Yesterday I was rushing to fill out a major application for Bitten By Productions and I stumbled on a bit of a dilemma. The application required details of every previous show the theatre company applying had done, including reviews. For us, this would range from Reunion, the tiny, unassuming comedy I put on with friends back in 2013, to Moonlite, the play with songs that has sold out almost its whole season and has a cast of trained musical theatre professionals, which opens tomorrow.
Moments like this, moments that literally require you to chart years of creative development, are great for reflection, but the problem here is that said charting came as part of trying to convince a major player in the theatre scene to give us a lot of money for a future production. And frankly, I don’t especially want to hold up some of our earlier works as examples of what we can do now because they’re not.
I was lucky enough in that every play we’ve done has at least one positive review and even the reviews that were more on the fence came from early shows rather than anything we’ve done recently. Showing signs of clear development probably isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it does make me think. After all, we advertised plays like Below Babylon and A Good German with just as much conviction as we did far stronger recent shows like Springsteen or The Commune. To me and anyone who has seen all over even some of our output, the improvement is obvious. How could it not be? Over years of growing and learning if you don’t get better you’re doing something wrong. But the problem here is that, to the average punter who might have seen one of those early plays, there is no reason to believe that Bitten By Productions is now worth taking seriously. Not when you parted with your hard-earned for a show that might not have seemed worth it.
For creatives, this is a dilemma with no clear solution. I strongly believe that the only way to really improve is to put your work out there, gauge the reaction, learn from your mistakes, and continue. Sure, you can study writing for theatre and learn all the practices and conventions and whatever, but that will never teach you as much as sitting in a darkened room, hearing the gasps of audience members around you, or else reading a savage review or seeing friends lie through their teeth to your face about liking a show. It’s these tough experiences that make you learn, that cut your ego down to size and teach you that you have to stop thinking about art as self-expression. Nobody gives a fuck about your self-expression. Nobody should have to pay thirty dollars to see you express yourself. If you’re going to ask that of anyone then you have to offer them something else. What does your play have? Will it make them laugh? Cry? Shuffle to the edge of their seat, wide eyed and enraptured?
The truth of course is that opinions are subjective and not everyone will like your work even if you do everything right, but you will be coming from a much stronger position if you are able to justify to yourself why a total stranger should see this play. This requires interrogating the worth of every aspect of your script so that when faced with criticism you can at least justify why you made the choices you made.
In early plays I didn’t ask for much feedback. My tokenistic substitute for this was giving the scripts to people I privately knew would only say nice things. Essentially I, on some level knowingly, cut myself off to criticism because I believed I could do this and that my work deserved your time and money. In the process I took advantage of the support of friends and family, all of whom helped produce and put on plays that were simply not ready. And when the negative feedback came, I shrugged it off. I felt bad about it, sure, but I rarely engaged in what it was saying.
Engaging, here, doesn’t mean agreeing. It means listening and considering. You can think feedback is wrong. But you have to be able to articulate, at least to yourself, why it’s wrong. That is one of the biggest and most valuable lessons I’ve learned.
But, of course, it doesn’t heal the damage of those early mistakes. It won’t win back directors, producers and established actors who came and saw my plays on the recommendation of friends and probably walked away vowing never to trust that friend again, let alone see anything else written by that Bergmoser kid.
Of course this begs the question of at what point your work becomes consistently ready for consumption, and to that there is no answer. The best I can offer is that I used to look back on plays that were about a year old and cringe, now, when thinking over just about every script I’ve written since 2015, I can find something of value or at least justify why I made the choices I made. Not everything I wrote in that time was good, but the scripts I didn’t feel good about didn’t see the light of day. That might be the biggest difference.
I wish I could tell everyone who came and saw Below Babylon or A Good German and the rest that I’m a better writer now and my new work will be worth their time. But I can’t so I have to take the hit. And furthermore, if I could go back and tell my younger self not to produce work that wasn’t ready, I wouldn’t. The lessons I learned in that time, for me personally, made it all worthwhile.
It’s not a one size fits all thing. I wouldn’t recommend everyone make the choices I made. I’m impulsive and impatient and I’m lucky now to be surrounded by collaborators who temper those traits. If you have a play you want to produce, be honest with yourself, get it into the hands of people who will rip it to shreds and listen to them before you decide how to proceed. Because I can promise you with the weight that comes from experience that you will not get away with just throwing a show on and hoping for the best. But you will certainly learn from it.
Writing words about writing words.