Shooting the Survivors: a Guide to Giving and Taking Constructive Criticism

Posted: July 14, 2010 in Uncategorized

“Critics are men who watch a battle from a high place then come down and shoot the survivors.”—Hemingway.

“without some negative feedback, without criticism, the local burlesque bubble is destined to burst.”—Dan Savage

This is quote from Dan Savage’s column in The Stranger.

It’s sparked a lot of controversy in the comments section but it’s mostly been met with agreement from the New York community (probably because he’s not talking about us directly.) A number of the commenters seem to think this review was scathing. But it seems to be more or less the same conversation I have with any close friends after seeing a show “X was good, Y was bad, Z could have been better if they…” The problem pointed out by this article is that the performers being talked about are rarely privy to these conversations.

Scathing or not, a good point has been made: Without honest feedback art can get stale.
Theatre, comedy, storytelling, writing, art of any kind, TAKE NOTE.
I think the major reason artists pick apart whatever art they look at is that it’s a way of teaching themselves and each other. They pick out how what they saw was effective or ineffective and see what they can learn from that. But it’s hard to do that with your own art. Especially when you can’t see it.

Burlesque is a more or less solitary art form. You make it by yourself. Every bit of it, from the conception to the design to the execution, is something you do on your own. Yes, sometimes you work with another person, you get someone else to make your costume, you talk out ideas with your friend, whatever, but *for the most part* it’s all you. I think this why people in burlesque rarely critique each other: First of all, when you put that much into something it’s easy to take things personally. And second of all, no one asked you.

Still, Dan Savage has a point so I’d like to offer advice on how to give and accept feedback. This comes from both my fancypants education, which was rife with peer review, and my crazy arts background because my parents and I can’t go to ANY performance, be it Broadway, a school play or a wedding, without lengthy analysis.

How to Give Feedback

 

Wait to be asked. Some people don’t want feedback. Some people don’t want YOUR feedback. Some people do want feedback from you, just not at the moment. Please wait to be asked. To my mind the ONLY time it’s cool to give unsolicited feedback is when you see something that’s already great but would be made *perfect* by one tiny change. In this case say pretty much exactly that. “Your act was awesome but it would have been perfect if you…” and then drop it unless if they ask for more. Anyone with any grace will say “Thank you” and take the note or ignore you as they see fit. They have every right to ignore you. Complements, of course, are always welcome.
And please be able to know the difference between making conversation and actually asking. If you’re just hanging out after a show and someone you’re not very close with says something like “Did you like the show?” That’s conversation. If a close friend says something like “I’m not sure about this act, what did you think of it?” or “No, really, what did you think?

Be Specific. “That sucked.” Is never helpful. Similarly “That was good” or “That was ok” not so helpful. If they actually ask for your honest feedback tell them specifically what worked and what didn’t work. Tell them what confused you. Tell them if you couldn’t see what a specific prop was, or couldn’t read a sign. If you have ideas for what could help it more effectively reach the goal they were trying to reach, share them. If you have no idea what they were striving for, ask.
If you can’t figure out any specifics, tell them you’ll get back to them and think about it for a bit. Ask yourself what you saw, how it made you feel and why. Consider what they were going for and how that matched up with your experience.

Couch it in Praise. Artists are known for being touchy. (see above quote from Hemingway) I’ll admit, many of us are but it’s not because we’re “naturally sensitive” or we have “artistic souls.” It’s usually because people have been mean to us our whole lives. It’s also because any artist worth their salt is putting a little piece of their soul on display, which makes it hard not to take criticism personally. So if there’s anything good about what you’re critiquing, please say so. We’re not all wilting violets who will break down and cry if you say something mean to us but knowing what works is just as vital as knowing what doesn’t.

Be aware of their limitations. I’m not talking about their abilities or weaknesses, I’m talking about things outside their control. There will always be restrictions on budget, time, the laws of physics, the laws of man, what can be done in the space, etc. and you have to allow for that.

How to Take Criticism

Don’t ask for feedback if you don’t actually want it.  Sometimes we all want an ego boost.  That’s fine.  That’s what “Did you like my act?” is for.  Hell, that’s what “Tell me I’m pretty” is for.  “No, really, what did you think of my act?” is asking for genuine feedback.  Be ready for not all of it to be glowing.

Don’t take it personally. Not being perfect doesn’t mean that you suck, it just means that you’re human. No one does everything right the first time and even the best people out there have an off day. Seriously, IMDB your favorite movie director, they’ve probably done something that was absolute crap. Or at least something that *someone* said was absolute crap. Look for the lesson in any criticism you get. There’s always room for improvement and you’re always going to learn new things about your art form. If you’re not, well then you probably do suck. Or at least you’ve gotten very, very, stale.

Choose your critics wisely. The good thing about obscurity is that you pretty much get to choose who your critics are. Ask someone who’s work and opinion you value highly. Choose someone who gets you. If you’re an abstract painter, you’re not going to get the most helpful feedback from someone who hates abstract art. If Dita Von Teese and I were bestest buddies I probably still wouldn’t ask her for feedback on most of my acts because they’re *not her thing.* I suspect the majority of her advice would be to spend thousands of dollars on crystal studded whatevers and that’s just not appropriate for a lot of the acts I do. When you get some recognition, you can’t really choose who critiques you but you should always consider the critic’s personal tastes before to pay too much attention to what they have to say about you. And you’ll save yourself a lot of heartache if you just don’t read the comments section of any internet post written about you. For serious. That way madness lies.

Don’t defend yourself. If this is someone you’ve chosen to get feedback from, listen to what they have to say and remember that they have your best interests at heart. You can tell them what you meant to do but if that’s not what they got, then you have to examine why. This is also true if it’s a written review but you have to keep in mind that your work may just not be their thing. Still if you try to publicly answer those reviews, odds are good you’ll look unprofessional. And if you were fool enough to read those internet comments, don’t try to fight back. It’s like getting into a land war in asia. Internet douchebags will always outnumber you and they will never have anything better to do than to be a dick.

Take what helps, discard the rest. Sometimes someone will give you a note or a suggestion that makes no sense to you. Even after you’ve talked it out with them it will make no sense whatsoever. Please examine it as much as you can. Poke at it. Turn it over. Think about what it’s aiming for. Try to address whatever deficiency it’s trying to address. But if it just doesn’t fit with what you’re trying to do, ignore it. It’s perfectly ok to ignore some feedback if it really doesn’t seem helpful to you. Just make sure it’s not helpful first.

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Comments
  1. That was a very thought-provoking article. Just a few more Princess Bride references and it would have been your best ever.

  2. […] is not a review and I am not a critic. I also don’t use this blog to sell anything. I refuse all ad requests, and I’m not […]

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