Lately, I’ve noticed that a lot of people - friends and strangers alike - have been saying something very similar to me as a I talk about productions, performances, or people that I’ve recently seen onstage.
As I’m giving my solicited opinion and actively formulating my thoughts, people keep stopping me to say things like:
You’re choosing your words very carefully.
You can just say what you mean to me.
You’re trying to be so [nice/PC/positive].
This got me thinking about how we, as artists and audience alike, deal with the art of criticism/critique/opinion. I’ll also admit that I recently listened to two interviews with high-profile theatre critics - both of which bothered me in very different and specific ways that I won’t go into here - so this topic hasn’t been far from my mind.
And after last week’s blog post, which was a semi-review of Hadestown, I got a lot of comments from people online and in person that basically said “Thank you for focusing on the good.”
But isn’t this how we should be talking about art?
All of those things above that people have said to me made me react the same way:
“No no no, I am saying what I mean, which is why I’m choosing my words so carefully.” And as for positivity, I think that is important to bear in mind as we critique - why focus on only the negative?
So, what is the best way to give theatrical criticism?
Everyone’s A Critic
And that’s totally okay.
People, by the nature of being people, have opinions. Sometimes they share those opinions and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they’re mostly positive, sometimes mostly negative, but generally they’re pretty well mixed.
But it’s how people share their opinions that separates them. And yes, I realize this can go far beyond the arts and into daily life as well.
*Reminder: I am not an expert in critique, this is all just…well, my opinion!
Anyone who knows me personally knows that I am filled with opinions - for better or for worse (depends on who you ask!). And I’m always puzzled when people say things like “You have so many opinions!” because in my mind I feel like “Yeah, don’t you?” Because we do. Let’s just call it as it is and go from there.
I also know that I have a very specific way of processing my opinions. For me, this is how it tends to go:
Initial (often knee-jerk) reaction. This happens in the first moment of whatever performance I’m watching.
Pre-opinion. I have a feeling about where this show is going to go and whether or not I’m going to enjoy that.
Gather more information. I stop thinking as I watch so I can see more of what is and isn’t going to occur. Sometimes this means just sitting back and enjoying the live theatre.
Moment of change. Often this is mid-Act 1 where something either very positive or very off-putting will happen, which I know will color the rest of my opinions. Even if I try to not let it do so.
Intermission analysis. Partially this is just me thinking over what I’ve seen as I stand in line for the restroom. And partially this is informed by listening to what the people around me are saying to see if I agree with their thoughts as well.
A new set of glasses. This is the reactionary moment to the top of Act 2. Sometimes it’s an absolutely delightful moment that tints my non-existent spectacles to a rosy color, and sometimes the show takes a different direction that changes my mindset in other ways.
Finish out the story. I do my best to not pre-judge the end of a show before I' have seen it. I find that I tend to do this, so I try to fight back and just experience the remains of the performance, no matter how I’m feeling about the show thus far.
Post-show analysis. Now sometimes, by the time the show ends I have formulated enough of a solid opinion about what I just saw that I can talk about it immediately. Other times I feel the need to go have a conversation with someone who has seen the piece (or who was with me) to hash out my thoughts and get to a conclusion. And - albeit rarely - I occasionally have to not talk about the show and sleep on it first in order to gather my thoughts.
But this is my way of creating opinions, and I know it’s extremely specific.
When I was younger I had a difficult time not letting my initial reaction color my entire experience of a show or a production. Luckily, I had the opportunity in college to learn how to better analyze performance and formulate my opinions in a less biased way. The result is the above process, which keeps me about as even-keeled as I can be when watching a show and making judgements.
Why am I telling you this?
I think it is extremely important to be aware of how you process information and how that effects the way you formulate your opinions. I’m not saying that you have to have a process that is anything like mine, but before good critique can be given it must be clear how that opinion was formed.
It’s All In The Formulation
Where I feel most people have trouble is not in the formulation of opinion, it’s in the delivery.
