Friday, April 8, 2011


The latest sample from the "Design Methods" chapter of Alice Through the Proscenium:

Criticism   Evaluation is part of the design process.  Just don’t start too early. 
It’s important to work through your ideas in a light-hearted, trusting way.  Only at intervals do you step back to see if the thing actually works.  In fact, recent brain science (brutally simplified here) suggests that it’s the frontal lobe that does the inventing and the temporal lobes that do the editing and that our brain plumbing only allows necessary chemicals to be sent to one area at a time… So you can actually, physically, suck the juice out of your creativity!

Still.  You gotta compare and evaluate. Develop impartial judgment.  You can’t love your work just because it’s your baby: tough love is what it needs.  But none of that it’s-mine-so-it-must-be-awful insecurity either.  Pretend a stranger came up with this stuff.  Only in real doubt, do you ask for outside opinions. 

You may want one before show-N-tell with the director. 

Whose opinion should you listen to?  Find someone you respect who can be somewhat impartial (Mom?  Maybe.).  Someone competent to give an opinion on visual matters.  This does not mean an MFA in scenography, just good eyes and good sense.  But many intelligent people cannot read drawings or understand 3D relationships.  (Half of them seem to be directors.)  Find someone who’ll tell you the blunt truth… then don’t hate them.  If, however, what you really want is loving reassurance, say so.  It’s simpler.  And that’s a legitimate need too.

Want to take criticism better?  Grow a thicker skin.  Evaluate the evaluation to find the kernel of truth.  Remember that opinions from mother, director, or critic are just opinions: right, wrong, half right.  If one person says, “too blue,” don’t be surprised if the next says, “not blue enough.”  This stuff is subjective.  But there is some truth in that old joke: if three people tell you you’re drunk – go lie down.

Want to be a better critic?  The vital parts of good criticism are: intelligence, perception, and an ability to evaluate a design against its own goals, not your prejudices.  Equally important are emotional skills to make a critique palatable: helpfulness, respect, tact.  One writer (who?) advised starting a story critique by saying, “That part with the dog…”  If the advice-seeker answered, “I love the bit with the dog!  I wrote the whole thing for the bit with the dog.”  Then (who was it?) knew what was actually wanted was reassurance.  And supplied that.  But if the answer was, “Yeah, not too sure about that dog…”  Then she (or he) gave actual criticism.  Say what evil needs saying, but add the good stuff too - what is working - and sound hopeful about the outcome!

In theater design you are contractually required to please the director and producers.  You’d sure like to please the audience and the critics.  Pleasing yourself is hardest.  The test?  Ask yourself, “Does this design serve the play?”

Make today’s design the best you have in you today.  As Scarlett O’Hara said, “tomorrow is another day.”  Every new design is a new chance to get it right. 4.21

4.21 The converse is, alas, also true: every new design is a new chance to fall on your face. Still, you can get a useful view from the floor.

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