An Introduction to... Creative Feedback

Sandman by Adie Mueller and Mike Carter. Copyright Jon West.

Raise your hand if you’ve either witnessed, or your work has been on the receiving end of, a creative feedback session that has descended into misery for the artist. This can happen for many reasons, but the outcome for the artist can be damaging and demoralising, particularly for those just starting out. (Coaching and management theory says that when someone is first learning a new discipline or skill they need encouragement more than criticism, but as they become more experienced the opposite is true. This is useful to know as it’s highly applicable to artistic feedback.)

Feedback can be unwelcome and unsolicited and unavoidable – a throwaway comment overheard, an unfriendly review shared on social media – but it’s an intrinsic part of every artist’s practice. Given that, it’s preferable to embrace it, understand how it can work well, and take control of how you use it. Once you’ve done this you can weave it into how you plan your artistic process – deciding when and how you will open your work to it – and make it your servant not the other way around!
This was the aim of the first ever ‘Introduction to….’ Workshop for Troop members.

There are many techniques, forms and methods of feedback but not really any ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, perhaps just helpful and less helpful. Using a variety will help you find out what works for you, and in what situation or stage of your process each is most useful. Feedback might come from a group (eg. audience post show Q&A or invited group discussion after a scratch performance), it might be facilitated or chaired (or not), it might come in written form such as a reader’s report on a play, or a review in a newspaper, blog or website. A one to one feedback session presents an opportunity to hear more uncompromising views away from the glare of an audience, while a survey or questionnaire allows the artist to ask very targeted questions, and potentially receive a large number of responses – which can be anonymous if you want particularly frank views. On that subject (providing you’re won’t be recognised), lurking front of house after the show is a great way to eavesdrop on the audience shooting from the hip with their impressions of your work.

The impressions of audiences can be just as useful as those of experts and professional colleagues, and sometimes an expert view from a field outside of yours can be really useful. Knowing the difference and understanding the agenda of the person giving the feedback, is key to filtering it successfully so that you take what is most useful and file the rest away. For example, a venue programmer or festival director won’t necessarily give you their personal opinion – they’ll represent the views of their organisation and / or audience. A newspaper critic will follow an editorial policy or the political bias of the owner.

There will also be times when feedback is not welcome or helpful – when you’re deeply immersed in thinking and generating material for example.  The best time to gather it is when you need it and can do something useful with it, and this might be at several points - before, during and after the creative process, with different methods used at each point as appropriate.

When you’re asked to give feedback, a good starting point or guiding principle might be to remember that it’s not your work, and instead to think of your role as to help the artist realise their vision for the work. Not only that, but it is someone else’s ‘creative baby’, usually something they have strong feelings of attachment to. Being asked for your thoughts on it is a privilege. When you’re giving feedback, it’s useful to remember how vulnerable it can feel to be receiving it. We’ve all seen work that has failed to float our boat, but avoiding the urge to damn it with opinionated language (such as ‘I didn’t think much of / could have done without / couldn’t understand why … ‘) in favour of clear, specific, descriptive language (such as ‘ I saw / heard / wondered if …’) is not only more useful to the artist, it also helps develop your ability to use genuinely critical language which can be useful in your own creative process. Using a more neutral tone and language does not compromise what you can say, often the opposite is true because you can say the difficult stuff and the artist can hear it because they’re less likely to feel under attack.

Understanding the difference between open and closed questions is also important: If you want a closed, definite answer (yes, no, etc), you need to frame a closed question such as ‘did you like…?’. If you want a broader impression the question needs to be more along the lines of ‘what did you think of ….?’ Both types of question have their place. Whether you are giving or receiving feedback, knowing the difference and using them appropriately will get you closer to the answers you need.

We spent the last half hour of the workshop looking at a couple of feedback techniques in more depth: The first one is a dramaturgical technique which is useful in a devising process. It consists of three steps (which can be used interchangeably):

1.    ‘Pulling the thread’ - observing an improv or exceprts, (for example), and pointing out where you notice elements which stand out and could be further drawn out. This is very useful at the early stages of the creative process when a lot of material is being generated but not yet much structure or meaning.

2.    ‘Being the mirror’ - describing what you have noticed, seen, heard etc. in neutral (non-judgmental) language. This allows the artist to check whether what they intend to be seen is successfully coming across.

3.    ‘Offering options’ – providing ideas for what could happen next, or ways forward. This should only be used when the artist is stuck, and with their permission. 

The Critical Response Process (sometimes known as the Liz Lerman method, after the choreographer who invented it) is more often used in the dance world, but can be applied to any artform. It puts the artist in control of the feedback process, and of how they apply the feedback to their work, and it allows them to find their own solutions rather than having ideas imposed by the responders. It’s important that both artist and audience understand how it works, and have agreed to use it, and it’s recommended that you learn and practice it before applying it in a real feedback situation.

The process can be conducted in a group, with or without a facilitator, or as a one to one. It takes place after the audience have watched the work (or scratch), and consists of four stages which must be followed in order, with each stage being completed before moving onto the next.

1.    Statements of Meaning: The audience tell the artist what stood out for them – what they noticed, what impressed them, what struck them. These statements should be specific, focussing on element/s and moment/s (not the whole piece) and not be qualified or explained. So rather than saying ‘I really loved the costumes because they reminded me of that Pina Bausch piece’ you would say ‘the men’s costumes in the opening section stood out for me’.

2.    Artist as Questioner: The artist asks the audience questions about the work. Any audience member can respond, or the artist can direct questions at particular individuals (if there are particular people s/he wants to hear from). Responders may express an opinion only if it is in direct response to the question and does not contain suggestions for changes.

3.    Neutral Questions: The audience ask the artist neutral questions about the work – ie. without an opinion couched within them .’Why was it so dark?’ is not a neutral question. ‘What ideas guided your choices about the lighting?’ is.

4.    Opinions: The audience offer opinions or suggestions about specific elements of the work, but do not express the opinion until the artist has agreed. For example ‘I have an opinion about the lighting at the beginning. Would you like to hear it?’. The artist can decline to hear the opinion or suggestion for any reason.

I’ve used this method many times with many artists, and had it used on my work. Although it’s a powerful tool, it’s neither the definitive method, nor always the most useful. Sometimes the responses can feel frustratingly indirect, but sometimes indirect is what you need. When you really want a direct, right between the eyes opinion, there’s nothing wrong with asking for it. Just make sure you brace yourself for the answer! Finally, one of the things I’ve learned is that sometimes feedback can be unhelpful, irrelevant or just plain wrong, and sometimes the process of defending your work can be as helpful as changing it.

During the workshop two of the artists made a note of points that stood out for them in relation to giving and receiving feedback. We’ll pull these together into a ‘good practice guide’ for creative feedback which will be made available to Troop members in the near future.

Catherine Willmore

Further info:
Liz Lerman Critical Response Process
Tips on giving and receiving creative feedback

Troop News goes out every month to Troop members. Send your ideas for articles and opportunities, and your production photos for inclusion, to Catherine Willmore by the third Wednesday of the month. (No issue Jan 2016)