How to Give Fellow Performers Constructive Criticism

Hey! Hey! It’s me. *waves* Keats, your friend from the dance world! I’m here to talk about something really important to me: post show discussion etiquette, and giving constructive criticism and receiving it. I think it’s important to think about how we, as fellow performers, talk about work with each other, especially when it's with the friends who we’ve just watched perform. I don’t want what I’m about to write to come off as whiny or like I’m too fragile to have negative feedback about a show I’m in, or that I don’t know how to handle criticism - because that’s not true. Criticism is a part of the job… but knowing how & when to have such conversations is important (forgive me if I get a little soap boxy here).

I don’t know about you, but when I go see a show with friends in it I get super excited...but also nervous. I sweat a little and feel shaky. I look a lot like my mom right before I used to dance my solo at a competition. I know my friends will be amazing, but I get so anxious about the show itself. Usually, my mind is quickly eased; I love the show and can’t wait to gush about it with them (I’m sure many of my friends have had similar feelings). Sometimes I even have to remind myself that the person I’m talking with is my friend, and not some celebrity who has just blown me away with their performance. I know how many years they have worked to be able to share their gifts onstage, and finally, all the auditions they went to were worth it. I feel so proud for them.

I think it’s that knowledge that brings the nervous shakes… What if I don’t connect with the show? What if I’m just not the right audience? What if I just plain ol’ don’t like it? Thus begins my internal dialogue: “How can I talk to my friend after their show if I wasn’t into it and still be honest, and yet not lose a friend while still maintaining my artistic integrity and be open with this person?” Fortunately, this experience has been really rare. Unfortunately, I have had quite a few times friends have come to see me perform and haven’t loved the show and haven’t been the best at hiding their dislike. Some…don’t even try.

what you say, whether you are being critical or criticized, holds weight.

Now, I’m not perfect at post show discussions, but when I meet up with a friend after their show I don’t wanna be someone who uses the cliché of that Friends episode where Monica keeps telling Joey “You were in a play!” It’s complete pandering and totally transparent. On a personal level, a lot of my colleagues in Escape to Margaritaville felt that way when their friends would say “You look like you were having so much fun! The show was so fun! Oh man, it was fun! FUN! FUN FUN FUN!” That never really bothered me because the show was a blast and I really was having fun onstage. But to some, it does feel like a nothing answer.

I also don’t want to just say, “I liked it!” I think that as a fellow performer I owe my friend a more critical evaluation of the show. But critical in the sense of I actually paid attention and didn’t just take the show at face value - but also not so critical that you pick it apart and make them feel like their show isn’t good. Balance is always the goal.

When someone asks “What did you think of the show?”, I want to give an honest but loving answer. I activate my critical yet positive eye and give myself a few reminders. First, I tell myself that unless they were the one to conceive, write, musically arrange/compose, direct, choreograph, costume, produce, and perform, they probably didn’t get a whole lot of say in the outcome of the show. They just happen to be the face forward part of the company that gets public scrutiny. Their individual performance, shaped by the aforementioned, is all they have control over. I also remind myself that I probably have some major bias in play. Depending on the closeness of the friendship, have been privy to a lot of backstage/insider information about the show I’m seeing, such as: personal relationships between different cast members, the way the show was constructed, what may have been cut during previews or out of town tryouts.

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With that in mind, I can start filing away good conversation topics about the show. Things like “I was really engaged with the arc of such and such character” or “You getting to do the solo was amazing and it really featured the way I love watching you dance.” Or “ OMG THAT COSTUME MADE YOU LOOK SO SNATCHED! WERK!” OK maybe not the last one, but there are always more thoughtful and important things to say rather than “I liked/didn’t like it.”

I would also like to remind you to read the social cues your friends are giving you. Having a deep conversation about the show they just did is sometimes really hard on the person who just performed. I know for me in some shows I was really excited for someone to see it, but they seemingly didn’t enjoy it as I hoped they would, and then they just wanted to tell me all about how much they didn’t like it. They had great points as to why the show wasn’t their taste - but right after you perform that’s probably not the first thing you want to hear. Personally, I also feel a little scattered after a show, especially when you’re trying to take people backstage and introduce them to castmates. It’s not a conducive environment to talk about a show in front of others whom you don’t know. Or (god forbid!) a producer who happens to be there that night. Let’s get out of the theater and get a drink or a late night snack and go at it. Or - even better - let's go get coffee the next day and have a chat about the show objectively after you’ve had time to marinate in it.

