Sunday, November 13, 2005

Artist Affirmation vs. Artistic Merit

Portland theater artists have long been doing a disservice to themselves by not having learned to be critical of one another's work. Too rarely, local theater people--especially at the more amateur end of the spectrum--look past their need for affirmation from audiences to the more distant object of creating work with artistic merit. I saw some wretched work recently by actors of whom I'm fond and etiquette seems to demand that I pretend not to have noticed. I'm not saying that it'd be at all productive to rip into them, especially during their run, but, I am saying that they are typical among Portland actors for not evincing a need--unambiguously communicated--always to be improving on their own work; because they don't evince that need, they provide no opening for the kind of nuts-and-bolts critical discourse--i.e., a discourse between artists about how to work, not between disinterested critics and artists, which helps very little--that is CRUCIAL to artistic growth. Because local actors and directors fail to make the artistic work more important than the artist, Portland theater suffers, and fails to build a solid audience.

Another problem of our failure to submit ourselves to open critical discourse: we end up doing a lot of backbiting. We end up talking most honestly about performers' work behind their backs rather than to their faces. This leads us into cynicism and an uncharitable attitude. I know, because I'm guilty of it.

It's damned hard to work in local theater whilst remaining exposed to celebrity culture and the American fixation with financial success. Seeing 22-year olds getting famous and doing great work in movies in which we'll NEVER have a part can kill our souls. But, somehow, we need to let go of the impatience for affirmation and put the art first. Somehow.



Anonymous said...

I think it's all in how you communicate. It's harder to give objective critcal analysis than most people think. Divesting oneself of one's opinion is near to impossible, and trying to talk to someone about their work without infusing your words with your own judgement or preference is really freakin' hard. I did a show not long ago and a very intelligent and experienced theatre artist commented on it in the most unique way: he told us what he saw. And in some detail, I might add - not just vague comments. It was impossible to tell if he "liked" it, or even if he thought it "worked". But he said what he saw, and it happened that what he saw was what we had intended to do. I'd never received that kind of commentary before, it was really something.


David said...

Man, you're absolutely right. When I coached writing, I approached it descriptively and let the writer develop his or her own questions, for the most part. It worked brilliantly. But, these one-on-one exchanges, in a teaching context, was much kinder to this kind of conversation than open discussion among artists in the community.