Constructive criticism is something that I find a lot of improvisers struggle with, both giving and receiving. In a way it can feel contrary to the spirit of our art; it’s our job to make our scene partner look good, to accept and build on their choices, to make classes and rehearsals feel safe. Certainly, beginners need space to experiment and safely fail, which tends to mean setting them up for success more than pointing out their failures. When do we lose those training wheels though? And how do we make it ok to receive criticism without losing the fun of what we’re doing?
For me, criticism is a very personal thing. I try to approach criticism the same way I’d approach physical contact in improv. There are a lot of parallels, really; touch is something that experienced players use as a tool, understand, and are broadly comfortable communicating about. It’s becoming quite common to have a chat about physical boundaries before a show (who is ok being touched where and how), and it feels like a vocabulary that we’re getting comfortable with. Touch is something that beginners are often hesitant about (with a few exceptions), and we certainly wouldn’t expect somebody at their first improv class to be fine cuddling a stranger, let alone kissing them. Experienced players are often fine with both, and/or confident enough to explicitly say what is and isn’t ok.
Accepting criticism is a similarly vulnerable act. We all have a certain image of ourselves, and as beginners particularly it’s difficult to separate our own ego with our stage self and the choices they make. Because improv exposes our gut instincts, I’d argue that you can’t and shouldn’t completely separate your ‘real’ self from a character or stage persona; it’d feel very disingenuous and might block creative impulses. That means that we’re exposing ourselves onstage, and that makes it hard to hear criticism.
Of course, at a certain point in our development, we simply need to hear it. Not just have somebody tell us what we’re doing wrong, but have the ability to hear what they’re saying and consider it without letting our own defensive ego flare up. Letting the criticism in long enough to think about it, to try out a suggestion and see if it suits you, is as vulnerable an act as letting someone touch you on stage and seeing how that makes you feel. Both acts require trust, vulnerability, and self-assurance.
How then do we develop this, in ourselves and in our students? As with touch, there are broad steps to take and personal ones. With classes and casts, I think that making sure people feel safe and bonded as a group are incredibly helpful. Taking a few minutes to learn names, find a few things in common, or have time working with each person as a pair or small group can make even a drop-in feel more comfortable. For casts spending more time together, a nice long chat about boundaries and non-improv group bonding can both be huge aids to cultivating this experience.
Here are a few more broad tips for managing criticism:
As a Teacher:
Note in a way that’s appropriate to the level
The same note applies in very different ways depending on who you’re noticing needs the feedback. For example, in somebody’s first-ever improv class, if they’re too quiet I’ll usually just make a mental note to myself that they seem nervous. If they’ve had a few classes, I’ll mention projecting, using the stage, etc. as a short technical note. In an advanced class if it’s still an issue I might spend some time on vocal exercises so that everyone has the tools to succeed. With a cast or with people I know well I’ll happily just shout, ‘speak the fuck up!’ and trust that it’ll be heard in the loving manner in which it was intended. People feel most like they’re being seen and met where they are if we suit the feedback to the player, even if it’s the exact same content.
Note on what you’ve already taught in a general class
If people are feeling self-conscious, having a framework to work in can make them feel safer. In the same way that something like the alphabet game gives beginners confidence because they know the alphabet, having a structure you’re working within is often comforting. If you’ve not taught a person about object work, for example, and you give them a lengthy note on it, it can feel like a dressing down that’s coming out of left field. They might start to think that they just don’t have a talent for improv when really it’s simply a skill that’s not been addressed yet. If you’ve already talked about object work, though, being noted on it can feel positive, because they know the rules and are just being reminded. That makes it a tangible and achievable goal for them, and students will be less defensive and more excited to do better next time.
Make expectations clear and note in relation to them
Because improv is the kind of art where just about anything could be a good/appropriate choice in the correct circumstances, it’s very easy (and tempting) to argue for your choices. It’s difficult to hear/accept a note if it feels like you’re being told you’re doing improv wrong, especially if you’re an experienced player. Making it very clear what a show is/needs in the beginning and then noting in relation to that can make the process much more clear-cut, and less personal (in a good way).
