Saturday, October 18, 2014

On Criticism and Bad Reviews

Well it should come as no surprise that not everyone is going to love you.

The same goes for your work.

This morning I was treated to this article posted in the Guardian. If you are unwilling or incapable of clicking the link then I'll summarize: A young author's book was given a bad review on GoodReads and despite all admonitions against pursuing the issue the author stalked the reviewer.

There are some telling things in that article. We are introduced to a author who is young and insecure. Even after being handed a bound and finished copy of her book she tries to make corrections. There's a red flag if ever there was one.

But this isn't about (further) criticizing that author.

This is a story about how I received a review/criticism/judgment that quite literally changed the course of my life.

Senior year of high school. Isn't that when all truly momentous things happen? ;-)

I've related before how I was a theatre kid. I was so involved in theatre that I actually competed in theatrical events.
Texas has UIL (University Interscholastic League) other states have similar (if not the same) organizations dedicated to academic rather than athletic competition.

My favorite UIL event (to this day) is One Act Play.
"One Act" is where a play of traditional length that usually has had a successful run professionally is cut down to forty minutes long (2 hours cut to 40 minutes) if the play runs even 40:01 minutes the school/cast/team is disqualified from the competition. So really your goal is to get down to 37 - 38 minutes and perform a complicated, in-depth story on stage to maximum effect.
It is exhilarating and challenging to say the least. I get all twitchy and goosebumpy thinking about it.

My first One Act competition was in eighth grade (the last year of Junior high is the first year for One Act). I was "Oliver Slime" the titular character in "The Villain of Rose Gulch Hollow". I had a handlebar mustache (of faux hair and spirit gum, of course), a fedora, and a cape. It was a melo-comedy; all over-the-top exaggeration, cape flinging, and mustache twirling. Truly, it was the most fun I have ever had doing a show (as it should be for kids).
We competed against 5 other schools with only one round of competition, and our lead actor - Ben (who went on to be in every show alongside me through high school) - as "Hector Trumuscle" won Best Actor. I was one of the eight All-Star Cast award winners. Life was grand.

Real One Act - cutthroat, work-your-ass off One Act started in High school.
Freshman year I was Civilian #3 - I got shot in the head in the first ten minutes of our cutting of "Tall Tales".
In High School there are four rounds of One Act competition. District (with relatively nearby schools - our furthest competing team came from 2 hours away), Area (further away schools), Regionals, and State (need I explain?).
Freshman year we didn't advance out of District - which at the time was par for the course.

My sophomore year we upped our game. All of my friends were/are really very talented. We did "The Shadow Box". Characters dying of terminal illnesses living in the same place where friends and family come to visit. The story is framed by The Voice (that was me!). I stood in the audience of the theater, and without amplification (it's against competition rules) I spoke to the characters on stage. My theatre voice (which has since become my phone-voice; I call it my man-voice) proved to be effective. At District I won an All-Star Cast award, and we advanced to Area. From Area we advanced to Regionals (the first time in MANY years for our school). Even though we didn't make it to State we felt so accomplished and were all super-ready to bring it next Spring as juniors.

My junior year I was cast as the best friend in "What I Did Last Summer". I made the grievous error in talking back to my mother one evening and she pulled me from the show two weeks before District competition. (We'd been rehearsing the show for almost 8 weeks at the time.)
The show wasn't terribly strong (with or without me) and we didn't advance at all.

Then came senior year.
"The Boys Next Door" - a drama about mentally disabled men living in a group home under the supervision of their caretaker. Tony Goldwyn (Fitz from "Scandal") played in the film version from the late 80's.
I played Lucien P. Smith.
We spent weeks not only rehearsing but also volunteering at a local nursing home for the mentally disabled in order to prevent our performances from being cartoonish or offensive.
My character was what people stereotypically think of when the words "mentally disabled" are used. If he spoke more than a few lines at a time, became stressed or upset Lucien would begin singing the ABC's (though he cannot read). He is a grown man that only wants to wear his Spider-Man pajamas. (These are all things written in the script - not my choices as an actor).
There is a moment in the script where Lucien is on trial. When he is asked a hard question he begins singing the ABC's but then the "disabled" portion of him melts away (for the audience) and he has a long, intelligent monologue detailing his exact feelings regarding his situation and how he's viewed as a person. Then the show resumes and the disabled aspect of his character returns.
We advanced out of District. I won Best Actor.
We advanced out of Area. I won Best Actor.
We advanced out of Regionals for the first time in 27 years. I won Best Actor.

For the first time in almost three decades our school is performing against 6 other schools of similar size (3A) from all over the state.

Two schools advance out of each competition. One alternate is selected.
Our competition that came with us out of regionals performed "Sweet Nothings In My Ear". It is a drama surrounding a family where a hearing father, deaf mother, and deaf son are going through a divorce. Truly, the details are sketchy in my memory. What blew me away was that the cast in the light on stage spoke in only sign language. The hearing father spoke, but the mother's lines and the lines of all the deaf characters (mom, son, grandparents) were spoken from other performers dressed in all black standing in a line along the back of the stage out of the light.
You don't understand the amount of talent that takes. To perform/emote physically without being melodramatic and unable to speak. To speak with vehement (divorce-drama level) emotion without being able to move any part of your body.
They were amazing.

