Getting feedback

23 03 2011

In theatre schools it is common for people’s performances to be critiqued. This is seen as an absolutely vital part of the learning process. We don’t yet have a culture of critiquing each others work as science presenters but I think if we are to develop personally as performers and collectively in our field we should.

Having someone who has experience in what you are trying to achieve watch and comment on what you are doing shouldn’t be something to avoid or fear. We should grasp the chance with both hands and at every opportunity. I know the idea of this fills a lot of people with dread so how do we make the process less scary? The same way we make anything less scary, by learning more about it and getting on and doing it. (The X-Factor judges’ comments are NOT good examples of a critique and probably a reason the thought of this scares most people. If it looks or feels like this then you are doing it wrong!)

Getting a critique

Don’t be defensive. A critique (done properly) is not criticism. It is an opportunity to receive constructive comments from someone you trust. It is only one person’s opinion and it should provide you with lots to think about not a list of things to change. The purpose of a critique is to encourage you to be the best you can. If you are defending what you are doing then you are not thinking about what is being said.

Don’t stress the negatives. It is totally natural that we firstly fear negative comments and then obsess about then when we get them. As performers we are essentially putting ourselves out there and asking people to like us and what we do. This is already a massive ego threat situation without asking someone to comment on it. Actors can hide behind the mask of a character and the words of a script and they find this process hard. Most of us have nowhere to hide: we are presenting as ourselves and we’ve written the script as well. But a good critique shouldn’t be negative, it should alert you to areas that might be able to improve and whatever happens try to see the whole process as positive.

Don’t try to take it in all at once. Take notes of what is said and then deal with them another time. Give yourself a chance to come down from your performance, give yourself a chance to come down from the critique process before you start to think about what has been said. Notes are really important as it keeps everything in perspective. In a verbal critique I guarantee you will only remember the one negative comment out of twenty positives but a written critique makes this less likely to happen.

Then make sure you act on what has been said. The process of a critique is to make you think about what you are doing. If someone has suggested something you want to incorporate then incorporate it. If someone has said something that you disagree with, as long as you’ve thought hard about what and why they’ve said what they have, you are perfectly entitled to ignore their advice.

Giving a critique

Make sure a critique is wanted. However frustrating it is to keep quiet sometimes you just have to sit on your hands. In the theatre it is considered bad form to offer a critique unless it is asked for. I personally think you can be too sensitive and it is OK to politely offer your opinion. A critique can always be rejected and most people wouldn’t ask for one anyway as it is not common to give critiques in our industry. It would be a shame if someone wanted feedback and someone was able to give feedback but it didn’t happen because everyone was too polite mention it.

Be positive. Praise is always welcome. Don’t be negative. Negativity just makes people defensive. The whole point of a critique is that they hear (and hopefully act on) what you are saying. Put them on the defensive and they won’t listen to a word. And be constructive. It is always more useful to suggest an alternative than to just say that something wasn’t right.

Ask questions. Don’t assume. Check your facts before wading in. There might be a good reason why they chose to do X or Y in the way that they did that you haven’t noticed. If your point is still relevant after hearing their side of the story then that makes it all the more valid.

Use a framework. I have suggested three questions as a starting point for evaluating shows. If you agree on a framework or on specific items to discuss before you start then those points are more likely to be taken on board after. Using a framework also stops you from getting distracted. Often you’ll find lots of things you might want to comment on and then when you share your thoughts what is really important gets lost in the sea of all the little things. It is better to concentrate on two or three agreed points than try and tackle the whole show in one go.

And always remember that a critique isn’t about criticising. Put yourself in their shoes. How would you react to someone who was telling you what you are going to say? Be sensitive and think about the way you make your points. Employ the “shit sandwich” approach (nice thing- nasty thing- nice thing) or do what we do in primary schools “two stars and a wish” (I really enjoyed X and I thought Y was great, and next time I wish you’d do Z as well).

Just as evaluating yourself gets easier the more times you try it getting someone to look at you perform gets easier too. Just because it is scary to think about now doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it. Find someone you trust. It doesn’t even need to be another performer, although another performer will have insights that will be especially useful, and give it a go.

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