As a Performer/Student:
Think about the note applying to a character
It’s really easy to take it personally when a teacher tells you that your choice was wrong, or that you could have done something differently. This is especially true if you’re personally invested, which you should be, and if you’re thinking of the character you’re playing as basically yourself, which is a more difficult choice. Try making sure every time you go on stage you change one thing about yourself, even if it’s just making sure your character has a different name. Then, if your choices are criticised, think of that criticism applying to the character. You might find you can listen to it in a less emotionally heightened place, which can make it much easier to hear what’s being said.
Think of notes as a fun suggestion of a new thing to try
Part of the fun of improv is being pleasantly surprised and getting to try new things. As we progress, we can get quite attached to the style we like playing and the choices we like making. If you receive a note that sounds contrary to your own beliefs, or that sounds difficult, or goes against a note somebody else has given you, try to hold it lightly. Treat that note as a way of potentially being surprised and delighted, and give it a try even if it seems wrong. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to do it again, and if you do like it then hey, you learned something unexpected!
Remember your teacher/director is a human too
Teachers and directors have all kinds of reasons for giving notes. It might be specific to the show they’re trying to create, it might be about the vibe of a particular group, it might be a skill they’re trying to test or instil so that they can push in a different direction. They’re not the boss of all improv, but they’re the boss of the specific thing you’re doing. They’re going out on a limb to hold space and make something and to try and help students develop. They might not do a perfect job, but unless something is actively harmful I’d suggest going along with notes you’re given to see where they lead. It’s not your vision, after all, and that’s part of the fun.
If your teacher/director is somebody with less privilege than you, for example, you’re male and they’re female, or you’re part of the dominant culture in that country and they’re not, keep in mind too that they’re having to prove their worth more often than you. Taking a note gracefully is a helpful show of support, and will help reinforce the trust everyone has in them to lead. It’d be nice if this didn’t matter, but we certainly live in a world where it still does.
Having said all of this, just like with touch everybody is an individual and it’s important to meet people where they are. If somebody comes to class in a place that means they’re not comfortable being touched at all, we should adhere to that; they deserve to be there too. If somebody is in a fragile state where they’re not able to hear criticism, there are certainly ways to incorporate them into a beginner/intermediate class, too. They might not be able to progress as fast as peers, but the positive reinforcement of being set up for success at that level can have huge effects down the road.
Improv isn’t (and shouldn’t be) therapy, but we should acknowledge that people come for all kinds of reasons, needing to find all kinds of things. Even if what someone needs is to stay in beginner classes for a year or two having their ego gently stroked, as far as I’m concerned that’s completely fine. Assuming they’re not being offensive or problematic, I feel like it’s important to acknowledge that maybe they’re getting what they need and it’s ok if they’re not ready to have their art refined by an outside voice yet. Just as it’d be fine for somebody to play for years and not touch anybody. Sure, there are styles of shows they couldn’t be in, but the beauty of improv is that there infinite possibilities.
With touch, we often take the time to ask every person where they’re at generally, and on a particular day. It’s worth checking in with students and cast members about feedback in a similar way, especially if you’re going to be spending a lot of time working with them. Some very experienced players know exactly what their weak points are already, are actively working on them, and feel nothing but self-conscious having them pointed out in front of a group. Others are of the opinion that if they’re not being noted they’re not learning. Still others are happy to be noted, but only if they feel that you see and hear them adequately, which might mean budgeting time for a conversation rather than a five-minute briefing. These are all valid places to be in as a performer, and it’s efficient to know who in your cast needs/wants what. A good note/criticism is one that can be actively and productively used by the person you’re giving it to. Noting somebody is a generous act, not an expression of your own competency or ego.
When I do a boundary check-in with a group of people I know and trust, I usually just say, ‘I’m all good, come get it!’ or maybe mention a specific emotional or physical thing I need to be off the table. With a group of strangers or people where the trust isn’t there, I’m much more thorough and matter-of-fact. I might mention where specifically people can and can’t put a finger or tongue, when and how it’s ok to pick me up, and that there’s a short list of subject matter/characters I’m not ok playing with strangers.
The same is often true of criticism; from somebody in a position of care whom I trust I’m thrilled to receive constructive criticism. It often makes me feel seen and supported. The same comment from somebody I don’t trust might get my heckles up. I think this is true of many performers; trust is a precursor to vulnerability, and we need to be vulnerable to be open to really hearing criticism. That means trust is priority 1, so that good improv can be priority 2. If you try to skip 1, you’ll get neither.