How do you talk about work you don’t like?

Not long ago, I had a chance to see a play—I won’t mention the name, so don’t ask—that a few people I greatly admire highly recommended. A theater critic with whom I speak frequently had panned the show, both in print and in a conversation with me, so I was wary going in… but one friend’s particularly glowing, even passionate recommendation inspired me to see the show anyway.

(Side note: never doubt that our friends influence our theater-going decisions at least as much as reviews.)

As it happens, by intermission I was troubled by what I was watching. By the end of the marathon performance, furthermore, I had assembled a carefully elaborated list of what I thought were significant problems with the play (and a few with the production). I was ready and willing, once the lights came up, to share with whoever might listen.

And then I happened to run into someone else I admire—another theater person who, as it happens, is someone I’d very much like to work with—and the first words out of his mouth were, roughly, “Wasn’t that stupendous?” I literally didn’t know what to say. Mostly I just… listened. He offered a few things he really loved about the script, and I nodded, and he mentioned one or two more things, and I told him how good it was to run into him, and then we were mercifully interrupted.

Why did I feel as if I couldn’t tell him the truth? Why did I also, much later, fail to say anything particularly negative on Facebook, where several theater folks I know were discussing the play? On Twitter, I made a mild passing comment suggesting that I agreed with the aforementioned theater critic’s assessment… and immediately worried that I might have gone too far.

So you know what I did? I consulted that very theater critic. I shared my full thoughts about the play with him (entirely off the record, of course) and we had a terrific conversation. And then I mentioned my trepidation about offending anyone—not only the artists who wrote, directed, staged, and performed the play, but my colleagues who held the play in high esteem—and he suggested that anyone who would hold my opinions against me isn’t someone to take seriously. That hit home.

I thought to myself: that has to be a dearly-bought pearl of wisdom, given that his job is to share opinions in public. Perhaps I ought to consider it.

And I have. I think I’m going to be a bit less restrained in talking about the plays I see than I have been. In the past, I have been willing to share my thoughts publicly about productions that did not originate in DC, where I live. For local productions, with local artistic teams, I have occasionally commented, but I typically wait to do so until after the run of the play had ended, so as not to affect sales via word of mouth (or word of blog, word of tweet, word of status update). Moving forward, I’m going to eliminate those self-imposed limits… tentatively at first, to see how it goes, but with the hope that it doesn’t prove catastrophic.

To be clear, though, I’m not going to try to review plays—that’s not my job, and I’m not nearly as qualified as I would want to be. I’m also not going to share any particularly scathing observations. For the sake of decorum and esprit de corps and support of my fellow artists, those I will continue to keep to myself, where I believe they belong.  But if I don’t care for something, and I think I have a valid and constructive point to make about it, I’m going to say so, with as much confidence and clarity as I can muster. And it feels scary, but also honest... which is a good thing.

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Comment by Scott Bloom on February 3, 2012 at 11:12am

Well..., good luck with that. Of course it depends on to whom you're speaking.

Having been involved in many, many festival competitions over the years, the first rule for someone judging the work is that you should appreciate the fact that it took effort and some level of passion and commitment to put on the show. Regardless of what you think about the result, congratulations for getting that far is in order. Second, there is always something positive that can be said about almost every effort, from the actors to the director, designers, and to the playwright. Once you've established an appreciation for the effort and for whatever positive aspects you can find, you can move on to trying to get a sense of what they attempted to do or say that wasn't successful, and perhaps a suggestion that they might want to revisit the attempt with a different approach, or even an idea or two about how that might be better said or done. (i.e. "You know, I'm not really convinced that someone in this day and age would still be typing out their play on paper that the antagonist could find and burn, since no publisher wants paper copies anymore, and revisions are so much easier on a computer. Perhaps you need to think about either making it a period piece, or having the antagonist destroy the computer instead."

In most cases that's more than enough, even if you only cover one thing when there may be a myriad of other things wrong. If they ask for more, then you begin a dialog with: "Look, you're my friend, and I don't want to impose on that, so let's wait awhile before we revisit this." (Although you should probably find a less ominous way of saying it.)

If it's really bad, from concept to execution, and there's a chance someone who follows what you have to say online would be mortally offended, then you really do need to temper what you make public. You certainly don't have to lie, but perhaps you can offer the opportunity to get your true feelings in an off-line forum. "Although I appreciate the effort they put in, I had some serious issues with the play that are best discussed elsewhere."

As a practitioner I can say that yes, I want my friends, especially the knowledgeable ones, to be brutally honest, but not everyone feels that way within some amount of time of the production. I expect critics to publish their feelings about my work, and I know that sometimes we won't agree, or I'll be too close to something to see the flaws, but more likely I'll realize that there are always going to be flaws and accept it when someone finds them. Even at times be grateful to have them pointed out. But I'm not going as a critic, and I'm not expected to publish my critique, so my opinions are only going to be relevant in a very limited context.

The question is one of intent. If it can be perceived that you might want to stop people from seeing this crap, then you may be overstepping your bounds. If your opinion is valued in whatever form it takes, online or in person, and I can see that yours may be, then you need to realize that there was work done by many people, and however misguided they still put in the effort. But then if you're like me, and your intention is really to try to improve the art form and the skills of its practitioners, then you really need to think about the proper time and place and method for doing that.

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