustomed to engaging in a constructive critical analysis of work, to think of the play more in its disparate parts rather than "The play made me feel this."One last note…sometimes, 'The play made me feel this,' is a great thing to hear and I don't want to diminish its importance.- Carissa

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