If you can’t say something nice. . .

Gentle readers, I have been taken to task.  Taken to task for not being “nice”.  Yes, indeed. . . a grave lapse of character on my part, I know, but there it is.

Or is it?  No, not being “nice” is actually a revelation of my character, not a lapse thereof. “Nice” is something I rarely aspire to.  Competent, yes.  Intelligent, sure.  Authentic, absolutely.  Nice?  Not so much. It doesn’t really mean anything to me.

In actuality, though, the two people who contacted me via private message asking why I was so critical of “Hello, Dolly!” at Center Stage Clovis were very polite about the whole thing. I was hardly “taken to task”.

But their complaints were very familiar ones to me, or to anyone else who regularly reads Donald Munro’s blog on the Fresno Beehive.  You see, several of the queries raised by my two task-masters are questions often addressed by Donald Munro in his role as local arts critic and journalist.  Usually because some performer’s or organization’s pride was injured at something he criticized.

But I guess it wouldn’t hurt to give my perspective on them here, as well.  The dialogue is important when it comes to ACTING!

Master Thespian

First things first:  Criticism is not for the weak.  It takes huevos to stand up and take it on the chin– and stay standing.  The minute anyone puts something up for public consumption they put it up for public comment– and that means criticism.  It is part of the whole deal.  For more on my thoughts on criticism, check out the Critical Series on this blog and on my Valley Theater Reviews blog:

Criteria and Criticism


Critic, Audiences, Idiots, Genius

It’s All in the Timing

As you can see, the place,  style, content and objectives of criticism is something I think a lot about. It is complex.  Learning to handle and process criticism is an important skill for performers to master.  It is the most direct method by which we decide what is important to us as artists and how we might begin to grow.

And to illustrate this, I will now process a few of the specific issues of my own critics:

Why did I pick on certain people?
The bulk of my criticism was on acting technique.  A leading performer, by my standards, needed some work on the acting technique.  She had specific technique issues I could use as examples of the type of technique I was trying to explain.  One of the dangers of having leading roles is that you are far more forward and people see you a lot more.  Which means more public comment on your performances.

I also said that the performer had a spectacular voice.  But the voice work wasn’t the thrust of the blog post.  The acting was.

I also picked out three performers for their good acting technique.  Was I not supposed to pick them out, either?

Some people are still learning how to do things in the cast.  This is community theater, after all.  Some are more advanced than others.

Absolutely. However, I try very hard to match the level of criticism to the technical level of the parts the actors are playing.  If a part’s motivations are fairly well spelled out and not too complex, that should be a part that some basic acting technique can accomplish.  If I didn’t see that happening from my seat, I call it.

What I omitted, though, which perhaps I shouldn’t have, was that I wonder how much acting coaching directors are giving their musical theater performers in such shows.  Sometimes directors can help and sometimes they can’t, though, so it usually falls at the feet of performers.  So performers have to be responsible for finding that technique however they can.  (Books, workshops, etc. are available in Fresno.)

In terms of the high school students that one of my disciplinarians was so worried for, I have a very unique perspective on that.  I have judged the Fresno City College High School One Act Competition for the last three years.  We judges regularly give the exact type of criticism on technique to the student actors as I gave in that blog.  And I’ve never seen a student actor break down in tears, their spirit permanently scarred, by the experience of receiving criticism.  They are sometimes confused, perhaps a bit hurt at first, but usually they come out the other end of it with a sense of professionalism and optimism that they can, in fact, improve in the future.  They just have to keep figuring it out.  Students are far more resilient than we think them and often constructive criticism gives them a sense of where they are in reality rather than the positive cheerleading feedback they so often get from teachers, parents and peers.

They had opening night jitters. . . they were more polished later in the weekend.

A very common complaint when poorly reviewed.  You never hear it when a show is well reviewed.  Fact is, opening night is opening night. The seats are the same price as any other time in the run and what the show is on opening night is fair game. You’re either prepared to perform on opening or you aren’t.

They got way more laughs on Saturday night. Maybe you just didn’t think it was funny because of the audience. 

