One of the things that I really love about Philadelphia is the supportive nature of the community. We are, by and large, a city that prizes community over competition. I’ve had people who’ve taught me to write grants, given me tips on where to find cheap equipment, loaned me costumes, offered me innumerable rides, donated space, the list goes on and on and on. Lest we forget, there are a lot of places that aren’t like that. There are a lot of artist communities where the initial instinct is to undercut each other to get oneself ahead.
This is Philly’s superpower.
Sometimes, though, it also feels a bit like our kryptonite.
In our instinct to be kind and supportive, is it possible that we are sometimes TOO nice? Too nice in a way that isn’t actually genuine. If we aren’t willing to receive and encourage useful and productive critique, do we doom ourselves to a community-wide creative dialogue about our work that is surface level only?
There is a right and a wrong way to offer constructive observation. We’ve all had experiences with a peer or critic who speaks or writes about our work in a reductive way that focuses on a tiny issue or comes from a personal perspective that doesn’t take into account the project’s overall aim or discourse. We all have been there when a particularly nasty something comes out and seems to be there simply to wound.
On the other hand, I also find an unspoken pressure to always have a cheery, unequivocal rave response to anything I see. I feel the need to do it. And I feel it from people I see after my shows, this plastic face people put on with a giant smile and that horrid, omnipresent phrase: “Great job! Congratulations!”
When I was in college I took the simplest directing class in the world. We got an assignment and then once each week presented the work we’d been doing to the other classmates, their respective casts and the professor. It became our artist community. We learned how to talk about what the piece was trying to do, how we all felt it was doing on that front, what frustrations and exhilarations the process was offering and any other observations that might be useful.
There were times some pieces got more laughs. There were times some pieces made us cry. There were times when the work seemed super hot and others when it was stuck in the mud. Everyone’s stuff went through highs and lows and over time, you learned that one week’s success was nothing to get too boastful about because a few weeks later you were bound to be feeling lost in the artistic forest. But that openness of dialogue meant that I always felt like I was getting a real beat on what kind of responses my theater was provoking. I loved that chance to really talk and share what I was doing with people that would watch with keen eyes and interested minds.
Even after I finished that track of courses, it felt like those that I’d shared the experience with were still able to hold on to that sense of interest and honesty as we moved into new projects. I liked coming out of a show and having them ask questions about what the piece was trying to tackle and having a genuine conversation about when it was (and wasn’t) doing what I’d set out to do. In many cases, the opinions were wildly different, which was SO incredibly useful. People picked up things that I hadn’t intended or missed giant swaths of stuff that I thought were obvious.
I’ve found myself every once in a while back in a situation like this – in my voice training programme for Roy Hart, in the LAB fellowship, in a small circle of directors that make similar work – but it feels notably absent in the majority of interactions I have with other artists in Philly. More so than in other places I’ve lived and worked in. Am I alone in thinking this? I don’t think so.
Again, I think it comes from being, on the whole, a small supportive community. But like many small supportive communities, we have to be careful about gentleness to a point of over-protectiveness. I think this impulse is worrisome not only because it gives us a false sense of how our work lands with people, but because it encourages us to think about our work as “good” or “bad.” If we make complex work, that has lots of layers, especially from scratch, it’s likely that it will be neither of those things. Or it will be both. It will be “it.”
If I see a raucous comedy show and I come out with my sides in pain from laughing so hard, is that the same “good” as an emotionally turbulent sweeping drama about genocide that leaves me numb and raw at the same time? Of course not. But I do what everyone does when they see people after a show, “You were great, congrats.” Or “Congrats! What a great play.” Or “Great job. Congrats.”
At this point, the congrats/great is so ubiquitous as to be an empty gesture. It had become so devoid of meaning that I used to see any sign of anything other than complete and total positivity to be a mask for hatred or disgust. Which was crazy making. So I’ve pretty much stopped listening to comments post-show. I assume they don’t mean anything and that the comments that people have that will mean something aren’t going to be said to me. Which is too bad. Because I think I could probably use them more than whoever else they’re going to be said to. But it feels like there’s not a lot of space to hear real responses.
Congrats. Great. Congrats. Great. Congrats. Great. Like we’re all some kind of “congrats/great” artist lemmings constantly running up to friends, “congrats/great” hugging them and running away to leave them to receive the next “congrats/great” in a giant “congrats/great” receiving line.
When someone says that to you, does it mean anything? Especially when you know a play isn’t simply “great,” (maybe it’s complicated, in-progress, raw, beautiful, heart rending, personal, silly, unfinished, whatever) when it’s something that is more complex that just “great” does that “congrats” mean anything? Wouldn’t you rather that same person just walked up to you and said “I was here for you” or “I am so happy I got to see what you made.” Because, really isn’t that what you’re trying to say?
Regardless of how “good” or “bad” the thing that the person made was, you’re coming up to them because you’re saying “I support you in this crazy endeavor. I know that you, like me want to make something that moves your fellow human beings in some way. And you did it! You threw your heart and sweat into this thing and now it’s been put out in front of all these people. And I was here! I saw it and now I’m seeing you and more than anything I want you to know that I am proud of you.”
At least that’s me. After a show, when I see my artistic peers, that’s what I want to hear. Not that you loved it or hated it, but that you came and you saw the work that I did and likely you know what it took to do what I just did.
I can understand if you’re in a place where you don’t trust people, where you feel like they might undercut, where their motives aren’t in your best interest, you might not want someone’s advice or response. But this is a town where I feel like respect and trust are pretty flush. And you are a bunch folks whose real opinions I’d want to hear. Because I doubt that what I make is only great or terrible. It’s a lot of things, many of which I probably don’t even know.
I am here to learn. Most things I make are in progress. And all of them are still conversation as they enter into performance. I wish there was a way to let people know that it was ok to be however they are after seeing the thing I made – happy, sad, confused, alienated, indifferent, or pensive – and that they have permission to express that being in whatever way they can, without worrying about whether it’s great. Without needing to give me congrats. Seeing them is great congratulation enough.
Next time after a show just walk up to me and say, “No lemming?”
And then I’ll say “No lemming.”
And then you can say whatever you want.