It's been years since I’ve been in a play yet I'm still convinced I’m a great actor. This certitude has not faded with age, but has been softened by a concept I’ve developed called “The Bad Actor Theory”. It’s pretty simple, and it goes like this:
There is no way for any actor to know whether they’re good or bad. Full stop.
A white person on stage.
No Way to Tell
Being successful is a powerful indicator, obviously… but not completely reliable. All of us can name at least a few famous actors that we think are terrible, even though they work all the time. Conversely, most of us know at least a couple of actors who are really dynamite but never had much of a professional career, at all.
Being praised after a performance is not a helpful metric either. I have heard nothing but positive-to-glowing reviews of my work. But what else are people gonna say? That I just sucked? That they took the time to see me & paid money and wish they could get both back? Now, I’m sure I would know if people were insincere— this type of talent requires high emotional intelligence, after all— but it’s when I'm in the audience that it becomes tricky.
I have seen plenty of actors who just stunk up a room receiving lavish praise from audience members. A little too lavish to be genuine, frankly... which I can always tell because I'm gifted at gauging sincerity. But. I must here confess that I myself have, on occasion, offered unearned praise to an actor friend. And when a performance was particularly egregious I have occasionally overstated my enthusiasm even further. So I know it's possible to receive false praise and believe it genuine. Especially from me.
Even those moments onstage-- those exhilarating & transcendent moments where you can tell that your partner is with you, the audience is with you and your energy is filling the entire room-- are not to be trusted. Because even people who suck in plays seem to be “feeling it”, too. Whatever "it" is. So that degree of cognitive dissonance is possible for any of us. Even me.
The Great Equalizer
There is one great equalizer, though. After rehearsal a director assembles the cast to give notes. I’ve watched hundreds of actors receive notes in my life and have been given my fair share. A good director (that’s a whole other discussion) usually gives good notes. Meaning that the observations and suggestions they make tend to be on point and should be heeded by the actors who receive them. Notes should be a speedy process, whereby an actor hears one, nods his head in acknowledgement and makes a silent plan to incorporate it for the next run-through.
Perhaps there is mild embarrassment if a particularly bold choice was met with less than enthusiasm, or even with mild censure or rebuke, but a grounded actor should be able to accept it and move on. Unfortunately human nature is such that it’s nearly impossible to hear a note and not take it personally. After all, it is a personal critique of something you just did. Something you felt was powerful or evocative or subtle fell flat, and you must hear and accept that your efforts did not bring value. It’s very hard to have your actions critiqued without internalizing it, at least in part. Even if it’s something as innocuous as, “I think you entered from the kitchen a little early.”
The Wrong Reactions
While essential to any successful ensemble effort, even a mild correction can provoke a strong, reflexive response. Sometimes an actor feels compelled to justify or explain a choice which the director has just identified as being problematic. This might include a litany of psychological “character work” that is of interest to absolutely no one else in the theatre, including the director. Perhaps even an attempt to clue the director in on what she'd missed-- as if her assessment was due to a lack of comprehension.
Another unhelpful reflex is to “pass the note”. The actor might quickly cop to what the director is saying, but justifies his action as “just trying to work off what I was getting” from another actor. This boils down to the actor offering his own, indirect note to his scene partner— which is always a big no-no.
In extreme cases an actor may even attempt to dig in and assert that his bold choice is foundational to his interpretation of the character; and therefore is not only valid but should be respected and accommodated by everyone else on stage. This can be extremely painful for his fellow actors to sit through, as most of them simply want to wrap things up and retire to the bar across the street.
I have been guilty of every one of these transgressions, at one time or another, particularly when I’ve been forced to work under a director of lesser caliber. But it’s a funny thing—because even when directors seemed utterly incapable of viewing my own work clearly, I usually agreed with nearly every note they gave to every other actor.
In short, most actors struggle from time to time with being able to take a note. Yet I would posit that most actors tend to agree with notes given to everyone else. I am sad to say it took me years to realize the futile hypocrisy in my own attempts to spin, return or disregard a note. Because looking back I imagine my fellow cast members sitting and thinking the exact same thing: “Just take the note.”
The Proper Response
It’s never helpful or necessary to get defensive, to take a note personally or to attempt to justify a bad choice. In fact any input from the actor is not only unnecessary, but actively unhelpful.
Even a quick & defensive, “Yes I realized that right after I did it!” does not exonerate poor choices, nor does it speed up the process of correcting them. The most responsible thing an actor can do is sit quietly with their feelings, fight the urge to respond and let the words sink in. To simply take the note.
You’ve probably guessed where I’m headed with this. We could easily swap out “The Bad Actor Theory” for “The Racist White Person Theory” and it would operate exactly the same way.
You might have been told you’re not racist, you might feel in your bones that you’re not racist, and you might occasionally feel completely connected to people, especially people of color, like you’re dialed in and the whole room is with you. At the end of the day, it's simple, though far from easy:
There is no way for any white person to know if they are racist or not. Full stop.
So if a person of color takes the time and energy to offer constructive feedback to white people like me, we need to nod our heads, acknowledge that we've heard, and just take the note.