Well, I did think it was funny– when the acting was good.  But this is related to the opening night one:  Whatever that performance is when it is reviewed is what the performance is.  Live theater is fickle.  If the audience has trouble being finessed, then there are skills that need to be worked on by the company.  Period.  It sucks, but that’s the nature of the beast.  Also, I hate it when actors say that the show is funnier than it was on “that performance”.  No, that performance just wasn’t that funny.  For whatever reason– whether it is the audience’s fault, the actor’s fault, or the time of day, or the amount of alcohol imbibed. . . . the funny is what the funny is.

Ms. Ramsay (or whatever actor/replacement/understudy/stage manager/sound guy) wasn’t there for the whole rehearsal run,  so how could they rehearse to their full ability?

Again. . . feces occurs.  It is live theater. The performance on opening should be ready no matter what.  Besides, to blame the lack of acting technique on Clytee Ramsay being there only 10 days or whatever is a cop-out. What if there had been an understudy involved?  What if blocking needed to be changed because someone broke a leg?  What if, what if, what if. .. .  No one else is EVER responsible for your bad acting technique.  Good technique is there to SAVE you from such situations. So, GET SOME. Now!

And, of course, the classic:  If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.

I said plenty of nice things about the production. I even said that most people wouldn’t agree with me on the enjoyability factor.  But people will hear the negative ten times more loudly than the positive.  But, if we lived in a cheerleading-only world, no one would ever improve.  Also, no one would ever have the opportunity to say, “I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t agree with this, this and this”, thus helping them to establish their own set of criteria for what works and what doesn’t.

I did not write the blog entry to humiliate or pick on anyone.  I didn’t intend it as salacious gossip or mean-spirited nit-picking.  I wrote it to process some of my thoughts on acting technique, particularly with regard to musical theater performance.

On VTR, I make every effort to balance the good notes and bad and to clear my head of personal preferences.  I try to give specific examples to take the personal out of it and I leave comments open so a dialogue can be opened and maintained– I’m open to dissenting voices.  But with “Hello, Dolly!” my personal preferences on acting so got in the way of my overall ability to judge the show, I couldn’t give it a fair and generous review.  So I kept it off of VTR.


And on a personal note:

I, myself, have taken some hard feedback on my direction, my shows, my talent level, my work with actors.  I certainly don’t always like it.  (See Donald Munro’s review of “Hair”, as just one example.).  My work and the work of my company continues to get negative feedback (thankfully not nearly as much as positive!), through e-mails, discussions with friends and acquaintances, drunken louts at the Starline Grill. . .   but I truly do consider it part of the larger process of being an artist and performer.

I STRUGGLED with publishing those notes, knowing that they would land on the ears of virgin reviewees. As a member of the theater community myself, I open myself up to criticism just by virtue of publicly criticizing other shows. It is entirely possible that no one at CenterStage will be interested in working with me for quite some time, much less coming to see one of my shows. I risk alienating my peers every time I give negative notes, and so I make every effort not to do so exclusively.

But after thinking long, hard, and often about it, I TRULY believe that without dialogue among artists– both positive and negative– the work here will never elevate itself above its dilettante form. And I see that it has that potential over and over again, but so often just falls short– as “Hello, Dolly” did for me. Just like my own shows often do for others. But we all have to be able to see the good and bad in our work to build upon it properly.

And that’s why I say over and over again, other artists should GET A BLOG, create, comment, rant, rave, and review often. It may also teach us how to be a real community which wrestles with agreement and dissention, sitting across from each other at a table to wrestle with great ideas, new ways of thinking and old, both loving and hating each other and, ultimately, possessing a realistic sense of collegiality based on respect and trust rather than smoke and mirrors.

Greatness does not always come out of perfect accord and tranquility.  We often have to push against something in order to push forward at all.




One comment

  1. I agree. When you work in the arts, criticism goes with the territory. I write fiction, and I only want to hear honest feedback, as that is what will make my work better in the long run. If people are too nice, you get a false sense of security and you don’t ever learn how to improve. The people who become successful are not afraid of criticism, and they never give up.

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