Teaching Drama

Develop Your Critical Thinking Skills

Written by Lindsay Price

Episode 78: Develop Your Critical Thinking Skills


Craig and Lindsay get specific about why they didn’t like the shows they saw in New York and how you can develop your own critical thinking skills.

What are the questions you need to ask? How can you avoid being swayed by others? How do you form your own artistic opinion?

We also ponder the reason Broadway shows fail and tell you about the ONE show you should see if you’re contemplating a career in the arts.

Show Notes

Episode Transcript

Welcome to TFP, The Theatrefolk Podcast. I am Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk. Hello, I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening.

So, today we’ve got New York, New York! It’s – oh, crap! – a marvelous, fabulous, wonderful – I think it’s a wonderful town. The Bronx is up and the battery’s down!

So, last month, Craig and I went to New York for an artistic retreat where we saw a lot of shows and we didn’t like much of what we saw which is rare but, making lemonade, it allowed us to talk about a really important topic, especially as seeing theatre relates to the high school drama classroom. (Ha ha! We can always bring it back around!)

And what I’m talking about is developing your critical thinking skills. How do you form an artistic opinion on something and not be swayed by the opinion of others? Or what do you do when you disagree with a show or the opinion of a show that’s been really well-reviewed? And what is the one question you should ask yourself when you are forming an opinion, particularly of a theatrical show? We also get into a great side chat about the one show every student who’s thinking about a career in the arts should see, or if you’re taking students to New York, it’s a winner every time. So, listen in to find that out.

Before I go, I just want to make sure you know that anything we mention in our chat that you might want to link to or check out for yourself is in the show notes and you can find them at theatrefolk.com/episode78. On to us and New York.

Lindsay: All right. All right! All right.

Hello everybody! Lindsay Price here and Craig Mason. Hello, Craig!

Craig: Hello, Lindsay Price!

Lindsay: And Craig and I are uber fortunate that we are in New York City right now. Are we not having, like, an amazing time?

Craig: Well, that’s a closed-ended question so, yes, we are!

Lindsay: It’s true! I sort of backed you into a corner. Okay. So, are you having an amazing time?

Craig: Yes, I am. Thanks!

Lindsay: Excellent. We love visiting New York. We would never want to live here but we love coming and we love seeing all different types of shows. It’s a wonderful walking city. I find it very inspirational as a writer. I just think it’s kind of like an artistic recharge, don’t you think?

Craig: And there’s a lot of good food

Lindsay: Oh, my God. There’s so much good, interesting, unique… A couple of days ago we had dosas from a street cart outside New York University.

Craig: They were delicious.

Lindsay: They were delicious.

So, today, actually, what we’re going to talk about on this particular podcast is something that happens in every Drama class – and, actually, in a lot of classes – and that’s developing your critical thinking skills. And what I’m speaking specifically because we’ve been seeing shows and that is how you form your own opinion of what you see. When you’re doing some kind of a review, maybe for a class and you have to review a show, or just when someone asks you the question, “What did you think?” and it’s really easy to get swayed by people, particularly here in New York – all the shows are reviewed and it’s easy to hear somebody’s review and think that’s how you’re supposed to think, or going to see a show by a very well-known playwright and because of their past work, their other plays, that you’re supposed to like what you’ve seen. And I’m really speaking quite specifically.

Craig: You seem to be getting at something specific.

Lindsay: I’m moving. I’m moving somewhere and we’re going to talk about No Man’s Land which is by Harold Pinter. Harold Pinter, Craig, very well-known playwright.

Craig: Yes, exceptionally well-known.

Lindsay: Exceptionally well-known

Craig: English playwright.

Lindsay: English playwright.

Craig: From the 60s, 70s.

Lindsay: Yep, The Birthday Party, The Homecoming. He has a Pulitzer prize, you know, so he’s got some cachet. And, also, the stars of this show which was another one of the reasons why I wanted to see it… I wanted to see No Man’s Land because it’s a Pinter play I’d never actually heard of or seen and then it had two really well-known actors in it – Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen – and I really wanted to see those guys act. How about you?

Craig: Yeah, me too, and I don’t necessarily think I cared about seeing them in Godot but this was a great opportunity.

Lindsay: This was a great opportunity and we want to see the show and we had an experience and,

before we get into our specific experience, there was a very interesting thing that happened when we were on our way out. Craig, what did you overhear somebody say?

Craig: A woman turned to another woman, and one woman seemed kind of confused, and so, the woman said to her, “Well, you know, if it’s by a Pulitzer prize winning playwright then it must be good.”

