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Criticism! Eeek! Run! Run!

A few months ago I wrote an article for HowlRound about the series of Theater Salons I have been involved in organizing for the past handful of years. In that article I noted that the next salon, scheduled for this past November 13th, would be held on the topic of criticism. That salon turned out to be interesting for unexpected, if sadly unsurprising reasons.

I had noticed when inviting people that many scrunched up their faces upon hearing the topic would be criticism. I was quick to clarify for them that by criticism I didn’t mean just those who write reviews or critiques, but rather the broader term, and in particular criticism between artistic colleagues. This seemed to relax some, whose knee-jerk hesitation was understandable since there is indeed something tedious about the typical, cul-de-sac discussions of the state of American theater criticism. But others remained skeptical.

This surprised me. Most everyone I know who works in the theater talks with energy, engagement, and/or outrage about the state of American theater criticism, about the critics themselves, about the relationship(s) between critics and artists as well as between criticism and art, and about criticism shared (or not) between colleagues. Nobody seems to be impartial on these matters. And so one might assume people would want to gather around the subject and go at it.

Nevertheless, for the first time in our Theater Salon’s four-year history, literally half of those who accepted our invitation did not show up. People may have a lot to say about criticism in every aspect of the term. But saying as much in public would appear to be another matter. Our unprecedented no-show rate, and the possibility that some people may have made a pretense of accepting our invitation rather than decline upfront, struck me as quite telling. Are people afraid to talk about criticism, despite their deeply felt views?

Even a negative critique, if it’s actually critical and not just a rant or dismissive, isn’t going to actually hurt, much less kill, anybody. But any critique must be responded to critically in return. And that is the important point. And it is on this important point that we, as artists, often fail ourselves and each other.

Portrait of Mark Jackson.
Mark Jackson. Photo by Pak Han Foto.

Another telling aspect of the night was that conversations seldom managed to stray more than momentarily away from critics and reviews to the admittedly thornier matter of criticism between artistic colleagues, particularly non-collaborators attending each other’s work. Instead, well-worn paths about fair representation in the press, the obligations of critics verses the obligations of artists, etcetera, were trod to and fro. As artists, we’re accustomed to talking about the critics. But we’re not as accustomed to talking openly about our critical views of one another. As I noted in my previous article, one reason is economics: nobody wants to risk losing potential future work by offending someone. The other reason is ego, and ego’s upright cousin, pride: we don’t want to bruise any feelings—sometimes because we’re trying to be nice, other times because we’re afraid the offended person will somehow avenge their wound, whether by gossip or otherwise.

When artistic colleagues are working together, we expect to exchange criticism of one another’s work. This is the job of collaborators, to engage in an ongoing, critical discussion of what is working and what is not. But when it comes to a colleague’s work that we ourselves did not participate in making, while it may be easy to comment either critically or superficially on our positive response, it’s understandably more difficult to speak to our negative response.

Yet we must. How else can we hope to make and see stronger work? Obviously it’s important that collaborators be critical with one another. Collaborators have the unique, up-close perspective that comes from creating the work. This is the vital, key perspective that no audience can have. Likewise, the audience is privy to a perspective that nobody who worked on the production can have. And this perspective is ultimately the vantage point from which a theater production is made to be experienced. Gathering the perspectives of our audience is essential. To that end, artistic colleagues in the audience can provide a particularly informed perspective, since they understand firsthand what goes into making work. Thus, we who make theater can be of great value to one another in the ongoing effort to determine how our work is working.

Though I’ve never had faith in masses of people to change, I do have faith in individuals. Change enough individuals and eventually you’ve changed the masses. That said, I can’t change anyone any more than they can change me. But I can change myself. If I would like to live in a society that engages more critically, I must do so first.

Even a negative critique, if it’s actually critical and not just a rant or dismissive, isn’t going to actually hurt, much less kill, anybody. But any critique must be responded to critically in return. And that is the important point. And it is on this important point that we, as artists, often fail ourselves and each other. Those of us who have created a given work need to lead the critical conversation about it with our colleagues. We must ask the questions, and do so honestly, so our colleagues will trust that we actually want to hear what they have to say. This could mean following up our initial questions with more questions to help guide the conversation toward an open, detailed exchange.

In addition to asking questions, we must argue our respective, and especially conflicting, points well. Frankly, I think we need to argue with each other, both more often and with passionate rigor, if only to see that nobody dies after an argument, and to recognize that arguing is something done to understand both sides of the given argument. Just as “critical” is too often used as a synonym for “negative,” arguing is too often confused with fighting—fighting being a useless endeavor undertaken to win something, not to understand anything.

