Well That Wasn’t Helpful At All – How To React To Awful Script Notes

Posted by on May 17, 2014 in Creative Writing | 1 comment

Well That Wasn’t Helpful At All – How To React To Awful Script Notes

One of the biggest events in the University of California-Riverside’s theatre department each year is a festival called “Playworks.” People come from all over southern California and actually pay $15 a pop to see what UCR’s graduate-level playwrights have to say. It’s a great bridge between the university and the community, featuring new and innovative works from a diverse group of individuals. In the two years I was there, our plays ran the gamut from funny to absurd to heartfelt to completely off the wall. (Admittedly, the off the wall ones were mainly due to me.) My roommate Rob’s 2007 play even got turned into a half-million dollar movie.

Because it was part of a larger collegiate festival with an absurdly long acronym I can’t remember, the university brought in a dramaturg to review all of the plays. Now you might ask me, “Grandpa Hank, what is a dramaturg?” To be perfectly honest, I still don’t know. In my experience they’re some sort of theatre-y person whose main job it is to be snooty, fixate on very trivial things within the production, and make insane suggestions that conspiracy theorists would have trouble following. Perhaps they serve some greater purpose, but if so, I haven’t yet been exposed to it. They’re like the theatre version of sideline reporters.

Case in point, the lady who was there that night (who again, was PAID by the university to show up) was so bizarrely out of touch with the plays she was critiquing that by the end of it, many of us were convinced that she’d been huffing turpentine on the way into town.

For instance, she asked my friend Molly…

“Where did this play take place? I was very confused by the setting. Was it in a mall? It really felt like it took place at the mall.”

“It was set in a kitchen,” Molly answered.

“See, I didn’t get that at all.”

Molly squinted and pointed to the stage. “The main character went to the oven and pulled out a roast.”

The lady stared at the rafters. “See, to me, it felt like it was at the mall. So that’s your first problem.”

We later went over the entire script for anything that could’ve remotely hinted that the play took place at the mall instead of a family kitchen. I believe one of the characters mentioned she’d recently bought new jeans. And that was about it. Otherwise, every single context clue available let the audience know it was set in a kitchen. Including ya know, all the props and uh… the playbill. But to hell with context clues, the dramaturg said. TO HELL WITH THEM!

But wait, there’s more! My wife’s play was centered around a precocious five-year-old with a massive IQ digging a giant hole in his front yard while his mother and grandmother sat in lawn chairs debating how to best raise the young genius currently burrowing to China in the pit below them.

When it was time for the play to be reviewed, the dramaturg lady spent a few minutes cleaning her tiny glasses and came up with the following gem.

“What if he wasn’t digging a giant hole in his mother’s front yard? What if he was digging a hole right in the middle of the grandmother’s living room? It would bring an immediacy to the situation that the play hasn’t yet achieved.”

WHAT?

The scariest thing to come out of that comment was that presumably it’s possible to get the entire way to your late forties, earn an advanced degree that enables you to adjudicate college theatre festivals and somehow NOT KNOW THE VERY BASICS ABOUT HOW HOMES ARE BUILT! Sure, he’ll just dig a hole in the floor. Cause that’s simple. There are only two scenarios where this is possible.

1) The grandmother lives in a mud hut.
2) This kindergartner has access to heavy machinery he should in no way have access to.

“Well gol-lee Bobby really tore up the carpet. Told you we shouldn’t have bought him that Bobcat.”

The worst part was that even when we pressed her further, she never understood why the suggestion was so ridiculous.

“Just imagine mounds of dirt in the grandmother’s pristine living room,” she said. “And he’s just digging away. It gives the grandmother the objective she’s currently lacking.”

Because of comments such as the one above, we had a field day imitating her at the cast party at the end of the festival.

“Ok, what if your play wasn’t set in a hospital, but rather in a small lifeboat in the middle of a hurricane?”

“What if instead of your main character being a young gay man, it was a large bucket of chicken?”

“What if instead it being a bar full of cowboys, it was a mouth filled with teeth? And instead of “A Texas Story,” you could call it “Sarsaparilla Sam Explores His Own Cavities?”

Looking back on it, I really do hope she was a drug addict who just fell off the wagon because if not, there’s a 50% chance she’s currently stuck in a canyon somewhere with no idea where she is. Anyway, whatever the reason was, none of us got a single useful note out of the entire experience.

