Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

Creating Happy Memories that Last a Lifetime

 

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Clown Critiques

Part One: Being Critiqued

When many people hear the word critique they mistakenly thing of faultfinding or severe judgment according to a strict criteria. In reality a critique should be a careful evaluation identifying strong points and possible improvements or alternatives. The purpose of a critique is to encourage the subject to be the best they can.

Critiques were an important part of my college theater classes. It is a valuable educational tool, especially for entertainers. It always helps to have somebody watching form the audience's position with a fresh viewpoint. You know what you want the audience to see and what you mean to communicate because you created it. That may not be clear to somebody seeing it for the first time. You need someone to tell you what you are actually communicating. I continue to have my acts critiqued by people I trust.

A critique should be a positive experience, but some people approach it in the wrong way and actual harm can be done. Here is the right way to use the critique process.

Arranging For A Critique

When preparing for a critique, try to create the most realistic conditions possible. The ideal way to get a performance critique is during an actual performance. If you want a critique of a performance, ask somebody before hand so they can take notes on important points at the time instead of trying to think back over the show. If that isn't possible, a retrospective critique can still provide valuable information.

Another approach that works is to invite friends and neighbors for a performance at your home.

An alternative to having the person doing the critique at a performance is to have an actual show video taped. This allows you to see what you look like, and during the critique the tape can be reviewed to focus on specific segments.

If you don't have an audience, pretend there is one. Show what you do, don't tell. For example, if you drop a silk on the floor, and the kids normally yell that you dropped one, pretend to hear them and respond to that. The person doing the critique will understand what is happening. Don't stop performing to explain that the kids would yell. Sometimes performers get so caught up in describing how an audience responds and their own reaction that the person doing the critique can't get an accurate impression of how they perform.

If you want a critique of your make up and costume, it is possible to do using a photo. However, you get better information if you are actually in make up because the person doing the critique can see how well your design accentuates different expressions.

Some people list getting a critique as a benefit of entering competition. That really is not an effective method. The purpose of traditional clown competitions is to generate a numerical score that can be compared to other competitors to determine a winner. Judges don't have time to write detailed comments. When you get a score sheet, you get a list of numbers and if you are lucky a few words. The numbers really don't tell you how well you did because the system of scoring varies greatly from judge to judge. I know of some judges who start with the highest possible score, and deduct points from there. Some judges start with the middle score, and add or deduct points from there. I know one judge who never gives the highest possible score because they think that should be reserved for people who have reached the status of Lou Jacobs and Emmett Kelly.

One of the advantages of the Red Nose Festival Competition devised by Mike Bednarek is it is designed to be a critique. The numerical scores have been minimized and the competition coaches concentrate on writing specific comments. The competition is set up so the coaches have as much time as possible to write comments without slowing down the competition.

Don't Be Defensive

Remember that your purpose in having a critique done is to improve what you will do, not to justify what you have done. If you are trying to defend what you have done you aren't concentrating on what is being said. Randy Pryor, who was my juggling coach, advises, "you have to an elephant skin, everything enters but nothing can penetrate to the heart."

Try to not become too protective of your favorite ideas. Emile Chartier said, "nothing is as dangerous as an idea when its the only one you have." If you cling too strongly to one idea you may block another better idea.

Often clowns say they can't change something because that is their "trademark," even when it is detrimental to what they do. If you see any of the early films of W.C.Fields, you will notice that he wears a horrendous crepe hair mustache. He resisted suggestions that he eliminate it because he considered it his trademark. He was afraid the public wouldn't recognize him without it. After he stopped using it, his facial expressions could be seen easier, and he became an even bigger star. At the height of his career, his public wouldn't have recognized him wearing the mustache.

Your "trademark" probably isn't as important as you think. It amazes me sometimes how long people know me before they notice my tear drop. Sometimes you understand your trademark, but your audience doesn't. Often clowns put a circle of red rouge on their cheeks and paint three black dots representing freckles in the circle. A clown asked me to critique their make up, and they had five circles, each a different color, scattered across their face. Each circle had four dots in them. I suggested that the circles tended to camouflage their face making it harder to see their expressions. They replied, "those are my buttons. How would anybody know my name is Buttons if I don't use them?" I doubt that anybody know the clown's name because they didn't look like buttons. Trying to incorporate a visual representation of your name into your make up design really isn't necessary and is seldom effective.

Get As Much Feedback As Possible

What you receive in a critique is really only that person's personal opinion, and opinions will vary. I remember one clown being confused following a competition because one judge praised them very highly and another judge condemned him just as strongly for the exact same costume element. If several people make the same comment, then you might want to pay more attention to this consensus of opinion. Get as many opinions as practical. Listen to them all, but remember that you have to be the final judge of what is right for you.