Perhaps it’s worth noting that I am purposefully omitting the use of the word “objective” in all this. From what I understand, to be human is to be subjective. Objectivity would seem to be a prized intellectual concept ultimately unattainable in practice—especially in theater. Theater is not a fixed object, but a protean endeavor subject to personality, expectation, timing—even weather. This obvious point seems too often forgotten when we critique work. Subjective taste gets pronounced as objective fact, then people feel “shut down,” questions don’t get asked, and a great gift that theater gives us—the opportunity to engage in a critical conversation about a given work’s meaning, impact, and use—gets lost.

This struggle to engage critically goes beyond theater. The director and critic Harold Clurman often said that when we ask how we can fix the American theater, we’re asking the wrong question. First we should ask how we can fix America. Fix the country and you’ll fix its theater. Our country, not just its artists, seems to have trouble arguing well and critically. One can watch politicians and journalists botch critical discourse daily. Citizens likewise demonstrate their poor critical skills in the ubiquitous, safely anonymous commentary streams that run like unchecked sewers out from under every online edition of newspaper and magazine articles. Though I’ve never had faith in masses of people to change, I do have faith in individuals. Change enough individuals and eventually you’ve changed the masses. That said, I can’t change anyone any more than they can change me. But I can change myself. If I would like to live in a society that engages more critically, I must do so first. And so, though fixing the entire country strikes me as a monumental task beyond the reach of any production of a play, it does seem that if locally, around my own work, I can succeed in creating a critical environment, maybe I can create something that individuals might take with them and that will eventually, gradually impact the world outside my backyard. Initiative, then, might be the means toward improving criticism between artistic colleagues, and so also the art that we make.

After our timid November 13th salon on criticism, I suggested to my fellow salon organizers that we hold the next salon on the same subject and make a point of letting our guests know that the reason for the sequel is specifically to discuss why the first attempt was so fainthearted. I believe the issue must be pressed. Who shall take the initiative? Hopefully each of us. For if we who make theater cannot speak critically with one another about our work, how can we expect our audiences and the critics to do so? The artist must lead the discussion of the art, first through the work itself, and then through the ongoing critique of it.

Since completing this article, another Theater Salon was held on February 21st. In pursuit of our topic, Criticism, we made the salon’s subject a performance of Argentinian director Mariano Pensotti’s El pasado es un animal grotesco, which was making a stop in San Francisco on its world tour. Salon guests were asked to attend the production. The result was one of the more detailed and engaged discussions I’ve experienced at the Theater Salons. With a specific work to respond to, one that everyone present had recently experienced, we were more specific ourselves. Discussions of the performance itself led to discussions of new work development, international work, what makes a “good” play, the impact of design and staging on dramaturgy, acting styles, and the role of subjectivity in the overall impact of a show. And people even argued! Sometimes well, sometimes less so. But they argued. And lived. It was great. Based on the success of this Salon, we plan to continue using specific performances as centerpieces for discussion at future Salons. In that regard, it’s worth noting that we purposely chose a performance from out of town in order to avoid the self-consciousness and fears discussed above that might inhibit people. But we are working toward making local work our subject. I’m not yet sure what needs to happen for us to then bite that bullet. But at some point soon we will need to bite. Until then, it is hoped that critical discussions of work from elsewhere will fortify our collective critical chops so that, when we do turn to the work of one of our neighbors, we will have a shared language and the confidence to do so. I suspect our first local performance will need to be one created by one of us among the Salon organizers who make work. If we put ourselves out there first, and can convince our guests that we can take it, maybe we’ll get somewhere. We’ll see how it goes.

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Great discussion about a thorny topic. At the Network of Ensemble Theaters Micro-Fests, we've been trying a format which recognizes that aesthetics (tastes) differ, but our hope is that it honors intentions. At our gatherings, we present performances by ensembles which are followed the "morning after" by discussions with artists and audience members, kicked off by two artists from outside the projects that were performed: a "Twin" responder and an "Opposite" responder; the "Twin" being an artist who in some way shares a similar aesthetic with the work being discussed, the "Opposite" being an artist who in some way does not share a similar aesthetic (both being very broad and fuzzy delineations, of course, but it's an interesting way to strike the fires...). These discussions have ranged from joyfully buoyant to excruciatingly difficult. Talking about our work face-to-face is much harder than behind-our-backs. But talk we do. And at NET, we're trying to find ways to make that talk helpful.

I assume you've read Liz Lerman's great piece, "Toward a Process For Critical Response" but, if you haven't, it's an excellent tool for starting a dialogue, amongst artists, that genuinely focuses on helping grow one anothers work. It is online here: http://www.rwkotulski.org/l...

I insist on reading it with students at the beginning of any guest artist/residency, and have brought it to the table in many a professional situation.

Bravo for continuing to do the heavy lifting in those Salons!

-Robert Kaplowitz

Robert: I'm a fan of the Liz Lerman method too. With students I use something of a mash-up of Liz Lerman and M.H. Abrams. Not only does it help generate feedback that will be of use to the artist whose work is under discussion, it also gives the students responding something intellectually stimulating to do that will serve them in their own work and in future collaborative processes.

