Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Blurt, Part Two: Why I don't think unsolicited feedback is particularly helpful

The first thing: Permission
People study with Mick Napier in large part for the feedback. Intense, specific, insightful feedback on everything about the way you play.

You might think—if all you was read the
names of his theater's shows or saw a photo—that Mick’s feedback would be invective-filled, and his students serious masochists. But don’t let his punk-rock persona fool you: No teacher or director is more gracious.

In classes I’ve taken, he watches you play, then asks some version of this: “I noticed some things about the way you play. May I tell you what I saw?”

People seek out, travel to and pay for classes with Mick specifically so they can hear his feedback. And still—he asks permission before he gives it.

I agree that his is the right way to do it. (So do a lot of books on effective communication.)

When City 3 first started, a couple of the early posters decided we would only say the nice things about others’ shows. I still try my best to do the same, because I don’t believe in giving unsolicited feedback. To
quote Corey Rittmaster: “It's like someone on the street coming up to me for no reason and saying they like or don't like my shirt. Ok, great. I didn't ask. And I'm not changing.”

So…why am I so against unsolicited feedback?
  • It’s incredibly presumptuous. What qualifies you to tell someone his or her work is good or bad? 
  • It’s hard to do effectively. Giving valuable notes—the kind that help players improve the next time they get on stage—takes experience, insight and practice. 
  • It’s not your job. Are you the troupe’s coach or director? No? Then why would you expect what you say to shape the way they approach the work? Are you a reviewer? No? Then once again, you’re not among the chosen. 
Oh. And. Consider the chance that maaaaaaybe your compulsion to comment is more about you than about making the show better. It’s not a bad idea to ask yourself why you want to say something.
  • Is it because you dig talking theory? Then talk about the philosophy, not the performance.
  • Is it because you’re dying to express how you felt about the show? Then talk to your friends over a beer or by e-mail. If you do it on a public forum where the people you’re critiquing are likely to see it, it has exactly the same result as telling them in person. (And hush. This point is not up for debate.)
  • Is it to show you know what you’re talking about? Get a blog. Talk about whatever you want to. Except, maybe, unsolicited feedback on other people's shows.
If you really, really, really have something you think will help…ask permission.

The second thing: Why?
Because launching into unsolicited feedback puts many normal human beings on the defensive, which dramatically diminishes the likelihood they will be open to what you’re saying.

Because they might not care to hear it—for whatever reason. Maybe they don’t want to be brought down after what they thought was a good show. Maybe they’ve talked a bad show to death and are sick of hearing about it. Maybe their director has specific goals for the show that contradict any thing “helpful” you might have to say. Maybe your opinion just isn’t important to them.

Because you’re not just an audience member—even though you paid for your ticket and watched the show with a bunch of them. You’re an improviser, and your experience and training and relationships with other improvisers change the impact of your comments.

Because openly criticizing others’ work when you haven’t been asked for your opinion isn’t the kind of behavior that builds respect and trust. Which, in theory, are things you might want to do. Especially in a tiny, incestuous improv community.

Like this one.

[Edited a few times to nitpick word choices.]


  1. Is it unsolicited feedback for me to say I love this post? Well, I'm saying it! I really enjoy your whole blog, Trish.
    - Tina Morrison

  2. I read this and thought, "Hmm. I understand but don't really agree." Then I thought "Boy, Trish Berrong really hates me. That's too bad." And then I thought, "Oh shit, bears!"

    And that's how I lost my arm.

  3. Thanks, Tina! I have a fair amount of fun writing this stuff. Plus it means I give fewer speeches in person, which will probably keep my friends from wandering off as often.

    James: You're gonna have to work a LOT harder than that for me to hate you. If I hated everyone I disagreed with, I wouldn't have anyone to feel self-righteous around. And I do enjoy that so much...

    I hope your arm feels better.


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