We have up to seven minutes to build and decorate our entire set. Competition regulations.
In full costume and make-up, Ben and I are waiting just offstage behind our entrance point just as the giant orange curtain rises, and we hug each other. I've never had a hug full of more mutual hope and excitement before or since. We had been performing together since junior high (grade school if you count those tedious-yet-adorable "programs" little kids do in school). Every show, every theatre class (and most academic ones since junior high) we were in them together. We were never best friends, he was really the closest thing I had to a co-worker before I became an adult. This is our biggest moment.

The Best Actress and Actor winners from the State One Act Play UIL competition are granted huge scholarships and automatic entrance into the theatre program at the University of Texas (one of the top schools in the nation for theatre education). If I won Best Actor yet again. I wouldn't have to apply for schools (which I had been putting off for months), I wouldn't have to worry about academic future would have been set. And, given my history, I was the one to beat.

One judge.
One judge at each competition judges six to seven 40 minute shows. They are all experienced theatre professionals. Most of them are/were professors. Some of them have even worked professionally on stage or screen in their prime.
This judge...we'll call him "Geoff" was a notorious hard-ass in the academic theatre community.
Geoff was hard because he was good. He was damn good. He knew theatre like nobody knew theatre in Texas. His name carried (and still carries to some degree) a great deal of respect.

After each competition when all is said and done; after all the awards are handed out the judge then meets individually with each theatre team. Advancing or winning teams meet the judge last.

We'd all changed out of our costumes and removed our make-up. We'd all bought or brought our best outfits for the awards ceremony. For the record, I wore a black, pinstriped blazer, an audaciously colorful shirt, cute jeans, and black dress shoes.

The Awards:
Honorary All-Star cast is announced first. Eight individuals.
Then All-Star cast. Eight individuals.
Then Best Actress.
Finally, Best Actor.

They didn't call my name for Honorary All-Star cast.
They didn't call my name for All-Star cast.
Best Actress - I honestly can't remember. I was too breathless with anxiety.
Then it was the moment we'd all been waiting for.

But I noticed another name hadn't been called.
The boy, Sergio, the father/husband from "Sweet Nothings In My Ear.
I knew in those hour-long-seconds before they announced his name, and I almost vomited all over my specially chosen outfit.
I clapped when they announced Sergio's name.
He totally earned it.

Then we had our meeting with the judge, Geoff.

"Lucien," his eyes take a minute to find me in our group of sixteen kids though I am the only brown one with enormous hair. "Your energy and rhythm seemed to mimic Norman's. In the future I'd suggest really defining your own sense of character. The monologue toward the end was good..."

Our director/teacher/part-time parent (for as much time as we spent with her) had taught us well.
Never under any circumstances speak to the judge unless you are asked a question. You are to smile when appropriate and nod. You agree. No matter what is said. YOU AGREE. Because whatever you think, whatever I think, changes NOTHING.
Those were the rules. Period. The end. Dot com. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.
When we did "The Shadow Box" my sophomore year a cast member attempted to argue with the judge....things did not go well for him when we got on the bus home.
I said nothing to Geoff. I kept my face politely even, and nodded when he finally glanced up at me from his notepad.

"Norman" played by my friend, Josh, really was excellent. I can disagree and ask "how can I mimic someone who comes on stage three minutes after me? Wouldn't their 'energy and rhythm' match mine?"
But it's neither here nor there.
I was not ruined, or even devastated after the judge's critique.
Our theatre teacher's best friend (the director for our the school who competed against us for District, Area, and Regionals) cried, hugged me, and told me I was robbed. She bought me lunch.
Life went on.
I was offered scholarships based on my awards and auditions for several schools, and I chose the one that suited me best (it was far enough away, but close enough to home). And to this day I'm glad things went the way they did.

In fact...

My freshman year in college my university hosted the 2A (smaller school division) Area One Act Play competition in our theatre.
I was chosen to be the Judge's Assistant.
The Judge? None other than "Geoff".

I was in charge of escorting him to and from the theatre, getting his coffee, timing the plays...assistant things.

It was less than a year since my high school experience. He didn't remember me, and - of course - I said NOTHING about our previous encounter the year before.
He was nothing but polite, and friendly. He intimated to my theatre professor at the time that this would be the last competition he judged because he just wasn't feeling it anymore.
My professor joked (with me) that it was because other people are beginning to notice how senile he's becoming.

When you submit yourself for consideration, for review...for put yourself at the mercy of those you aim to please.
It can sting.
I say "It" can sting because the word isn't "failure". It is in English, but that's not the right word for it.
You cannot fail at Art. No matter the format. Someone Somewhere will love you. Someone Somewhere will think you're amazing. And so too (perhaps more often than not) Someone Somewhere will always have something negative to say.
Attacking, stalking, even casually reaching out to someone whose opinion of your work is negative when it comes to something so deeply spiritual/personal as art is wrong. Period. The End. Dot com.
Nothing you say can or will change their mind, because when it comes to art it isn't logic or the mind that speaks but the heart.

The author who repeatedly made poor judgment calls when dealing with an online reviewer seems to be unaware of the artistic experience. At the very least she is unwilling to accept dissenting opinions. The premise of her book relayed in the article seemed casually interesting though divergent from my typical tastes, but I will not support the career of a person who does not have the sense to listen to peers and friends when faced with adversity.
I won't be buying her books.
I hope this experience has helped her grow (though the closing lines of the article hint otherwise).
I hope you learn to accept criticism no matter how possibly invalid you may feel it to be, or how  negatively you may feel after hearing it.
I hope we all hold one another accountable for being better people.

That's how I like to end things - with hope :-)

Until we meet again...

No comments:

Post a Comment