What to say about a bad show?

by david

I’m going to admit to a little dishonesty, a type of dishonesty that I think is very common. It seems like the right thing to do in the moment, and it’s fairly innocuous in isolation. When we all do it though–and we never do the opposite–it can be extremely harmful. The lie I’m talking about is pretending someone’s work is good when it isn’t. It’s relevant of almost any type of work, but here I’m thinking about theater and comedy.

But first, I don’t want to be guilty of the opposite, not calling attention to good work: last night I saw a show that I liked. Liked it without reservation, am glad I went, and recommend it to anyone. It was in improv show called “Camp” at ImprovBoston. It’s got two more performances: the next two Fridays at 10pm at IB. I highly recommend it. The cast was fantastic, and bought fully into Joe Creedon’s vision. I know Joe was very proud of the work they’d done, and the work showed.

I love being given the chance to talk up a show or an album or a book. I won’t talk up something that doesn’t deserve it, but when it does, I’m happy to do it. I’d hope for no less from people who like what I do. The more you support your friends who are doing good stuff, the more good stuff they get to do. When you build their opportunities and audience, you build the entire audience for good stuff. There’s probably a whole other post about why creative communities wither, but I think a major cause is complacency. One type of complacency is to stop promoting the things that are worth promoting.

But I digress.

Let’s talk about the other kind of show. Say your friend is in a play. She’s been working on it for months: nerve-wracking auditions, late hours at rehearsals, hours and hours spent getting off book, costume fittings, all-hands set construction, whatever it takes. And after all of that, she’s understandably proud of the work she’s done, and you go to see the show. And it stinks. It’s clearly not just an off night: the thing is just bad. Sitting in the audience, you’re suffering. You don’t want to suffer like this, so you disengage slightly, remove yourself a step, and create a mental bullet list of the mistakes they’ve made. If she asked and you were comfortable doing it, you could tell her where they went wrong.

But she doesn’t ask. They almost never ask. And you don’t tell her. This is not a problem. There is no ethical requirement that you report your opinion. If you’re close with your friend, then perhaps there’s a requirement. Friendship can mean very different things. Aristotle would say you MUST tell your friend, that friendship requires being candid. But let’s be honest, not all of our friendships are Aristotelian, especially in the age of Facebook: today’s friend is a previous generation’s acquaintance.

I know people will disagree with that, and I do too, in theory. In practice, I don’t think most people live by their principle here. In practice, offering unrequested criticism is often rude. Also, from a selfish perspective, when you offer constructive criticism, you become a de facto consultant. Do you want the responsibility that comes with taking a stake in it? You usually don’t.

But what if they do ask? Or what if it’s not a one off thing, but something that’s consistently a problem? What do you owe a friendly acquaintance or actual friend in this situation? It seems like the answer should always be “be honest.” Again, in theory, it is. But in practice, it still isn’t. I don’t think there’s an easy, consistent answer. It depends on so many things:

Do other people like it? It could just be this show isn’t for you. There’s nothing that appeals to everybody. Some people hate chocolate. They usually know they’re the outlier, and don’t try to convince you that chocolate is bad.

You know her. Some people want the truth. Some people just want affirmation.

Is she in a position to do anything with the knowledge? Is she the director? Is it a solo show? Is the problem with her own performance?

Would she do the same for you?

Do you think she already knows it’s bad?

What is she actually trying to accomplish? Are your criticisms valid or relevant?

There’s a ton of other questions that factor into it, but more often than we like to admit, instead of being honest, we dodge the question or we’re diplomatic to the point of being dishonest. We try not to lie. We don’t suggest we loved it. Maybe we congratulate them (because getting the work done is an accomplishment), or praise them for the elements that legitimately deserve it. Maybe we even tell the white lie of saying we enjoyed it, but wonder if they worry that..(insert hypothetical criticism). It’s often harmless and socially correct. Pragmatically, you may just not want to deal with the fallout of honesty.


Ask yourself what the consequences are of the people responsible for a bad show walking out of this situation unaware of the problems. Are they embarrassing themselves? Are they embarrassing their theater or company or community? Are they likely to gobble up future resources and turn off future audiences with the same kind of flawed show? Is there some limited criticism you could offer that would help them improve without destroying their confidence?

I’m of the opinion that we’re all too self-confident and too sensitive at the same time. We could all benefit from others being honest with us when we fall short. We only get better if we’re challenged, and we’re only challenged if we’re truly aware of what we’ve actually accomplished. Too many people thinking they’re doing good (or at least sufficient) work leads to a community that isn’t pushing, a community that’s routinely underwhelming and underwhelmed. A community where everybody’s got great self-esteem but very little else.

Remember my digression earlier? It wasn’t, actually. I think the worst of all creative communities are those that cheerlead but don’t challenge. Loud praise should be earned. Even a Facebook “Like” should be earned. If Camp had sucked, I’m not sure I would’ve said anything about it. Certainly, I wouldn’t have publicly. But I’m also not sure I’d have said anything to Joe. If it’d sucked and he asked, I’m not sure what I would have said. Thankfully, I’m not in that situation, since it exceeded my (high) expectations. But it bugs me that by my own standard, I’m not helping the community I’m a part of.

There’s an argument to be made that the best thing you can do is do your own work as well as possible, to set an example, essentially, or lay down what you think the standard should be. To make it clear you’re challenging yourself, and encourage others to. I think that’s true. I wonder if it’s sufficient.