Lindsay: “If it was written by a Pulitzer prize winning playwright, it must be good,” and this is the trap that people fall into. So many people fall into this trap that, if you’re watching something and you don’t like it but you’re supposed to, you think your opinion is wrong.

Craig: Well, I actually found that conflict in my head the entire time that I was watching the play because I thought, well, it was actually a cast of four – there were two other actors. Probably the greatest among the greatest performances I’ve ever seen in my life – so dedicated, so committed, and so beautifully gifted with just beautiful craft.

Lindsay: Yeah, and my big impression that I was left with is that I think every student, every acting student in the world, should watch Ian McKellen sit in a chair in character. The way he sat in a chair was just so physically demonstrative of this character, and Patrick Stewart too! They were on equal footing these guys. But just the way that I’ve never seen anybody so character specifically and all four of them, there were no slackers in this show. All four of them, the way they stood and gave focus, and this was, again, very particular for Ian McKellen because his character was a mover and a pacer and a rambler – a physical rambler. When he was talking, when someone else was talking, he was dead still. He never drew focus. He never was like, “Look at me! Look at me! I’m a star! You know, I’ve been in all The Hobbit movies! I’ve been in the Lord of the Rings!” whatever those movies are – there was none of that! Sorry, that was… You all know what I’m talking about! It just was a beautiful stander.

Craig: I’ll tell you how great these guys were – McKellen and Stewart. See, I find a lot of like the great actors from the 70s who are still acting today, I think are just playing caricatures of themselves every time.

Lindsay: Yes.

Craig: Like, I’m talking to you Robert de Niro. Like, somebody who was a great actor now just seems to be doing schtick now. Stewart and Ian McKellen were so good – or maybe I’m so bad – but I’m going to put it on them that they were so good that, for the first

while of the show, I didn’t even know which of the two characters was being played by which actor. I mean, we were sitting a little far back. They were so hidden in their roles that I really didn’t know which actor was which. I actually thought it was the other way around.

Lindsay: It was really the true mark of really great acting because I didn’t feel like, “Oh, I’m sitting here. How great! I’m watching Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen.” That never crossed my mind. The only thing that crossed my mind was I’m watching these characters.

Now, the thing that these characters were in, I thought that I did not like this play. I did not like this play. I didn’t get and I particularly didn’t like this play. I don’t really care about whether something is absurd or, you know, something is not natural so we’re supposed to, again, we’re supposed to feel a certain way. If I don’t care about anything that’s happening, that’s a problem.

Craig: Yeah. Well, I felt like the script was written in a way that made me feel like I should understand it and I should be finding something in it and I think I said to you at intermission – because there were a lot of people there who, I think, were there because they were, you know, Star Trek fans or Lord of the Rings fans, and there was a lot of conscious confusion, I’d say, at intermission from the people around us.

Lindsay: I also found there was a lot of people who were trying to find something funny in it.

Craig: Yes.

Lindsay: The laughter was not genuine.

Craig: The audience was looking. They were looking for a comedy that wasn’t there. And I think I turned to you and I said – because Lindsay and I didn’t know this script before we saw it and I said – “I think a lot of the people in the audience are going to think that everything is going to be explained for us by the end. We’re going to understand what all this stuff is about and they’re going to be sorely disappointed.” I just want bonus points for being correct on that one because it just got less and less sensical as the play went on.

Lindsay: And, again, it doesn’t have to make sense. It doesn’t have to all wrap up in a tidy bow. I understand that. I’m not looking for my sitcom ending. I’m looking for a theatrical experience.

Craig: So, would you classify this as an absurdist piece? Yes, right?

Lindsay: Yeah.

Craig: I would. So, I feel like Ionesco – very absurd – but there’s a point to it. There’s social

commentary that he’s doing and, same with Beckett’s absurd, but there’s some commentary about the human condition. This script, I don’t know what it was that I was supposed to be examining with it.

Lindsay: Or commenting on, or being offended by, or connecting to.

Craig: Yeah.

Lindsay: Nothing.

Craig: It felt like a story I was supposed to start understand and I never felt that I did. I never understood where they were. It actually reminded me a lot about – I was going to say No Man’s Land

but that’s this play – End Game. It reminded me a lot of Beckett’s End Game. You kind of get this sense that this room that we’re in is, like, isolated.

Lindsay: Eternity.

Craig: Yeah! It’s some kind of eternal room they’re stuck in.

Lindsay: Yeah, but you know what? Even in End Game, you know where we are – we’re in a world, we’re in a room that you cannot leave from.

Craig: That’s what I’m saying.

