Thursday, August 8, 2013

Opinion: Keir Cutler on the "I'm a Genius" Syndrome

The “I’m a genius!” Syndrome
Many theatre artists appear to be ready to bang their head endlessly against a brick wall, rather than admit anything in their work can be improved.
by Keir Cutler

There has been something troubling me on the Fringe circuit and elsewhere the last few years.  It seems many theatre artists have an inability to accept and act on feedback.  It’s bothered me enough that I have given this disability a name, I call it the “I’m a genius!” Syndrome.  These playwrights/directors/actors believe themselves to be some sort of Vincent Van Goghs of theatre, and that the only reason they are being criticized is the world isn’t yet ready for their genius.  Perhaps only after their deaths, like Van Gogh, will their brilliance be recognized, but until then their works must remain untouched, and by all means, never reworked.

This syndrome is particularly noticeable on the Fringe circuit because many shows go across the country getting reviewed in multiple cities.  Often a show receives virtually the same criticism in different markets.  Now when a show repeatedly gets docked for the same issues, there is a pretty good chance the commentary is valid.  But are these shows adjusted?  Often the answer is no.  Many theatre artists appear to be ready to bang their head endlessly against a brick wall, rather than admit anything in their work can be improved.  Instead of living by the great adage, “writing is rewriting,” they are committed to the belief that their work has been sent directly from the Muse, and is sacrosanct.

Recently he had a very poor showing at a Fringe Festival, where he might have been a hit.

A good friend and colleague of mine has been performing a solo show at different Fringe Festivals for the last few years.  The show has some wonderful parts to it, but is flawed.  The main flaw in the work has been pointed out in several reviews, and prevents the show from gaining the acclaim it could and should achieve.  I’ve tried a few times to subtly suggest he make some improvements, but nothing has happened. Recently he had a very poor showing at a Fringe Festival, where he might have been a hit.  I decided it was time to write, and tell him what he must do.  

This feedback was admittedly unsolicited, but to see him have only limited success, year after year, is too much for me.  I very carefully put together a what’s called a “feedback sandwich.”  First showering my friend with compliments with what was working in his show, then very carefully explaining that the critics were right about something, then closing with more compliments.  I knew I was taking a chance, since he had had years to correct the main flaw in the work, and had not done so.  But I justified my actions by telling myself I was being a good friend giving sound advice.  

Apparently not!  I received back an angry, outraged email.  My friend was hurt and offended.  He refused to even consider what I was telling him, (which was the same thing several critics had told him.)  Here is a small quote from his diatribe, “unlike what you seem to think, I do actually have a fucking clue about how to perform.  So I'm not getting "five stars" across the board, I could start fucking with things, and instead of playing my strengths (which is what I'm doing), I could try to make it into another show, then get unanimous "2-star" ratings!”

Yes, technically he is correct, but is that really what art is all about?  Trying to avoid getting “unanimous 2-star ratings?”  I think the goal of art is to do the best possible show.  But my friend will continue to do his flawed show that sees him struggling to just break even at a recent festival; playing to tiny, albeit enthusiastic crowds.  And all to avoid making a few small adjustments.  

Clearly I had no right telling him what to do, it is after all his show.

I wrote my friend back an apology.  Clearly I had no right telling him what to do, it is after all his show.  But, my God, why do we artists so often believe that constructive feedback is really worthless insults that are bent on destroying otherwise mediocre efforts? 

Here is another example of the “I’m a genius!” Syndrome. There was a two-actor Fringe show a few years back that opened in Montreal and went across the country, stopping in multiple cities and ending three months later in Vancouver.  In Montreal, the play got mediocre reviews, and all reviews spoke of the problematic ending.  The rest of the show apparently worked.  In city after city, the show got the same reviews; all condemning the ending.  I finally got to see it in Vancouver.  The show was wonderful.  I loved the first 50 minutes, but the last five minutes went way off track.  It seemed the writer, who was one of the performers, couldn’t figure out how to end the play.  So instead of a sensible climax, he had his two characters perform some sort of abstract dance while bizarre slides were projected on the back wall.  The first 50 minutes were entirely realistic; the final 5 minute dance was totally out of left field.  It was either genius on a level this world can’t yet understand, or a complete copout.  From my point of view, what was mostly a wonderful show, died a very ignominious death.  But what troubled me most is that the writer/performer had heard again and again that the ending didn’t work.  He had to know that he was destroying an otherwise stellar performance, but he, like my friend who I dared to email, refused to fix an obvious problem.

