Critiquing the Critique

This week there was a staged reading of my play America’s Brightest Star at Play Club West, a group of dedicated actors who meet once a week to read scripts out loud to an audience in a small theater in North Hollywood. They read well known plays, movie and TV scripts, but often try out unproven works. All of their readings are cold, without any advance rehearsal. This is the first time this script has been heard out loud since a full production at Railroad Playhouse in Newburgh, New York over a year ago. It was refreshing to hear it with a completely different group of actors, and being that it was a cold reading, there was no pressure to tweak the script or rehearse. Just pick it up and go.

10 brave actors and 1 satisfied writer

10 brave actors and 1 satisfied writer

The reading generally went well.  The small audience, as well as much of the cast, laughed throughout, which is good since it is a comedy. Some of the actors were not great, but there were some who were extremely talented and brought a lot of depth to a cold reading. Then, the post show discussion began.

Critique sessions can be very informative, especially once you are able to determine what is good feedback, and what is not. After a reading, people are entitled to offer their opinions. An outside eye is always good. It’s crucial; eventually all work is seen by outside eye exclusively. Critique sessions can be overwhelming, but over time I’ve learned how to immediately recognize what is helpful, and what is not. There are roughly three different types of feedback respondents.

Ignorant commenters, or those unable to see the forest for the trees. Readings can be dull, and certainly hard to visualize. It’s just people talking. Some script details can be easily overlooked. A good portion of feedback are in the form of questions that have already been answered in the text, or in stage direction, but ignored. For example, at this feedback session one person commented that the play needed a moment when the protagonist and her love interest reveal to the audience their desire for each other. In fact, that moment already exists. But it’s unspoken, and the person commenting couldn’t visual it from words on a page. But it most certainly was there, and audiences who saw the show last year had no doubt about the spark between the characters.

The rewriter. This person can be dangerous, unless you recognize it right away. They may like or dislike your script, but they wish it was slightly different and are not afraid to tell you what they would rather see. These people are basically saying “if this was my script, I’d…” Anything said after that point can be ignored…unless you really like where they are taking the script. In that case, have them sign a waiver saying they won’t sue you for a co-writer credit, and make the changes. But generally, those notes aren’t helpful. This isn’t their script. Their idea might be fine, but it’s not mine. One example: a commenter said that all characters other than the three leads should be eliminated. Why? Because that’s the play they would rather see. Well, they can go write that play. It’s not what I want to write.

The dramaturg. These people are why you do readings. Good script dramaturgs at readings can be actors, directors, designers, or…well, actual dramaturgs. Someone makes an insightful comment that makes you look at the script differently. These notes are the ones you need to take to heart when rewriting. A few people commented that the lead character was not invested in her town, the setting of the play. Right on. This is something that I ignored or couldn’t put a finger on throughout the entire production process last year, but to hear a person give this note in a particular way opened my eyes. They didn’t give me the solution and tell me what to write, only pointed out what was missing. Hearing notes like this one proves that the reading process works.

So thanks, Play Club West! You opened my eyes and improved my script. And that’s what this was all about.

Reading Recap

Two days prior to the reading, and I am all about revisions. I would happily delay work on the script and procrastinate (look, more baseball on TV!) but I wanted to get the script to the cast at least a day in advance so they could have the option of reading it in advance. Plus, to be green, those who had e-readers needed to get it on their devices. So I worked late into Thursday evening, and Friday before and after work I continued my paper edit. By 5pm I had completed paper edits and sat in front of the computer to input all the changes. By 6pm Catia had returned from her commercial shoot, and since it was her birthday, we opened a bottle of bubbly to celebrate, then I continued with my paper edits. That is one stereotype I do not fit, the writer who drinks through the process. Fortunately I was almost done and I nursed my glass. Around 7pm I finished, saved the script, and sent a pdf to the cast. No proofreading here, gonna fly by the seat of my pants.

Saturday a quick trip to the local copy store to print out copies for the e-readerless (double sided, you’re welcome Mother Earth) and before I knew it, time was up. Let’s begin.

The last time I heard a script read out loud was my debacle with The Actors Studio in July. I was not concerned this time; after all, it’s a closed reading, just a handful of talented actors who all happen to be friends. A few other respected listeners. A positive room.

Reading 10-12-13 1

Talented actors hard at work.

And it went well. The pace moved quickly. There were more laughs than I anticipated. The actors connected with each other. Sure, the flaws were glaring when the dialogue was heard out loud. It didn’t go far enough with some of the protagonist’s obstacles, and some moments weren’t believable, but all in all it was a success. The script works.  With a little reworking and revision, this could be something. I am satisfied.

