It was many and many a year ago, in a barrio by the sea.
Actually, it was around 1983. I had been asked to be a critic in a Latino theater festival. I accepted, considering that the invitation was an honor. I was eager to engage in a positive exchange among collegial artists.
I also considered that the invitation was an honor not to be taken lightly. I wanted to be insightful, fair and honest. After all, we were all participants in the same adventure: trying to promote theater in our Chicano/Latino community.
After the group presenting that night had finished, we waited a few minutes for the performers to take off some of their makeup and then join the audience members who had stayed for the post-show conversation. Ten minutes later there they were, my fellow artists, this time sitting in the audience, eyes shining, still wearing their costumes, waiting for my comments.
I started by congratulating the performers for their valiant effort. Just to get up on stage and dare to perform always deserves applause. Then, I added that—In my critical opinion—the script needed lots of work and the production suffered from some half-baked performances.
I do not remember the exact words that I said, but I know that I did not get to say too many more after my first few comments. After all these years, what I do clearly remember are the frowned faces of some of those actors and actresses listening to my comments. Then, a couple of them interrupted me and proceeded to chastise me, for being “unsupportive.” One young woman called me an “elitist asshole!”
I was taken aback…although I did not take back what I said. Somehow, calm and civility was restored and I escaped alive. But those angry stares continue firmly planted in my memory.
It is not easy to give or take criticism. In our daily private lives, or in more public settings. But we have to try to embrace the challenge.
That incident from 1983 has not been the only time that I have encountered resistance to the give and take implied by the open exchange of opinions. Not only in the community at large, but also in places (such as institutions of higher education) where one would think the frank exchange of diverse ideas would be welcomed. More than just welcomed: essential.
Sadly, the avoidance of intellectual confrontation is —generally speaking—a more established procedure. A procedure that keeps us safely unconcerned and unengaged.
I taught at a local University for over 30 years and, more than an open exchange of ideas, I usually experienced the unfortunate avoidance of face to face argumentation.
For example, a couple of times, a theater production that I directed, or even an image used as an advertising for a play, elicited strongly worded “Open Letters” thrashing the production, the poster…or even the fact that I was still teaching there.
I tried reaching those students and/or teachers who were behind the protesting “Open Letters,” but they (the teachers, particularly) were not open to discuss their actions. Perhaps they considered that the fact of writing or signing their names to a letter seemed enough?
So, I wrote my own “Open Letters,” inviting those students and/or teachers to a face-to-face discussion of the issues, open to the public. I sincerely thought (I still do) that it was the way to do it, for the betterment of our place of “Higher Learning.” They could have been compelling open discussions. Sadly, there were no takers.
Upon retirement from teaching, I am happy to be back in the “Off Campus” community. Writing this column, collaborating with younger theater creators, attending various performances.
What I am not so happy about, is the fact that our community still lacks the urgency (or the guts) to openly argue with —or to critique— each other. We seem to fear criticism. Either to take it, or to give it.
We seem more comfortable with the famous (private) “word of mouth,” with the “I heard it through the grapevine” alternative, or connecting through the now infamous social media. We have become mediocre and we do not seem to care.
Of course, in order to give and take open criticism, we also have to get out a little from “our comfort zone,” whatever that is. We have to attend events, theater and dance performances, read more, turn off our “smart phones” regularly, converse with friends and strangers, and offer our opinions. Like the saying goes: “Speak your mind, even if your voice trembles.”
Who loses if we lack the need to express our opinions and to seek the opinions of others?
We all lose. The students, the teachers, the community in general. Well-meant open criticism is essential for the general intellectual well-being of our communities. On or off Campus.
To be afraid to engage in that necessary give and take of ideas is like avoiding physical exercise and/or a good diet and still pretend to be healthy.