A Case for Critique
(Disclaimer... I will be using some strong language...shit)
Your ever-supportive theatre-friend has come to see you in a show. Perhaps they got discounted tickets, or they may have been comped. But, even if they didn’t spend that much financially on the evenings entertainment, they invested temporally. Sitting in a theatre for several hours, witnessing the labor of several weeks of your companies hard work and preparation. Curtain falls. Costume off. And afterwards, at the stage door we are greeted with…
“You look like you’re having so much fun up there!”
That’s it. Just a quick generic statement. And then, they are gone. Nothing specific spoken about the production. Just a quick memorable nugget of conversation, seemingly just for conversations sake. And as your friends go off into the wilderness, you return to your theatre the next evening. And you get ready for the next show, all the while wondering, why wasn’t the conversation longer/deeper/more personal? Did they really like it? And you are left, for the rest of your run of performances, wondering if there was something more to be said. Some thought left unspoken. Some part of you wondering…
“What do people really think of my work?
It’s only natural for performers to be interested in how their work is being received, especially If you are a critically minded individual. But it is also very easy to take a perfectly innocent post-show conversation and analyze it to death by looking for issues that aren’t actually there. First, and most plausibly, it’s possible that what was said was 100% above board. So, try and lighten up. Give your friends some slack. They sat through your show! That’s awesome! By sitting in the audience, they were bombarded by several weeks of the companies hard work, compressed into a performance that took just a few brief hours. And they rushed over right after work, and now it’s late, and they have to drive back home to their baby. They may just not have time to talk about every little thing. And perhaps the brief comment they did share was genuinely "the one thing that they wanted to discuss with you"? Not everyone needs to do a moment by moment breakdown of your performance. It would be unreasonable if they did. But there should be a middle ground. So here’s my case for critique.
If you have been working regularly in the arts… I hate to break it to you, but somebody didn’t like one of your shows. Opinions differ. I’m sure there’s plenty that I've done that you weren’t a fan of. But, can we please, all agree to remove the word “Bad” from our vocabulary when discussing our contemporaries work. It’s a blanket statement that does very little to instill anything in others save negativity. It’s not nice to speak in such absolutes and there are so many more accurate and creative ways to convey what we truly think of someone’s work. And yes, Bad theatre Happens all the time, but it’s not really bad. Let me explain.
Theatre is subjective; from the "Art" itself, to "the way that it is observed". Take the theatre-going experience. You will have a completely different viewing performance of a show than a typical patron who is not in the industry (a theatre muggle). That person is less informed of the inner workings it takes to bring a show to the stage. Because we are more informed we often have a harsher critical eye. Which is a little unfair to our fellow artists. In most cases a show is crafted for the widest possible audience, not for those already initiated by the theatre gods". And, although a show has been rehearsed to be consistent every night, each performance itself will be different. The performance given Saturday night will be very different than a few hour later on a Sunday matinee. Even with the same cast, and blocking, a drastic shift in energy felt by a cast can change the way a show is received by an audience. And it’s not like seeing a movie. Each seat is going to have to have its own unique view of stage. Some days, you are going to have a shitty seat, or a shittier patron that effects your evenings enjoyment. With these concrete issues discussed, let’s talk about creative choices.
It is hard to do original work that is financially successful in the Bay Area. There tends to be certain shows and trends in the "Bay Area zeitgeist" that producers tend to favor when bringing something to an audience. And why not? Making theatre can often feel like "survival in hostile territory". Any edge that can be attained should be exploited, even if it is familiarity. There are only so many tickets to be sold within our shared demographics. So, we often are given shows that we can reliably know that a regular audience will pay to see. And licensing houses like "MTI" and "Dramatists", are more than eager to oblige. Which is why shows like "Annie", "Grease", and "Into The Woods" seem to always have a production somewhere in the Bay, and why I have seen 3 separate productions of "Mamma Mia" this year out of the dozen or so that I had friends in. With so much recycled content I delight to see some bold artistic choices that can excite and bring something new to a familiar piece. This is not easy to do, and sometimes the creative choices artists take can overreach their own ability to execute their visions front of an audience. With the deck stacked so high against such artists, I believe it best to allow the artists telling the story to have a bit more creative freedom to exercise their own opinion. It may not be safe, comfortable, or even something that is easily understood by you, but that is the reason you are a "member of their audience". It is the sharing of different perspectives that is the core of the heart of theatre. My advice, follow the golden rule. Give your fellow artists the freedom to take artistic risks with as much leeway and support as you would hope them to give you. This applies to staging, acting, vocal choices, all of it. If you disagree, with their choices there should be room to voice those opinions as well (more to come on that later). However, artistic liberties are easier to see past than some other more sensational issues.
