The gift of peers
August 30, 2006
For a playwright, the staged reading of a play is like stripping off your clothes before an audience and enduring a critique of your physique. There is no more naked feeling than putting your work out front to have it frankly and honestly evaluated.My play, “Boxes in the Attic,” which is my first theatrical production, was read last Sunday by a cast of three actors – Michael Monroney, Meredith Daniel, and Gary Daniel – at Aspen Theater in the Park. And yes, it was a little scary.A staged reading provides an opportunity for a playwright to hear the words he has written beyond the hollow resonance of his own head. The inanimate pages of the play become animate as the characters emerge as real people. Perhaps the exhibitionist in me secretly took pleasure in the scrutiny, but what I felt more was a sense of gratitude for the open, constructive dialogue. There is a Frankensteinian thrill to seeing your creation born.The first hearing of a play is akin to a composer first hearing the orchestration of a symphony. Interpretation, nuance, and the surprise synergy of idea, vision, and voice culminate in a three-dimensional revelation – a dramatic representation of a formerly abstract idea.My play was read for the first time last year by Thunder River Theater Company in Carbondale. The second reading last weekend was just as powerful. Both Theater Aspen and Thunder River do a great service with these readings by providing a peer review of a play-in-progress. It is humbling to submit one’s work to studied criticism, and that’s the best benefit of all. Humility and a sense of detachment conjure a vital, fresh perspective.One audience member, an artist himself, confessed that he would not be so keen about having one of his paintings set up on stage for all to criticize. And yet, peer review is the greatest gift a community can bestow.Nature abhors a vacuum, yet many artists work in the vacuum of seclusion, insulated by the creative process. Eventually, however, every art form must come before public scrutiny, which is the litmus test of an artist’s self-confidence.When that self-confidence is threatened, critics are often rebuffed as failed aspirants to whatever it is they criticize. “Critics,” said a disparaging Disraeli, “are the men who failed in literature and art.” That’s a harsh critique of critics, without whom art might fall short of its potential.Peer review is great for art, but it should not end with art. For example, architecture could benefit greatly from criticism beyond planning boards and client sign-offs. The style and functional efficiency of a building could better adapt to its environs if architects submitted to serious, constructive criticism from their peers.Peer review in business is not even mentioned until a breach of ethics necessitates it. Ideally, business decisions that impact society ought to be transparent enough for popular appraisal. The result could be better, healthier products and a more sustainable economy.Take peer review into education, law, politics, and beyond, and you’ve suddenly opened society to popular review. Successful democracy, after all, is a peer review of the way institutions govern our lives, so why not apply it to what defines the nature of our lives?I learned a lot about my play last Sunday from audience criticisms, and I will rewrite it with those critiques in mind, hopefully producing a better play. But I also learned about myself and about the way I view life, which expanded manifold with every audience comment. What a gift!If the same expansiveness could produce better architecture, education, law enforcement, business and governance, then honest and respectful peer review is vital to human progress. We need more of it in everything we do by appreciating – not rejecting – our critics.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.
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