Thursday, December 22, 2016

Mindless Praise vs. Effective Critique

As many performers I know can attest to, it's very easy to get praise for your work from fans, peers, and other performers. It's almost impossible, however, to find good, constructive critique that pushes you to be better.

After watching myself in the role of Barry Dylan from the burlesque adaptation of the television show "Archer," I felt thoroughly pleased with myself and the performance I gave. I mention this specifically because I rarely feel this way about my performances. Even though I felt satisfied with how it went, I still wouldn't have minded if someone had made some suggestions on what could have used more polish.

"I said GOOD feedback, you dullard!"

The best performers I know place a high value on effective critique, and I've come to find that there isn't all that much of it in burlesque. In general, I've found that it's very easy to surround yourself with people who have nothing but adoration for you, and I absolutely believe that there's nothing worse than that if you're trying to grow as an artist. It's hard to fight that instinct.

As far as the duo act I did in that same show, I felt a lot differently. In that act, Danny Drake (as Archer) and I did a duo-acrobatics striptease that resembled a high-energy fight scene, a confrontation where we illustrated the futility of these two characters' persistent quarrel throughout the show. I discussed with Danny a lot of personal critiques I came up with about how the performance went, and would have loved to have heard more from other performers about what worked and what didn't while we were still in the rehearsal phases. In my opinion, the act looked a bit contrived and juvenile on video, despite me being smashed in the head at one point with a glass bottle.

Yes. It did really happen.

It got me thinking quite a lot about the reasons our performances sometimes don't look polished in the ways we want them to. Why do we create our performance pieces in isolation while avoiding checking in with people we trust along the way?

I was reading Mary Cyn's blog about how to take and give effective critique, and it inspired me to want to finish this post that I've kept shelved for a long time. One of the big reasons that I wanted to hold off on finishing this topic is that I knew I hated some parts of burlesque performance because of how the community at large handles effective critique, but wasn't sure how to get it into writing. Mary helped me to figure that out with her own take.

The title of this entry, phrased as "Mindless Praise vs. Effective Critique," doesn't quite encapsulate the entirety of the issue. If I'm honest, I would tell you that me giving crappy critique and shaded criticisms also factors into my motivation for writing this, though that seems like too many words for a blog title, expressly for the point of washing my hands of things my younger self once did. One of the reasons I like to teach other guys how to do burlesque is because it gives me the opportunity to help develop and course-correct in a forum where constant feedback is the expectation, and to further reinforce those lessons in writing after their first performance. Plus, I get to deliver feedback in a way that I would have wanted to receive it.

"I dunno man. Your words seem a little harsh."

As artists, we have a tendency to believe that the first thing we think of (and indeed EVERY thing we think of) is the best idea anyone's ever had. I've certainly come up with some crap ideas (see; The Worst Burlesque Act I've Ever Done), and some were more obviously crap than others--but the finer point is that it took some hard coaching to get me to the point where I accepted that the aforementioned act was a garbage fire, and I don't know that I would have accepted that conclusion on my own.

The ways we experience rejection in burlesque isn't the same way rejection is doled out in other walks of life. It's fairly straightforward when a hiring manager tells you "you didn't get the job," or when a love interest tells you that she's "not all that into you," but I've found that most of the discord between response and critique in burlesque focuses largely on whether or not you're attractive on stage, and not necessarily on whether or not you executed great choreography or told a truly compelling story. Our audiences and fellow performers frequently tend to focus on whether or not we're "hot" up there, which, if you're a stickler for the technical stuff, can seem extra superficial. So rejection can look like straight up silence, unless you do something aggressively inappropriate.

But we all occasionally tell each other that our performances are "sexy" and "mega-hot," and most of the time that's totally okay to do.

"Please tell me I'm beautiful."

As performers, I think we owe it to ourselves to help each other out with specifics. What I like to do is to pick two or three things that I can say to someone when they leave stage that I loved about their performance;

  • "Hey, I love that your fan dance was just two giant mustaches, it was super clever!" 
  • "That cartwheel into a split right when the theremin solo started was so well-timed!"
  • "Tearing your sleeves off to reveal two tinier, angrier sleeves was choice!"

Alternatively, there are some bits of feedback that are more critical. These are useful to give out (with permission, of course), if the person is looking for a bit more honesty about what didn't work well for you. Bear in mind that while I personally love hearing more corrective comments after a number, most people tend to feel that this works directly against their performance high, which can be a tad soul-shattering. So always make sure it's welcome to say things like these, paraphrased from actual critiques I've given;

  • "Your expression in the beginning was distressed and shameful, like you were a hostage--but I don't know if that was the consistent with the tone of the piece. Was that intentional?"
  • "Your costuming struck me as being racially insensitive. I might avoid using headdresses and kimonos when you do this piece in the future."
  • "I don't think using actual liquids and real knives in your piece was a good idea for safety reasons."
  • "There were one or two dance moves that seemed inconsistent with the mood and music, could you tell me about that part of the choreography?"

Reflexively, this is the kind of stuff I find most helpful. While we ultimately want to be the best performers we can be, the only way to improve is to hear specifically what didn't work, and to parlay those suggestions into conversations about what we can do better.

"This air BJ really worked for me!"

Which brings me to the last part. Often, I find that a shared instinct we have as artists is to explain away criticism. If I know that someone says they are receptive, I'll log my observation with them without ending in a question. Frequently with newer performers, I find that it prompts a (usually lengthy) explanation of why what I mentioned has to stay the same.

I'm not saying that there can't be a reason why something I disagree with should remain in a performance piece--but if it's something that you had to clarify at length to an experienced performer, it probably isn't something that's all that clear to your audience.

So in essence; watch and listen, ask permission to discuss, give thoughtful and meaningful critiques, encourage vigorously, and be receptive when others offer you feedback in return.