It's an odd probability, but I think I've just been unlucky in all my encounters with the Liz Lerman approach. I know many people who swear by it and find it productive. Having gone through it twice myself as an artist, and been audience to it innumerable other times, the results have consistently felt somehow clinical, careful, sanitized, lacking passion or rigor. I spoke with Michelle Carter about this once and she told me she finds it especially useful with her students who have little experience critiquing work. (If I'm miss-quoting you Michelle, set me straight.) As a starting point for students, it makes sense to me. But at a certain point, as working artists shouldn't we be able to even pound our fists on the table, shake them in the air even, and know that this means we care about what we do and this art form we share, rather than taking such things as "too" something-negative? Art without passion doesn't mean much to me, personally. And I haven't yet found where the space for that necessary passion is in the Liz Lerman approach to critique. That it's so popular keeps me intrigued by it, though.

I hear you, Mark. I've been in professional situations where facilitators begin in the Lerman process then let it fall away when it becomes clear that the group doesn't need it. Slavish adherence to it among professionals--or students who work analytically on their own--can be inhibiting for sure. But I have to say I've also been in professional situations where people express their opinions about a work passionately, fists shaking and all, and they don't have a strong connection with what the work wants to be, wants to do. Strong opinions can come from taste, or from someone's feelings about the kind of work they wish the work under discussion were, but isn't. Those passions may be of interest to the person feeling them but have a way of not being useful to the work. The Lerman process makes the responders ask questions till they're clear on what the artists are after, which isn't always apparent. It keeps responders from being reactive, shooting from the hip about what they like and don't like, what they think "works" and "doesn't work," when they don't understand the artists' intentions or maybe don't even really like those intentions. People passionately leapfrogging over the intentions of the work are unlikely to be useful to the artists. If you really deeply get what the piece is trying to do and think you can help the artists see what's in their way, by all means shake your fists! That's the best.

Spot on, bro. I found that salon very frustrating.

In all honesty I find Bay Area theater artists to be more sensitive, more defensive, and more likely to personalize than artists in any other community I've worked in. We smile and nod and lie to each other out of fear, as you say, of offending potential collaborators or of risking getting a reputation as "critical" and unsupportive. But there's another problem too that may be even touchier to talk about: I think it's very difficult to give useful, pragmatic feedback to one another and not that many of are good at it. It's easy to say "I didn't like your last play," but not so easy to sort out what its intentions were and how the artists' might have better fulfilled them.

I wish we could have a salon about what useful, engaged feedback is and isn't--and this time, not let people stray off-topic to get random things off their chests.

Michelle -- I think the bottom line with giving and receiving feedback is to remember that it's about the work, not about the person. I presume feedback among artists is about all of us hashing out our common life mission: Making the Best Work Ever. It's not a competition, it's a common goal. We can't make better performance without saying to each other what doesn't work. Artists have to be brave enough to hear it (and aware enough of what they are making to know what critique works for them and what doesn't). Fellow artists need to be empowered enough to say what they think and know that they are not going to be punished for it. Feedback from audiences and reviewers is a whole other thing. But when it comes to fellow artists -- how can we get better if we can't get real?

Rebecca--yes yes. What you say here is key too: "Artists have to be brave enough to hear it (and aware enough of what they are making to know what critique works for them and what doesn't)." All feedback is not created equal: we need to learn to sort out what serves the work and what doesn't--without personalizing the process. As Kato says above: "Learn to serve the work, keep that at the fore as the star to guide the down-and-dirty convo that all great artists need to keep the work moving."

Mark! Your salon-with-show sounds like an amazing opportunity. One of the reasons I had to get out of Bay Area theatre (and the Bay Area) was I felt a lack of critique among the community that kept work stagnant. An event like this -- permission to talk about what works and what doesn't and taste vs. truth and all sounds really powerful. I may steal it for Providence . . .

Thanks for this excellent post. I would add that as we embark on our arguments, excited by our passion and with the firm belief that we are not engaged in a fatal exercise, we must also be invigorated by the possibility that our minds will change. Too often it seems that we as artists want to make and defend our points -- either their criticisms of another's work, or their responses to criticism -- more than we want to move beyond the original idea to a new understanding. We must engage in argument for the sake of expanding understanding, not just standing ground.

I find that many colleagues confuse being supportive and constructive when talking about the work means only saying nice or positive things. What I seek to cultivate with my trusted colleagues is a conversation style that allows for the spectrum of critical discussion. I would rather have the hard talk early with the people I work with and trust, than have the work go into other hands and discover things that my arts-circle was too polite to mention. Learn to serve the work, keep that at the fore as the star to guide the down-and-dirty convo that all great artists need to keep the work moving.

I saw " El pasado es un animal grotesco" in Seattle when it was here. I wish I could have been part of a discussion like the one you had.