A Juggling Act: Critiquing Performers While Performing for Critics

Adriana Nocco

This past spring, OnStage Founder and Editor-in-Chief Chris Peterson informed me that I was one of the select few applicants out of approximately one hundred or so hopefuls that had been chosen to write for OnStage as a college intern in the summer of 2015. To say I was ecstatic and incredibly grateful is a complete and utter understatement, and my experience as an OnStage intern was incredible and invaluable. I am also extremely thankful that Chris has granted me the opportunity to continue writing for the site. It is amazing and surreal to combine my passion for both writing and theatre, and to be able to share my thoughts and opinions concerning various aspects of the theatrical world with the general public and theatre professionals. 

As I posted articles each week and witnessed the widespread responses they received, a deep realization overcame me – the power of the written word to affect people and inspire change is boundless. I also became painstakingly aware that the online community is an audience through which the written word can spread (and be either endlessly praised or endlessly criticized) seemingly faster than the speed of light. This caused me great happiness and, at times, great frustration. My internship experience not only made me a better writer and analyst of theatre; it forced me to grow, and to develop a thicker skin.

When people criticize writers on the Internet, they sometimes forget that these writers who are reading the often-harsh comments posted on their computer screens are human beings with feelings. Honestly, with our society’s intense emphasis on communication that is effected in an impersonal manner by electronic means rather than in person, I can understand why this insensitivity occurs. Nevertheless, it doesn’t change the fact that, as a human being, I always remember the specific critical comments posted about my work and me much more clearly than any of the positive comments. It seems to be the nature of humanity to be able to recall negativity much more easily than positivity. 

I have also come to realize that this is true of the impact made by the critical comments of arts journalists and critics as well; subjects of their remarks will always remember the negative comments more vividly than the positive ones. As a person that identifies herself as a performer as well as a writer, I understand this concept from both perspectives. Consequently, I have often struggled internally as a theatrical writer due to the fact that expressing my honest opinions (no matter how impersonal they are intended to be) about the shows I review could, at times, hurt the subjects of my reviews. As a person who creates art, mainly as a performer and as a writer, I understand that sort of hurt. 

Furthermore, it is difficult to write critically and to perform simultaneously due to the fact that I could very well be expressing a negative opinion about the art made by a close friend or director I’ve worked with in the past or hope to work with in the future. It is never fun to be in a situation where expressing your honest opinion will hurt anyone and in addition, possibly negatively affect one’s own performing arts career. How do I go about maintaining my sense of truth and integrity as an arts journalist without hindering my career and my viability as a performer? How do I juggle my ambition to maintain legitimacy as a writer and theatre spectator and my desire to be an empathizer, a supporter of other performers and theatre friends, especially as a performer who understands the immense power that the critic wields?

My conclusion is that there is no easy answer to either question. First and foremost, as a person who constantly strives to create and thoughtfully engage with art both as a writer and as a performer, I have learned that no matter what I say or do, no matter how meticulous I am, I will face criticism. It is inevitable, and honestly, if every other person, artist or spectator, agreed with every one of my opinions or creative decisions, the world would be pretty damn boring. More importantly, my work would never be challenged whatsoever, and as a result, I would not be motivated to change for the better. 

Secondly, as Spiderman’s Uncle Ben infamously said: “With great power comes great responsibility.” As an arts journalist that has been granted the opportunity to regularly post my work to a public, online forum, I have control over the critical commentary put forth with respect to the greater theatrical community, and realize that my words have the ability to affect readers in a multitude of ways. I have promised myself that I will always remember to exercise my words carefully and treat my subjects with dignity as long as I am involved in the field of arts journalism, for what I write will inevitably influence the feelings of my audience. I will do my best to be as truthful a writer as I can be, and will continue to consider the weight and impact (emotional and otherwise) of my words carefully before sending them out into the world. It is a balance that is exceedingly difficult to achieve; truly a juggling act. All I can do is continue to develop the skills I need to keep those beanbags up in the air.