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Warning: Be very wary of paying for script feedback

April 11th, 2013 donnahoke

At the urging of colleague Gwydion Suilebhan and prompted by recent postings on a playwrights board, I feel compelled to issue a warning about paying for dramaturgical feedback: Don’t. And if for some reason, you feel that you must, thoroughly vet the source of your feedback, ask for samples of feedback to others, ask for estimates, and know exactly how you will be charged for every word of it.

Here’s my cautionary tale.

 I had finished a play and gotten some feedback, but as a fairly new playwright, I felt I needed a “professional.” A playwright on a list I’m on was promoting a class he was teaching, and I inquired about it, which prompted an email from another playwright offering private instruction at what seemed like a reasonable rate of $40/hour. The playwright’s credentials seemed reasonable, so I accepted the offer, and sent off my play. (You’re all shaking your heads…  I know.)

 About a week later, we talked on the phone. I took copious notes for about twenty minutes. When I reviewed them post-call, I realized that the playwright praised my theme over and over, but didn’t say one specific thing about the play. Instead, the comments were along the lines of “Make these stage directions more specific,” “Be sure to end your scenes with Lights Out or Fade Out or it looks like you didn’t know how to end it,” “Try to differentiate character voices,” and “Who is the protagonist?” I wanted comments on structure, character, workability, and I got generic lessons straight out of Playwriting 101 from someone who clearly thought I was not knowledgeable to recognize that.

And then bill came: $150. Nearly FOUR hours this playwright claimed to have spent on my script! I was shell-shocked. And appalled. And I didn’t pay it. I asked other playwrights for opinions and was told that while it was highly unethical, I should pay up and consider it a lesson learned. I had a hard time with that so I composed multiple messages to the playwright that I didn’t send. And then I forgot about it.

 Six months later, I got an email from the playwright demanding to know why I hadn’t paid, saying that in years of dramaturgy, I was the first person to create a problem (I wish I had the names of all those others who didn’t cause a problem…). I was threatened with blog and Facebook exposure and, if necessary, small claims court.

 So I composed my own email. I explained that I hadn’t paid because the charges were incomprehensible to me. That I could understand her needing maybe two and half hours tops to read and take a few notes, but nearly FOUR? For what I got? The charges were equivalent to the playwright’s course fee for a ten-week, thirty-hour course (which copped to a concern for making it affordable for everyone)! I explained that I felt I’d been taken advantage of because I was clearly eager for instruction but that this was not “instruction,” and that while I was inexperienced, I wasn’t stupid. Finally, I noted that I also have a Facebook and a blog, and would return fire with fire. I paid half the fee, and never heard another word.

 So if you have a play in need of feedback, before you hand over any money, find out if there are writers groups in your town, check in with your regional Dramatists Guild member (who cannot read your work but may help you find groups), ask to trade feedback with fellow playwrights on Linked In or Facebook lists. Please know that most playwrights offer to read each other’s work as a professional courtesy, not a professional service—we are generally a nurturing and caring group! If you exhaust all these suggestions and truly can’t find anybody to read your play, send it to me, and I’ll find someone to read it for you or I’ll read it myself. For free.

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