In every section of the creative industry, especially at universities, there will come a time when your friend invites you to see a show they’re acting in, or to listen to some slam writing they’ve written, or to watch them do stand-up. And you’ll come along to support, hoping to encourage or validate them, only to find yourself wishing you were anywhere else. Maybe the performance doesn’t quite seem ready, or the script needs another proof read. Whatever it is, it’s not quite up to scratch. And seeing someone you care about performing in something that just isn’t very good is never a good feeling. But what’s infinitely worse is the moment they come off stage and ask: “So, what did you think?”
What are you supposed to say at that moment? How do you walk the line between a supportive attitude and honesty?
Firstly, pick your moment. Whatever the quality of the piece, you need to wait until the time is right. Don’t immediately launch into a tirade of criticism, or even make clear your negative thoughts. The chances are that your friend is still riding an adrenaline high from their performance, as well as feeling anxious about what you think. Nothing will be gained by immediately telling them your honest thoughts, so be polite, and wait until later to express your criticisms.
Whatever the quality of the piece, you need to wait until the time is right
It may be the case that the fault in the performance lies not in your friend, but in the rest of the production. As anyone who does theatre can tell you, there are times where you know your material isn’t great, but you have to give it your all anyway. If that is the case, make sure to isolate the two. Saying things like: “You did the best you could with the material,” or “Your performance was great, but I wasn’t sure of the direction you were given,” makes your opinions of the performance clear without making it personal.
A useful tactic is to ask questions. Giving your friend the chance to elaborate or explain certain choices, ideas, or elements of their work allows the chance for you to better understand it. Sometimes, framing your criticism as a series of questions is a more sensitive approach. Questions like “I don’t think I understood why X happened,” or “Could you elaborate on this moment?” help you gain a fresh perspective on the performance, and may even change your opinion of it. If not, at least you further your understanding of what your friend was trying to accomplish.
Eventually, if all else fails, you may just have to tell them that you didn’t think the work was very good. But always frame the criticisms around things you thought were well done, and suggest ways they could be better. That way, instead of being negative about this work, you are offering insight and advice for their next effort. So long as you frame your thoughts merely as suggestions, rather than gospel, it will be clear that you are trying to help. Keep the emphasis on your friend, with statements like “You could try” or “Did you think of” instead of statements like, “I would have”. It also helps to be specific with your feedback, referring to precise moments or lines or choices, rather than vague put-downs.
Always frame the criticisms around things you thought were well done, and suggest ways they could be better
However, don’t be afraid to speak up and criticise. We all want to support our friends who are brave enough to put something creative into the world, but no favours will be done by allowing that work to go unchecked. Anyone in the industry knows that they aren’t going to produce only top-level content throughout their career; they need discerning people around them who are able to distinguish between the good and bad that they create. Feedback is essential to the learning process, so don’t be afraid to provide it. In the end, your friend will learn from and appreciate what you give them.
Support your friends in their creative endeavours, but don’t let them slip past without criticism or feedback. Nothing will be gained by hiding behind a shallow mask of manners. But that doesn’t mean you can’t put forward your ideas and criticism in a positive and helpful way, because it is this feedback which will allow them to make their next work far better.
Alternatively, get them drunk off Bacardi and mock their life choices. Either works.