It’s a very vulnerable thing we do, performing in a show. Let the performer guide the conversation of how deep into the pros and cons you’re going to go. Remember that we as a performer have to perform that show again, hopefully for awhile, and don’t need all the negative thoughts you had about the show in our head - especially if we can’t change them. As I have said before, we don't get much say in what we do onstage, and I have seen people change performances based on things their friends have said. I myself have felt awkward doing a moment onstage after someone commented on how cheesy it was.

read the social cues your friends are giving you.

Now on the flip side, we do have to expect people to have opinions; it is our responsibility to find a way within ourselves to accept the thoughts of friends who perhaps don’t enjoy our shows, or have constructive things to say. It can be difficult, but there is a way to handle negative feedback in a way that encourages growth. When a friend has something constructive yet critical to say about the show, I have to think hard on it before reacting to it. If they come and see a preview where we are still making changes to the show, I will contemplate passing that person’s thoughts on higher up the food chain. For example, if a friend knew that a date or a fact was wrong, or a plot line really confused them, I may talk to someone about it in a casual way. If it’s something about my personal performance, I have to think harder about it before acting on their thoughts. We are given direction from the creative team and it’s our job to follow their vision for the show, not our own - and not our friend’s, not my mom’s (which would probably be turning the show into a spectacle revolving around me). If a friend said I looked thrashy or over the top in a number where I should have been subtle, I might talk to the choreographer and ask if I was executing the choreographer as they had intended.

I also sometimes try to give context to how things came about. I once had a friend mention after a show that the dance numbers looked very free and not as clean as they personally would keep it - and I was the dance captain.. This was hard for me because as someone who has done lots of precision dance I always try to have a clean show, but precision was not what this number needed. It was not the Radio City Rockettes up on stage. The number was designed so that everyone looked like they were just regular people who started dancing. So as long as everyone was doing the step at the right time, doing it slightly different didn’t really matter as long as their intention was correct. The pedestrian element was what made the number special.

It sometimes is hard to avoid negative criticism when it comes at you in a major review of the work you’re in. Reviews have always been easier for me to stomach - not because I know how to handle criticism, but mainly because I know that some critics write to show how good a writer they are, not with the intention of getting people to see more theater. Reviewers have such colorful ways of saying something was not to their liking that you have to applaud their writing skills - but the level of pretentiousness that comes from some reviewers makes me laugh more than anything. Even after some less than favorable reviews, I have been proud to go into the show that night and be with my insanely talented cast members and make people feel something that only a live show can provide. Take everything with a grain of salt, right?

Balance is always the goal.

I suppose all of this sounds super obvious, but seeing as I have repeatedly come across weird post show discussion behavior, I’d just like to stand on my soapbox for one more moment and remind everyone that what you say, whether you are being critical or criticized, holds weight. Be critically minded and kind tongued when you see your friends, and also strive to receive your friends thoughts graciously. After all, who wants to be friends with someone who tears apart everything you do? *Gets off soap box*

About the author

A competitive dancer for ten years, Keats then made the leap (probably a switch second) to college and after earning a BFA in performance dance from the University of California, Irvine, he made the jump (Sauter de chat for sure this time) from working as a parade performer for the Disney corporation to dancing on cruise ships. After a year at sea, he taught as a guest artist in residence for a semester at Colorado Mesa University. Since moving to New York, Keats has been fortunate to work regionally (Pioneer Theater/ Sacramento Music Circus/ Alabama Shakespeare Festival/ La Jolla Playhouse) as well as performing in New York with Radio City's Christmas Spectacular (fittingly as the Sugar Plum Fairy Bear) and on Broadway in Escape to Margaritaville and Cirque Du Soleil's Paramour. He is a passionate, full out dancer who enjoys cultivating an entertaining life in NYC.