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I dig jazz and single-malt scotch.  I write plays; I direct them too. I love STAR WARS more than is healthy. I walk my dogs every day, unless it's raining or terribly cold.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Learning to talk-back

From JOAN'S VOICES by Kato McNickle, a play that
began at NTI Playwrights' Week.
Each semester at The National Theater Institute, a 14-week study-away conservatory level theater training program, there is a week devoted to putting forward new student-written work as staged readings.  Playwright's Week was the first place that I ever took a playwriting class, and the process had a deep effect on me and the methods I have developed as a person who reads and talks about plays to other playwrights and theater artists.

This was due in part to the way our kick-ass instructor Donna DiNovelli "taught" the class. What she taught wasn't play structure or protagonist/antagonist conflict or story arc or any of the lessons you could find in a book about playwriting. What she taught the group was how to hear, understand, and talk to each other about the work they had just heard presented to the class that week.

She guides each class to becoming a self-mentoring group that understands how to share individual responses to the play. This development of intuiting your personal response and framing that response into an intelligible and useful statement is the core of the process.  This philosophy carries over to Playwright's Week where, besides the fellow classmates responding to the plays, one or two invited guests sit -in as "responders" to the week of work.

While the invited responders have loads of experience and earned their chops, they don't sit as experts or speak like teachers. What they have practiced, and the reason they were hand-picked for this process, is the ability to quickly assess their personal experience of the work they have seen.  Alongside that they also know where to point the new playwrights to begin to enlarge their new work, usually by recommending other plays and playwrights to investigate.

I found myself so in awe of these responses that I began attending the readings each semester in order to take note (with a notebook in hand) of how these excellent responders organized their thoughts into helpful statements about the work.

I wanted to learn to be a good responder too, and as with anything, getting good at something requires practice.  I started attending local readings of new work. As it happens a friend of mine was teaching an evening playwriting course through a Parks & Rec program and would offer selections of the works in a public showing.  These "Finales" were a perfect place for me to practice responding to new work in public.  Nothing ups your game like sharing it in a public venue.  You have to learn to be clear, precise, and succinct all at the same time.

The ability to provide helpful and supportive feedback immediately after seeing a performance is a learned skill, not a natural one.  Learning to be effective at it can help you build a thoughtful, involved, and articulate arts community in your area.  If you want to be involved with a more vibrant arts community, lead the way by introducing ways to have these conversations about the work.  You grow your art by nurturing the work of others.

It's always about being generous and honest.

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