Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Why we need more Simon Cowell and less Paula Abdul in the theatre world

I directed a piece in a short cabaret this last week.  After the show there was a talk-back.  One of the pieces I was really not a fan of – and I had pretty specific reasons for not liking it, none of which matter for the sake of this blog.  Here’s what does.  During the talk-back, the artist asked a question regarding the piece.  I sat and listened to at least 5 people, all people who knew the artist, comment on the piece in relation to what kind of prep work the artist had done for the piece.  Ie, everyone who commented came from a place of having some idea what the piece was supposed to be before it started.  And everyone had nothing but good things to say about the piece.  No one else spoke.

After a few more people said nice things about the piece, I lost it.  I finally raised my hand and proceed to do my best Simon Cowell impersonation.  I asked pointed questions about the piece – questions the artist had no answers for, and I told the artist why I was asking – ie, in polite terms, what I thought was wrong with the piece.  Then the talk-back went on.

After the talk-back, I was stopped by 3 different people in the 7 minutes it took me to get my stuff together to leave to tell me “Thank you for saying something in there.  I hated that piece” or “Thanks, I agree there were some real problems in that piece.” Or…  “Thanks for that, I think you voiced what a lot of us were feeling.” I expect this behavior from a class of scared freshman, I do not expect it from a room of theatre professionals.   And yet... It seems that every time I have been to a talk back in the last far too long...  I've had the same experience. 

And that’s what I want to talk about.  If I voiced what so many people were saying, then why did no one else say it?  When did theatre develop the idea that we had to be nice or agree to make art.  What has happened to the idea of constrictive critism? Most importantly, when did being supportive suddenly become “only talk about the good stuff”?  

When I was in undergrad, I had a similar experience to the talk back.  I was taking an acting class from a women who everyone thought was the scariest woman in the whole world (Carolyn, if you’re reading this – you were an amazing teacher for me!  And also, a little  scary to the freshman :p ) She directed Bus Stop while I was in her class.  We were all required to see it, and in the class, after it closed, we were all supposed to have a conversation about it.  Here’s the thing – I hated it.  Partially because I hate the show, but also, I felt I had some legitimate “I didn’t like this thing” reasons.  Class starts, and she sits in front of us with her enormous cup of coffee, and says – "Well, what did you think?"  Immediately, everyone in the class starts telling her how wonderful the show was and what a great job she did.  I sat there in horror thinking – did we see the same show?  Finally, I raised my hand and said “I’m sorry, I hated it”.  Silence.  People cringed and physically moved away from me.  She set her coffee mug on the ground, very loudly.  “Really?  Tell me” She says.  With a dry mouth and a racing heart, I did.  I told her all of it.  From the fact I didn’t like the script to the parts of the show I thought were weird, and the parts I thought were good.  I must have talked for like 15 minutes.  When I was done, I stopped.  She picked up her cup, and took a sip of coffee and said “Thank you. This, I love.  Thank you for telling me what you really thought, for having that courage.  Now that she’s broken the ice, anyone else wanna tell me what they thought?”  (Ok, she actually addressed some of the points I had made, and we had a dialogue on why I thought what I did etc. Then she said Now that she’s etc… but it was way more dramatic for a blog without all that other stuff).  Sure enough, the rest of the class also had things they hadn’t loved, and we had a real class dialogue on what the show had been and how we felt about it.  After that, the class never hesitated to tell what they really thought about things. Always respectfully. 

Anyway, my point is this, that experience taught me and my classmates some very good things.  First off, scary teachers aren’t really so scary.. most of the time :p .  Also, speak up, you never know who else has your opinion.  Respectful doesn’t mean that you have to like everything.  Respect can also mean that you like an artist enough to tell them their work needs work – and then help guide them to the parts that need it. 

If we want better art, we, all the artists, need to get better at telling each other how to do it.  Because, here’s the thing, we all know this, this is a tough business.  It sucks and it’s hard and people don’t understand what it is or why we do it or even what we do.  But you know what they do know – what they like, what they think is good.  And that means something.  It is not enough to have a closed circuit and only be doing a good job to the group that knows “what your trying to do”.  If I, the audience, doesn’t understand what your trying to do, then, I think, you have failed at part of your art.  And if you ask me my opinion, then, as an artist, I need to tell you where you have failed and how you might fix it, or questions that you might consider to make your work better or stronger.  Ego stroking doesn’t make good art.  Ego stroking doesn’t even make good art better.  It makes crap crappier and good art acceptable  but not better.  Lanford used to say: "Everything is either genius or crap.  If it’s crap, keep working till it’s genius."  And ego stroking doesn’t give you a place to work from or towards.  And to be honest, I am not much interested in working with artists who don’t get this.  If you can’t tell me what’s wrong, or take from me what I think is wrong – then I don’t want to work with you, because how on earth can we get better?

I also think we, as an artistic community, need to work on developing the eyes to see, the vocabulary to talk, and the thick skin/ears to hear.  People not liking your work isn’t a fault against you, it’s places you can do better.  No one is perfect, nor is any art.  I want my art to be the best it can be, so if I ask your opinion then TELL ME.  Tell me all of it, bluntly and honestly and with reasons – this way I know how to get better.  I mean, I can choose not to listen, I can choose to out vote you, as it were, I mean, it is my art and I can do what I want.  But if you aren’t even telling me, then how do I know to make the choice? 

Also, listen to who is talking.  There are many theatre groups I know who listen to their internal voices before listening to the external.  Why?  Why is one more important than the other?  I think that the external should be more important.  That note from a theatre professional who is not part of your company or school – maybe listen closely to that, because that note is how you are seen outside your tight circle.  Want to be marketable?  Listen to that note.   (I can’t even tell you how much bad theatre I’ve seen that the company thought was good because they only listen to the internal criticism.  Everyone outside the bubble all said – crap, here’s why.  But no one listened, because the criticism came from outside the bubble, if they even bothered to ask someone outside the bubble in the first place.)

Overall, the take away for me is this: Polite agreement doesn’t foster growth, if anything, it stifles it.  Please note, I am not telling you to be rude, but I am telling you to give true and thoughtful critiques of each other.  Be honest.  Talk about what you like, what you don’t like, what you hate, and where you think things can be better.  Do these things because the world needs us, and we need to be at the top of our game.