Lindsay: You cannot look…

Craig: I understood what was happening in End Game. That’s what I didn’t really understand.

Lindsay: So, what we’re wrapping around to is that critical thinking means you have to develop your own entryway. You cannot let the opinions of others sort of filter your thoughts, and this happens quite a bit. Like, if you go and say something and you have an opinion to it and then everyone else disagrees with your opinion, don’t backtrack, right? Don’t think that your opinion is wrong, particularly if you can back it up. You know, Craig and I are sitting here and we can back up our opinion. We can determine which part of our experience we didn’t like. We didn’t like the play.

Craig: And I think someone else could just as well give an opinion that they loved No Man’s Land.

Lindsay: I know, I know.

Craig: That would be valid, too.

Lindsay: Absolutely!

Craig: Actually, I would love to hear someone explain to me.

Lindsay: Joe Norton. So, I put it out on my Facebook that I didn’t care for this play and then I heard back from somebody else who said that they liked it and that really is the beauty of theatre – it’s that you and I can sit side-by-side in a theatre and I’m going to have one singular experience and you’re going to have a separate singular experience, and that’s what theatre is about. You cannot all be on the same page. It is impossible for you all to be on the same page which is why you need to, when you have an opinion, you need to form it and stick with it. Find out, analyze why it is that, if you don’t like something, why? Don’t just say, “I don’t like it.”

And Craig and I aren’t sitting here going, “Oh, this was a horrible experience we have.” You know, we know what it is that we liked. We loved the performances. We can really pinpoint what it is about the

performances that we loved and we can also pinpoint what it is about the script that we don’t like, didn’t connect to anything, we didn’t understand the absurdity of the world and felt that it was written in a way that we should have but we sort of, I felt there was a presentation of an absurd play rather than really an absurd play, right? It’s just sort of I’m ticking boxes.

And so, that’s how you really can develop your critical eye.

Craig: There’s this great book that I love that I’ve read it several times. It’s called The Season.

Lindsay: By William Goldman.

Craig: By William Goldman who’s actually a screenplay writer. He wrote the novel and the screenplay for The Princess Bride, The Marathon Man – anyway, a million credits. And there’s this great chapter, my favorite part of the book.

Lindsay: And what is The Season about?

Craig: Oh, right, of course. It’s a season on Broadway. So, I think it’s 1968, William Goldman just spent the year in New York and saw absolutely every show that happened on Broadway. And so, it’s this really insightful analysis of actors and mostly producers and the money and why things get done and why things fail. It’s just really fascinating stuff and, even though it’s – oh, boy – over forty years old, it still feels really relevant and current, except there’s actually now more money involved.

Lindsay: There’s so much at stake doing a show.

Craig: Yeah, there’s so much at stake to do a Broadway show. I mean, tens and tens, I think even in The Season, I think, in the 60s, I think he was talking about, like, $4 million to get a musical on Broadway. Now, it’s like, I don’t know, $50, $60 million just to get a show up.

Lindsay: And, just as a little segue, we also saw yesterday an interview with Norbert Leo Butz who is like this incredible Broadway performer. He was in the musical Catch Me If You Can. I think he originated a part in Wicked. He just closed a show called Big Fish. But how many years did he say? So, he works a lot on original Broadway shows and I think he said, for the latest show that he closed, it took eight years from conception to building the money to getting all the scripts. So, can you imagine? It’s not just getting a bar and putting up a show. Eight years of money. Eight years of people pouring things into something that may or may not work on Broadway.

Craig: Yeah, it takes so many people and so much money to get something on that I think there’s a problem. And why failures happen on Broadway is that there are so many people involved and so much input and so much money, I think, by the time you open, you kind of lost sight of what your idea was at the beginning. And so, I think it’s a miracle. It’s nothing short of a miracle that anything actually gets to Broadway and is actually successful. I think actually Norbert Leo Butz actually said something like that last night.

Lindsay: Yeah.

Craig: I mean, the other show we saw – A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder – in the Bio section, there are four pages of biographies for producers. The producers outnumber the cast, like, three to one.

Lindsay: It’s amazing.

Craig: That is crazy. You’re basically writing by committee. How can something good come out of that?

Lindsay: Okay. So, back to the chapter in The Season.

