Welcome to the blog and show notes for Episode 34 of Sally's Performing Arts Lab Podcast. No interview today. Just me and some thoughts about criticism and collaboration... Oh, and some new music! Every week I talk to people about creating original work for a live audience. Send an email anytime to Sally@sallypal.com. You're my podcast collaborator. As always Concise Advice and Words of Wisdom from George are near the end of the podcast episode.
I recently posted an episode of SallyPAL on "Fear of Failure and the Imposter Syndrome". A couple of things came up the following week that made me realize I needed to do a show on seeking and responding to criticism. First I should point out that I have not always been very good at either seeking or responding to criticism.
Today I want to introduce a new way of thinking about it. Lately, I've started to recognize that critique can be really useful. When you get critique that you know is useful you're not always sure it's worth the effort to make the suggested improvements. You might accept that the appraisal is accurate and you've actually considered making a change to the work based on the unsolicited advice. But you balk because of the work involved in making the changes. When someone else notices the problem that you decided wasn't really all that noticeable, it's kind of a bummer. Now you have an opportunity to address the problem… or you can be annoyed that someone noticed the problem you thought wasn't noticeable, and take it out on the person offering the evaluation.
Here's a thought: Criticism is a contribution to your project. Rather than see your critic as someone who's slamming you, think of that person as a collaborator attempting to make a contribution to the work. A collaborator wouldn't say anything at all if they didn't feel they had something helpful to say. If you see your critics as collaborators, you can change how you respond to criticism. Sometimes all there is to say is, "Thank you," or "I appreciate you noticing that." But sometimes what a critic says will cut you to the quick. If your knee-jerk reaction is negative it could be because the criticism is accurate and that's a tough pill to swallow. I'll give you a couple of examples from my own experience, one from a couple of decades ago and one more recent example.
Back in the days when I was writing a lot of one act plays, I had several pieces accepted into a local festival. I was invited to participate in workshopping the plays. The director was someone I really admired. I was an actor writing on the side but I didn't really think of myself as a playwright at the time. But the company had accepted four of my plays.
I got a lot of good suggestions for changes from both actors and the director. Instead of really looking at these suggestions and considering how they would change the work, I ran home, made the changes and returned the next day with the suggestions incorporated into the script verbatim. I spent no time asking myself, "Is this what I want for my work… Is the suggestion valuable enough to make the change to the script?" The people making suggestions seemed to have a lot of confidence… and I… did not. After this happened four or five times, the director gave me some pretty good advice. He said, "Sally, when I offer a critique, I want to have a dialogue with you. I'm not telling you to go home and change the script. You have to decide if the change is right for your work."
My lack of confidence was weakening my work. I didn't put any thought into the changes. I wasn't thinking, "This is a really good idea, I'm going to look and see if it works for the story I'm telling." Look, everyone will have ideas for ways to improve your work, but only you have the original vision. If you become an automaton taking all suggestions and making changes without considering their impact on the story you set out to tell, the work will suffer. It doesn't mean you can't take suggestions. Many of the suggestions I got actually did improve the scripts.
The automatic acceptance of any and all criticism is no healthier than the creator who accepts no criticism declaring, "It's my work, dammit, and you can't tell me what to do with it!" Dismissing criticism out of hand is not much different than the automatic acceptance method. When someone suggests a change, let your mind rest on the idea of the change rather than the specific suggestion. It may be that the suggested change doesn't really work but the need to address the section is valid. Rather than assume the person who wants to improve your work is trying to control it, it's possible they see something you are missing. Step back from the piece and look objectively. Could an improvement be made?
I always like to say I'll try anything once. If it doesn't improve the work, at least I've tried it and it might provide a springboard to an even better idea. Something else you might consider is your opinion of the critic. Even jerks can have good ideas once in a while. The best people can have terrible ideas and, occasionally, the biggest jerks can save a production. One of my favorite questions is, "Does this change serve the story?" Know what story you're telling and make sure everything in it serves that thread.
