Taking criticism

The very minute your work of art is read, or hung or built or whatever, and brought to public attention, it is no longer just your work of art. It is quickly taken over by criticism. Opinion. It may take different forms, but each person who views the work of art has an opinion.

Some criticism will be considered, with training and experience behind it. Some, not so much. And you, the artist, can control almost none of it. Fact of life: some people will like it, some won’t. Some won’t care one way or the other.

There is one more side, one that the artist can control, and that is your reaction to criticism. I have a sutra (from Deepak Chopra) that goes “Imagine that you are not affected by flattery and criticism.” Two sides of the same coin. Having contemplated the many sides of this sutra, I have concluded that there is always criticism and flattery and that they both mean about the same thing. The wise ones will tell you that you need to listen to both and reject both, but do it in a detached way. To detach means to take it away from your ego, the thing that will tell you that your whole identity is wrapped up in what people think and in the work itself. If you detach your egoic self from the actual work of art, you can use the criticism, good and bad, to make the work of art (not you!) better.

A theatre teacher I once had used to say that you need to listen to what people are really saying to make something better. She meant that if the blue-haired ladies in a matinee were not paying attention, you don’t blame that on them: too much to drink, they need a nap before coming to the theatre, etc. No. It meant that something in the performance or the play is not keeping them engaged. And that’s on you to find how to make it more engaging.

So it is with my site-specific play, which has undergone two readings and therefore two rewrites. I am writing it with the goal of getting it produced, which unfortunately for me, who is reduced to a blithering mass of jelly whenever a harsh word is hurled my way, means it must be exposed to someone outside my claustrophobic head. Outside, where it is my ego against the world!

What happens to me when I hear criticism? A darkness descends. First, it is a black blob of shame. I am greatly ashamed that I didn’t do better. That shame quickly deteriorates to something even blacker, like “I am not worthy of anything. I am a massive failure. I can’t write worth a damn and how could I expose my poor, sensitive self to all this? Why don’t I just SAY I am writing and leave it at that? Don’t show it to anyone and then no one would ever know that I am so incompetent. “

This is just the tip of the slimy blob of black goo that is oozing into something catastrophic: feelings that make me never want to write another word. Or show my unlucky face to the world ever again.

So this play and the play readings by my community theatre group, is more of an exercise in excising my inner demons. Is it working?

I heard what people had to say. Some of it was actually positive, but as usual, I dismissed those as just being kind to me, something I needed since I was actually so pathetic. Once again, the comments made me think of my incompetence. That I should not quit my day job. That I should catch up on old magazines. Forget that writing the play had been fun and engaging. Instead, just concentrate what a total failure it is, and how that failure reflects my inadequacies.

This time, though, I remembered something from a Coursera online course I took that said to be creative, you must fail creatively. If you don’t fail, you can’t make the thing better. So fail and fail often and quickly and do it with the idea that it is making your product better.

Fail creatively. I thought about this, still feeling bad, but this time, those bad feelings didn’t hang around long enough to overwhelm me. There was a new give and take. Failure and learning from it. If I listened to the comments – and none of them were nasty or mean-spirited – I had a real chance to make this play better.

So I worked on rewrites and they went so easily because this group had given me a really thoughtful road map.

Then came reinforcement to this way of thinking. There was my niece Sara’s graduation from SCAD and John Lassiter’s (of Pixar) words to the graduating class. Heck with the graduating class – his words were for me. What he said was a game-changer for me. He talked about failure and how you must fail and to do it quickly so you can get on with it. He also said something about doing something that isn’t getting approval, because you must do it, you want to do it, you see it developing, and that you like doing it. So you do it anyway, in spite or because of what people tell you.

Later, over lunch with Sara and my nephew Thomas, who is a good painter and artist, that we do it – make things – because we love the process of putting it all together, to tweaking it, to finishing it. It is our kind of fun and we love the process of making something. The product you made lives and deserves a beautiful life.

So fail and use that failure to make it better. Just do it and let the critics fall where they may. By that time you have had fun, done the best work yet, made the best thing yet, that criticism has nothing to do with you.

Off I go to the next rewrite. How good can I make this play?

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What is happening to my play???

I am writing a site-specific play. It revolves around the living history represented by the oldest standing structure of Flagler County, a place now called the Princess Place Preserve. Tourists come here to see unspoiled Florida, with much of how it was in the past preserved. You can fish, spot birds, kayak, and even bring your horse for an extensive trail ride.

The play is fiction, but revolves around the Cuttings, as I imagine them, who were real and the hunting lodge Henry Cutting built at what was then called Cherokee Grove, in 1889 with his new wife Angela (later to become the princess of Princess Place.) The play is peopled by characters, all ghosts, people who might have been to Cherokee Grove at some time around the turn of that century.

