Thursday, April 24, 2008

Theatre Ideas Jumps the Pond

I am astonished to find Chris Wilkinson of the Guardian blog weighing in on the anonymous blogging controversy in Asheville and the theatrosphere in a post entitled "Noises Off: Unnamed and Unashamed." Of all the things I thought might attract attention from Europe on this blog, this was low on my list! But thanks, Chris!

Marketing guru Seth Godin, author of The Dip, Purple Cow, and Meatball Sundae among other things, has oft written about how the anonymity of the web supports all kinds of nefarious activity from incivility to viruses to participation in adult chat rooms (how many people, he asks, would be found in adult chat rooms if they had to log in with their actual name...).

Anyway, I tend to agree with Godin -- I'd never log in to a sex chat room if I... no, wait a minute, that's not what I meant to say. What I meant to say is that without the benefit of so many aspects of real life conversation (facial expression, body language, vocal inflection), online communication already suffers from enough drawbacks without adding the lack of personal context that anonymity provides.

To be honest, I think that one of the things that prevents real growth and innovation in all areas of human endeavor, and especially in collaborative art forms, is fear of honesty. And I mean that both in terms of the expression of honest ideas, and the hearing of honest ideas. The willingness of artists to discount and reject any criticism they receive, rather than carefully considering any ideas about their work they are lucky enough to receive, is a sign of weakness and narcissism, in my opinion. The fact is that if all the artists in the world would just put on their Big Artist Undies and learn how to welcome criticism as valuable feedback, then all those people who are right now too cowardly to state an opinion without benefit of a curtain of anonymity might follow suit and put on their Big Person Undies and learn to speak their mind in a thoughtful and civil way.

Expressing ideas takes practice. One of the reason that most criticism you receive from theatre people in conversation is so unhelpful is that we don't have enough practice to make it worthwhile. We just blabber on about things as they enter our head without real reflection or self-examination. We didn't like the show, and so we'll come up off the top of our head with some reason: slow line pickup, didn't "believe" the performance, it was "boring." None of these are particularly helpful. You have to go to the next level -- what specifically made the performance unbelievable, the play boring, the lines too slow? And how much of this is about you, not about the performance? Were you bored because you don't have much interest in discussions of abstract concepts, or movement oriented work, or plays in verse? That's about you, not about the production or performance. Did you not believe the performance because you would have played the role differently? That's about you, too.

I occasionally serve as a respondent for college productions that have been entered in the American College Theatre Festival. This requires me to see a show, and then provide comments to the assembled cast, director, and design team within ten minutes of the performance being finished. It is a hard, hard thing to do, made even harder if the show I see is early in the run. One of the things I have learned I have to do is separate out, as much as possible, all of the opinions that are based on how I would have done the show. Instead, I have to look at moments that were particularly good or particularly bad and ask myself why did I respond that way? How specific can I be about that? Was the problem physical, vocal, facial, movement-oriented? I have found that the more specific I can be, the more open people are to hearing what I have to say. As importantly, I have found that people are much more willing to be open if I make sure to look them in the eye when I make the comment, and try to radiate through my face and voice the goodwill that underlies my comments. If artists sense that your feedback comes from a respect for their efforts, they seem to relax and listen.

If you have read my blog over time, you know my voice, you know my predilections, you know the context from which I write. By knowing I am in North Carolina and not New York City, for instance, you know something that may be useful in understanding what I write. By knowing that I am a middle-aged, white college professor, you know something else. By knowing that I come from a working-class family and that I am the only one to have received a higher education, you know something else. And knowing those things helps my words ring more true, I believe.

If you need a shot of anonymity in order to speak your truths, I think you just need more practice, because if you offer your ideas thoughtfully and after due consideration, people will respect you more than abhor you.

My name is Scott E. Walters, and I approved this blog post.


Ian Mackenzie said...


Artists riot after "big undies" comment


A University of North Carolina drama professor and controversial theatre blogger was found battered and bruised on the shores of the East River last night after a protest about his view on artists turned violent.

"All the artists in the world need to put their Big Artists Undies on and learn how to welcome criticism as valuable feedback," said Walters in what will surely be the final post on his popular Theatre Ideas blog.

More at 11.

Scott Walters said...

Get a link! I need a link!

Ian Mackenzie said...

Good grief. I can't believe I let you talk me into this. Here's your link.

Jess said...

that's just so incredibly awesome, I'm kinda at a loss for words.

Great post, Walters.


Ben said...


This is an awesome post and I love your blog, but I still have to disagree with your take on this.

I'm a professional actor. I have a blog. I occasionally write reviews of work being done in my theatre relatively small theatre community. I cannot assume that negative comments, no matter how well I may state them, will be taken with the kind of grace that they would seem to be taken by you.

As I can tell you understand, being an actor is extremely difficult. I lose roles because I'm too tall, have the wrong color hair, didn't smile enough. If the director can add "didn't like my last show" to that list, you can be certain the role will not be landing in my lap.

So my options are blog anonymously, change careers, or don't blog.

I've only got a 6-show week with my current run...what would I do with all this free time? Knit?

Lela - Chicago said...

Thanks for great post. I agree logic based, thoughtful criticism should trump any backlash.

Tony Adams said...

Another option for those scared to sign their names is: be quiet.

Anonymous said...

Here's looking forward to someone giving us all a look at the long and distinguished history of anonymous theatrical criticism and indeed anonymous theater making. Peeps to Shakespeare, theater people know nothing so well as how to reinvent themselves. Anonymous blogging done well can be a sharp sword. And why doesn't Scott turn off the ability to comment anonymously if he finds it so objectionable?

ps. Tony, it's a big internet, being willing to stand behind your headshot doesn't give me any reason to listen to your admonition for me to shut up. Proving once and for all that silly reductive arguments aren't reserved for the anonymous.