And that’s frustrating. Why? Because decent notes from other people are absolutely essential to the process of guiding an idea through the minefield of development. As good as I like to think I am, I’ve never really gotten one of my stories to do exactly what I was aiming for on the first try. Or the second. Or the third. (Hell, I tend to get three opinions on this silly little blog before I throw it up there on the Interwebz.) With all the moving pieces in the giant creative puzzle in your mind, any writer is bound to overlook a few things. Chances are, you’re so invested in the work, you’re going to be a bit story blind. Good notes help you see your work from differing perspectives – and eventually end up with a well-rounded final product you can be proud of.

So how do you avoid bad notes? And more than that, how do you identify bad notes before you start having a five-year-old attempt to dig through a concrete foundation with a trowel? Here are a few tips.

Know your story inside and out: The biggest thing you can do to keep bad notes from killing your work is to fully understand what your story is and who your characters are. What are you trying to accomplish by telling the story you’ve chosen to tell? If you know and understand that Bernice’s Irish heritage is what drives her to do many of the things she does, you’ll recognize that someone saying, “I think you should make Bernice Swedish,” isn’t especially helpful. The better you know your story and characters, the more you’ll be able to tell whether the notes you receive will actually help your words and characters blossom or if they will unnecessarily gut the whole thing.

Develop a network of trusted readers: These don’t necessarily have to be professionals. The first person I have read any of my scripts is my father. He’s a retired chemistry teacher who’s never taken a script writing class in his life. But that doesn’t matter. I don’t send my stories out to anyone until I get his stamp of approval. He’ll tell me straight up whether he enjoyed the story and more than that, if there were certain parts of it he just didn’t buy. He often gives me notes that are on par with those of my former professors simply because what he tends to see is so damned obvious. My professors are asking me questions like, “What is the main character’s overall dramatic question?” and my father is like, “I don’t think she could get to Ohio and back in two hours. You should make it two and a half. Unless they live out by the airport.” And those are great notes because the last thing you want is people debating travel times in their heads while they’re supposed to be paying attention to a crucial scene.

Ideally, your trusted network should be diverse in as many ways as possible. If your network is a bunch of like-minded yes men, you’re going to get a lot of positive feedback. And while thumbs-up and a pat on the back feel great, if your script really needs some work, their notes are as useful as the ones from the dramaturg I mentioned earlier. Not only that, but the script has now been angelically validated in your mind, so you’re more likely to be resistant to the honest, helpful notes you receive down the line. In other words, be your own gatekeeper. Keep the bad notes away by finding a group of trusted readers. You’ll be a lot happier avoiding the people whose feedback is consistently bonkers.

Learn how to give good notes yourself: Obviously, if you don’t know what a good note is, you can’t differentiate between script advice that is helpful and script advice that makes as much sense as the weather lately. If you’re reading someone else’s script and you feel that Bernice should be Swedish, you need to have ACTUAL REASONS WHY. I know, crazy, right? It’s amazing how many people will read your work and throw a note out there simply because they feel guilty or dumb not having any sort of response. And they just saw a documentary on some Swedish bobsledders so now you’re stripping Bernice of her culture and heritage all to appease someone in your workshop or class who simply needed to hear the sound of their own voice on Thursday.

It seems obvious, but many people forget that the ultimate objective of giving a note is to help the writer create a better script. You can’t give a good note unless you as the reader have a conscious grasp on the story you just read (i.e., you can distinguish between a kitchen and a mall). Many people don’t realize that giving notes has everything to do with helping the writer across the table and zero to do with their own personal preferences. When people either forget or don’t realize that simple fact, you get awful, completely unhelpful notes.

In the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring the concept of script and story notes in a few related posts that highlight the types of suggestions you’re likely to get as well as the best ways to implement them. In the first one, I’m going to talk a bit about…

Wait, what? What? I’m sorry, the dramaturg is interrupting me here.

“Instead of using words for this blog, why don’t you record a series of sneezes and assign each one a corresponding number based on their intensity? Then you can post those numbers on a billboard in eastern Kentucky. This blog is just screaming for a confusing Appalachian billboard.”

That’s a fantastic suggestion, ma’am. I’ll get right on it after I’m done digging this hole in the floor.

photo credit: theloushe via photopin cc

One Comment

  1. I’m sure you know, Grandpa Hank, that there are “Drama Turds” in every profession. They are folks who take the term critic way too literally. I believe they were raised in either homes with large-at least 20 feet across- unfurnished rooms with concrete walls or in wide rock-walled canyons. They learned that a mysterious spirit would repeat, word for word, their every nonsensical utterance and thus confirm their own non-creative brilliance. We should feel sorry for them when they have to live in an echoless world, and we should just ignore their annoying pretentious shouting. Keep up the interesting commentary.

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