Monday, April 27, 2009

A Note on Giving Criticism

Back in my creative writing workshop days, it was a rule that criticism of fellow writers' work began with praise for what the writer did well, even if that meant digging deep--e.g., "I could really SEE that car...."--after which, when the writer under fire could unclench and open him/herself to criticism, the harder critique would begin.  Often, the harder critique would begin from the questions posed by the writer under fire.  After having received praise, s/he could then ask about the craft and conceptual issues that s/he already knew, somewhere in his or her mind, were in play.

I would like it if actors could establish and practice this protocol with one another.  I do it with my fellows.  I find something about their performance that works and tell them about it.  Then, I vary from the old workshop rules by NOT offering harder criticism, unless the actor asks for it.  Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't.  Sometimes they do much later.  Not only is offering positive feedback a kindness, it's also as important as offering 'negative' feedback.  The information alone is just as important, as an actor tries to gauge his or her own work.  One downside of this approach is that, actors' egos being what they are, sometimes the actor thinks that my positive feedback is all there is; they think, in my eyes, they've done only great work.  And then, when they see ME work, and tune themselves to the problems in my performance, they don't give ME feedback on what specifically worked, and instead of then giving me 'negative' feedback, they don't say anything to me at all... which leaves me feeling terrible.  And resentful about having taken such care with them, when it was their turn in the spotlight.  I think I've unwittingly over fed two or three egos to near obesity in this way, lately, and sorta feel like they've been stealing food off my plate when it's been my turn to dine.  Grrrrr. 

Grump, Grump, Humph, Pshaw.

I've not heard anyone in theater offer a protocol for criticism as I often heard creative writing instructors do, usually on the first day of class.   If I teach again, it will be lesson number one.


Brenna said...

This is extremely helpful, David. Often I've heard that actors shouldn't give one another notes--the director's domain--but rarely have I heard helpful suggestions for encouragement and constructive criticism. It seems that this approach may be most useful in an academic or ensemble setting in which the actors know and work closely together over time? The line between collaboration and butting in on someone else's process can be blurry in professional environments, I've found. I, too, err on the side of praise and keep the suggestions and criticisms to myself.

Acting classes Hollywood said...

I would like it if actors could establish and practice this protocol with one another,you right i agree no doubt i also think the same way. I know how important of being an actor i could say that keep it up.

by: matthew

Signore Direttore said...

I disagree with this for many reasons. There is a protocol for complimenting your fellow actors - keep it general and positive. Actors are funny creatures. Tell one he has done a nice job with something specific or at a particular moment and the next show he'll be conscious of those moments.
Actors watching one another closely enough to offer praise can promote watching oneself, another bad habit. Watching each other also limits listening to one another, which to my mind is an actor's primary resonsibility to those with whom he shares the stage and the audience.
Learning to watch oneself as a writer is entirely different. Writing is not a time-based art for one. Editing is much less subjective and an essential skill for writers to develop. And writers work in solitude as a rule. There are
writing groups and editors, but nothing like a director.
I also think that looking for praise, or as you call it - your turn to dine - in any way is a terrible
habit. At the very least it's a source of tension. At worst it
promotes cast fragmentation and vanity. You admit to feeding the egos of fellow actors. I propose that sticking to the time-honored tradition and protocol of smiling and saying goodnight or see you tomorrow after a show is one that doesn't need updating.

David Millstone said...

I was very much talking about how to give criticism to actors AFTER a run is over, and I was not talking about cast mates, who should never, ever give notes. However, even with that caveat, Neal's objections are strong and very largely correct, I think. Most of the time, actors probably should not praise other actors for specific choices--should not feed other actors' egos--but, on the other hand, I find it useful to know if choices I've made read the way I intended. Am I doing what I thought I was doing? Am I telling the story? These are questions that colleagues in craft need be able to discuss with one another. I think that positive responses are as useful as critical ones.

When actors are communicating as fellow craftsmen, perhaps the analogy to writers' approach to discussing craft is not so far off. Perhaps the trouble is that actors too rarely do communicate as craftsmen.

David Millstone said...

.... I need to formulate my thoughts about this more carefully, when I've a chance....

Signore Direttore said...

I think the feedback you rightfully seek comes best from a director or a few trusted friends in the audience. Said observers may be actors themselves, but I think the less an actor relies on other actors for feedback the better.
Learning to trust your work without external reinforcement will happen to a greater degree the more you practice letting go.
Getting out from under the microscope of grad school is going to make that much easier. I look forward to seeing you work again soon, David.