"How was it?" and other dangerous questions

"How was it?" and other dangerous questions

Jenna Simeonov

Young artists are on the hunt, be it subtle or loud, for the stuff that separates the amateurs from the professionals. They’re not blindly groping in the dark for this stuff; they’re doing practical things like honing their technique, researching the business, improving their foreign language skills, and they’re trying to show their work to as many people as possible.

But in the midst of the clear path, there’s a hazy idea of The Professional, in contrast with The Amateur. And it’s not even that black and white; the difference is really between the perception of The Professional, which is someone who is “good at their craft”, and the contrasting perception of The Amateur, which, defined most grossly, is someone who is “not good yet”.

Godspeed to anyone who tries to live their life based on what they think other people think about them. Talk about groping in the dark. And despite any whimsical, beat-of-their-own-drum stereotypes about them, most of the artists we know want to at least feel like Professionals some time soon, and amid an industry of vagueries, they want to find some semblance of a clear path towards Professionalism.

Happily, there’s one thing that aspiring Professionals can do to gain a bit of that elusive control, and to demonstrate to the world that yes, they indeed are artists of the real-deal calibre.

It’s actually not something to do, but something to avoid doing: artists, resist the urge to ask other people what they think/thought/felt about your work.

It sounds so obvious it’s stupid. But young artists, consider how many times you’ve asked that question to someone in the audience, to a fellow castmate, or even to someone you “should” be asking, like a coach or a conductor. These questions sound like “how does it sound?” or “can you hear me?” or “was that together?”.

The urge to ask these questions comes from a good place. It means that you, the artist, have great critical thinking and self-awareness. You’re conscious of the difference between creation and reception, you respect things like lighting and acoustic and comic timing, and you’re seeking the right balance of all the factors that add up to a great piece of art. But it’s a risky way to seek that balance; by hungrily asking for feedback, you’re saying to the world that you, the artist, aren’t sure about your decisions. (Even if that’s true, it doesn’t mean that you can find security in others.)

Those artists that we admire, the ones that amateurs and professionals alike aspire to emulate, they simply don’t ask those questions. Or at least, they only ask a very small, trusted handful of people. They don’t ask it casually to other folks in the rehearsal room, and they don’t ask their friends or family when they come to a show. Instead, they wait to be asked questions of their own.

Like that aesthetic balance that artists are after, there’s a balance to be found in this business of asking for feedback and not asking for it. Singers, for example, need trusted listeners like teachers and coaches. Really, everybody needs their mentors, and they need to hear the good news as well as the bad. There’s no shortage of people who want to throw in their two cents about your work as an artist, and part of an artist’s job is to discern the real cents from the counterfeit.

Usually, it’s wiser not to give others the chance to tell you what they think. By limiting the invitees, you can sift more easily though the posse of people who are on your side. Those people are rare and valuable, more so than the ones who are just responding, for their own sake, to the dangerous question, “so, what did you think?”

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