St. Louis Writers’ Group Workshop provides playwrights and screenwriters with a supportive environment in which to hear their work read and receive constructive feedback.
Workshops are comprised of two components:
A cold, unrehearsed reading of a full-length or shorter dramatic work. (As time permits, scenes and synopses may also be presented and discussed, provided they are for dramatic projects.)
A facilitated discussion where audience members (including readers) have an opportunity to provide candid feedback to the author.
While the discussion will naturally be of a shorter duration than the reading itself, each component is of equal importance.
The Playwright and Facilitator each have important responsibilities that jointly contribute to the success of the workshop.
The more a playwright knows about what he wants to learn about his play, the more effective the workshop will be. To achieve this, he should evaluate his expectations and understand his responsibilities.
Should complete his script far enough in advance of the reading to allow him time to review it for errors (typos, etc.) and dramatic logic. Although first drafts are welcome (and encouraged), no script should be “fresh out of the typewriter.”
May select his own cast. However, he is encouraged to do this in conjunction with the facilitator. (Because of the informal nature of the workshop, it is not necessary to rehearse actors in advance.)
Is encouraged to invite friends and colleagues to attend.
Should discuss his expectations with the facilitator in advance. Is this a first draft or rewrite? Is he looking for feedback on a particular element (character, dialogue)? Is this his first reading or has he been through this process before?
Should bring sufficient copies of the script for the readers, plus one for the narrator. Where parts are doubled, the script should be marked so readers of multiple parts can see where their characters enter.
Should come with an open mind. No playwright is without an ego – nor should he be. His ego is what helped him to make his script unique. However, experience has shown that workshops are most successful when an author is prepared to hear all points of view.
In recent years, the role of the facilitator (in more formal settings, Dramaturg) has become increasingly important. While moderating the discussion is one responsibility, it is by no means the only one. The facilitator should be ready to guide the playwright through the entire workshop process.
Although the playwright may cast his own play, he is encouraged to work with the facilitator. Where the author does not know readers, the facilitator should take the lead.
Before the reading, the facilitator should ask if there is anything specific the author is looking for feedback on. If he has not heard his work read aloud before, the facilitator should prepare him for the experience this is likely to be.
During the reading itself, the facilitator may serve as the narrator (especially) or as a reader.
During the discussion, the facilitator should insure that all points of view receive a full airing. (See below.)
After the workshop is over, experienced facilitator often seek feedback from participants on how the reading went and how the discussion was managed.
3. The Discussion
That so much emphasis is placed on “The Discussion” is perhaps additional proof that theater is a collaborative process. Candid feedback is essential to helping playwrights improve their work. As important as a discussion is, however, that does not mean it has to be run in a rigid, stiff manner. Indeed, the best discussions allow for free-flowing give and take on the part of all participants. Below are guidelines to help facilitators create that setting.
When the reading of the play is complete, the facilitator should begin the discussion by reminding the audience of basic ground rules:
Raise your hand to be called upon; do not interrupt or engage in direct dialogue with another speaker; all comments – pro and con – must be phrased in a professional, courteous way; etc.
Explain that the author will not speak. Since this is the cornerstone of a well-moderated discussion, this point may need additional explanation depending on the make-up of the audience.
Writers are asked to remain silent during the discussion. They are encouraged to use the time to take in all feedback without attempting to defend their work or answer questions. They may want to make notes about comments they don’t understand or on suggestions they like. A guest may pose a specific question, but the author cannot answer until the end of the discussion, when the facilitator turns it over to the author for the final word.
The facilitator should moderate the discussion in a way that yields as much feedback as possible in the amount of time available. It requires flexibility and fast thinking. Here are some tips to help anticipate the unexpected:
Be alert to all hands and try to remember the order in which people ask to be recognized.
If someone states an opinion you do not agree with or asks a question that might seem obvious, resist the temptation to answer it. Instead, say, “Mary thinks it was obvious that the butler did it. What do others think?”
Always bear in mind the position of authority you are assuming – however temporarily – in the minds of the audience: your personal comments can easily discourage others from speaking. Experienced moderators often restrict their comments (if any) to points of view no one has brought up or to questions that will draw out additional feedback: “Who was your favorite character? Why?” Etc.
At the conclusion of the discussion, offer the author the opportunity to make brief remarks and answer one or two general questions.
The playwright should never read a part in his own play. It interferes with his primary responsibility: to listen to how the dialogue sounds. It is better for a less experienced reader (or even an audience member with no experience) to read a role than for the playwright to do so. Only in the most extreme circumstances (the non-arrival of a previously confirmed reader and a shortage of audience members) should the playwright read a part. In these rare cases, the role he reads should one of the least important.
Under no circumstances may the playwright serve as his own facilitator. To do so short circuits the process completely. If no one is available to facilitate, the reading can be postponed. Alternately, the author may distribute copies of his script and invite audience members to send feedback in writing. To have a discussion where the author attempts to serve as his own facilitator is pointless.
Thank you again for your interest in the St. Louis Writers’ Group Workshop. Please contact us if you have any questions.