Delegating Tasks and Embracing Critique

How to Avoid Imploding

For many theatre practitioners, the act of creation is tied to the act of living—they cannot exist separately. This is the second of a series of posts that explore positive practices and principles to help keep our art mindful, expressive, and sustainable. Phil Weaver-Stoesz is a multi-disciplinary director, devisor, and performer studying and working at Arizona State University.

How to avoid imploding with tasks
Here’s a familiar story: A small group of passionate friends get together and want to start a theatre. They’ve worked together in school, share aesthetics, and have tons of passion. They start a company; let’s say they call it Drunken Spider Theatre. So DST wants to put on their first production, obviously A Winter’s Tale: The Rock Opera. There are only five of them, but they have enough energy to organize a full-scale rock opera, right?

Of course, because artist ‘A’ needs to be the stage manager, set designer, carpenter, and house manager, artist ‘B’ needs to direct, adapt the play, organize donations, and design the poster. Which means artists ‘C’, ‘D,’ and ‘E’ only need to create a marketing plan, schedule the entire production, set up auditions and callbacks, design and build every part of the show, write the music and, op all the shows. I think you see where this is going…

As artists, we are trained to be recklessly optimistic about how much we can handle. We’re fast learners, we love our art, and we have something big to say, so what can go wrong? We approach the world with laptops in hand, ready to create.

The problem is, we burn out. We enter the process full of passion, but halfway through we peeter out in a train wreck of procrastination, fear and self-doubt. I call it, the “Puppydog Black Hole” problem.

You may have encountered this particular breed of artist at one time or another: a Puppydog Black Hole (PDBH) PDBHs have an infectious way of taking tasks. They say yes easily, they seem trustworthy, so any odd task you have lying around, just throw it over to the ol’ Puppy.

Of course, inevitably, after a few weeks of declining work ethic, this adorable creature of enthusiasm reaches the event horizon and becomes an overwhelmed, overworked Black Hole. Some PDBHs start complaining about others’ lack of work, some start to hate the theatre and do the bare minimum to get by, and some just disappear into the ether, having taken your tasks, your time, your hopes, and vanished forever.

So why does this happen? Why do PDBHs burn out so much? Because there’s no differentiation between the concept of time and the concept of energy.

Critique only defeats you if you fight it. If you approach it with an attitude of acceptance and grace, critique becomes your ally in the struggle for creation.

When someone asks you to do something, they say, “Do you have time to fit this in?” Inevitably the answer (if you’re a Puppydog) is yes. You look at your calendar, it looks like you have an hour to spare, so you’re all for it! The problem is, that hour is between getting off of work and rehearsal—a time usually reserved for a small bit of relaxation.

So the task stays undone. Not for lack of time, but for lack of energy. Whether it’s creative energy for designing the poster, organizational energy for scheduling, or human-contact energy for calling donors, we have a limit on how much we can accomplish in a day. The problem is, we don’t think we have this limit. We think if we have time, we can do it. But that isn’t always the case.

Enter our hero: smart delegation. In its core form, delegation means having two distinct understandings:

“I do not possess infinite time and energy.”
“I trust other people to accomplish tasks.”

The first understanding is hard for the Puppydog—they haven’t learned their own limits. The second understanding is hard for leaders and managers—they may not possess faith enough in their colleagues. So before you start your next project, ask yourself: can the five of us organize an entire rock opera by ourselves? By all means, be audacious with your goals, but remember to give some tasks away, preserve your energy, and watch out for Puppydogs.

How to avoid imploding with fear
Taking a compliment and taking a critique are acts that both require a hard truth: that strangers are looking at your work. That people you don’t know are peering into your heart and giving you their opinion. That when you create art, it gives everyone a free pass to be in judgment of your creations.

It’s dangerous to succumb to the fear of critique, but it’s even worse to shut it out entirely and push recklessly forward. Too many young artists get the advice that they shouldn’t listen to people who criticize their work. While quite well-meaning, this advice is achieving the exact opposite of what it intends. The notion of only listening to yourself paints a picture of war between the artist and their audience.

These well-wishing teachers who tell their kids to protect themselves from criticism are unwitting proponents of “cognitive behaviorism,” a school of psychology that tells us to fight any thought that may hinder us. While it may seem a noble crusade, no amount of mental shielding or denial can protect you from the real world. People will certainly not like everything you create, and if I know those people, they’ll let you know exactly what they think of it.

Denying critique also shuts you off from an invaluable source of learning. Show me an artist who only follows their heart, and I’ll show you an actor who can’t take direction, or a director who micromanages, or a designer who can’t achieve unity.

Critique is the forge fire of good work and while I’m sure your heart has a lot of nice things to say about you and your work, the fact is, you live in this world. And if you work in the theatre, chances are you’re working with other people, each with their own strong opinion.

So we can take criticism from an audience, we can take it from our fellow artists, but what about every serious artist’s worst critic? Ourselves. The little voice that haunts artists has probably ruined more careers than all bad reviews and public shame put together. The little thing that says, “You’re not good enough.”

That little voice exists because we know what good work is, but we can’t make it yet. Ira Glass talks about this too, a phenomenon he calls The Gap: that there’s a gap between our taste and our talent that we need to close by doing lots of work. So instead of giving the voice power by fighting it, just agree with it, but with one important caveat: “yet.” “I’m not good enough, yet. But dammit, I’ll get there.”

So embrace critique, from audiences, from artists, from your own little voice. Critique only defeats you if you fight it. If you approach it with an attitude of acceptance and grace, critique becomes your ally in the struggle for creation.

I’ll leave you with this little gem that Robert Tofte wrote about a performance of Love’s Labour’s Lost in 1598:

This Play no Play but Plague was unto me,
For there I lost the Love I liked most:
And what to others seemde a Jest to be,
I, that (in earnest) found unto my cost,
To every one (save me) twas Comicall,
Whilst Tragick like to me it did befall.

If Shakespeare can get royally slammed in iambic pentameter and keep writing, surely you can endure a few jabs.

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For many theatre practitioners, the act of creation is tied to the act of living—they cannot exist separately. This series explores positive practices and principles to help keep our art mindful, expressive, and sustainable. 

Practices and Principles

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What I find interesting about your approach to the idea of Puppy Dog Black Holes is that I definitely identify with a lot of what is written here. My second semester as a college student saw me taking 25 credits with a 20-hour work load, plus extra activities on the side and travel. There just wasn't enough time, and thus my maths grade suffered. It wasn't that I couldn't do those things, I just simply hadn't the time. So learning how to manage time is a key aspect in being an artist. The other topic: trust, has never been easy for me. Yet, it creates some of the best things: films, and plays, and architecture... However, I still think it's important to do research and evaluate a person based on their past, and reputation, to trust them. Perhaps as friends, it's different, but in the more professional and academic sense, should there also be an element of mistrust and constant vigilance?Also, I agree that protecting children from critique is isn't necessary the best approach, as I believe that conflict drives progress. Looking at Liz Lerman's critical response steps, I've come to the opinion that perhaps it's sometimes not the best way to improve an artist. How can we teach children to be strong-willed, as they will no doubt face critique, instead of trying to change the way we criticize our peers? Is it perhaps a balance between the two sides?

I wish there were more comments on your series, Phil. I'm thankful for my many experiences with PDBHs and leaders unable to delegate from running a student-theatre troupe in university. Unfortunately, it sometimes makes me look like I'm not doing enough on productions now--but it's because I'm well-aware of my energy levels. Thanks for writing this to refocus the conversation on value and quality work. Too often it feels like everyone wants to make something cobbled together. Not every work should be like the 24 hour plays.