Critique is a part of life; everything we do is criticised by ourselves, our colleagues, our superiors and in some cases the public at large. Given we are in the business educating people through the trial, critique and development how can we critique someone without feeling like we’ve just tyrannically drowned a bag of puppies?
There has always been a strange aspect to the arts which is represented by the stereotypical ‘lovey’. They ring bells and sing songs to your face but after the glitz of an after show party whispers and mutters abound; like many stereotypes there is grain of truth to this decidedly distasteful persona. Very rarely it’s malicious or vindictive mutterings but it’s very hard to tell someone to their face that the labour of love that has kept them awake for six months is bad and almost seductive to tell a friend the truth. Now this article isn’t discussing the more academic nature of critique; if we had trouble with that then we really aren’t in the right place are we? Here I hope to start a discussion about the more personal nature of criticism that we face here at Theatre Workshop and criticism I assume is a similar problem for staff throughout the arts and humanities departments. I do not mean to dismiss the struggle of the other departments for example Physics or Business but I don’t think they have the same problem with the question; “Is it good?
During my time as an undergraduate student I spent a great deal of time worrying about the validity of my work; that period in time wasn’t particularly long ago and as such the emotional turmoil I went through is still relatively fresh in my mind. Turmoil may seem a strong word to use in such a context but I think it is perfectly justified; for a student that has chosen to create a piece of live theatre that deals with a subject close to their heart (which let’s be honest is almost every piece of theatre otherwise we wouldn’t make them) it can be a fine line between critique and critical. Every theatre practitioner struggles with convincing themselves that their work is both relevant and worthwhile; I don’t know any practitioner that hasn’t had a crisis moment where all they can think is “what’s the point”. As the years go by we all harden somewhat to criticism and for most people there is a moment that makes all other criticisms pale in comparison; what we must remember is that many of ours students haven’t reached that point yet. We’ve been critiquing and tossing out things for years, they haven’t.
This is just last weeks ideas.
However I don’t think that this struggle with the question “Is it good?” is limited to the interactions we have with our students. As with any establishment there are parts of the university that are attributed with more value than others; simply because they are more in keeping with the university’s aims and specialities. There is no harm in this as every establishment must decide in what direction its heading; unfortunately this does carry with it the very dangerous possibility of hierarchy and as an extension of that criticism by rank, how appropriate is it for a tenured English professor to judge the work of anyone but his English students?
It is this moment that compassion and honesty take a vital role. I have worked for several years as a professional in Theatre and the arts at large and have had a fair share of criticism and at times it has been very hard; that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate it. I was once told that if you don’t have anything nice to say then you shouldn’t say anything at all; I’m not sure that’s true anymore. One honest comment is a thousand times more useful than the more phatic and sometimes sycophantic responses that can get pushed your way; silence is not helpful and fake smiles are far more of a hindrance. Here in Theatre in particular we do struggle with the delicate balance of giving helpful critique without the white lies that can sometimes accompany it. Lie is a strong word and semantically it doesn’t quite work, is it a lie to tell someone that I enjoyed their performance when in truth I neither liked nor disliked it; if the performance elicited no response from me what do I say? When this person is of higher status and authority than us how do we deal with that?
Or when they’re this handsome?
The assumption when you receive no critique is that everything is fine; Qui Tacet Consentire Videtur. A lack of response is as valuable a critique as a thousand decrying comments; if anything it’s somewhat more useful. Nobody wants their audience to feel nothing and that is a true failure; to have an audience or readership that is completely unmoved is useless for all involved. I hope that I answer people truthfully and I hope that people do the same for me; how can one improve if one doesn’t know what’s wrong. I am not suggesting that we go out into the world destroying the self image of everyone we see, I am however suggesting that we treat our students and colleagues with an equal sense of respect; after all we are partners in education and our students are big enough and ugly enough to take our critique. My biggest concern is the institutionalisation of critique; it is a must that we be able to critique and question with those higher up the ‘food chain’, whether that be the student that debates the value of his work to a lecturer or whether a lowly assistant defends their words to the vice-chancellor. Critique should never be one sided, rather it is a discussion and a platform from which you can develop; whether that be professionally or personally. On which note I open the floor to comments…