The Question of Feedback

You may have seen the report where Dame Judi Dench bemoaned the ‘recent trend’ of not giving actors’ feedback. To be honest, it was no better twenty years ago when I was 21, had just graduated and already had 10 years of professional work behind me. 

You may have seen the report where Dame Judi Dench bemoaned the ‘recent trend’ of not giving actors’ feedback. To be honest, it was no better twenty years ago when I was 21, had just graduated and already had 10 years of professional work behind me. 

Now, as an agent, my clients are always asking “Any feedback?”  So of course we pursue the CD to ask. Some do feedback, while others simply don’t have the time. When feedback does come, to be honest, I sometimes struggle to understand what use a lot of it is. 

Here’s some of the feedback I’ve collated over the last few years;

“We went another way”

“It simply wasn’t the right fit”

“They didn’t match with the rest of the cast”

“It just didn’t go their way”

“They were perfect until the next person came in who was more perfect”

“We very much enjoyed meeting them, but it just didn’t work out”

and so on. 

CD’s aren’t (often) actors themselves, or singers, or musicians, or dancers. They know what they like, and they know what the team are looking for, but as to getting detailed tips on your vocal tone, or dance skill, or acting ability – well, the CD is not a teacher, nor are they experts in technique. Would you take advice on house-building from someone who enjoyed looking at a lot of architecture? No, you’d see a specialist. Your dance teacher, your singing teacher, your acting coach. Those are the people you are paying to help you improve. Or, to give you the answer a CD once gave me when I asked for feedback on a client: “It’s not my job to continue their training.” Ouch. 

Of course, the feedback I’ve mentioned above is designed to soften the blow for you. It’s an attempt to give you a reason where most of the time there isn’t a reason. It’s not science. There isn’t an empirical right or wrong; it’s subjective opinion. One man’s meat is another man’s poison and all that. At least with this kind of feedback you go away feeling a little bit fuzzier. It wasn’t you, it was your hair colour, or height, or eye colour. But it wasn’t anything you did wrong.

Except….

Except what if it was? What if all this softening of blows isn’t actually helpful. What if the answer is actually;

You just weren’t good enough.

Harsh, innit? In thirty years I’ve never been told I didn’t get a part because I wasn’t good enough. In my time as an agent no CD has ever said to me “they just weren’t good enough”  Odd that. Surely, in the hundreds of auditions my clients have scored in the last two years, surely at some point the honest answer must have been, if not ‘they weren’t good enough’ then at least ‘someone was better’?

An actor’s ego can be pretty fragile. You get rejected more than you get accepted and I frequently find myself softening the blow. If I’m doing that, it is not unreasonable to think a CD might be doing it too.  Who are we to say “you’re not good enough”? The next person along is very likely to completely disagree. What if handling you with kid gloves isn’t the answer? I quit musical theatre when one of the West End’s top singing teachers told me “you’re very good, but you’re not good enough…yet.”  He offered to work me hard and train me, but at that point, after thirty years, I was just relieved someone had told me the truth – “you’re just not good enough.” Frankly, I’ve never regretted hearing it.

I wonder whether actors’ egos are so fragile they can’t bear to be told “you weren’t good enough. You need to put in more work”? I doubt it. I think actors want to be told what’s wrong, I think my clients want to hear that they need to work harder on their dance, or belt, or range, or interpretation, or diction, or presentation. I think they want to know. Hell, I think they need to know. I think if they’re only ever hearing “we went another way” then they might forget to stop pushing themselves, to stop improving, to stop trying to get better. You don’t leave drama school, or Uni, or your first job and become preserved in aspic. You continue to change and learn and develop. You get better, but you can only get better if you accept that there is a ‘better’ that you need to get to. You need to accept that ‘better’ is something you must always be striving for, that right now you still have a lot to learn and a long way to go. You may not be ‘good enough’ now, but you will be if you work at it. 

Perhaps what we should be asking for is not feedback but criticism. Criticism isn’t a dirty word, it can be incredibly useful and constructive. What I want as an agent is clients who are constantly developing and improving and sometimes that is better achieved through constructive criticism rather than fainéant feedback.

Even when the criticism isn’t what you want to hear, even if the criticism is “you just weren’t good enough“, even if the criticism is truly awful, remember it comes from a place of love, from wanting you to be better. To quote Michelle Visage on an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race “we are trying to lift you up, let us.”