How Do You Take Your Compliments?

A woman who was our assistant theatre manager is now pursuing her doctorate in Thailand and recently sent us a questionnaire. She is surveying the difference between the way Americans and Thai respond to compliments based on the relative age and social standing of the person delivering the compliment. All my answers were pretty much the same but from what I know about Thai culture, your status relative to the person giving the compliment dictates how humbly you might respond.

I got to thinking a little about how we handle compliments in the arts. A few years ago, Holly Mulcahy had talked about how difficult it is for an artist to accept a compliment graciously rather than offer apologies for the performance. I remember doing something similar when I was acting, barely being able to mumble out a thanks.

It is easier now that I am in administration. I get to stand in the lobby during intermission and the end of the performance accepting compliments about the show without reservation because I am generally as unaware of the flaws the performers may perceive about their performance as the audience is. Though there have been a few rare times when I have been witness to some very tense moments backstage when artistic directors and stage managers voiced their disapproval of a performance.

As I think about the value and significance of those compliments, one thing I don’t feel I do enough of is solicit feedback beyond, “Thanks, that was a great show.” from a wider variety of people. I have advocated having conversations about the arts where ever you find the opportunity whether it is at a wedding reception or on the checkout at the grocery store in order to get people to voice what they do or don’t like about the arts experience. You can often get people who say they aren’t arts people to recognize they are actually more involved and invested than they realized. Having them reflect on that is good for the arts in the long run.

Starting and sustaining those conversations in the grocery store can be a challenge, but it is easy as falling down in a theatre lobby or gallery. I certainly do talk to a lot of people throughout an evening but it is often the same familiar faces who are knowledgeable about the arts and know they have access to me.

With them it is easier than falling down. What I need to remind myself to do is take “Thank you, that was a great show,” from “strangers” and extend my response to something beyond “Well thank you, thanks for coming out this evening.” Last year I had the presence of mind to do that with a couple and suddenly their high school aged daughter piped in with observations that were so insightful, I was about to beg her to come to college here when she graduated.

My intuition tells me making time to encourage other than the usual suspects to expound a little more on their experience is probably the doorway to better fund raising opportunities. Making the connection with new people may certainly inspire a personal donation from those who find themselves becoming more invested in the organization, but it may also indirectly lead to identifying and connecting with companies/organizations interested in providing support who were never even on your radar.

I am not suggesting that you should be in the process of always closing a fund raising pitch. Rather I am pointing out that relationships are the real basis of enduring support. It is easy to fall into the trap of always speaking with the same familiar people at every performance. It is another thing that solicit additional feedback from an unfamiliar person. Even if their first words are compliments, the next words might not be. But doing so can go a long way toward not only securing their loyalty, but alleviating the impression of elitism in the arts.

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 ( 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. (

My most recent role was as Executive 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.


Leave a Comment