After the reading I opted not to have a group discussion, which sort of threw the cast for a loop. Ordinarily following a reading everyone would sit around and discuss, but since we started a bit late and since the reading was turning into a birthday party for my wife with other guests about to arrive, I decided to abandon the usual critique session and talk to people individually or in smaller groups, throughout the evening. This worked out surprisingly well as people could speak freely without considering the opinions of others. Plus, this allowed me to hear similar opinions without worrying about bandwagon opinions, which are those from people who might agree with something that they wouldn’t have considered on their own. There was some general consensus, though:

* The script is too procedural. Much is revealed in conversation, which isn’t active. And similarly:

* Be more visual and less married to text. A common problem for us playwrights who switch to film. Not insurmountable, my scripts are getting more visual the more I write, but something to always consider. Talk in images when possible. One great note I received from a writer friend who watched the reading is to consider approach each scene as a dance.

Now I will take a few days away from the script to stew it over, but I am encouraged and excited to take this to the next step.


One of my other writing projects distracting me from the raison d’etre of this blog is my play Little Black Boxes. This play is a drama about five strangers who all happen to be in the same place at the wrong time. Outside of a casual reading in my apartment, this play had never been heard out loud in public. As a new member of The Actors Studio Playwright/Director Unit, I am allowed to present the first hour of any play. All I need is to connect with a director interested, and then once given a date by the Unit coordinators, the director will cast and rehearse the show. We presented the play this past Monday, the final session of the Unit before it adjourns for the summer.

I can say that this presentation was, to date, the lowest point of my writing career. Worse than rejections from festivals and competitions. Worse than reading the bad reviews that came in minutes apart for my musical Election Day. The absolute worst. It was a failure.

A reading is an experiment. It’s not about presenting a complete, Broadway-ready show. I have watched readings at The Unit that are in varying stages of completion, from near-polished pieces that are ready to be staged, to half-baked thoughts that have no place being read out loud. That said, since this is my first presentation for The Unit, I wanted it to be the best it could be. I found a director who liked the script, and she and I started meeting about it a few months ago. She put together a cast. We rehearsed. But during the rehearsal process, I had a sinking feeling about the script. I was passionate about the subject matter and the characters, but I didn’t know if it was interesting enough. Also, I know the format of the play, which is all monologues without any character interaction, is polarizing in this group, as some members don’t believe it is a proper form of theater. I disagree, but it’s risky to present something that I already know some people will dislike. But I must remain true to the piece.

The reading began, and it felt slow…because it was slow. All the characters speak in monologues and there is no interaction with other characters, so it’s up to the actors to keep the pace going…and the pace died a slow death. I could hear the audience breathe…and possibly snooze. Also, the only real rule about presenting to The Unit is that the excerpt must come in under an hour. We had timed it out to 61 minutes at our last run through, and that was before I made another round of cuts. We’d be fine.

But we weren’t. The pace died and was quickly buried and forgotten about. 20 minutes into the reading I knew we were going to go long. Stuck in the back, I could barely stay in my seat, squirming all the while. Catia, my special guest in attendance (no outsiders allowed, generally) knew, mouthing “pace” to me. The pace. “Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time.” I feel ya, MacB. Any other comments, while you are here? “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying Nothing.”

"Is this a mediocre play I see before me?"

“Is this a mediocre play I see before me?”

Harsh. But not far off the mark.

It was slow. And more boring than I feared. And the kiss of death in theater…predictable. I could throw the director and actors under the bus for their transgressions, but in the end the weight and blame has to land squarely on my shoulders. I blew it. And I knew it. And now I had to sit there and take my licks, as time kept slowly ticking. 6o minutes…65 minutes…70 minutes…mercifully, after 73 of the longest minutes of my life, the stage directions reader said “end of selection” as polite applause accompanied the lights coming up. It was over.

I had failed. It was a bad reading.


The group, about 75 people, broke for coffee outside the theater, and to no doubt pre-discuss the slow train wreck they just witnessed. I didn’t have the heart to go out there, staying in my seat in the theater with a very supportive wife who asked if she could do anything (other than quickly and mercifully strangle me, I couldn’t think of anything). Then as people filtered in, I took the stage with my notepad, and waited to be joined by my director and the moderators.

I was surprised to find that the feedback session was much easier to bear. Sure, it was harsh. One moderator asked me “have you ever written a play before?” A fellow playwright commented that she “didn’t like any of the characters at all.” The crowd debated if this was, in fact, theater. But that aside, it was easier for me to sit on stage and take the punches than it was to sit in the audience and watch my play burst into flames and oh, the humanity, burn out. Because the feedback session was other people talking, some positively, about my work…and their words were their opinions and nothing more. The play itself was all me. The feedback session ran longer than most of them, about 45 minutes, and after it a few unit members came up and congratulated me…on keeping my composure. That in itself is a victory.

