The results are in…

There are milestones in the development process. Finishing a first draft: check. Having a reading: check (I’ve now had two, if you are keeping track). And once you put the script out there in the world, the next step is getting feedback.

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As mentioned in my last post, after the reading I handed out a short questionnaire with targeted questions. Without structure, feedback can be very unhelpful. My least favorite type of feedback is when people try to get you to tell a different story. “What if the girl was a robot and she could fly?” That might be a great idea, but not for my script. Basically, if a note can start with the phrase “if this was my story, I’d…” I don’t want to hear it. If it’s your story, tell your story. This is my story, dammit.

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Some writers disagree with me. Some writers find those type of notes helpful. Those writers can hear all kinds of feedback and sift through the dirty water for the gold nuggets. Not me. There are times when I need help for specific scenes or story developments, but only when I solicit for it. Otherwise, I don’t have time to sift through the silt.

This is why I don’t necessarily like an open discussion. The questions I asked were crafted to this story, although some of the questions were based on questionnaires at many screenings and readings in the film industry, so I am certainly not breaking any new ground here.

Since you don’t know the story, some of the answers may not make sense. So without further ado, here are the results:

What was your favorite part of the script?
The scene between Nina and the Superior (40%)
Odd scenes (20%)
The rooftop attempt at Nina’s life (20%)
Other (20%)

What did you like least about the script?
(Everyone wrote a different answer)

Was anything confusing?
Nothing was confusing (40%)
Anything relating to the club (20%)
Ending (20%)
Other (20%)

Who was your favorite character other than Nina (the lead)?
Franklin (the gay cop) (50%)
Jack (the desperate writer upstairs) (40%)
Others (10%)

Does the script feel too expositional, like a Law and Order episode?
No (100%)

Was the amount you learned about Nina’s past too much, not enough, or just right?
Just right (80%)
Not enough (20%)

Would you see this movie if you didn’t know anyone involved in making it?
Yes (100%) (although one person said it would depend on the cost of the ticket)

A lot can be gleaned from this small sample size. I haven’t overwritten the exposition. I’m not putting in too much of Nina’s back story. There is nothing in particular that multiple people dislike, so I can ignore the results of that question since I can’t take every note.

Which brings up an excellent bit of advice given to me years ago about feedback. If one person gives you a note and you disagree with it, it’s only their opinion. However, if THREE people give you the exact same note, then you should give it some serious consideration.

There were other readers who could not make it to the reading itself, but volunteered to read the script and give me notes. I did not ask these people the above questions, but rather let them give any notes they want. Using the rule of three people, here are the notes that I am keeping:

* Since Nina is a stranger in a strange land, I can go further with the oddness and idiosyncrasies of all the supporting characters. Think more Coen Brothers and more David Lynch, but in my style, not theirs.

* Nina needs to be more active in finding out information about her sister. Much of the information is handed to her.

* Hugo should be a darker character.

There were other notes to consider, but since they were isolated notes I shouldn’t take them as seriously as the others. Not that they aren’t serious suggestions, but if I’m on the fence about a note, and I only hear that note from one person, I need to trust my instincts.

So now it’s time to dive back into the script. I am confident that what I heard in the reading and the insightful notes given by a variety of people will no doubt guide this script to a better and stronger place.

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The Next Step: Reading

Now that we have a budget (which is still only an estimate at this time) it’s time to focus once again on the script. The producer wants to hear the script out loud. There was a casual table reading last year, but this will be a step up. Instead of in a friend’s apartment, we will have this reading in a more professional environment. This time, there will be an audience of sorts: potential producers, trusted writers and directors with script evaluation experience, and other potential collaborators.

So I booked a theater in the Victory Theatre Center in Burbank. The 49 seat space was perfect, feeling almost like a screening room. We assembled the cast, most from the previous reading joined by a few recommendations from the producer. We invited a select group for the audience, and about a dozen were able to attend. The reading went off without a hitch. My biggest mistake was not taking a photo of the reading for this blog. So instead, here’s a selfie of me and my drooling son:

This has nothing to do with the reading. I promise I won't forget to take pictures at other important times!

This child has nothing to do with the reading. Just a reminder to keep taking pictures of the process!

Some of the lines didn’t work, and some of the acting wasn’t right, but generally I was pretty pleased with the whole evening. The audience was engaged, laughing at (some of) the right times and, of most importance, paying attention throughout. No creaking of seats, stretching, or other rumblings.

We chose not to have a post-reading discussion. Instead, I had a half page questionnaire for the audience to fill out, with the following questions:

What was your favorite part of the script?
What did you like least about the script?
Was anything confusing?
Not counting Nina (the protagonist), who is your favorite character?
Do you feel the script is too expositional, like a Law and Order episode?
Was the amount you learned about Nina’s past too much, not enough, or just right?
Would you see this movie if you didn’t know anyone involved in making it?

While the audience filled out the form, we served wine to the cast and audience in the lobby, drinking and discussing for a few hours. On the whole, it was a positive experience. Every creative endeavor should end with a party.

Coming up next… the results from the questionnaire are in!

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.