Monday, June 07, 2004


The most consistent complaint I’ve received about my playwriting is that I’m not very responsive to audience feedback. The plays produced by Nosedive Productions don’t go through workshops, don’t have public readings and don’t offer “talkback” sessions after private readings.

This is because I hate audience feedback. Or rather, I think the value of audience or dramaturgical feedback is far, far, FAR overrated.

And I despise staged readings with feedback sessions.

When I say this, it’s not that I don’t want to hear the audiences’ opinions, learn their thoughts or their feelings. I would like to hear what Real People think and feel about a particular show, and I would like to hear advice from Theatre People. But there is too much emphasis on audience feedback (i.e., audience members acting as co-authors or editors) as a means of improving a play.

I think the word “feedback” is fitting. As in, that awful high-pitched squealing noise that happens when you aim a microphone into an amplifier. When I think of feedback in terms of “talkback sessions,” it’s identical to my mind (and ears) to amplifier feedback.

From my understanding, Blaise Pascal believed that illumination and wisdom came from solitude and introspection, not community. In other words, if you looked at (say) a tree, and saw the sublime beauty that came from that tree, you lost that sublime beauty once you tried to describe it. The beauty you saw from that tree will be ruined by the other person’s nattering.

Friedrich Nietzsche believed the opposite; illumination and wisdom came from interaction and community. In other words, truth came from having to, you know, articulate your viewpoint and “put it to the test” with an opposing viewpoint. Wisdom isn’t wisdom unless you share it.

The way I see it is of course from both ends, although if push came to shove, I’d side with Freddy. You do need other people to achieve insight. But it’s not always with words. Monet was able to communicate the sublime and intangible found in his backyard in his painting “Nympheas” (water lilies). Shakespeare was able to convey profound regret, bitterness and loss with “King Lear.” Understanding and illumination can be—and is—conveyed through an artist’s creation and audiences’ participation.

But not through feedback.

To put it another way, sex is the interaction. The “pillow-talk” is the afterthought (often full of clichés and lies). Theatre-makers are spending way too much time judging their prowess, performance and ability on the pillow-talk.

To me, audiences are always plural. Each individual watching a play is an audience. So, each performance has audiences, not an audience (unless there’s literally only one person watching). Individual points of view, opinions, emotional responses.

For good or for bad, community is brought about by the creators and the audiences. The company presents the play, the audiences watch it. During that time, we each know our respective places. I’m not presuming to be an audience and you’re not presuming to be the writer. I need you, you need me (that is to say, a play isn’t a play without audiences, and audiences aren’t audiences without a play).

During talkback sessions, this communal activity is destroyed. The noise-to-signal ratio with people giving good suggestions (rare in such a forced setting) and people imposing shitty story ideas on the writer (as common as weeds in an unkempt garden) makes any value in feedback sessions useless. Not that I’m blaming the audiences. But, say I’m reading a book, and someone is hovering over me the whole time I’m reading. The very instant I put the book down after reading the words “THE END,” that person asks: “What confused you? What was the best chapter? Why did the main character go to the bar instead of the drug store when his mother was sick?” Whatever enjoyment I had from that book is erased, whatever comments I could provide would be inarticulate and unhelpful. And why is “audience confusion” the worst thing imaginable? I mean, if something’s a bit confusing, wouldn’t that make the audience, you know, think a little? Be a bit more attentive? More engaged?

The reason people see and put on plays, or any form of art, is that there is an understood trust. Trust from an audience that the writer knows what he’s doing, and trust from the playwright that audiences will understand what he’s trying to say. With feedback sessions, a mutual lack of trust and respect (i.e., I don’t know where I’m going with this script, and I don’t trust you idiots to get it) is brought front-and-center.

I still don’t get why we have staged readings for audience feedback; it should be “audiences’ feedback,” and rewriting based on multiple points of view is impossible, not to mention stupid. I mean, I do get it, but it’s still such a weird practice. Musicians don’t show off their sound-check to audiences, nor do they ask audiences which chord to play next (“Instead of A minor, why don’t you do C major?”). Painters don’t present half-painted pieces and ask viewers what color they should paint with next (“Rather than a house, why don’t you paint a horse?”). Independent filmmakers don’t have test audiences to make sure they’re reaching everyone (studios do, yes, and that’s because they’re made up of businessmen and need to sell tickets in New York City and Gainesville, Florida).

There are two plays Nosedive has done in particular (“The Awaited Visit” and “Mayonnaise Sandwiches,” but I’m sure this has happened more than twice) where two audience members sitting next to one another had polar opposite opinions of the show. I mean, POLAR opposite. The person on the left thought it was useless trash. The person on the right thought it was the best play he had seen all year. Which one do I listen to, and which one is right? Well, the answer is, “They’re both right, and I listen to neither.” I can give you the play, you can take it or leave it. Aside from the occasional, “Dude, it’s spelled ‘affected,’ not ‘effected,’” and “You have a character in the New York scene when he’s supposed to be in Chicago,” any feedback on where the story is going and what the characters should do is irrelevant.

And it’s not fair for the writer to force an audience out of his or her role as audience. What if the person loved the play, and felt that nothing should be changed? You wouldn’t be getting their input at feedback sessions, or taking it seriously. What if the person despised everything about it, and felt that nothing could be done to fix it? Why bother getting that person’s detailed account of how it’s hopeless to change it?

And what are theatre-makers so afraid of? That they’ll put on a play and not every single person watching will love it or see the same through-line? That audiences will walk if they’re not consulted first? Feedback sessions are such a form of bet-hedging, teeth-pulling and revealing a desperation not to offend.

There’s just no place for Mass Consensus in theatre (or art).

Screeching on his guitar,

James “Bleeding Ears” Comtois

June 7, 2004


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