Often, “Bad Theatre” is really what appears as “sloppy” theatre. A bit of staging or a number that seemed rushed in the vocals, or choreography. Maybe it’s the costumes, or a single role that “in your opinion” was miscast. But who is at fault for this “sloppiness”? Some think it is the director since it is "their vision" that the company is working towards. True, the director has the most responsibility, but I find it a bit unfair to pin the blame solely on one person. As mentioned, in my previous post “A Heartless Guide for Theatrical Rejection” our industry is incredibly collaborative. Every member of the company has a part to play, and ideas to give. With so many moving pieces, things can fall through the cracks, due to over-working, under-working, neglect, or pure coincidence. Does it sound like chaos? That’s because it is. So embrace it. Theatre makers are facing insurmountable odds in order to achieve the impossible; that being an evening of entertainment that is thoughtful, impressive, entertaining, and under budget. It is easy to make snap judgements about a show, “that actor was bad”, “they should have done something different with the staging”, “the costumes were inaccurate”. And sometimes it can be fun to dish with our friends about a productions shortcomings. Some of this is pure "schadenfreude", while some stems from professional curiosity. We are all very busy and if we are going to invest an evening in seeing a production we want to be knowledgable about what we’re getting into. Most productions that make it to the stage are (sadly) underneath the very standards of the artists that make it. Not by choice mind you. Budgets, scheduling, and a low turn out at auditions can force artists to make compromises. There are also a few artists that are (to put it bluntly) "in over their head", and are not aware that the work they are attempting to do is misguided, or more for their own benefit, not the audience. But still, don’t write off a show so easily. because you don’t understand their limitations. Rest assured, there are countless limitations that that we will never be privy to.
Chances are a company will never admit to the public the struggles it faces to try and be successful, even if such struggles are perfectly understandable. It is really “fucking hard to put on a show". Unfortunately, we are a society that puts a great deal of confidence in "confidence" itself. If any one admits publicly the difficulties they face it makes us uncomfortable, even though we all know how tough it is to do what we do. But what is the result?
If a company puts out a show that seems sloppy, unprofessional, or doesn’t relate to an audience, and no one admits it, the company comes off as arrogant and/or ignorant to the the standards of the audience and the artists surrounding it.
Or, if they do admit their shortcomings they appear unqualified to do the jobs that we have entrusted to them.
Dammed if they do, damned if they don’t. And when it comes to individual critique, things can get even more incendiary. There are two types of performers I want to discuss. The first is the type whose bravura will not allow themselves to acknowledge their own limitations. This “shit doesn’t stink” way of thinking is highly inconsiderate to their fellow artists. Chances are, they would resist any form of or critique resembling “the work that they are doing is not working, or cohesive with their fellow company members”. Then you have the ego that is too fragile to accept that critique is not intended as a personal attack. So how can we navigate both audiences who can clearly see our limitations, and collaborators who resist any critical discussion because they are scared or angry to receive it? How can we keep these lines of communication open?
The first step begins with honesty. These are our friends, or at least our coworkers. So treat them with honesty, and sensitivity. Give them the respect to be upfront about your opinions. That’s all they are, ”your opinions”. Be smart and aware of your, and their limitations to give/receive these beliefs. You are essentially saying that you didn’t understand everything that they were trying to be do; an innocent enough thought. Hopefully they will recognize your candor, which will counteract any awkwardness that could arrive in the situation.
Next, take a bit more time to ensure you fully understand and can discuss what you “like/don’t like” on stage. This will make us more informed analytical artists. As well as make sure you have evidence to support your opinions. Any critique should be a friendly discussion, not an attack. So be ready to explain your stance beyond “I like it this way”. With some evidence to support your stance, it will be easier for others to hear and understand your stance. This way we can remove the word “bad” and we can explain plainly why something is effective to your understanding. And as we all have our own opinions, do not be surprised or stubborn if they end up not agreeing with you. If they have their own evidence, listen to it! It may change your mind. Chiefly, none of us want to offend our collaborators, but give them the respect of speaking honestly about their work so we can all benefit from the sharing of ideas.
We need to be able to give as well as receive such criticism. But if there needs to be someone to get the ball rolling be take that bullet. The next time you see me, let’s talk! I welcome such discussion. Get to know me a little first, of course. But let’s get comfortable enough with each other that we can have these tough discussions, personally, and as a communifty. If we hope to be able to grow as artists we need to be able to know what is and isn’t working. Let’s get honest with each other because “Unsupportive politeness is not good for sustainability in this market.” I think. But I may be wrong. Take all this with the grain of salt I hope you would take with any of these editorials. But in my case, if you see me at the stage door, don’t tell me that it looks like I’m having fun. I am. I’m having a blast. But I respect your opinion and I want to keep getting better. Not everyone will want this honesty. But be smart and pick up any hints (like this one) that its appropriate to talk like friends and the colleagues we are.
Actually, maybe save it for the morning after to talk shop. I’ve got a wife and baby to get home to.