As a young playwright, I tasked myself with the heroic goal of remaking the theater, which to me seemed frozen in the past. I was obsessed with the question of why on stage and not on the screen. I wrote plays that did not fit into any box and prided myself on being unique and clever. My playwriting teacher at the time clearly did not endorse this approach. He virulently critiqued me and I did not respond well. His method was to dismiss my youthful pride and everything I wrote, trying to douse the fire. When I asked for specifics, he rarely had any. If there were time maybe he would rebuild me. But there wasn't time.
Recently in a playwriting group I had a short play read. The responses were wildly differing. One person said "Not enough conflict" and another said "Too much conflict." After days of attempting rewrites, I discovered that what the two critics were getting at was there wasn't enough of the right kind of conflict to lead to the end. No matter how I reworked the conflict, took it away, added more, the arc of action didn't make the end inevitable. It being a short play, without the end, without the conflict, there was really nothing left. Time to put it on the back burner.
Criticism should attempt to work with a writer's fire rather than put it out. That approach builds good rapport between writer and critic. While that teacher left me feeling lost and unsupported, many years later I realized something of what he was trying to teach me, and that was a respect and appreciation for the past and the fortitude to learn how it was done, what once worked.
A new approach to receiving criticism might be to recognize that a critic only has what worked in the past as a basis from which to critique a piece of playwriting. If the response to your work is, "Where is the conflict?" that is because dramatic writing has always begun from a place of conflict, and we can wax philosophically for days about why this is the case. If not conflict, what engages the audience member? Is it spectacle, as in the case of Cirque du Soleil? Is it a soothing tone or musical quality to the words? Is it beauty? Is it an interesting experience? At some point, what we might call playwriting can get so far outside of the box it might not benefit anyone to call it playwriting anymore. While Cirque du Soleil have scripts for their shows, the scripts revolve around a series of spectacles involving the human body stretched to unimaginable limits, not technically a play.
As critics we are often left with answering the lame question, "Does it work?" Does it accomplish what it set out to do? Whether it's to tell a story, to bedazzle, to enrage? Does it present itself as a play, but then fall so far outside the box that the reader and ultimately the audience are confused? Such examination by a critic can sometimes feel more like an inquisition. But if a playwright can understand what has worked for centuries, and what's working right now in fact, they can begin to set boundaries themselves within which to structure the plays that may include some of the old elements and a smattering of new challenging configurations that might be the next great form. Keep expanding the box. Don't take criticism too personally. Use it to grow.