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Poppy Burton-Morgan: Bum notes? Why theatre needs to get better at feedback

Actors take notes from each other. Photo: Shutterstock Actors take notes from each other. Photo: Shutterstock
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Notes can often feel like an attack on artistic integrity, but sometimes those giving them are right. Writer and director Poppy Burton-Morgan says we have to take notes with grace and also give them sensitively

As a writer, predominantly of musicals, I learned very quickly how to take a note. Whether it was valid or not. Those receiving the note don’t have to do anything with it but at least offer the giver the courtesy and respect of listening, considering, maybe even of writing it down. Don’t challenge and dismiss it.

Many people seem to think they could write a musical – perhaps more than any other art form – so there is no shortage of opinions on how to make yours better. But, you know what? Sometimes they’re right. Seeing writers flatly refuse to countenance the same note from a producer, audience member and critic breaks my heart.

It’s a good rule of thumb that getting the same note from three independent sources means that issue is probably worth addressing. While a writer dismissing their grandmother’s radical idea to cut the big production number may be standard, if several colleagues agree it’s a pretty strong indication that there’s a problem to be solved.

Producers’ notes can be the hardest to take, especially if given insensitively. They’re not always couched in terms of artistic excellence and how to make the show the best it can be, but in how to sell the largest number of tickets.

For many this can feel like an affront to our artistic integrity. But artists don’t think about their audiences enough, and underneath the ‘commercial theatre’ language the message often boils down to making the work more accessible, which is never a bad thing.

You sometimes find yourself deploying increasingly sneaky tactics to get your notes past a recalcitrant performer

As a director I sit on the other side of the fence, giving notes too, which has its own pitfalls. Every director will experience, at some point in their career, an actor refusing to take a note. If you’re lucky it’s a one-off. If you’re not, things can go sour pretty quickly and the conflict can become entrenched. You sometimes find yourself deploying increasingly sneaky tactics to get your notes past a recalcitrant performer.

In cases like this, sensitive assistant directors can be a godsend. I’ve had shows where one cast member wouldn’t take notes from the choreographer, so I’d give their notes disguised as my own, and another cast member wouldn’t take notes from me, so the musical director gave them mine. Talk about convoluted.

But to give actors their due, with the exponential increase in mental health issues and anxiety, note-taking has become increasingly charged. It’s easy to forget that huge numbers of performers are dyslexic or neuro-diverse and that can make notes sessions highly sensitive.

I once took an actor aside to discuss their seeming refusal to implement any of the notes they were given, wondering why they were turning each notes session into a battleground. They burst into tears. And explained that, being heavily dyslexic, it took them longer to process and implement notes than their neuro-typical colleagues; the reason they discussed every note was to ensure they understood it properly.

But even without neuro-diversity and anxiety in the mix, a badly given note can make even the most robust artists doubt themselves. When I was in therapy, my therapist observed that the arts is an appalling industry for maintaining a healthy attitude towards self-esteem because (unlike most sectors) everyone’s abilities are constantly being critiqued and appraised – a breeding ground for insecurity and low self-esteem.

Poppy Burton-Morgan
Poppy Burton-Morgan

However insensitively given, I’ve never seen a note offered that wasn’t an attempt to improve the work – whether or not it was a ‘good’ note – but as soon as an artist feels personally criticised it’s very hard to be anything but defensive. I notice this acutely in writers groups. Sometimes the critical discourse is robust but moves the work forward hugely, other times a slightly blunt word from a tutor throws a writer into a defensive tailspin where all they can hear is negativity.

The other day in one of my writers’ groups a tutor described the song I’d just shared as a “complete failure”. I was weirdly proud that he felt able to offer such a robust (and fair) note – and because I’d just won a songwriting prize I was in a place where it was very easy to receive that note without suddenly feeling I was a terrible writer. This might be why I’ve generally found senior actors so graceful in taking notes – with a 30-year career behind them, they often have enough security in themselves to acknowledge that a bum choice in one moment doesn’t make them a bum actor.

Ultimately you can’t force someone to take a note or be forced to take one yourself – except in those terrible circumstances where producers insist something is changed or the show gets pulled – but that’s rather rare. In both instances things play out much better for all parties when done with grace, respect and sensitivity.

It’s a fundamental part of the creative process, that everyone should work on improving – both in giving and receiving. In group notes sessions, I find it helpful to set up really clear boundaries around ‘discussion’ – whether questions and discussion should be at the end, or as you go – but being clear over when it’s time to move on from a note, to avoid those deadly 30-minute discussions about a single note. I also advise sprinkling some praise notes among the constructive criticism, but only if it’s sincere, and all the time check in on how the feedback’s going down. If someone gets defensive, revert to praise, unless you know them well enough to meta-note them about their capacity to hear notes, but that’s best one-on-one so it doesn’t feel like public shaming.

It helps to use language that questions rather than dictates, and which separates the art from the artist – “Perhaps the character might” versus “You should”, “Could the melodic line go somewhere more unexpected at the end of the phrase?” versus: “You should write a more interesting melody there.”

When there are drastic notes requiring significant changes to a script, performance, design concept or anything else, limit yourself to a maximum of three things and invest your energy into articulating those as clearly as you can.

And receiving notes? First I have to reiterate how important it is to listen, really listen, and write them down if they’re being given verbally. If you feel you need to discuss the note, wait until the end – unless there’s an accepted protocol that notes can be discussed as you go, or you’re one-on-one.

If you feel resistant to the note, check in on whether that’s because you disagree with it artistically or if it’s triggered feelings related to your own self-esteem or self-worth. Believe that every note is offered in the spirit of trying to help facilitate the work as being the best version of itself. And remember the rule of three: however frustrating, if you hear the same note from three independent sources it’s probably worth investigating.

Poppy Burton-Morgan is artistic director of Metta Theatre. For more information go to: mettatheatre.co.uk

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