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April 5, 2023

After seeing a performance of An Unhelpful Complication in 2017, a professional actor friend encouraged me to submit it to the annual Canadian National Playwriting Competition. Which I did. This time five years ago, just as I was about to board a flight to London, I received an email informing me that my play had advanced to the next round. This news came with an overwhelmingly positive critique. The only real criticism (or “challenge”) was that it was too short. Some time later I received a second email informing me that the play had advanced to the third round. Although it did not go on to win in the one-act play category, it did come second and that was pretty satisfying.

Last year I decided, what the hell, why not throw A Divine Comedy into the ring? It had, after all, been a real crowd pleaser when it was performed and a professional company wanted to stage it this year. Clearly it should stack up well.

Au contraire. Yesterday I received an email informing me the play was not advancing, with a punch in the face critique attached. Apparently my play stinks.

The beginning is okay. 

“This play is about a cast of characters putting on a play about Shakespeare trying to put on a play. It has a great premise, some fun characters, and funny inside jokes.”

If I hadn’t already known the script had been tossed in the bin, I might have felt quite encouraged. Although not for long. It continues:

“The core issue with this piece is structure. In a common, classic story structure, the audience craves following a protagonist with a clear goal through a series of conflicts toward a climax which shows them achieving their goals or not. To veer from this structure is also great, but it must be the kind of art that elevates an impactful message, in order for the play to garner interest.”

think there might be a nugget of a positive in the following, in inviting the audience to use their imaginations?

“This piece would be easily staged, as it does not have a set. In the main play, the actors are sitting on chairs reading a script in one room, which is not terribly theatrical. The play within the play has ‘sets’, but as it is simply a table-read, so the Director character reads the locations, the audience is invited to use their imaginations to see what the writer intends.” 

It goes rapidly downhill.

“It is unclear why there are so many characters. Each character should have a clear goal and at the climax, all of them will have achieved their goal or not, also known as a ‘character arc’. 

“It is unclear why the piece is not written in Elizabethan English.”

By “the piece” I can only assume the critic means the play within the play. Much of what Shakespeare says is in Elizabethan English, thus Tom’s complaint: “Speak English, will ya? You’re as bad as you’re plays.” Clearly that joke fell flat for this reader. Oh, well. It got a laugh from the audience.

Of course there’s more.

“What is the dramatic goal? Some good questions to ask along the way are… Why me? Why now? Why this play? What are the stakes? What happens if the protagonist does not get what they want? For editing, some good questions are… Why do we care about who gets the tea and who takes what in their tea? What is the impact of the Director being late, or actors being absent? 

Fuck you, lady. The whole “tea” thing is funny. Very funny. (Don’t know why I’m convinced the individual critiquing is a woman, but somehow I can hear her voice.)

And more.

“It is unclear why there are two plays here instead of one. The characters in the main piece do not change or grow, they are simply there to read the play to us.”

And finally…

“It is unclear why this play is placed in 2022, as a post-Covid piece. The pandemic has little to do with the action or outcome of the piece. It only serves to add unnecessary dialogue and exposition.”

When I read this yesterday I did indeed feel as if I’d been punched in the face. 

Did I think I might actually win in the one-act category this time round? Well, obviously that would have been nice, but mainly I expected it to go further than the bin in the first round. 

Now that I’ve moved on from totally gutted to more than a bit irritated, I realise what I find most annoying. Sometimes the whole point of a play is simply to entertain. And I can state with confidence that A Divine Comedy does exactly that.

What is unclear to me is how anyone (woman or man) could read this play and so spectacularly fail to get it. 

From → Plays

  1. krysross permalink

    Ouch. Suspect someone just got out the wrong side of the bed (whatever that means.)

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