Criticizing The Performance, Not The Audience That Enjoyed It

This weekend I went to see a show with some friends. I enjoyed most of it, except for the lead actor. It was clear to me that while the rest of the actors were invested in the reality of the play, his character knew he was the hero. Where everyone else had to react to the unexpected changes in the universe, he anticipated what was coming and manipulated the universe. Some of it may have been the director’s choice, but given the other actors were invested and he wasn’t, I believed most of it was the actor’s choices.

As the show ended, it was clear my friends enjoyed every moment of the show and didn’t perceive the things I did. I knew they were going to ask me what I thought. My immediate worry was, how am I going to talk about this show which they clearly enjoyed without implying they shouldn’t have. And how can I explain what I thought was wrong without suggesting that they lacked the intelligence or perception to notice it.

Basically, how can I talk about my experience without sounding like the stereotypical intellectual snob associated with the arts. My friends won’t take much offense, but whatever approach I used would essentially be practice for dealing with the general public. If I was talking about a show in my theatre, I am really never going to have this sort of conversation because few people would ask what I thought about my own show. (I also realized how many arts experiences I have by myself or with other arts people where conversations can be a little more frank.)

One of those who accompanied me is a landscape architect so I decided to use his profession to provide context for my comments. I would explain my problems with the lead actor as I did in the first paragraph expounding on what I mean by investment in reality and why that is important. Since the show was a comedy, I used the example of the candy wrapping episode in I Love Lucy, where regardless of how bizarre a situation got, we were rooting for Lucy and Ethel because they believed in the reality of the run away assembly line and their need to succeed.

I explained that because I had experience in the performing arts, the problems were apparent to me where it might not be to them. If they enjoyed the show, that is great. Being able to recognize these thing is a mixed blessing- It is helpful if you are in a position to fix the problem, but a hinders one’s enjoyment of many performances where one isn’t in control.

I mentioned how it was possible for me to walk through a garden and admire the flowers while my landscape architect friend noticed all the problems with drainage and general appropriateness with the design. None of this means the flowers are any less attractive just as nothing I perceived invalidates the experience they had at the show.

Now yes, among ourselves as arts people we can, and do, have long discussions about how audiences attribute more value to their experience than is warranted and give standing ovations to barely mediocre work. But that isn’t a conversation we can have with the general public without causing a lot of resentment.

Given that I was dealing with my friends who had the capacity to forgive any offense I might offer, I can’t say the general approach I used in this situation will work in most cases. I have to imagine though that it can be effective to offer an honest, snark free, appraisal of your own experience which acknowledges that one’s insight and perception, while highly informed, isn’t necessary for others to share.

I felt my explanation was successful because I was able to be honest and provide some education about acting and directing choices without coming across as if I were lecturing the ignorant. It was helpful to be able to be able to draw a parallel between the abilities we both developed as a result of our professions to illustrate how artistic criticism is no more intellectually inaccessible than any other form of discernment that is cultivated over time.

The same parallels can be drawn for pretty much any profession or avocation that a person has been involved for many years to create a common frame of reference. No one gets overly concerned that their accountant feels superior to them because they can’t spot mistakes on a balance sheet with a glance. They can be worried about how it might look if they don’t understand a performance or painting, though.

As I write this, I recall my post from Friday in which I quote Stephen Tepper and George Kuh talking about the training creatives receive. I occurs to me that while anyone may develop a discernment related to their profession and avocation, the resulting abilities are not necessarily equal. Those in the arts are specifically trained to look at things with a critical and deliver and receive critiques. Those seeking accounting degrees aren’t regularly asked to look at their classmates’ work and discuss whether it adheres to the generally accepted accounting practices. In that respect, it is understandable that people may experience a little anxiety at the ease with which creatives (which includes landscape architects) can and will discuss perceived problems.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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