Craig: So, the chapter in The Season, it relates to Pinter and I think it was The Birthday Party he was opening on Broadway, and at the same time, it’s Christmas time and so the chapter actually talks about the Pinter play and about the Radio City musical Christmas show, and it’s all about how, like, the kids in the show just respond viscerally to what’s happening. Like, Santa Claus gets on stage and starts singing Deck the Halls and the whole audience erupts. And, to contrast that with the Pinter play, like an intellectual set and how they’ll feel like they have to respond to the Pinter play and to show that they know what’s going on. And I always loved that chapter but I always felt like he was being too harsh on Pinter, I think, because Pinter was a Pulitzer prize winning playwright. But when I saw that show, I thought, “Wow! I actually think he was being kind to Pinter.” Do you like The Birthday Party?

Lindsay: I do, but I like it as I’ve read it and I’ve studied it and I’ve worked on scenes from it. I’ve never seen it so what does that mean? Like, is my love of it sort of qualified, you know?

Craig: It’s just fascinating stuff. But those guys were so good, it almost didn’t matter.

Lindsay: Almost. I think what this all relates back to, I think a really good question to ask when you are seeing something and then you have to form an opinion on it, particularly with a play, I think the only question to ask is, “What was my theatrical experience?”

Craig: Yeah.

Lindsay: I think that is the bottom line. It has to be theatrical. It has to be theatrical. That’s what makes it different than books. That’s what makes it different than movies. And, again, I can relate this back, we saw this interview with Norbert Leo Butz and one piece of criticism that he received – he studied with Uta Hagen – and one piece of criticism that she gave him about his work when he was doing a scene was that it’s very real, it’s very natural. You know, it’s very relatable in that way, but it’s not theatrical.

When we’re in the theatre, it has to be theatrical because, of course, it’s theatrical! And his example,

look at Sondheim, nobody is that verbose and that connected to what’s going on inside of them.

Craig: Nobody has that access to that kind of information.

Lindsay: It is so true. You know, like, nobody breaks out into song. Nobody plays, like, you know, Sylvia where the dog talks, or something where you’re talking to an imaginary character, or a character from literature, or a dead character – it doesn’t happen! It’s the thing that just makes me gaga for theatre. That’s why I love theatre. That’s the kind of stuff that I like to write where the thing that never happens is what happens on the stage.

So, that’s where I always start. “What is my theatrical experience?” and I have to say that my theatrical experience was with No Man’s Land that I was watching a class – which is good, and it’s very helpful and useful for me as a person in the theatre. It’s not a theatrical experience. My experience with A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder was that of pure and utter boredom. I just was… I couldn’t… I don’t remember a single song. I was supposed to be engaged and charmed, and I was neither.

Craig: If you want to talk about opinions and being influenced by other opinions, this was a pretty well-reviewed show. A lot of people have said, “Oh, this is the show to see.”

Lindsay: The reason I picked this show, because we were looking for shows, the reason I picked A Gentleman’s Guide because I knew nothing about it, I went and looked at reviews.

Craig: Yeah.

Lindsay: So, what do you do? Here’s another great question. What do you do when the thing that you are seeing, you disagree with reviewers? And you made a really great point when we were talking about this before we started in that reviewers have to see everything.

Craig: Yeah.

Lindsay: And this has been a year where there’s been a lot of drama.

Craig: So, perhaps by the time this show opened and the reviewers saw it that it was refreshing to see some kind of light comedy on stage.

Lindsay: Well, that’s the other thing, too. You have to think about people’s situations. If you are seeing dead baby drama, dead baby drama, dead baby drama, and then all of a sudden, someone starts singing at you, your response is going to be, “Oh, thank heavens,” and that’s going to color how you approach a review.

Craig: I thought the show had a lovely set. I was walking out in the proverbial sense of I was humming the set when I walked out – my God, I just loved. It was this crazy intricate set. It was like the set – how do I describe this?

Lindsay: Music hall.

Craig: Yeah, it was like a music hall, but it was like our niece’s toys, like her little kitchen set, or just, you know how, like, every little thing you push, there’s a different sound?

Lindsay: There’s a door, yeah.

Craig: Or it opens, you know what I mean? It was like that. It was just a set full of little tricks. I absolutely adored the set and that’s what I take away from it.

Lindsay: I wish the play had been that set.

Craig: Let me change the topic.

Lindsay: Okay.

Craig: I want to talk a little bit about the Norbert Leo Butz thing.

Lindsay: Oh, yes, let’s. Okay, first of all, yeah, go.

Craig: If you’re interested in a career in theatre – usually performing or you’re taking kids to Broadway – there is a show that is at a little cabaret called Don’t Tell Mama. It’s on every Thursday night and it’s hosted by this great guy named Seth Rudetsky.

Lindsay: Google him. He’s a pianist so he’s, like, played for Broadway shows. He’s in a show right now and he is an encyclopedia of songs and he does a lot of deconstructions online. If you go to YouTube, you look up “Seth Rudetsky deconstructions” and then show them to your class, or, like, you look at them yourself. If you want to analyze musical theatre, he’s the guy.