Yes, I could make the statement that all failures can lead to victory if harnessed correctly. You could tell me that someday I’ll look back on this and be thankful. Well I’m happy to tell you that almost immediately after the feedback session I was thankful, and if that didn’t perk me up, going home and cracking open a bottle of wine did. But even with a little perspective (and more as each day passes) that doesn’t change the fact that I failed. And it was a mess. And awful to sit through. And I wouldn’t wish it on an enemy.

But I’d do it all over again.

The Verdict is in…

I sat down to read the script for the first time in nearly two months. For the past few weeks my practical side was preparing me for mediocrity, while my ego was preparing the Oscar speech. Unfortunately, the pragmatism whispered by the practical side was drowned out by the cacophonous marching band of my ego, and all rational thinking had been thrown out the window. I started to read, readying myself for the best screenplay this side of Chinatown.

Well, it ain’t no Chinatown. It ain’t even Big Trouble in Little China. It’s nothing if not Nothing But Trouble.

They all know your script is in trouble

They all know your script is in trouble

The problems starting hitting me almost from the beginning. The story alternates between moving at a glacial pace to leapfrogging over important facts. Two different characters sound exactly the same, and could very well be the same character. The arc of my lead character at times was a horizontal line. The ending was so abrupt it was if I ran out of time at the computer lab in college.

It’s bad. The worst script I have ever read. The worst script  ever written. If I succeeded in anything, it was making Joe Esterhaus look like Arthur Miller, and Ed Wood look like William Shakespeare. I have elevated everyone else in the pond by sinking like a stone.

Okay. Breathe. Is it truly that terrible? Focus on something good, man.

Okay. Well. Some of the plot twists took me by surprise, and I wrote them. The story is still original and compelling. The ending sucks but mostly because I gave myself a deadline and didn’t finish it properly, and only a few (admittedly large) tweaks will fix that up. Also, there are some  jokes, and they aren’t terrible.

So is it a terrible script? Or is it a great script?

Neither, of course.

But of more importance, at this stage of the game it’s still MY script. I’m not sharing it with anyone, not even my trusted close confidants who are the first to read my scripts.

In short: I’m exactly where I am supposed to be.

Just make it less sucky.

Just for Me

This draft is mine. Keep your grubby paws off it.

Not that you are clamoring to read the rough draft of a screenplay. I’m sure you have books to catch up on, magazines quickly stacking up in your bathroom or on your counter, or even a slew of other screenplays to read. That said, this draft is only for me.

Any screenwriter can tell you that once a script is finished, the instinct is to show it off right away. “Look what I made! Congratulate me! I’m the shit!” And like any new parent, we expect our script to be treated like a newborn. “Be kind, it’s a brand new baby. She’s unfinished, ugly, and clumsy, but she’s all mine. Now tell me how cute she is. Isn’t she the cutest baby you’ve ever seen?”

Except your script is not a baby. And when you put it out in the world, people will point out the warts, flaws, drool, and frankly they will not be polite in telling you how much that baby stinks. And your baby does stink. Because unlike a real baby, a script has not gestated long enough; it is simply not ready for the world. Because a script is not a baby, but a mature, fully grown adult. Sure, there may be warts, flaws and drool in an adult, but at least the adult structure is all there. We find drooling and crying babies cute, but drooling and crying adults? Not so much.


(for more shirts that argue my point go to

Okay, before I get on the bus to Analogyville via the Digress Expressway, I think you get my point. And this point is a valuable lesson to any writer. Before you seek feedback and validation, take some perspective so you can reflect honestly on what you wrote. Let the passion and excitement of completing a script ebb before letting others in, and before you let others in, reread it. After a week or so away from it, is it still all you thought it was? Notice any errors you didn’t notice before? Are you happy with all the characters? Does the plot unfurl on paper the way it does in your head?

We’ve grown accustomed to reality show competitions like American Idol and Top Chef where artists are INSTANTLY judged on their efforts. They finish their warbling cover of When Doves Cry or their braised pork cheek and red snapper with collard green slaw and fennel puree, and nearly fall over themselves as the judges offer their cleverly worded (and often scripted!) opinions. They always hope for the best but often get the worst.  Whether the feedback is good or bad, they are always getting slightly more famous (for the time being).

We also overlook the effort that got these players to this level. Even an amateur showcase like American Idol requires hours and hours of preparation, both before entering the competition and during the run itself. How many hours has that singer spent rehearsing one song for this week’s tribute to Abba? How many years of singing did it take to make that voice stand out to the audition judges to get on the show? How many years were spent in the kitchen perfecting cooking technique?

My point is that my script is a baby, and needs to grow up a little before you get your judgy, judgy peepers on it. So thank you for your patience but this baby ain’t ready.