WARNING: The opinions expressed below are DEFINITELY those of The CoLab Theatre Company! Learn more at www.colabtheatre.org!

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Etiquette of Critcism and "The Post Show Glow"

We've all been there. Half awake, zoning in and out of daydreams... The curtain call begins and you are rushed with excitement! Your consciousness rises like a signal flare ready to light the way straight out the door and directly to the nearest bar! Oh man, that was rough... "I'm glad that's over..." you say to yourself...

But it's not. Because you know too many people... you have friends in this production...."What Am I supposed to say?"

In our culture, there are certain social standards and sets of etiquette for these sorts of situations. Truly, these are AWKWARD situations in a way you can't truly describe. Many people choose to fawn over their friends "I loved the show! You were great!" and quickly change the subject. We all do this. We've all had this done to us. It's natural, I get it.

But I'm here to propose an alternative.

First off, I'm fairly confident about myself as an artist. I have some reservations about my acting, but I feel like I'm a solid director and a hard working enough actor to make my roles work. Despite this, I can't imagine everything I've done is good... Hell, I know for a fact I've presented total crap to my audiences at least a few times. Moreover, no audience is the same. Some will respond to the same product and some won't. It's not always about the quality of you work, frankly, many audiences judge on personal taste. It's not wrong, it's just the reality that while I may be the world's premiere director and actor of The Spanish Golden Age plays...but if you don't like Spanish Golden Age... you probably won't like my work. I'm aware of this fact.

(For the record, I've never directed or performed Spanish Golden Age. If you have, please comment so that I may be thoroughly impressed.)

Some artists will take criticism personally. I mean, we all do at some point. But some artists really don't take it well, so of course we're going to err on the side of caution. But rarely is the question asked: Is our artists learning? (Grammar intentionally altered. Look up the Wiki on our 43rd President if you don't get it.)

I propose a new approach. One I try, and sometimes fail, to apply to my own life. I say, err on the side of honesty. It's refreshing. It's scary, but isn't that what we're going for here? If we can apply the standard of "if it's easy, it's not worth doing" to art, can't we also apply it to learning and developing our craft/creativity?

Moreover, do you ever find yourself complimented after a show...and not truly believing the kind words you've received? I fear that our gravitation towards safety is harming our faith in sincerity. I can usually tell when someone isn't really impressed with my work. And quite frankly, most of the time we don't think a performance is bad... might just think it was good. Decent. A fun time. But nothing to rave about. So why do we feel the need to compliment something we didn't think was THAT good...

I wager well, that if we each challenge ourselves to withhold from unwarranted compliments our art will benefit. However, I do NOT advocate that we all turn into critics as soon as the house lights come up. Personally, I crave well thought out criticism and have grown immensely on account of the observations given to me to my most blunt of friends.

When the show is over, the moment belongs to the artists. Work is over. Clean up your green room, put your costume away, and be yourself again. Have fun. You accomplished something most people can't do, even if it wasn't up to your normal standard. You can't truly know that you've done good work until you've done...not good work...

Blunt honesty is a sign of respect. I try to save my compliments for the performances when I'm truly moved (the same reason I'm a jerk about giving standing Os). Once, I witnessed a show by an artist that I respect. The show was not of the best quality. It happens.

Following the performance, I greeted the artist and congratulated the completion of another project. However, I kept my comment neutral. Respectful, but neutral. My friend became cold and upset. I asked what was wrong. "What did you think of the show?"

My answer is what my answer always is in these situations: "If you wanna talk about my thoughts on the show, ask me later. This is your time right now." She was upset. I felt uncomfortable. Since then, I've never felt comfortable being honest about my opinions. But I also feel I did the right thing.

If I feel so moved that I'm compelled to fawn, I'll fawn. Otherwise... what should I say? I'm not going to baby you if I respect you. If I can criticize your art, it's not a slight against you as an artist... it's an acknowledgement that I believe in you. I believe in you enough to hurt you, just a little bit in the same way you can only seem to hurt the ones you love. It's not ideal. It's not fun. But it's a result of trust.

In summation, this is my declaration:

1) Compliments are not mandatory after a show. They ought to be sincere and heartfelt.

2) Not all performances are going to be good. Many will just be alright. Moreover, some performances will not appeal to you no matter how good they are on account of subjective tastes.

3) Given these two realities, the post-show glow should remain sacred and pure. Don't ask for criticism. Don't give it unless asked for it. Wait til the next day. Have fun. Celebrate!

4) Criticizing someone one on one is a great sign of respect. It hurts, but it deepens bonds and establishes trust. Just wait until the day that same person DOES think you've done an amazing job!

5) All critiques are provisional. Consider openly, but remember it's YOUR performance. Moreover, your word is not the final authority on all art. Assume you might be wrong...

5) Don't second guess people. Take them on faith. Because faith is all we really have as artists living on the edge.

Finally a personal statement:

If you ever want to know what I think, please ask me. I will be completely honest. But if it's right after a show, wait til the next day. Call, e-mail or ask to meet me for a cup of tea. Not only do I respect you enough to discuss it with you, but I will be very honored that you trust me enough to ask. And as opinionated as I am, I know that we're all fallible and that I might be wrong. Art can't exist without fallibility.

So take what I have to say with a grain of salt.

Seriously. How could you not trust this guy?

Be well,



  1. I always congratulate anyone involved with the show. As you know, regardless of the quality of the performance, it still took a lot of work and commitment to produce the final piece and that in it of itself deserves congratulations.

    I also agree that post-show is never the time for critique. If you love something about a show, make it known. If not, keep it quiet.

    And as a performer, never ask "what did you think?" unless it's a person who you really trust.

    Lastly, that guy creeps me out.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree, Kenny. An insincere compliment is much worse than honest criticism. It is very clear when someone is going through the motions of congratulating you without any real meaning behind it. It doesn't feel very good, and instead of growing from the experience I am left wondering, what exactly was so lackluster about my performance? Instead, tell me the truth, frame it in a way that is useful and not hurtful, and then I can grow as an artist. Thank you for voicing this.

    On a separate note, I agree with MC-that guy creeps me out, too.

    On another separate note, come to Waltham soon. I'll be back on Monday.

  3. I have cultivated the image of an angry jaded monster so that I can be totally candid with people without them feeling terrible. There lack of comprehension is immediately transmuted to my generally grouchy jabber jaw demeanor and no one is worse for the wear, my comments retain their integrity and my friends can rest assured knowing deep down that they're mediocre but on the surface laugh at inviting such a surly drunken curmudgeon to there show. Every one wins.