the art of dealing with people in a sensitive and effective way: his genius for tact and diplomacy
Creative types are sensitive. It takes guts to put yourself out there, to present your interpretation of something for the world to see, hoping that they understand your creation and make a connection with your product. The job of being an artist is full of vulnerability and subjectivity. And you don’t always get the necessary feedback until the job is done, long after you could have really used it.
I work in the lively arts. I know that I have to constantly improve my product so my audiences are entertained. They pay me to entertain them; the least I can do is strive to provide them with the best entertainment I can create. That way I can have longevity in this field.
As a dancer, I have a few trusted collaborators whose honest feedback and suggestions helps me improve my work. I’ve paid experts in my field for performance reviews, getting their valuable feedback on how to make stronger choices, replace weak choreography, and add flourishes--like sprinkles on a sundae.
It’s scary to ask for someone’s honest opinion, and I don’t ask for it from everyone. Remember that old saying that “opinions are like assholes?” Mix that with the saying about too many cooks in the kitchen. That’s why I don’t solicit opinions from everyone on my creative works. That, and I don’t want to come off as desperate and in need of validation. But it is important to get honest feedback in order to improve what I’m doing.
I understand the validity of criticism via word-of-mouth and media. How else are people going to know what to expect from a show? This isn’t the feedback I seek to improve my works, but rather how Joe Public and Joe Critic receive my works. I’ve gotten some great verbal and written critiques. (“We decided to come to the show because you were on the lineup.” “I just had to meet you because you were my favorite.” “…these costumes were engineering marvels.”) I’d also include the stuff said to the producers after the show, the coffee shop chatter where people are still talking about the show a few days later, and fellow entertainers wanting to book me for shows based on a performance.
I’ve also gotten some negative critiques. Those aren’t awesome to experience when I’m putting myself out there, when some performances are way more personal than others: Out of place, low self-esteem, fat, unsexy (which really sucks because my lively art is in the field of sexuality). I’ve been turned down for shows and festivals with no specific feedback about my submission given. (I can’t blame the producers on the last one because they do get a lot of applications and they’re trying to make a cohesive and entertaining show. It would be like giving feedback to every actor who auditions for your play or short film. I’m looking at this from the receiving end right now.) The negative critiques sting. Sometimes I want to get into online fights (or physical fights because I’m aggressive-aggressive) over some of the criticisms that seem unfounded or unrelated to my work. Sometimes the person giving the criticism appears to be the modern-day definition of a bully, saying something that hurts my feelings. Usually I’ll rant to my most trusted friends about my feelings, about the misperception and the bullying of my work. Then I’ll grab a beer, grumble, and go to bed.
I get up the next day and get back to creating. Why? Because I am an artist. This is what I do.
I’ve spotted three kinds of negative reviews:
1. What I did was not their cup of tea. My music choice, my costume, my body, my dance style, whatever. I don’t eat fish. No matter how brilliantly you prepare a fish dish, I’m not going to eat it. I can’t really change anything about what I did to become their cup of tea.
2. They had a bad day and that affected their viewing of the work. Try as I might to lighten someone’s mood with entertainment, sometimes the outside world has set the viewer against enjoying anything. Maybe they didn’t want to be there in the first place, so we get to be the butts of their frustration. I can try to make them forget about their troubles, but it’s not my fault if they come in so stuck in their problems they aren’t really watching the show.
3. There’s room for improvement. It’s not always easy to have someone broadcast your apparent weaknesses, especially when they’re weaknesses you didn’t catch in your rehearsal process. As an independent artist, I can make changes immediately, not having to ask someone for permission. If the criticism will help me create a better piece of entertainment, I try to implement it. As an actor, I would have to yield to the director/producer/playwright. There are more people involved in the creative side of the work than just me.
As a dance teacher and director, I understand the investment and vulnerability of artists. I keep that in mind when I work. I push for the best technique that person can achieve, the greatest investment they can give, and the strongest representation of the vision for the piece (whether their vision for a dance or my vision for a play). I validate what they get right, and I encourage them to improve the entertainment value of the weaker parts. (I blogged about how I teach here.)
I’m also a play critic. My husband does way more reviews than I do, but we discuss every show we see together and sometimes I do reviews. We look for what was done well, what was especially noteworthy that audiences will not want to miss. We also look for what might turn audiences off, what elements stood out as falling short of the mark, what people might want to know before dropping $15 to $35 a ticket on the show. I have absolutely hated some shows we’ve seen. (I know that isn’t very nice to say. I’m not naming names, but these shows are the reason I want snacks in the theater so I can keep my mouth occupied and not spend the entire play grunting and sighing about something that I think sucks.) Of course, it’s not polite to say something sucks, especially when you don’t give a logical reason for it.
The true test of being a critic (or coach or collaborator) is being diplomatic. If you’re good at your job, you can successfully tell an audience what they need to know while giving useful criticism and encouragement to the artists who are most intimately invested in the piece.