The play is meant to be acted on three sides of the wrap-around porch overlooking a creek where a boat is docked. The audience sits or stands where they can see what is happening, and if they like, become part of it. The audience “promenades” to all three sides to see three different groups, classes really, of people acting out their relationship to the Cuttings and to the lodge itself.

My dilemma is this: I want this play to be something that is not naturalistic, that cannot be easily transferred into a theatre house, with realistic sets designed around it. I want it to evoke the past, for audiences to see that some class-related issues have yet to be resolved in our modern times, and that there is a future for these characters, as there is a future for this unspoiled bit of Florida. What happens in the future is up to the present. To do that, the audience must get involved and invested.

Noble thoughts, all. But how to convey all of that in a play that people who are work-shopping it for me do not see? They are reacting to it as if it were to be enacted by our theatre group in our theatre. How do I get them out of the theatre and to see what I see? Let’s face it. “Site-specific” isn’t exactly a household word, even among theatre folk.

Actually, there are two issues. I have already mentioned that it is hard to convey the concept of site-specific and to get comments and discussion about how best to act the play at the site.

The other issue, according to one of our most experienced actor and director, (and considering we are all past 50, this is experience is formidable) is that I need to work on bringing characters to life with more effective dialogue. Repetition, making the same point over and over, is an old habit learned in my teaching days. Doesn’t work in a play.

I think maybe I can do something about both issues. I may not succeed with the dialogue part completely, but I do know I can pare down all that repetition.

As to the site, I just had the bright idea to get this director and a few people to read the latest incarnation of the play at the site. Brilliant? We’ll see.

See also:              What is site-specific theatre?

Playwriting workshop at the community theatre

The Community part of community theatre

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What is site-specific theatre?

In a nutshell, and nutshells work just fine for me, a site-specific performance of any kind—be it performance art called Happenings (1950s-60s) or flash mobs (2000s), or Stephan Koplowitz’s beautiful compositions that show dance at its most dynamic, or Punchdrunk’s production of Sleep No More—is a dynamic production that takes place, not in a conventional theatre, but at a location that has in some way inspired that production. It means that the location is an integral component of the play and that audiences will be embedded in some way.

In Sleep No More, the audience promenades through various rooms, at their own pace, to see scenes being enacted. It doesn’t matter which you see first. And you can leave when it strikes you to. (My niece, Sara, has gone to see it more than once. Sort of like Disney World, only in that you can’t really take in the whole experience in one day.)  Don’t be surprised if you find yourself part of the scene.

The site-specific theatre has two things that seem to me to be obvious. First, there isn’t a static stage or a static place for an audience to sit in comfort and anonymity for a few hours. If there is a conventional proscenium stage close by, it will not be used conventionally. The atmosphere of the play, the scene-ology, will be an integral part of this particular play and will be created by the site of the performance.

Second, the audience will, in some way, be brought into the production. It may be promenading from scene-to-scene, as in Sleep No More, or being part of the denizens of a neighboring forest as in a staging of ”A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle.” Or watching from a window in the Grand Central hotel as the Duchess of Malfi tries to escape with her children to the railway station in a staging of the Webster’s Duchess of Malfi in the UK . But one thing they all have in common is that no one will be sitting in seats in a theatre house.

So I am intrigued, so much so, that I am writing an original site-specific play. It is inspired by the Princess Place, a hunting lodge in Flagler County, Florida, built in 1889 and still standing.

Why the Princess Place? What does this production look like?

Next time: The Hunting Lodge: a site-specific work in progress.


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Future for theatre?

I have been thinking about how some of us think that art, and therefore theatre, has changed with digital technology. We have heard that any of us who can access a computer and the internet can become content producers and artists in our own right. This is true, even though most of the videos my friends send me are meant to be cute and entertaining and morale boosting, but I don’t think of them as art.

I have been thinking of new ways to make theatre as a virtual art and I know there has to be someone online who is already doing it. My problem with it is that I still see theatre as some kind of live event. Otherwise, you would have to call it something other than theatre. A virtual Happening, for those of you who remember Happenings. Think performance art, for those who don’t. Something like little green digital figures scampering over a Google-enhanced satellite map, spouting lines. Hmmm.

I want to explore a way to combine live with online. Theatre meets a web site. I am hampered by my limited knowledge of how to technically make these web pages I envision a truly interactive and dynamic experience. I see someone doing it. Maybe there is help for me, just offstage, waiting to bail me out. We’ll see.

But in the meantime, I am experimenting with site-specific theatre. With a web site. It may not be the interactive performance I envision, but it will pay homage to what I see theatre transforming into in the future, way beyond this and me.

For a better idea of what I’m talking about, visit www.marydturner.com.

Next time in the (new) Site-Specific category: What is site-specific theatre? (Short version, I promise.)

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