Tips to the Notegivers
1. A playwright will be a knot of tension until you read the play you’ve asked for. Give them an honest assessment of how long. ‘I’m really busy for the next couple of months then I’ll read it’ is fine but tell the writer and spare them 2 months worry.
2: Start with the assumption that the writer is ahead of you. Many will be very clear sighted about what their play needs. Start with something like : l loved reading your play. Where do you feel it is now and what work do you want to do on it next ?
3: When you’re discussing the draft of a play with the writer ask them to identify the concrete thing that got them started with the play: an image, a memory, a gesture, a sound. This is often the real ‘trigger’ for the play which may get lost on the way
4: When reading a draft of a new play you’re going to project - what I wanted the play, what this reminds me of, what my production will look like. Learn to recognise and identify what you’re projecting and attempt to read the play as it is. Tricky!
5: Reading drafts of a new play you’re reading at two levels: 1. how it works as a one off experience for an audience. 2. piece that will be investigated by a cast and will need to sustain them for a run. It takes a while to learn to do both.
6: You can only usefully give so many notes at a time. Identify with the writer a number of key things they want to work on in the next draft. Finer points can be worked in later drafts or may solve themselves once Act Two is no longer set on Uranus.
7: It’s fine to give pragmatic notes to a draft: ‘we can only afford to do it if you lose a couple of characters’ is honest and direct. The writer can decide if they want to do that and if they can use the pragmatic creatively, which any artist does.
8: Despite your and the writer’s best intentions the latest draft may not be the best. Keep all drafts and have the humility to acknowledge that, say, draft 3 may be the best and you don’t have to doggedly produce draft 7. ‘Alive’ is better than ‘perfect’
9: A good writer is unlikely to dutifully work through your notes as though they are action points from a meeting. Your notes will open up the play that the writer has become (too?)close to -whether the writer follows particular notes is not so important
10: Try the ‘desert island discs’ approach to note giving on a draft. If only eight notes could be given what would they be? And then if only one of those notes could be given which would it be? Quality before quantity is good for note giving.
11: Rethink your approach if you get back a new draft and you can hear your notes coming back to you from the mouths of the characters - the writer is now placating you when they should be inspired by you. (I’ve been there as both a notegiver and writer)
12: You may find yourself in the note giver - writer dynamic as the logical ‘left brain’ partner. But you still need to engage with the emotional intelligence of the play, unearth its unique internal logic. Beware becoming the pedant in the dynamic!
13: If your own experiences echo something in the draft of the play it’s good to share that with the writer. Notes don’t have to come from an impersonal place. But limit the amount of time you talk about yourself - just enough to give the writer impetus.
14: If you find yourself with a writer whose only action is to defend every word of their draft as a work of immovable genius, it’s ok to step away from note giving. It’s only happened to me a couple of times. The writers were never heard of again!
15: An hour of playing time is 9-10,000 words. As you reach final draft anything over 22,000 words will probably need cutting. One approach is to say to the writer ‘I’ll find 3,000 words (eg) of cuts, you do the same and then let’s meet and compare’. "Word counts like this are incredibly useful. Half an hour of radio comedy is 5,500 words for example. I find with some writers you can achieve a couple of hundred words of cuts by just tiny bits of pruning. Eg - lose most of the “that”s." (From a response to this note.)
16: More common than the writer who thinks their work is unalterable genius is the writer who’s thought themselves in to a place where they believe their work is a total failure. You may have to work hard to have them hear the strengths in their draft.
17: You may do some research around the background of the play to stimulate and support the writer. But like a writer don’t get attached to hearing the research in the play. The ‘the interesting thing about bees is ..’ cut and pasted from Wikki speech- no!
18: At some stages in the process your job is not to add more projection and criticism - which the writer will probably be bringing in spades - but to help the writer see what they’ve actually written in the latest draft - a précis of what’s actually there
19: It shouldn’t be a tussle between what you want the play to be and what the writer wants it to be. A play has a need of its own bigger than you - locating the play’s logic, arc, rhythm and fully realising that needs you both to move beyond ego.
20: work out if there are other note givers working on the play and step away if you discover you’re just one of many adding to the noise. My feeling is there should be one note giver - writer relationship for drafts of a play.
21: I would advise against the culture which ‘others’ writers as special beings with magical powers. It’s a way of pushing the writer out of a team.I would encourage adult to adult transactions :two theatre professionals each with their own skill set.
22 : a lot can be achieved through drafts and notes. I would advise against kicking the can down the road with ‘we’ll sort that out in a workshop/in rehearsal’. Maximise what you achieve before the expense and time of workshop/rehearsal.
23: the great Tony Garnett once went through a draft with me simply commenting page by page ‘dead .. dead … glimmer of life .. good .. not needed .. really good .. lost it ..’ etc. It was a shock at first but on reflection gave me clarity to work with.
24: when I ran a marathon, I had a trainer. It struck me that her role had similarities with the note giver: to cheer lead and challenge my abilities until I achieved a personal best. A play pushes beyond the comfort zone and benefits from a good ‘coach’
25: don’t be afraid to offer an idea for a concrete piece of action. This will often prompt a different concrete idea from the writer. The most important thing is you’ve moved from the generalised to the concrete, not that your idea is used.