Let’s look back to the sentences from above as a bit of a guide:
“You’re choosing your words very carefully.”
Okay, yes, I am and I do. I’m also someone who was an English and Theatre major, so I’ve been trained specifically to do this.
But more importantly, when I was taught about how to give critique - and yes, we do give theatre professionals training in this - I was told that the most crucial aspect is your word choice.
Here’s what words can do:
Specify precisely what you mean to say. 3 people can all tell you that a show was “great,” but you’ve gained no new information. All you know is that they all felt positively. But if the answers had instead been “Beautiful,” “Solid,” and “Phenomenal,” then you gain a much clearer understanding of how each of these people felt and what type of show they saw.
Descriptive language is always better. I could tell you that a performer was “terrible” in that one show and you’d get my specified opinion, but I haven’t told you why. And without the why, you can’t be certain from what context my opinion is coming. If I say that performer “didn’t seem connected to the role and appeared to be phoning it in,” well now you can judge for yourself. Is that just my perception? Was it just that one performance? Or is this not the best role for this performer, who might be excellent in other shows? But now you can think this through for yourself based on my description.
Hyperbole is an ever-present danger. It’s easy to get wrapped up in one’s emotions while speaking about something on which you have an opinion - and that’s totally cool - but you can more easily say something that you don’t necessarily mean. Perhaps you adored that actress in the leading role, but someone else didn’t like her, and therefore you go over-the-top in your praise of her. Or maybe you feel so strongly about a show that you didn’t like that you tear it to shreds with highly negative wording.
Word choice can be the difference between “like” and “love.” Words can uplift or tear down. But nothing is ever truly either black or white, good or bad.
It would be folly to think that your opinion is the only opinion, or that there was nothing good about that show you hated. So when making you word selection, it is important to focus on what you can concretely back up with examples. Otherwise, you may be talking just to hear yourself talk.
“You can just say what you mean to me.”
Oh, please do. Say exactly what you mean, always.
Honesty is the best and leads to the most fruitful conversations about art. If everyone had the same opinion life and art would be very boring. Instead, tell people what you think and why. And if you make good word choices, there’s no harm in stating your opinions.
“You’re trying to be so [nice/PC/positive].”
Why would I want to be mean, insulting, or negative?
Nothing can be gained from this.
As I’ve already stated, even if you have a negative opinion about something, that doesn’t mean that everyone shares in that opinion. You can be critical of a show or a performance and still leave room for positivity that you may have overlooked.
But that’s exactly where we run into the biggest problem of all: People don’t want to be wrong.
Oof. There it is. I’ve said it.
It is so much easier to lean into something overly mean and negative as a defense mechanism than it is to concede that: 1) Your opinion is not the be-all end-all, and 2) There is room for error in your opinion.
And I get it.
No one enjoys being wrong or contradicted or have the flaws in their logic pointed out, but all of these things are okay. This is what sparks good conversation and what can lay groundwork for more open-mindedness in the future - both of which are excellent goals.
But this isn’t the only reason I choose to keep things positive when giving my opinion. The other major reason is that everyone who works on a show is a living person with real feelings who poured a little bit of their soul out of them to create the art you just experienced.
This is what we do. And whether or not you enjoyed it, you should always be aware of the fact that art is both personal and difficult. It never hurts to be kind.
Let’s Give ‘Em A Hand
What do we do at the end of a performance?
Why? Because a large number of people did a tremendous amount of work creating something in the hopes of providing (hopefully meaningful) entertainment. They did that - live - just for you.
So no matter what your opinion may be and what sort of words will make up your critique, let’s keep the people in mind. And remember that art is subjective. Opinions will differ, and that’s a wonderful thing.
The next time you experience art, think about the way you formulate your opinion. Or don’t, and completely disregard everything I’ve said here today.
This post is a piece of my art that I give to you, and now I trust you to go forth and be a good critic. Happy critiquing!