When An Audience Member Wants to Give You "Feedback"
This post is part of a series explores what it's like for an artist to have an entrepreneurial mindset, and all of the different challenges that can come with it.
I love my audience. They make the whole weird process of putting together these sometimes tangential, sometimes tender, and always smirk-filled solo shows worthwhile. I get such amazing insights from them post-show, including emails that get me all teary; but occasionally there’s someone who wants to give me feedback.
There have been a couple times when I was running a fever or completely exhausted from driving ten hours to get to the gig. With no downtime and in a haze, I just stood there, mouth agape in exhaustion, listening to those audience members go on about all the things I could do to make my show “even better.”
Although always approached with the best intention, many audience members didn’t take a class in how to give constructive criticism. Add to that the complete lack of self-awareness, a tendency towards jaw jacking, and an almost manic need to engage, and you have a disaster in action. For example, the woman who talked to me the entire time I was performing. Afterwards a friend in the crowd told me everyone around her moved to the other side of the theatre to avoid being completely distracted.
Most of the time I really enjoy interacting with people post-show but I’ve also been in the position where I have to create a boundary with what I can and can’t tolerate. Sometimes I’m able to do it in a way that is quick and somewhat friendly:
“Seth, I really enjoyed your show. Have you ever thought about integrating—”
“Thanks for coming. The show keeps changing so I will probably be doing all sorts of new things in the future.”
I cut them off but try to let them know that what they are about to suggest is something I’m already thinking on. That their insight is worthwhile and most likely potent but that I don’t need to hear it.
Did I feel bad about how the interaction went? No, I didn’t. It’s important to me that I do get feedback on my work, but I want to choose the sources of that feedback through a network of trusted peers whose honesty I value above all else.
However sometimes there’s someone who wants to express themselves so badly that I have to be honest in a not-so-gentle way. When I was at a festival a few years back there was another performer who didn’t really have the whole social graces thing down. Sweet, but clueless. During an after-party event she came up to me. I was in a group of other performers who were joking around and then this happened:
“I really liked your show.”
“Thanks Sandy.” (Her name’s not really Sandy.)
“Can I tell you something that I think would help it be better?”
See, she asked for permission, which is great.
She was totally taken aback by my reaction. At that point two of the five people in my circle slowly creeped away.
“Well, it’s not a big deal. It’s an easy fix.”
“No, I appreciate it but I’d rather not hear it.”
“It’s not something I want to discuss after I’ve performed. You know what I mean?”
“But I loved it.”
“There’s just something—”
“Look Sandy, I really don’t want to know.”
The three people left in the group somehow transported out of there like we were in a Star Trek episode. I still haven’t found out how they did that.
“Well, I feel like you don’t respect me as an artist if you don’t want to hear my feedback.”
“It has nothing to do with that. I don’t know you well enough to want that feedback. See those three people over there?”
I pointed to a few people at the bar and she nodded.
“I went to school with them. I’ve known them for over fifteen years and worked intimately with them. Those are the people I’m going to ask for criticism.”
“But this isn’t a big deal.”
“Actually it is. I’ve said no to you about four or five time now and you keep pushing it.”
“Well, if you change your mind...”
“I won’t. Thanks.”
She then walked away looking pained, like I had really hurt her feelings. I did. I hurt her feelings, but she wouldn’t let up and didn’t respect the boundary that I set four times. Did I feel bad about how the interaction went? No, I didn’t. It’s important to me that I do get feedback on my work, but I want to choose the sources of that feedback through a network of trusted peers whose honesty I value above all else.
I’m lucky I’m a solo theatre artist and not a comedian. People often assume I am, but I always tell them it’s too much pressure to be funny all the time. What’s worse is that there is an unwritten law that it’s OK to heckle the person on stage while they’re in the middle of doing stand-up. Hannibal Buress recently took a drunk heckler to task, and it is a perfect example of how shutting someone down can be done with grace and punch.
It really all comes down to respect. Sometimes respect doesn’t look polite—far from it.
It’s important to remember that you have the prerogative to turn down criticism if you don’t want it. We’ve gotten to a point in our culture where forums and message boards, in combination with social media, give people the impression that they can go off on whatever it is that’s irritating them.
You don’t need to stand with that uncomfortable smile (you know what I’m talking about) while cringing inside at the interaction. You can put a stop to it. Yeah, the person bought a ticket, they’re supporting your work, and it’s incredibly important to to be gracious, but there’s nothing wrong with saying, “Thanks. I’m good though.”