A more recent example of criticism that I didn't really want to hear happened last week. Rather than being oppressive, it was surprisingly healthy. The person who offered the critique is my sister and she's just an awesome human being so I'm more likely to listen to what she says. As she's carefully offering her suggestion, I'm thinking quietly about it. (Remember my story about taking suggestions without thinking?)
In this case, my sister noticed my silence and may have assumed I wasn't receiving the criticism well. In fact, her ideas were really good. Here's what she suggested. On my podcast, I have a section (if you listen regularly, you'll be familiar with it). It's the section where I say… "It's time now for Concise Advice from the Interview." She began by telling me what she liked about the section. This is a really great technique when you want to offer criticism. Since she's a teacher, she has some experience with this method.
My sister said she likes that I take a pared down version of the advice people give over the course of the interview and put it in its own little section. As she's sharing this, she pointed out that a podcast is a more intimate experience for the listener than it is for me as the producer. I am aware that I might be speaking to several thousand people while the listener is rarely listening to more than one or two people. What she said is that the announcement for Concise Advice from the Interview was a little loud, even jarring. She called it "theatrical". No surprise since that's my background. My first thought was, "But I like that bit!" and, "I don't want to change anything," and "What if other people like it?" or the less compelling, "What if other people are used to it?"
After 37 episodes I still haven't received any real criticism or even suggestions aside from Beck's idea to add Concise Advice (a really good suggestion, by the way, Beckett). That echo-ee section where I announce Concise Advice from the Interview is part of the recipe for the show. It's like the date nut bread recipe where you add caraway seeds despite the fact that you and everyone else who politely eats the bread hates caraway seeds. What if you keep the recipe the same and just leave the caraway seeds out?
After talking to my sister, I agreed that Concise Advice from the Interview could be more intimate, could be a little quieter, I could do it differently. I could even change the title. Then I started thinking, "what if I changed it just because my sister suggested I change it? What if there are a bunch of other people who like the way I'm doing it?" Well, maybe there are, but I haven't heard from any of them.
The opinion that should matter most is not the opinion of a true fan out there in the world, or even the opinion of my sister. The opinion that matters most is mine. How do I feel about the criticism, and even more importantly, is it valuable to the work? The announcement for Concise Advice from the Interview might be jarring to someone who actually listens to the podcast (she admits, of course, that she listens to it as she's falling asleep at night).
What I realized when listening to my sister's advice is that the podcast may be an intimate experience for many listeners. Maybe I need to pay attention to getting my sound levels consistent (I've been struggling with my sound levels for months).
About making my podcast more intimate, I thought, "What if I spoke to just one person and that person is you? You and I could have a one-to-one exchange." This led me to another thought: I could improve how I use social media and make the show more accessible. An obvious way I could improve is for you to reach out to me. I do read my emails. It's easy to do because I don't get very many. I have thousands of people listening to the podcast but not very many are interacting with me.
You and I… we're collaborators. Some of your suggestions could show up in the podcast. Concise Advice from the Interview was a suggestion from Beckett Adelman. I love that he was listening and proposed putting advice from the podcast interviews into their own section. It's one of my favorite parts of the podcast along with Words of Wisdom from George (which might have been my daughter's idea).
Your ideas will get noticed. I want to collaborate with you on the creative project that is this podcast called SallyPAL. While I'm working to improve the podcast, I'm doing other things like creating a small recording space where I can smooth out my sound levels and not have to deal with things like the dog snoring and the washing machine running in the background. I'm working on smoothing out that AM radio voice I get when I've had too much caffeine. I'm committed to doing the best work I can do, but I need your input to know how the podcast is occurring for you. Are you getting useful information? Are you entertained?
This is an episode about dealing with criticism. But it's also an episode about collaborating. I think the two go hand in hand. If you're a creator, your collaborators have to be free to express their opinions. When you're directing or stage managing an original work, it can be downright dangerous to say anything to the creator for fear of upsetting them.