He resolutely refused to consider changing the announcements, as though there were some hidden genius in the blatant error.

Sometimes this unwillingness to correct goes even to not fixing errors of fact.  I was at a play in Winnipeg a few years back that had a scene set in a Montreal bus terminal, but all the arrival and departure announcements coming over the PA were in English.  This was incredibly jarring.  I couldn’t help but go talk to the director/writer after the show.  I told him it was impossible for a bus terminal in Montreal to have English-only announcements.  But instead of receiving thanks, I once again offended the artist.  He resolutely refused to consider changing the announcements, as though there were some hidden genius in the blatant error.  

Now I am not suggesting I personally was born an open receptacle to criticism.  In fact when I was younger, I used to be very defensive when people gave me feedback.  But over the years, I have learned that if someone tells me something that might help my show, it is in my best interest to listen and consider very carefully what is being said.  The times I have done this have helped my work enormously.  Not all criticism is correct or useful, but to immediately toss feedback out defensively is clearly in no one’s interest.  We have a responsibility not only to ourselves, but also to our show and our audience.

It would be nice if we were all genius mystics receiving our works of art directly from the Gods, but most of us are just artists.  And artists have to work.  And most importantly we have to rework.  Once we get off our high horses and realize reworking things is part of the job, everyone will be better off.  Let’s leave the divine inspiration to the religious kooks!


  1. This is ego at it's worst. I would add to this that so many fringe shows are put on stage far before they are ready to be seen by a paying audience - also ego driven. The writer has not spent enough time with a cast/director/editor, the cast is under rehearsed and the direction is sketched in at best - but it gets shoved on stage. Selfish choice - that's not fair to the audience or anyone involved with the show. Being a fringe show is no excuse for presenting a half-completed work that should still be in rehearsal or rewrites. Workshop your piece, do readings, explore - don't rush it to the stage just because you won a spot in this year's festival. Yes, once that process is complete and the show is seen by an audience a whole new crop of problems will arise that will need addressing, but do everything you can for a show before presenting it so that you are ready for the next round of refinements instead of still struggling with the basics.

  2. It comes down to tact, Keir. If someone asks for feedback, you should give it. If they don't ask for feedback, you shouldn't.
    If an acquaintance was wearing an unflattering outfit, you wouldn't go up to them and say "That sweater makes you look fat. Go find something with vertical stripes." The same is true of art.
    The thing is, not all artists -- especially Fringe artists -- are aiming for success as you (or I) define it: full houses, five-star reviews, awards. Some just want to put on a show the way they really want. If your friend was expressing frustration at how the show was going, you could ask "would you like some feedback?" but to jump in with your feedback is to make assumptions about the artist's intentions and presumptions about your own genius. I forget what writer said this, but a good rule of thumb is that when someone tells you what they don't think works, they're usually right; when they tell you how to fix it, they're usually wrong.
    A final thought: Critics aren't always right. They often are. But we've all been on the receiving end of a sloppy, uninformed, or otherwised biased criticism (I've received more than one blatantly homophobic review, for example). If you are developing a show, you need to be able to assess the merits of criticism against what it is you're trying to accomplish.

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  4. Personally, I think very well said Keir. One enormous difference I've noticed between performing with comedians in the UK and performing with actors here in Canada, is that on the comedy circuit, there's no room for self-delusion, simply because if no one laughs, it's not working. As a result, comics tend to be a pretty honest - and supportive - bunch with each other, and they're quite comfortable giving their genuine opinion about each other's work. By contrast, I've noticed that actors - or at least my friends on the fringe circuit - seem to be much more reticent about this. Everyone will always say they liked your show, but you have no way of actually knowing whether that's true or not. I've always welcomed the unsolicited suggestions, because you know what people actually think of your show, and partly because it can hugely raise your game.

  5. Very interesting comments from all above!

    Rob Gee puts it perfectly. We should all welcome feedback, seek it out, and never angrily shun it. Feedback can, as Rob says, "hugely raise your game!" And isn't that what we all want, to hugely raise our game?

  6. I 100% agree with KJM. Just because you were lucky enough to win a spot in the fringe, doesn't mean you should throw a show together, or even dust off an old script you wrote years ago.

    Last year I had the experience of stage managing a friend's show. It was the first time he submitted a show to the fringe. While it was a decent show with some good ideas, there were obvious flaws.
    It was definitely rushed, as well as having a director who, because of another show, couldn't even start casting until two months before.
    It was a big learning experience for all, including me.


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