Craig: So, every Thursday night, he does this show called Seth’s Broadway Chatterbox and he gets one or two stars from Broadway shows. The show’s on at 5:00 so it’s on before curtain, and they just chat about their careers, and at the end they’ll sing a song or two. I think it’s just because it’s a nice, small, warm, intimate room that it takes place in, you really get a great amount of insight into what it’s really like to be a professional performer. And what I really took away from the Norbert Leo Butz interview was he just seems absolutely exhausted by Broadway. He joked about retiring but, his jokes, it almost felt real. He talked about he’s now had four Broadway flops in a row and he’s just over it and he really was.

Lindsay: In a genuine way, like, he was obviously, he had put his heart into these shows.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, he talked about that Big Fish just closed – the show that he was in – and he said he’s really just still in mourning for it, and you put those many years of your life into something for it to…

Lindsay: To fail.

Craig: And I think he’d even had it. It was even well-received critically. It just didn’t get the audiences.

Lindsay: Yeah. You know, I would say, if you are a performer, or you want to be a performer, one of your jobs is to be, “What is it like?” Like, there is a dream of what it’s like to be in the arts and then there is a, you know, there’s some cold stark reality. If you find out the cold stark reality and it still, like, interests you, then, you know, you probably have a shot at it. But this guy, look, he’s at the top of his game and he’s talking about how he needs to go do some TV to decompress.

Craig: Yes, he was talking about going to do TV and film. He was joking about how he needs to go do TV and film just to make some money so he can start doing theatre for free.

Lindsay: And he wasn’t bitter. I didn’t find him bitter.

Craig: No.

Lindsay: I found him, he was really engaging, and he talked a lot about the importance of the ensemble in pieces which I loved, and he also had this great insight about how, particularly in the shows that just didn’t make it, and he was being kind, I think. But it was pretty clear he was aware of the troubles with Catch Me If You Can and Big Fish.

Craig: Yeah.

Lindsay: And that his response was not to be bitter about it, and not to be whiny about it, and not to, like, stamp his feet but to go, “Okay, this is what I’ve got, this is what I’ve been given, so I’m going to make this experience the best I can for me, and the best I can for my audience.” It all comes back to theatrical experience. I think that’s what you have to be if you’re an actor, or a writer, even a producer. What is the theatrical experience you are getting as an audience member, or giving?

Craig: And sharing.

Lindsay: And sharing. It’s a very sharing art. And if you’re not sharing, you know, what are you doing?

Craig: Do you want to do A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder?

Lindsay: Ugh!

Craig: Okay. Enough with that. We’re not going to talk about that because you probably saw it and

loved it.

Lindsay: You probably did.

Craig: We are definitely the wrong ones.

Lindsay: We’re the aliens. We’re the ones sitting and going, “Well, obviously, we have no idea what these humans are up to.” Okay.

And that is really important, too. Like, if you did see a show, or you do like something, that’s your opinion and you should cherish it, you know? Don’t change your opinion because, if you could back it up, do not change your opinion just because somebody else says differently.

Craig: Okay. Let’s get out of here.

Lindsay: Okay. We’ve got to go to New York. Bye!

Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.

And you know what I’m going to pump up on this podcast? This podcast! Hello, podcast! You’re doing great! Oh, thank you, podcast!

This past six months, I’m really happy with the educators and the playwrights I’ve got to talk to and there’s more fun to come. Just this month, we’ve had interviews about audio drama, defining your vision as a director, and I loved my talk with Gai Jones. And, on that note, if you are a theatre educator and if you work in the arts and you want to share what you do with drama teachers and students – long, far, and wide – then you should contact me! I’d love to chat! I’d love to put you on the podcast. You know, with this marvelous new-fangled invention called the Internet, interviews can be done anytime, anywhere, from the comfort of your very own home, you know, give me an email: [email protected] I would love to see if we can work something out.

You can check out our podcast at theatrefolk.com/podcast, and I’ll also put the link in the show notes along with everything else we mentioned in today’s podcast: theatrefolk.com/episode78.

And, finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every Wednesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on youtube.com/theatrefolk. You can find us on the Stitcher app AND you can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. Go there, search on the word “Theatrefolk.” Give us a review. That would be awesome!

And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends, take care.

Music credit: ”Ave” by Alex (feat. Morusque) is licensed under a Creative Commons license.

Photo credit: 28 Dreams via photopin cc

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Lindsay Price

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