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January 15, 2010


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Whether I as a playwright would want that or not (I think I would) isn't the more salient question whether literary managers and artistic directors would (a) want to bother doing that for any/all of the submissions they recieve that they don't want to pursue, and (b) have the time, money, and emotional stamina to do that even if they wanted to? They aren't being paid by the playwrights to dramaturge after all.


I think one roadblock lies with our fuzzy Pro-Am distinctions.

If a LM tears apart your script, to make it better, and you're a Pro, you take the advice seriously and go to work. If you're Am, you can afford to step back and nurse hurt feelings... and share that criticism with your friends who now brand the LM, and the theatre, as Meen People. That means gossip and lost business that the LM didn't need to risk. In fact, the LM also lost the opportunity cost of focusing on a script from someone with more Professional bona fides.

The flipside of acting professionally is not just having a thick skin; it's internalizing a standard of quality that will not permit you to accept sub-standard work, from yourself or anyone else you deal with. That includes LMs not getting away with giving you "No" postcards with little feedback. The networking that happens at MFA schools has the advantage of reinforcing those social standards with the penalty of gossip from *that* direction. Would you, as an LM, rather risk some chick's friends from Aurora hating on you for your critical appraisal of her script, or Paula Vogel's friends passing on your critique of one of her proteges?

This is also an issue with LMs' perceptions of us. Does the MFA equal a "say your worst, I can take it" license that Pro-Ams don't have? Is a professional degree an indemnification for the LM to spend more time with a script, colleague-to-colleague?


We all know, though, lots of "Pros" who would take that criticism and spread a lot of gossip and do just as much harm as the Am would. Maybe even more.

It's a weird position, right? As an LM, you want/need submissions, but you also have to be selective and need to be selective to be good at your job. In reading Mead's piece and this one, I was shocked at how shocked I was to read the bit about the lit managers not working for the artists. In some weird way, even I forget that.

I think some of this disconnect really comes from the disconnect between our language and our actions. Our language talks of supporting artists and nurturing new voices and all of that, but so often the choices have to do with the bottom line. Our better natures get in the way and we want to encourage writers, give them hope to keep going, but what we wind up doing is stringing them along.

Just recently an Ass't A.D. gave me some feedback on a play that was really good and useful, but made it very clear that there was almost no way the theatre was going to produce my work. The A.A.D. put it in terms that had to do with things that were in the DNA of my play, not just technical tweaks or fixes, but a thematic thing that I do in my writing. It hurt to hear, but it was also encouraging, because it was also something I did on purpose. It wasn't a mistake, but a choice. Which means someone else will like that choice. But the catch of it is this: I've known this AAD for a very long time, have submitted work before and always got a warm response, but nothing like that kind of feedback. It actually might be better to give pure feedback on a play you're NOT going to produce.

Josh James

You want to read blunt notes, you should get notes on a screenplay from a producer, whoa nelly ... that sizzle you hear, that's flesh, burning flesh. Them notes, they burn quite often ... and those are the good notes ... you don't even see the bad ones.


malachy walsh

I haven't read this particular chapter (I'm still on chapter 1), but as a writer who has taken notes from lit managers and ADs, there's been no problem with getting notes directly.

Of course, I've never received at note like "the end is lame" and my guess is that Meade is only offering that response as a hyperbolic example of what a note could be. And if someone offered that as a note, it might not as insulting as it is useless - unless it is supported by reasoning which gives the writer some idea of the frame the criticism is offered through.

After all, lame is in the eye of the beholder and lame endings don't wreck everything (the movie THE ABYSS being an example of a good movie with an ending that has been widely criticized as lame).

The best notes I've gotten from lit managers and ADs have come from those I've gotten to know over a long period of time and whose attitudes and tastes about plays I understood from direct contact or a lot of correspondence. That kind of relationship meant they had an idea of what I was trying to accomplish. In turn, their responses told me that they were interested in those goals... though I personally never took those responses (especially from the lit dept) to be automatic roads to production.

Perhaps this is based on my experience in lit depts where the opinions of the lit committees were never really taken in account by the AD when it came to production slots. (I once worked at a place where HOWIE THE ROOKIE was recommended by everyone in the lit dept, all of which was ignored by the AD until he travelled to England and saw it for himself: on his return he seemed to suggest he'd "discovered" it on his own eventhough there were half a dozen raves in the play report files that had floated across his desk for over a year.)

Anyway, as a writer, I either took notes (if they resonated) or didn't. And resubmitted if I thought it was appropriate.


Was this a non-fiction book proposal? It seems like there is a difference. Like the difference between offering critique on a poem and a bike repair manual. Even if it's a poem on bike repair, it's not the clarity of content or organization of argument that will matter. It's the words and how those words resonate with the reader, with the artists you're asking to collaborate with you and ultimately the audience.

While critique is useful, I think I want it from my collaborators and those theaters that may feel invested in me (echoing 99). Not from the random field, not that it wouldn't be pertinent, just how would it be helpful exactly?

Also, theaters in the UK regularly respond with a page of feedback to submitted plays. It is nice to get the thoughts, usually well considered and reflective of why they won't be pursuing the project - however there's also the feeling that they have to find something to say to explain "why not" when the answer might just be, "Because."


Hey Kristen

Yes, it was a nonfiction book proposal, but the same thing happens with fiction manuscripts, at least according to my friends i publishing.

I should also say that I think saying that nonfiction is, essentially, the same as a bike repair manual while plays are the same is poetry is indicative of, basically, genre prejudice. Nonfiction can be plenty creative and is not entirely about clear organization of material. It shares many of the same aesthetic concerns as fiction. Beyond that tho, there are things like what angle you take into a piece, it's tone, etc. that you could find analogues of in playwrighting.


Malachy, thank you for assuming (correctly) that in real life I would never make such a useless pronouncement as the "lame ending" example. But the idea still applies; giving reasons for passing on a play tend to be useless in any case.

Most literary folk would love to spend all their time discussing playwrights scripts with them. Seriously! It's the best part of the job. Unfortunately a lot of other things come with the job, like post-play chats and shilling for education programs and trying in vain to get missing-in-action ADs to look at outstanding new scripts.

Anyway, the kind of exchange we all want doesn't happen in rejection letters. It comes out of a belief in what a writer is doing and the desire to further that. It shouldn't only happen when a production commitment is in the offing, but also when the literary person has an investment to make in what a playwright is up to as a writer. Unfortunately, the latter is not supported by every theater out there (with some sterling exceptions, of course). So it's back to writing marketing copy instead of face-to-face contact with writers. And the upshot? No one makes that connection, not adequately -- because the people ostensibly hired to that (in the absence of the AD) are suborned for other stuff. C'est la guerre.


Having worked in a literary office at a good-sized regional theatre, I would agree. The lack of feedback, in my experience, has almost nothing to do with fear and everything to do with being over-worked. Even if you are dealing only (as we did) with submissions from agents, you are buried under scripts all year long. Beyond buried. We read, discussed, and wrote a report on every play that we received -- but even if we did nothing else, we still would not be able to talk through those reports with every writer. Moreover, we often did not get to a script until 4-6 months (or more) after it came in the mail. I don't think theatres need more "honest" literary staffs, I think that they need literary staffs that are twice the size.

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