Creators, we get upset for three reasons. The first is: "I intended to do things a certain way and I wasn't able to make it happen." The second is: "I didn't communicate my idea the way I intended. I failed to express the pictures in my head and the sounds in my brain." The third and final reason for me to be upset with the work is this: "Things didn't turn out the way I expected them to. When someone on the team tells me, "This isn't what I thought it would be," and they echo the thoughts I've been having that make me feel embarrassed and uncomfortable, it's frustrating."
When you're upset it's the perfect time to stop… breathe in… recognize the downward spiral… count to ten if you have to… and do not take out your frustration on the messenger. As soon as you do, that person begins to shut down and they'll stop sharing. And you're no longer collaborating. The work will suffer if you're not open to hearing suggestions. But after hearing those ideas, don't assume everything everyone says is golden and you must immediately change the work. When you assume everybody knows better than you, the work suffers because you shut down.
The best response you can possibly have to criticism that will encourage self-expression and collaboration is to 1)stop, 2)hear the criticism, 3)process it in the moment or, if you can't process it in the moment, let your collaborator know you appreciate their suggestions and tell them you need time to process and you'll talk with them about it later. 4)After that, take the time to process the critique.
If criticism is upsetting, ask yourself, "Why is the thing this person has said to me so upsetting?" or "What is it that bothers me about this criticism?" You might find that you have decided their assessment is about you as a person and not about how to improve your work.
Don't assume changes are necessary because someone offered an idea. Sometimes the answer can be, "I've considered your idea but I've decided to stay with the original version." Or you might say, "I've thought about your suggestion and I'm going to make a change. I'm not doing exactly what you suggested, but your idea produced another solution." Finally, you might say, "I thought about your suggestion and I love it. I really appreciate that you're sensitive enough to the piece to tell me when you think it's not working. I'm going to implement your suggestion."
Looking at criticism as an attack on your character is a sure way to shut down the creative process and enter the downward spiral. If, however, you can hear even the harsh criticisms as contributions to the work while maintaining your artistic vision, then you've got a place to stand. You can say, "This is not about me, or my personality, or my character flaws; this is about the creative process.
You might help a person on your team know how best to communicate when they have a criticism. Some people have a way that sets teeth on edge. I've been tempted to reject a critique because I didn't like the way it was delivered. See if you can distinguish between the critique and the delivery. Once you can tell what's useful, you'll be able to have great conversations with your collaborators.
You can be vulnerable with your team. It's okay to admit to them that you may be anxious while reassuring them that you want their input. You can actually say, "I'm feeling vulnerable about the work. It's an original piece and I don't know if it's actually any good." You can request critiques in private, or suggest critiques be in writing. You can even make them anonymous.
Being honest and being an adult can actually bring a collaborative team closer together and foster compassion while improving the art. Keep it light. I used to tell students to take the work seriously but not to take themselves seriously. Laugh as much as possible. It's a great tension reliever. If you're a creator taking a step toward producing your work, you are strong enough to deal with criticism like a grown up. Have faith and be gentle with yourself and your collaborators.
The art comes first. It will have a life of its own separate from its creator. You must be willing to allow your work to grow and become the best it can be. I am so excited for you to produce your art and to have a chance to experience the joy of creating and collaborating. You are growing as an artist and so is your work. Embrace moments of vulnerability because, trust me, those are moments of brilliance. Listen to criticism and welcome collaborators. Accept what's useful and set aside what's not. I wish you all the best and I know you're going to have a great collaborative process.
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Thank you for following, sharing, subscribing, reviewing, joining, & thank you for listening. I want you to get your work on the stage in front of a live audience. SallyPAL is here with resources, encouragement, and a growing community of people like us. I'm Sally and this is Sally's Performing Arts Lab.
Next week I'll be talking with playwright David Blakely. I hope you like the new music and you'll listen again. Send your suggestions… and your critiques to Sally@SallyPAL.com.
If you're downloading and listening on your drive to work, or falling asleep to my verses and choruses like my sister does, let me know. I want to collaborate with you… All the performances you've seen on stage once lived only in someone's imagination… Now… go collaborate!