Ultimately the best feedback of all is from your audience. Listen to their reaction, and try to judge it accurately.

Evaluate

Don't accept a comment uncritically just because it came during a critique by an instructor or from a competition judge. That includes the opinions expressed in this article. Not everyone will agree with me. Use those ideas that make sense to you, and ignore the rest.

Consider the source and where that person is coming from. Sometimes a comment reveals more about the person making it then it does about you. I know of one costume maker (no longer in business) who judged a make up competition and made negative comments about everyone who was not wearing one of their products. In another case, a woman used lecture evaluation forms to vent her jealousy by commenting very negatively on every lady.

Some instructors and competition judges try to set themselves up as the GURU declaring how you must do things. Clowning is a creative art form. When somebody declares there is only one right way to do things, their way, they are on an ego trip. A good instructor will tell you their method is one possible way. Remember the most important thing to learn from a guru is how to spell it, "Gee, you are you!"

Recognize personal attacks and rise above them. Unfortunately people sometimes use the critique or judging process to inflate their self esteem by tearing down others. One key to recognizing those people is that they use the word "you" often in their comments. Realizing what they are doing can help to protect your ego. Remember that the problem is with them, not you, and there is nothing you can do to change them. Take a deep breath, listen to what they have to say, take everything useful you can find, and try to forget the rest.

It helps if somebody you trust can critique your acts regularly for you, but remember that nobody is infallible. I've benefited greatly from Randy Pryor's advice and opinions about my juggling through the years. Through his guidance I've become a more entertaining and more skillful juggler. One time, I showed Randy a trick I was working on with two balls and one ring where one of the balls went through the center of the ring while in midair. His comment was that it was hard to tell what was happening and the audience wouldn't believe it. I stopped practicing the trick. A couple of years later, I was fooling around with it again, and this time Randy said, "that's too cool, you've got to learn how to do it so you can put it into your act." It isn't in the act yet, but that is my fault, not Randy's. I shouldn't have stopped working on it based on just one comment from him.

Record Comments

It is easy to forget a comment so either write it down or record the critique session. (When the San Diego State University Clowns brought in a make up critique panel, they provided a tape recorder and each person went home with an audio tape of the comments made about them.)

Even with a taped session, it is a good idea to take notes. Just the act of writing it down helps you remember it later. A new medical study suggests that the memory involves the portion of your brain usually associated with processing visual impute. Another study showed that you forget most of what you have heard within a few hours, forget most of what you've seen within a few days, and remember the longest what you have written down. Also, writing ideas down protects you from technical difficulties with the recording. Leon McBryde says, "a short pencil is better then a long memory."

Don't Focus on the Negative

We all tend to be a little masochistic, and are quick to latch onto and believe negative comments. Once I received a written critique that was a compilation of comments from several people. There were 15 comments. Five of them were very complimentary, eight were moderately complimentary, and two were very negative. Those two seemed to leap off the page at me, and my first reaction was that I had failed. Of course that was wrong, and eventually I was able to put it in perspective. It is common for people to remember the negative comments and forget the positive. (Sometimes the opposite is true, but that is much more rare.) An antidote is to check the comments you wrote down looking for the positive ones. Also, it helps if you can put the comments away, and look at them again later after your emotional response has decreased.

Ask For Clarification

The critique is to provide you with information. If you don't understand a comment, ask for an explanation. Don't worry about appearing foolish. Sometimes a person doing a critique may use a term, and their attitude says, "everybody who knows anything about clowning knows the meaning." Don't accept that. If you don't understand, the person doing the critique has failed to communicate effectively. Ask questions until you know what they mean, or you reach the conclusion that they don't know either. (Sometimes instructors repeat phrases they've heard other instructors use without understanding it fully themselves.)

If you don't understand a comment on a competition score sheet, be sure to ask the judge who made it. If the judges don't identify themselves they have less credibility in my opinion. They should be willing and able to back up their comments, especially if that competition is described as an educational opportunity.

Apply

A critique is useful only if you act upon the information obtained.

Don't over react. After a negative critique it is common to want to give up. Don't. Ask yourself what steps you need to take to improve. It may be easier then you think.

Develop a plan to put the information to use. How can you build upon your strengths? Can you utilize something more fully? How can correct any weaknesses? What needs to be done immediately, and what can wait until you make a new costume? What is a practical way to proceed? Your first impression may be that you need to start over with your costume, but all you really need might be a new vest, collar, cummerbund, or coat. Break things down into steps. Don't change your entire act at once. Work on the portions that need the most improvement first, and then work on the things with the next priority.

If possible make suggested changes, and get a new critique done. Especially with a performance critique.

A commitment to continual growth is what will make you the best clown that you can be, today and tomorrow.

Copyright 1991 by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson.  All rights reserved.

Originally published in Clowning Around

 

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