Monday, October 6, 2014

SEMINAR: Constructive Criticism

David Barker guest blog posts as he discusses how his experience providing constructive feedback as a theatre professor versus his character Leonard in SEMINAR shredding the egos of his pupils one semi-colon at a time.

In "Seminar" I play Leonard, a teacher who unleashes criticism with no regard to anyone's feelings, decorum or ethics.  In my 33 years of university teaching, 31 at Arizona State University and 2 at UC Santa Barbara, I've always explained on the first day of classes that the ability to receive constructive criticism is required.  It is required for artistic growth and development. But it is also difficult, particularly for actors.  This is why: as an actor you become the target of criticism.  The way you move, the way you speak, the way you behave, your emotions, in short, you, in person become the target.  So when I tell you, for example, "you are not speaking loud enough" or "you should be much more upset" or "you are moving too quickly," it often is challenging for the young actor to separate artistic analysis from personal attack.  The first day of classes I ask what the difference is between these two comments: "you are not committing enough to your objective," and "you are a moron." One has to do with craft, and the other is personal. 

Enter Leonard, the amoral, alcoholic, verbally abusive former professor (he was fired for sleeping with students) who teaches four young, aspiring writers in "Seminar."  His criticism is ruthless and relentless, and deeply personal.  Leonard eschews some generally accepted rules of a civilized society.  He chooses his words to cut through ego and pretense and apparently to wound.  During his diatribes in Theresa's Rebeck's 2011 comedy, Leonard attacks the four twenty-something's with piercing words such as moron, whore, coward, pussy, whiner, nobody, weenie and big baby.  He doesn't care if someone's feelings get hurt.  He is in the business of training writers, and preparing them for the cutthroat competition they're going to face in the real world. 

At ASU, I pride myself in being a tough teacher; straightforward and honest, but completely ethical and understanding. So, in playing Leonard, my immediate point of connection is his intensity, which comes very easily to me. But the acting challenge becomes bringing to life his complete lack of sensitivity, which is more and more foreign to me as I age closer to my 60s and deepen my compassion for others.  My four precious grandchildren have softened me considerably. Fortunately I'm sharing the stage with four dedicated, talented young actors who are present every moment and generous: Kerry McCue, Kim Richard, Andy Cahoon and Will Hightower. And I trust the caring and sensitive directorial eye of Ron May.   They all want every moment to spring to truthful and specific life.  In the incubative confines of the rehearsal studio, surrounded by artists I trust, the vicious verbal attacks become fun, particularly when I consider they all serve a greater good: the bridge to the profession Leonard provides all his students with, eventually. 

- David Barker

Get your tickets for SEMINAR- running October 24th through November 9th, 2014. 

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