Constructive Criticism – If you can’t say something nice…

I read and respond to unsolicited scripts for a number of theatres. I came across a very good play while reading today. It’s the second play I’ve read by this particular writer and while I was trying to figure out the best response to write to their play, I started thinking about the nature  and uses of criticism.

With most plays, it’s easy to write what I hope is helpful criticism. Most aspiring playwrights make similar mistakes when trying to write a play: their idea may not be suited to the stage, their dialogue may lack subtlety, their characters may be inconsistent –  changing to serve the plot rather than their own interior drive. When reading plays I try to identify the major problems and suggest that the writer re-examine them and look for solutions. There’s no point in listing every issue with the play – for the playwright, that would be death by a thousand cuts.

Then every once in a while you come across a writer who has a good theatrical instinct. There may be problems with the play, but you know they have real potential. The problem is, what to do with them? Sometimes their good play will lead to a commission or a production, but often the play just doesn’t fit with the ethos of the particular theatre. Or perhaps their subject matter, while well explored, is just not that interesting – how do you tell them that? Can you tell a writer their play is dull – or even worse, irrelevant – and still be constructive?

I had an experience once where I submitted some of my own work and got the most unhelpful response from the person I’d sent it to – lots of comments along the lines of ‘I just didn’t like this’. These are the kinds of comments you can do nothing with – how can they help anyone improve their work? As a writer, you have to be able to take criticism on the chin, but as someone who critiques the work of others, I couldn’t help thinking this response was irresponsible. Any one who takes the trouble and time to sit down and write a play, a poem or prose deserves respect for that effort. And if I ever stop feeling that way, I think it’ll be time to get out of the game…

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