Thursday, November 1, 2012

CRITICISM: How To Talk To Artists About Their Work

Prerequisite reading:

  1. Jason Robert Brown, on how Sondheim told him never to tell an artist what you really think of their work. At least, not immediately.
  2. 99Seats, very validly hoping that Brown is joking.
  3. Bob Bullen, with a little radio play that demonstrates how post-show feedback usually goes.
My three cents:

1) TIMING IS EVERYTHING

The radio play that Bob Bullen wrote is pretty illustrative, and it gets to why I, as an artist, never ask people how they liked my show directly afterwards. I don't expect them to answer me immediately. It's stressful. I thank them for coming and let them stay or not stay or whatever.

I'm in a particular place of burden; I am not only the artist, but the producer -- I'm the one biting at my fingernails hoping that the play is a success because it's my pocket book that will hurt. And I'm the one who invested my heart and soul into a work that I really do believe will get out there.

So if, two minutes after I just went through it, and in the middle of several more weeks of working on this, someone tells me what they think, like really what they think, there's nothing I can do about it. At that moment. It just hurts. And you have to go out there and continue to represent the work for what it is. It's hard.

(And guess what -- I bet your feedback is going to be a lot more useful after you've had a chance to think about it and figure out why it worked or didn't work).

So I am sympathetic to the idea that immediately after a show it might be painful to say that the work is a failure.

However:

2) LYING HELPS NO ONE

I don't think that means that you should just blow smoke up an artist's ass and tell him everything was wonderful. I know that it smacks of evasion when people told you that they're "interested" or that they're "thankful for your work" but hey you know what? Very little productive is going to be exchanged thirty seconds after the work goes up. 

My approach -- even for shows I liked -- is to thank the artists for having put the work together, and -- if I'm interested in discussing it, good or bad -- offer to catch up with them after the show wraps up completely to talk about it. I guarantee you you can have a more productive conversation in this format.

But they do have to hear it.

They do have to hear it.

Saying that you love it when you didn't, that's some useless shit.

3) CONSTRUCTIVE REALLY MEANS CONSTRUCTIVE

A lot of people have asked me to give feedback on their work during the process of putting it together, some of which is work that I've found to be pretty bad. If someone asks me for my input and my feedback, my goal is to figure out what they want to do, and to push them towards the decisions that make it more effective for that. 

I try (in my very best way, and probably usually fail) to approach it with as much humility as I can, as though it was something I've written -- lord knows I've written some awful things consigned to bottom shelves.

(Unless I really disagree with what they want to do, in which case I weigh in on that question; or unless they aren't clear on what they do, in which case I push to refine it). Unless the premise of the piece is irretrievable ("I wrote a play about paint drying, is it exciting enough?"), there's usually a way to drive them to help them out.

It's not my job to tell them that they suck or they should quit or get out of the circus. That job's for best friends and spouses. You focus on the ways that the work can be more effective.

Also, one more bonus point:

4) THE MAN IS JUST A MAN

Seriously, whether it's my younger sister or Stephen Sondheim, they're just a person. Reading through the comments section of Jason Robert Brown's post with talk about "The Master" and everything... everyone is a person! Talk to each other like people! People are respectful of each other's feelings, but also don't lie to each other.

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