The Woman who asked Why or: How I l Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Critic

To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.

Aristotle

In my current day-job I work with really lovely people who always thank me for my work or say how great my Excel spreadsheets are or how happy they are with my contribution to the team or present me with two cinema tickets as a reward for all my efforts (yes, this actually happened. I saw Gatsby. That’s another story). Our department is not always this disneyfied-wonderland of positivity and appreciation, however I have never been nor felt criticized for my work.

It’s weird.

Because the work that I do that doesn’t-pay-the-bills-as-frequently-as-this-current-admin-job, as an actor and writer, is full of criticism. In fact, criticism and the Arts really go hand-in-hand; it’s part of the deal. Mum would always tell me I would need to “grow a thicker skin” if I wanted to be an actor … That sounded particularly terrifying and awful, especially to the fifteen year-old me who was sobbing into her pillow because she didn’t get the part in some god-awful amateur theatre production of Les liaisons dangereuses.

Actors, writers, theatre-makers, artists, designers, film-makers, creatives … We are all subject to criticism in our chosen fields. As an actor, simply not getting the gig can be taken as a criticism; that director thought she was better / prettier / thinner / more talented than me

To be honest, I am confident there are plenty of careers out there that must deal with fierce criticism everyday but there is something different about the criticism you receive for your creative work. Maybe because a little bit (or sometimes a lot) of yourself goes into creative work. Maybe because it is so exposing. Maybe because inside most people there is that creative urge, that sense that they too could have been doing something creative if only they’d had the break / money / parental support / reality television programs like The Voice, so that makes them some sort of expert who can dish-out criticism. Maybe because there really aren’t any “experts”. Maybe because the arts are so damn subjective (if you’re a crap doctor, you’re a crap doctor – there’s no question about it. Tobey Maguire, on the other hand, divides audiences).

There is also something different about the very public way in which that criticism is often given – reviews, particularly on the internet, are there for the world to see if they ever wanted to.

The growing of a thicker skin has been a very, very long process for me.

I once took part in a playwriting course – just a little bi-monthly meeting of wannabe playwrights, facilitated by one actual playwright. You would read your work aloud and get feedback. It was always a good day but never all that challenging. I was the youngest there and the only participant not attempting to write some sort of drawing-room drama. Needless to say the play I was working on, Dropped, was a little different from what the others found aesthetically pleasing.

After reading a section of my play (a section in which there is a bit of repetitive swearing but all in the appropriate context … of course) one of my fellow class-mates got quite irate:

“Why?” she asked.
“Why?” I didn’t know what she was really asking me here.
“Why?” she repeated.
“Why what?” I needed more information.
“Why?”
I just looked at her.
After a pause she continued, “I just don’t know why … I don’t understand. Why? Why these words? Why am I hearing this? Why?”

I didn’t have an answer for her.

That was criticism.

That was the first time the class had really challenged me.

And that was the moment I realised; as much as I hated it I also needed it – criticism.

It made me stop and think about what I was doing and why I was doing it. It also made me want to punch her in the face, but once I worked through that (no punches were thrown) I could actually start to look at my work objectively … Well, as objectively as you can.

Of course I won’t always like it, or agree with it, but I think I realised in that moment that it is a necessity for creative practice. Not a spiteful review or a mean-spirited comment but criticism that makes you think, question and challenge your work. Unfortunately there isn’t much of that around …

Learning to listen to criticism in whichever form it takes, to pick out the useful bits and brush off the crap, is difficult but you get to practice it a lot when you work in the arts.

It’s the only way I can keep turning up to castings. And not get the role.

It’s the only way I can keep writing. And not get the grant / commission / award.

In order to simply survive this crazy “industry” it is so very important separate the work from the person – to not look at a bad review or the fact you didn’t get a role as a personal attack … Keep it separate. Take from it what you can and make a choice: act on it or let it go. Otherwise, well, we would all go a little madder than we already are. Otherwise we would all just give up.

That woman with her incessant “whys” really did help me a hell of a lot.

(And Dropped is going to be performed soon complete with the aforementioned section in which there is a bit of repetitive swearing but all in the appropriate context … of course)

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