Got a text the other night from a friend of mine the other night. He had seen a one-act festival that the BHP had produced: “Saw one-acts this weekend. Yep. I want my money back… Hope life is great.”
Oh, my. What possesses someone to send a communication like this? I mean – it was 9:30pm on a Tuesday, and he picked up his damned phone and wrote that thing. Pressed “send” and all. Now, this is not about defense of the BHP or of a one-act festival. I actually had nothing to do with the festival night he saw, so this isn’t a personal beef. And even if it was, people are free to have their opinion, they’re free to broadcast it however they choose. No law in the arena, and all that. But it made me think of this idea of using “honesty” as a cover for being a dick.
I think somewhere in this guy’s mind is the idea that his “honesty” about his opinion becomes some sort of hard-boiled tough love, and he’s holding up some sacred standard of work in his mind and anything that doesn’t meet it deserves to be criticized. The reverse vector kicks in: If I don’t tell them what I really think I’m being dishonest.
Meanwhile, on my end, I get this text and I think to myself – “What a dick.” In that moment I don’t give a shit about his opinion, because the means and style of its expression completely alienates me and makes me want to punch him in the face. There are plenty of opinions I seek out as a means of improving the work, and not one of them would ever deliver communication like this.
You can encounter the same “honesty” from casting people, agents, friends & family who say the darnedest things about you, the business, the career, etc. “If you aren’t reading for series regular parts on a consistent basis by the age of 30, you should pack it in.” That’s special – that’s a recent one an actress repeated to me, quoting her manager, as I tried to scrape her off the sidewalk. I don’t care how true the statement may be to that manager, it simply a completely shitty thing to say to an actor, and it’s demonstrably false. When I told this actress I thought it was a shitty thing to say, she replied, “But he was just being honest. He told me he wants an honest relationship.” Yeah. Right. Here’s an “honest” reason you should fucking pack it in and assume you’ll never succeed. Awesome. Just what the world needs. (And then wait for it…. And now that I’ve weakened you, let me tell you how I can lead you to the promised land. Sign here, let’s have dinner.)
So don’t let yourself be shat upon by those who come to you with their unsolicited, unvarnished “honest” criticism of your play or your career or your age or your current station in life. This “honest” bullshit is often just an accepted cover for acting like a suppressive dickhead, and is reflective of self-criticism within the originator.
If you see a friend in a show and you think it sucks…. And look: one of the early posts on this blog is entitled “Doing Shit Theatre” – the phenomenon whereby we’ve all gotten sucked into doing total crap plays or projects despite our early perception about it. So I’m fully cognizant of bad quality and I’m not trying to whitewash or defend it. But if you think something sucks then keep it to yourself and spare the performers and creators your “honesty.” No one has a perfect record here, certainly not I. I remember once seeing something I was horrified by, and apparently the friend I was there to support could see my eye-rolling pain-wracked face from the stage. Ooops. (Now I sit further back just in case I lose discipline.) But we can at least aspire to be more supportive of the creative efforts of our friends and colleagues. Find something positive and acknowledge that. Or, if it was such a disaster, say, “Look, this wasn’t my cup of tea, but I’m here for you and I’ll be there for you whenever you perform.” That’s honest, too, and frames it in a positive, friendship-enhancing way.
The place for potentially harsh critical honesty is when it is solicited. Students pay for class to get an honest appraisal of their work, so teachers get to be honestly critical – but I would hope it’s critique in the name of growth not just destruction. And if you earn your friendships well, you’ll here this from them: “Listen – I respect your viewpoint and I want to know what you think. Really.” If you’re burning with something to say and aren’t asked about it, you can offer, “Hey, if you want, I have some thoughts about this as an audience member / someone familiar with your work / someone who cares….” And then it’s up to the performer to sign on or not.
So: Honesty does not give a license to be a dick. Withholding your harsh critique does not mean you are dishonest.
And watch out for indulging your “honest” negative appraisals of your classmates or fellow actors on a project. Such honesty brings down the morale of many a group on an hourly basis worldwide.
(For the record, I called my friend and gave him hell about the text – and we had a great conversation about it, he admitted it was a dick move, and we’ve moved on from it.)
Note to Performers: You need to be smart and considerate as well. Don’t robotically ask people what they “really think” without being able to handle an honest response. If you go past the first level of acknowledgment to get to a “really think” level – you can’t then throw a hissy fit when they tell you and it’s negative. Also: If you receive a polite acknowledgment of your work after a performance, don’t jump on that with followup emails asking people to promote your show to their friends and industry contacts – this can be highly annoying and makes the person having acknowledged you think they should have just been a dick. If they liked your show enough to promote it to their friends, they’ll do that without your pleas to do so. You can get away with, “Thanks for coming – so much appreciated, I hope you spread the word.” But don’t get into: “Thanks for coming – much appreciated. Listen, can I ask you to talk to your agent about seeing it? Call me and let’s discuss!”