Dealing with Criticism

“Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost what it feels about dogs.” – John Osborne




I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit for the last few months.  Maybe too much.  Definitely too much.  But I think it’s an important wall to run into on whatever journey you happen to be on – especially if you’ve chosen a career (like theater or writing or just about any art, politics, marketing, etc.) where your work is not only subjective and (sometimes) deeply personal, but is also under the jaded and usually unsympathetic eye of critics…publicly.

This thing I’ve been thinking about is not an opinion on critics themselves – criticism is a necessary and unavoidable part of any kind of work that is worth doing…and, really, we ALL do it.    Mostly, I’ve been thinking about my own reaction to criticism (specifically negative criticism).  I’ve reacted pretty dramatically, to be honest.  In my own way.  (My own way does not include throwing chairs or weeping uncontrollably.  My own way involves circular existential debates with myself that keep me locked in my apartment for entire weekends, and the insertion of harsh self-deprecating comments into almost any conversation, most especially when someone is just trying to be nice.  Sorry folks.)

What I did to spark this endless debate with myself is put up two different shows within a month of each other.  Both of which I was proud of for different reasons.  Both of which have garnered a wide breadth of differing opinions that do not encourage or assure me, nor crush my spirit completely.

The thing is, I was excited about it. These shows  awakened a passion in me.  I was making discoveries.  I took on two ambitious projects with little experience of my own…because I believed in them.  And the fact that either project worked at all is a kind of miracle.

Unfortunately, I allowed negative reactions to the shows to affect my opinion of them, or, most specifically, my opinion of my own ambitions, hopes, tastes, and hard work.

This is never a good idea.

But, I’ve been forced to come to a conclusion.  To either cling to the opinions of others and live or die by what other people find appealing, or to take what lessons can be learned and continue forward with something new…this time, aiming to fail just a little bit better than before.

I’ve picked the latter.

If we allow other people’s opinions to dominate our choices and the risks we take, we’ll never end up doing anything.  Or just doing the same old thing.  The same old thing isn’t exciting.  It doesn’t make me feel anything. Don’t tell me I can’t do something.  Tell me how to improve, how to find the answers, how to tap into the potential.

If we focus on needing to please everyone, to not offend, to tip-toe around egos, to be perfect in a sense – then we never take risks.  We do the same thing, sing the same note, year after year.  It leaves me content, but uninspired.

I made two imperfect products.  I know that.  I was never under any delusion that my two shows were perfect in any way – but they were exciting to me.  And I will not apologize for it.  I’ll not let myself be beaten down by opinions of people who will forget me by tomorrow.  Perhaps I’m delusional.  Perhaps I have no taste.  Perhaps my lack of flair is not an experience issue but an issue of talent.  But it’s better to be delusional, tasteless and talentless than frightened of failure.  I don’t have time to be afraid.  Too much of my life has been wasted that way already.

So I’d like to say thank you to reviewers, for scaring the hell out of me.  For surprising me and allowing me the time for doubt and analysis of my choices and lessons.  If everyone would have loved my last two shows, I would have learned nothing.  If you’re not risking negative reactions, then you’re playing it too safe.

The world is so much more magical than we make it out to be.  It’s crazier and more fucked up than we can imagine.  That’s the world I want my theater and my writing to reflect.  That’s the kind of story I want to tell.

I’m profoundly grateful.  I’m thankful I have a place to try new things.  I’m thankful to fail and to discover and to succeed past my expectations.  I’m thankful for reviewers who came out and wasted one or two hours of their evening listening to my work.  I’m grateful for fear – and grateful when I can overcome it.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to be hurt, to be mangled, to be exasperated by negative opinions of my work.  And I’m most grateful for the opportunity to stress about it for two months straight and then finally realize that all of it really doesn’t matter.

So my advice is – don’t take yourself too seriously – be able to laugh when you’re not perfect, when people misunderstand, when you fail miserably.  Whatever you’re doing, have fun doing it and at least learn something from it – and then try again.  But take yourself seriously enough to back yourself up, to stand by your work and stay excited about it.  Stay inspired.

“Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing” -Aristotle

If you’d like to read a few of the reviews for Traveling Carnival Freakshow and 99 Impossible Things, I’ve included a few links below.  99 Impossible Things is still running through February 13 – Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm. I hope you’ll  give it a chance – and whether you like it or not, I’d love to hear your opinions after the show.  🙂

Traveling Carnival Freakshow: LA Weekly loved it;   Backstage hated it; Here’s a great collection at Bitter-Lemons.

99 Impossible Things: a great collection at Bitter-Lemons; Examiner; Yahoo Associated Content (still not sure what this one means);

And just for fun, here’s an interview I did about the show: LA Stage Times

3 thoughts on “Dealing with Criticism

  1. Like launching rockets. A lot of them blow up or crash, but you learn something (if you pay attention) with each one until finally they start to fly. Then you can start having more fun with payloads and other missions.

  2. You truly inspire me, my dear friend. As you know, I’m a big fan. And I just became a bigger fan. I am so grateful to know you and call you friend, colleague, collaborator – hell, family! But even better, since I actually feel better about myself because I was smart enough to recognize the amazing person (and talent!) you are and reach out… Keep on rockin’, kiddo! I believe you have more to offer than you will ever know.

    I never would have gone there: thanking the critics… With a lot more years, and a lot more experience with reviewers under my belt (not that I have worn a belt in years), you have given me a great lesson. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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