All Over Creation: When the Truth Hurts

After suffering through a friend's lousy show, is honesty the best policy?

C'mon, George, tell me what you <i>really</i> thought of my one-man <i>Streetcar</i>.
"C'mon, George, tell me what you really thought of my one-man Streetcar."

We've all been there – well, all of us who have friends or loved ones in the arts, anyway: waiting for a relative/BFF/significant other after having just seen his or her latest creative endeavor and the damn thing made you nod off/go postal/lose the will to live. What do you say to someone you're close to when you feel like a project they were a part of – or (horrors!) solely responsible for – left a stink to make a rancid egg and sulphur soufflé smell like Nana's home-baked bread? Do you give it to them with both barrels, trusting in the strength of your relationship to heal whatever emotional or psychic damage your 12-gauge honesty will inflict? Do you lie, swallowing whole your critical distaste (or revulsion, as the case may be), and offer up an unequivocal pair of thumbs pointed skyward? Or do you seek some middle ground, a remark that's hazy enough to sound like a compliment yet leaves you enough wiggle room to be neutral in expressing an actual opinion? The time spent weighing that decision can be supremely uncomfortable, even excruciating, not least because it's as close as many of us ever come to a true moral dilemma.

The matter resurfaced recently among a group of actors I was with, as one had just found herself caught again in its discomfiting grip. She'd seen a play because she knew someone in it, and she hadn't liked it – I mean, really hadn't liked it – and was torn about what to tell her actor friend once he emerged from the dressing room. She didn't want to be hurtful, and yet her response to the show was so negative that she didn't feel right chirping to him, "It was great!" This quandary, while difficult for anyone, whether they're in the arts or not, seems especially vexing for theatre people. They take a certain pride in their strong opinions and feel any moderation of their candid response chips away at their integrity. But because they know firsthand how much positive audience reactions mean to performers – it directly affects their work onstage, after all – and how crushing it can be to hear even a lukewarm appraisal of one's efforts, they're loath to dish out such cruelty to their fellow artists' faces. (Behind their backs? Now that's another story.)

The subject always puts me in mind of Karen Kuykendall, Austin theatre's late and still lamented diva, who perfected a response to this post-performance plight that steered clear of any personal opinion and still managed to disarm and satisfy its recipient. It was only three little words, but she'd crank up the Southern honey in that raspy alto of hers and draw out each word to three times its normal length, calling out: "Ahhhh sawww yewwww!" With the mischievous tug to her smile and sparkle in her eye, she might have been delivering half compliment, half complaint, but what did it matter? It was Karen, and, yes, she saw you.

John Bustin, a mentor of mine in the criticism game and the original "Dean of Austin Entertainment," also developed a slippery way out when cornered by an actor or a director wanting his immediate assessment of their work. Shaking his head as if in wonder, Bustin would drawl, "Well, you've done it again!" Ego typically led the artist to interpret the line as an acknowledgment of triumph, and John was happy to leave it so, particularly when it wasn't what he meant. Wiggle room, indeed!

Inspired by these two friends, I made a game out of creating my own coded comments, ambiguous statements that could fool someone who'd caused a train wreck on the stage into believing I was an admiring fan: "Wow, I can't believe what I just saw." "Oh, I wish you'd been sitting where I was!" "Words fail me." Of course, that's just a game, and none of those lines are ones I'd try on someone near and dear to me. You can't be glib with such people. You know that what you say will matter to them, and deeply. That's what starts your palms perspiring and gut twisting. What do you say?

Not to sound like I condone lying, but this is one instance in which I find the unvarnished truth to be highly overrated. Unloading all your gripes and grievances, however justified they may be, under the standard of Absolute Candor or Truth to Self fails to account for your truth's consequences: the pain it can cause a person you care about and the injury it can do to their self-esteem, not to mention the relationship you share. And those words, once spoken, can't be recalled. Once they land, they can wound and fester for ages. (Trust me, as one who's had his published criticism quoted back to him years after it saw print, I know.) To me, answering "What do you say" begins with another question, one grounded in a fundamental rule we all learned as children: How do you want to be treated? Then treat other people that way. It's that simple, and humane.

And it doesn't mean you have to squelch your quibbles and kvetches forever. The actor mentioned above felt that her friend in the play she didn't like might be open to a frank discussion of the show at a later date, but having one while he was still in the thick of performing it and needing to believe in both the show and his work in it didn't seem appropriate. She opted for a more positive response in that moment. And you know, actors can have a keen sense of timing. I figure she made a good call.

So the next time you're facing a loved one whose creative calamity you just suffered through and you're tempted to say exactly what you thought of it, read the moment. Imagine yourself in that person's shoes. And don't be afraid to say, "You were great."

Oh, and if it's me who just saw your show, you really were great. Honest.

More criticism
All Over Creation: Come and <i>Don't</i> Get It
All Over Creation: Come and Don't Get It
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More All Over Creation
In Praise of Designers
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Robert Faires, July 17, 2015

All Over Creation: Site Specifics
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criticism, Karen Kuykendall, John Bustin

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