An Approach to the
Objective Grading of Creative Work
The Idea in Practice:
Upper School Dramatic Writing
My Upper School Dramatic Writing class, in sharp contrast to the acting class discussed earlier, consisted of three students with serious interest in writing plays, although they had widely varying levels of experience with Theatre. They were assigned "dialogues" which later developed in two cases into complete short plays and in one into the first act of a longer play. The "first draft" stage of the process was sort of drawn out in this class, because students came in nearly every day with new material or changes in old material, which the class read and discussed. There was a formal "due date" for the "first draft," but it was not necessary for me to give extensive feedback on these drafts because the feedback was ongoing. However, just as in the other classes, the students were asked to formulate specific goals for their final rewrites. There was a certain amount of confusion about what was meant here--the first versions of the goals lists tended to say things like "for the audience to enjoy the play"--but the discussions surrounding this issue turned out to be educational in themselves, as we explored ideas of structure and tried to get beyond "liking or not liking," or "funny or not funny" to the mechanics that produce these effects. Below are the students' goals for their final rewrites, with (again in red) my feedback on how well they achieved their goals. Again, all three students were successful enough at achieving their goals to receive reasonably good grades, but I've listed them in order of their success, and included a short comment after each about why they received the grade they did.
Results and Grading
Goals for Trail Mix
Distinct and different characters.
With the exception of one line I've noted, excellent. Good contrast, and each character behaves consistently according to his own logic.
Very satisfying ending.
Consistent tone and characters.
Yes. You've found and excised nearly all of the lines that pulled us out of the world of the play.
Realistic (in the story) sequence of events.
Yes, and it's not such an easy idea. You've created a world with a very different set of rules, but once you've established those rules, you stick to them.
EXCELLENT, AND VERY FUNNY. AS MUCH AS ANY PLAY EVER CAN BE, THIS PLAY IS "DONE."
As is often the case, the shortest comments go to the best performance. In this case the reason is simple enough. She accomplished virtually everything she set out to accomplish, and the improvement was in every case clear and significant. It is true that the play itself was in some ways the least complex (although in another sense it was not, being essentially Absurdist and therefore challenging) but, again, that's not the point. It was also the case this time that the best play got the best grade, but only because it also happened to be the most improved.
Goals for Act I of The Intruder
For the audience to understand how ANDREW'S dream directly relates to what he is saying (e.g. "as if I've been in darkness . . .the light!")
I think you've almost got this one. The metaphor of the stranger who turns out to be himself is clear. I'm not sure about the darkness / light metaphor. We're so used to this kind of imagery in dreams that we don't really hear it. You might punch it up still more.
For the audience to understand ANDREW'S realization that neither the personalities of ANDREW nor CARL reflect the true nature of the man who has assumed both of these personalities.
Yes . And this is the first draft in which this has been clear.
For the audience to agree with ANDREW'S claim that there is a purpose to each man's life.
I think the jury's still out on this one. Some will agree, but only if they do anyway. We're waiting to see the experiment played out.
For the audience to understand that the true CORSINI is neither ANDREW nor CARL.
Yes. But isn't this the same as goal #2?
For the audience to understand that the West, in being the place in which CORSINI will attempt to find himself, represents hope. (This may not be fully developed in Act I.)
This works, probably because of the inherent symbolic nature of the "journey west."
THERE IS CLEAR PROGRESS IN THIS DRAFT. EXCELLENT.
Ian's play was no clearer in this draft than the next student's (Miles). However, he had made considerably more substantive changes as he struggled to work towards his goals. In fact, he did not always achieve them, as my comments reflect, but he received a slightly higher grade than Miles because he made more changes--even if not all of them resulted in improvement. In a way, the Artist-Centered approach is designed to grade the process rather than the product, and here Ian clearly performed better than Miles. He also started out with a more complex piece, but the beauty of the system is that that fact is largely irrelevant. For an artist it is not more difficult to make a rocket engine than to make a flowerpot--it's just a different kind of difficult. One can make an exquisite, perfect flowerpot, and one can make a bad rocket engine. The process of creation is independent of the complexity of the product (as the previous student, Ruby, demonstrated admirably).
Goals for Final Draft
Humor in some places.
Yes. In the scene in the office, with the deleted files, crunching chips, etc.
Making the audience think they should be on Joe's side.
We're not sure. She's annoying, but he still seems dishonest. However, you've made progress from the last draft.
Make Barbara seem annoying and the least liked character.
She is annoying, but, again, we're not sure whom to like.
Joe is not having an affair because Melissa is young. It's because he loves her.
Only from the "soliloquy" do we get this, and, despite the Shakespearean rule that characters don't lie to the audience, we don't necessarily buy it, because it isn't supported by direct evidence. I think you may need to make Melissa a more significant character.
Showing that Joe doesn't want to break a marriage because of their child.
Again, only in that one speech.
What Joe is doing is not totally wrong.
The audience is going to have to decide this one for themselves. Given the divorce rate these days, presumably plenty will agree.
YOU HAVE MADE PROGRESS, BUT IF YOU'RE GOING TO REALLY REACH YOUR GOALS, YOU'LL HAVE TO BE WILLING TO MAKE MORE SWEEPING CHANGES.
Miles received the lowest grade in the class for this piece--though it wasn't terribly low. His grade would have been higher had he been more willing to make changes to existing dialogue to achieve his goals, rather than simply to add more details on top of what was already there. We discussed this problem prior to the final draft, and Miles expressed a desire to make the necessary changes. He was very clear about what he wanted to say with the piece. That was very important to me. I was not grading him on whether I agreed with his points, or even whether I liked his play, but rather on whether he was able to accomplish his own goals for the piece. The "finished" play was not bad at all, but it didn't seem to say what Miles claimed he meant it to say, and it was confusing along just the lines he was most interested in clearing up. He plans another draft, and I have every confidence that it will be a lot better.
NOTE: I'm writing this note long after this project was completed. Miles's next draft was, in fact, better, but it wasn't spectacular, and didn't go anywhere after the assignment was over. However, he went on to write an entirely new piece that was spectacular, and was selected as a state finalist in the Young Playwrights competition.
This class demonstrated the value of Artist-Centered Evaluation most clearly of all. I have never seen a group of young playwrights so successfully focus their efforts toward substantive progress, or more enthusiastically embrace the process of rewriting (so central to the playwright's craft--much more even than that of other kinds of writers). Not only did the technique itself work, but every part of its execution led to discussions that brought up important ideas. In thinking about what their goals should be for their "final drafts," the students explored the different aspects of the playwright's craft and the various ways in which a play can be more or less effective. In making choices about which goals to finally choose, the students were able to really address the question, "What am I trying to say?" Once the goals were established, the rewriting process became much easier to understand, and the students were far more organized about it than they might otherwise have been. It is difficult even for a professional playwright to read over a play with an eye to "whatever needs improving or changing." But my students found it was far easier to go over a play with a particular aspect in mind--with a particular question to ask.
Possibly the reason this technique was especially effective with the playwrights is that playwriting is, in one sense, a more "creative" enterprise. (The arts are often divided into two categories: Creative--Music Composition, Choreography, Creative Writing, Abstract Visual Art, etc.; and Interpretive--Music Performance, Acting, Representational Art, etc. In this sense the monologue performances were "interpretive art" while the playwriting was "creative.") In other words, it's not so much that Artist-Centered Evaluation works better with playwriting as that other approaches work less well. While it is difficult to evaluate an acting performance objectively without such a structure, it is still more difficult to evaluate an original play, because it is even more wholly subjective and personal to the artist. In any case, there can be no question that I will continue to explore this technique with my playwriting students.