Taking Criticism

The above picture was taken when I directed a "Cult Classics" theatre version of Pump Up the Volume. It features actress and writer Jess Ayers (center). You can read her blog HERE, and my sister, Kimberly, a writer and director herself. You can read her blog HERE.

I had a revelatory talk with a friend this week. One of those talks that feels a little like someone poured hot poison in your ear and you end up overthinking every aspect of your existence. These mental trials can be healthy if they run their course. They can provide you with insight into yourself as well as cause you to examine your ideas and decide what to keep and what to throw away. However, if these moments don’t run their course, they can ruin you. I was ruined for about two days.

Although his words were candid and unpleasant, I appreciated his sincerity and still do. He cares for me and wanted to help. However, his thoughts echoed every fear I’ve had concerning my artwork since Cassie Rolando told me that brown was an ugly color in Kindergarden*. And long after our discussion, I was left wondering if I should heed every syllable or go with my gut and find a compromise. I am by nature a people pleaser. I want everyone to be happy and when something I am doing is considered not to the best of my ability or not to someone’s taste, there is always a pull to adjust to the expectations of others.

When I was in college I took a course in directing. It was required of all of us who were in the teaching program. They had disbanded the directing emphasis, so our class was filled with people that had no business teaching (or apparently coming to class sober) but wanted to direct a one-act play for our spring semester**. Much of our class chose serious works, stories that included tales about psychosis and abortion, because when you’re at an arts college you really want to be taken seriously. I, on the other hand, went for something funny and entertaining. I picked “The Whole Shebang” by Rich Orloff. which is a play about a student who presents his final project to panel of advisors and it is revealed that he has made the Earth and everything on it. It was funny and cute and had moments of poignant truth. I had the best cast ever and was completely confident from day one, that is until we reached our first showing for my instructor. Up until our first preview, I was laughing every rehearsal. The actors had found their characters and each performer had presented little moments and discoveries that let not a second be wasted. My idea was for the panel to be a tribunal of Kryptonians and this comic book theme wound its way into every aspect of the production. When the preview came, I was confident that the only thing left was to tighten up the pace and make a few tweaks here and there.

After we gave a predictably slow and nervous performance, the actors were dismissed and I held private council with my instructor. “To tell you the truth” he began “I think you’re better than this play. I think your funnier than this play, and I think you could have written something better. You chose a play that was beneath you.” I was shocked. I liked the play and I was confident everyone else would too. I also didn’t want to do a serious production, I mean once you’ve seen one play about abortion, haven’t you seen them all?…ahem….

My instructor went on to explain that he didn’t understand my concept and wanted the characters to be more alien. He cited the Coneheads as an example. “Maybe they could be eating weird things. I don’t know. I’m spitballing, but you get what I mean.” Discouraged, I went to my actors and told them what my instructor and I had discussed. They got discouraged too. I then began to ask things of my lead actor that would fit with my instructor’s vision. I worked him like a pack mule running him from one end of the stage to the other. “I’m trying my best, Rob. I’m working hard for you.” He would tell in in out of breath sighs. He was, and I was heartbroken. The problem was I had taken the whole of my instructor’s advice, a man I greatly respected and still do, as gospel and started to turn the show into something that he wanted, not what I wanted. The last rehearsal I told the actors. “Everything is back in! The only things you guys needed to work on was pace and discoveries. I’m sorry for leading you wrong after the preview.” They were thrilled. I turned to my lead actor, “Micah, you’re kicking ass. Keep your pace up and just have fun. I’m sorry for working you so hard to achieve someone else’s vision.” The actors delivered what was, I am told, the most enjoyable one-act of that semester. Everyone laughed, the comic book geeks loved it and the actors had a great time.

Afterward, my instructor told me that he didn’t get it during preview, but he did now, and that I hit the nail on the head. I got an “A”. One’s opinion on something can change greatly when they are surrounded on all sides by people laughing uproariously and having a great time, although he still thought the show was beneath me. Ever since then I have been happy to accept constructive criticism from people I respect, but wary of taking advice on blind faith. This, I think, is a healthy way to get better as an artist, and I try my best to remember what I learned with that one-act. Although I still am susceptible to artist’s ennui after receiving criticism, I try not to let it get me down for too long. Two days is plenty.

Take care,

-Rob

*I had chosen brown for an art project.

**Many of these folks would quit the teaching program after their play was directed. What I never understood was why didn’t they just do independent theatre…whatever.