“Criticism is, after all, a subjective form of writing. There is no right answer. ” – Charles Isherwood
Interesting article in the New York Times last week from Charles Isherwood. Basically, he wants to step away from reviewing a certain playwright’s work because “it’s time to allow Mr. Rapp’s writing to be assessed by a critic who responds more naturally or sympathetically to his aesthetic.”
What this all circles around is the concept that feedback, whether in a formalized setting like a Times Theatre review or adjudicating a one-act, and even in an informal setting like responding to a friends draft – Feedback is and always will be subjective. For even the most objective human being has their likes and dislikes, especially when it comes to art. There are topics, genres, manners of presentation that I respond to more than others. There is no one definitive answer. Nor should there be. The subjective nature if art is what makes it alive and mutative and interesting.
The subjective nature of art is an important element to be aware of if you’re presenting a work (be in in a formal production setting, or handing a script to a friend) and if you’re being asked to comment on a work. Everything is subjective. And some can separate their feelings better than others. Some presenters get overly upset at reviews, and some reviewers let their personal feelings lead their comments.
I see a lot of this at the high school level. Personal feelings getting in the way, both from those who give and receive feedback. I have seen students and teachers shut down, refusing to hear constructive feedback because they felt everyone else was wrong and they were right. Conversely, I remember watching a thespian group present an original work and when their adjudicators walked in the room, I knew they were toast. I knew, (and this was later confirmed) that the adjudicators would not be able to separate out their feelings for the type of play they seeing and would act accordingly. The students were crushed, and their experience with the play was tainted.
It’s hard to remember that the reaction to art is subjective which means there’s always going to be both positive AND negative response. Both sides of the coin are important. Of course there is a way to give negative feedback in a constructive manner. And there’s a way to receive negative feedback in a constructive manner. But it is hard. It’s a responsibility. It’s easier to want to be loved and to want to love everything.
As someone who gives and receives feedback, I think being on both ends has been a great help. Because I’ve received many poorly worded rejection letters for my plays, I’m extremely conscious of how I word Theatrefolk rejection letters. Because I have had students tell me horror stories about their adjudication experiences, I’m always thinking about how I present myself as an adjudicator. It’s hard, it’s a responsibility and there’s always the subjective swimming at the edges.
In the past few years I’ve taken a very serious interest in adjudication, in becoming an adjudicator, especially at the high school level. There is a way to give feedback that can give every production, regardless of it’s level of production, encouragement, tools for the future, and an understanding of the subjective aesthetic. I want students to walk away from my comments wanting to get back on the stage and try again. And I understand, there’s always going to be students, and teachers, who hear constructive criticism poorly. It’s all subjective….