Oh, Louisep, share with us your wisdom on how to structure them!
In general, I love them. I follow the general rule that if 1 person voices a concern, it's something to file away; if 2 people voice the same concern, it's something to seriously consider; if 3 or more people voice it, it's time to get out the red pen and make those changes stat! Feedback sessions are usually great ways to see who's thinking what and which concerns are being shared by multiple people. It's the old "If you're thinking it, chances are someone else is, too" phenomenon: one-on-one, someone might be reticent (at least here in the Midwest) to share some critique or other; in a larger group, if one person is assertive enough to say, "I had this issue," then several other people will probably chime in with, "Yeah, me too!"
OTOH, there are people who just don't get it. I don't mean that in an arrogant "people don't understand my genius" way. I mean that there will almost inevitably be that person who brings up an issue so far out of left field you wonder if they heard/saw the same play everyone else did. That's one of the real tricks of a successful feedback session: making that person feel like a valued, contributing member of the peer-group (i.e. not publicly shaming them) while preventing their whacked-out critiques from derailing the process.
And yes, it's good to make people feel appreciated even if their suggestions or feedback make no sense.
One person on the discussion I was in on LinkedIn was adamantly against feedback sessions. She said playwrights who have feedback sessions are "insecure," that they're not perceptive enough to be a playwright, and that they're not "serious" as playwrights.
I was baffled.
Anyhow, I posted something like this, which is my take on how someone who hates feedback sessions could run one that's helpful and inspriational.
If You Hate Feedback Sessions, Try This
Promise yourself a reward
Before your next reading, decide on something you're going to do afterwards that you know makes you feel good, that refreshes your soul. For example, plan to go out with a friend for a drink and bitch about feedback sessions, go for a run, or eat some of your favorite dark chocolate. Whatever it is.
Set a time limit
Agree with the facilitator that you don't have to go any longer than 10 minutes.
Ask just a few questions
After the reading, ask just a few questions.
Is there a main character? (If you don't want your play to have a main character, and everyone says it doesn't have one, then you can skip #2 and go on to #3.)
What does the main character want? Does he or she get it? Why or why not?
If you were to describe this play in one or two sentences, or even one or two words, what would you say?
End it gracefully
After 10 minutes, the facilitator says, thank you everyone for coming.
Go do the thing you promised yourself you would do, go out with a friend for a drink, or whatever.
Why This Will Get You Good Feedback
The audience will be focused on answering your questions. If they're telling you their take on one of the main character gets what he or she wants, or how they would describe your play, they're acting like a mirror, reflecting your play. They're giving you feedback you can use.
They don't have time to say "you shouldn't have that character do such-and-such," or "that one part doesn't work," or "you need to change the title," or useless stuff like that.
Also, from those three questions, you can learn a lot about your play.