Across most artistic disciplines, artists regularly give and receive constructive feedback about their work, and most people who engage in this process say it is an integral part of personal and artistic growth. Honest, specific critique pushes artists to be bigger and better, to think outside their own comfort zone, and to find new and more powerful ways to create.
For some reason, I have seen a definite lack of, and sometimes avoidance of, direct, constructive feedback in the burlesque community. When I ask people what they think about it, they usually say that because everyone is so kind and supportive, it’s hard to say anything negative. While I can appreciate the sentiment, and believe in the idea of burlesque being a loving and accepting community, I often feel like we’re stumbling toward mediocrity.
I love burlesque that takes my breath away, that transports me to another place for a few short minutes. My breath can be stolen in any number of ways – technique, talent, enthusiasm, vulnerability, rhinestones, skin… you name it, it can be used to capture me. I want more of those moments, and they don’t happen by accident. They are the product of highly skilled artistic passion. Mediocrity isn’t passion, and it doesn’t leave me breathless.
There’s nothing negative about honesty, and I’m challenging the idea that we should all pat each other on the backs and settle for what’s most comfortable. I’m calling on every performer in this community to seek constructive critique. It’s time to level-up. We can keep the kindness, we can continue to be cheerleaders, but we can also work together to elevate our art form.
Identify one or two people whose opinions you trust, and who are knowledgeable about your style of performance. If you ask everyone around you for constructive feedback, or you ask someone who doesn’t know much about burlesque, you’re probably not going to get the kind of feedback you’re looking for. Strong critique from two people is worth a million times more than ten people telling you things you already know.
Close, but not too close
Resist the urge to ask for formal feedback from your close friends, but do reach out to your current peer group first – it would be weird for you to randomly corner a performer you’ve never met before to ask for advice. Think about some of the people you’ve shared stage and dressing room time with, or who have offered constructive feedback to others. Be sure you’re choosing someone who has strong performance skills, or whose advice has been valuable to you in the past.
Find out if they are willing
Before asking for critique on a specific piece, first find out if the person is willing and able to provide that feedback. Once they’ve agreed to give you notes, you can give them more specific questions and information.
Ask specific questions
Do your own homework first – figure out what your growth areas are, and let the person know what you’re working on. “Give me feedback on my act” is waaaay too vague. Ask for specifics like character development, story arc, costuming, dance technique, audience engagement, and so forth.
Requesting feedback also means providing access to the art you want feedback on. If you’re asking someone to give you full notes on two acts in a show, you should probably offer to buy their ticket to the show. If you’re asking for in-person feedback during rehearsal, you should meet them at their convenience, or cover their travel expenses. For the most part, video is an impractical and inefficient way to get feedback, so if possible, all critiques should be done based on in-person viewing.
Self-explanatory, I hope. Even if you ask and they aren’t able to help you, still express gratitude. Always.
If someone has agreed to provide critique to you, be sure to support their work. Promote and attend their shows, share their work with others, and offer to help or volunteer on their projects.
Don’t get critique right after a show – that’s when you should be basking in the glow of your awesome performance. You don’t sit down and sew your torn glove at the bar after the show, why would you work on your act? Make sure you are well rested and that you have a work-oriented mindset when you receive the feedback.
Only ask questions
When receiving critique, the only two responses that are appropriate are “thank you” and “can you explain more about ____?” Resist the urge to defend or explain your creative decisions. You are the artist, you made decisions, you stand behind them. If you disagree with the feedback, that’s something for you to think about on your own time, not during critique. Critique is a one-way road, and your job is to collect everything that comes your way.
Allow for paradox
You will, at some point, receive excellent feedback that is in direct opposition to excellent feedback you received elsewhere. This is the nature of art – paradoxical truths exist. Because art is in the eye of the beholder, critique is always relative and it’s always in flux. There are no right or wrong answers. Be open to ambiguity.
Watch out for cognitive biases
Cognitive biases are those little thinking errors that aren’t actually reflective of reality. A critique of “I wanted to see more character development” might feel like “you had no character whatsoever and I was horribly bored and thought your act was terrible,” but that’s not actually what was said. During critique, your feelings are going to get riled up, because this is art, and art is personal. Be careful that you don’t listen too much to your feelings – they sometimes trick your mind into believing things that aren’t real.
Use the critique! Try new things! Effective constructive criticism should spark new ideas and ways of thinking, so channel those into your work. Even if something feels out of your comfort zone, give it a shot. If you’ve chosen someone you really trust, then you need to trust them!
Sometimes you’ll get feedback that you don’t want to use. That’s okay. You should carefully consider why you don’t want to use it (Is it bringing up old emotional baggage? Did you try it already and it didn’t work? Are you scared of it in some way?) so you can address it if necessary, but if it comes down to it and the feedback isn’t helpful, that’s okay. You can keep what you need and leave the rest.
Still self-explanatory, I hope. The most useful critique can sometimes be the most uncomfortable. You can be grateful and uncomfortable at the same time.
Speaking of uncomfortable….Critique is hard! Sometimes feedback sessions leave us feeling icky, and that’s to be expected. Plan for that – have a rhinestoning session with a friend later that day, or book a manicure. Tell your partner you’re having a critique and let them be your cheerleader and supporter! Self-care is critical for performance artists – we exist in a state of great vulnerability. Be gentle.
Give what you can
If someone asks you to provide feedback for them, be honest about whether you will be able to do that or not. If you are busy, tired, unsure, or just don’t want to, that’s okay. Say yes if you’re able, but don’t hesitate to say no if you need to. If you aren’t able to, try to point them to someone who could help.
Make sure you know what kind of critique they’re looking for, and let them know how you will be providing it (phone call? email? coffee date?). Be clear on how long the critique will be (e.g., one act in a show? ongoing feedback over the course of several shows?) and find out what kind of feedback works best for them.
Pack a pencil
Don’t rely on memory – take notes while you’re watching their act, or immediately after, especially if it’s at a show. You’ll have lots of ideas, but you’ll forget many of them in the time between the performance and the critique. You can text yourself notes if you don’t want to carry a book.
Use tentative phrasing
Avoid telling the performer what they should or shouldn’t do. Use phrases like “I wonder if you tried….” or “Maybe something like this….” to offer options or suggestions, rather than speaking in finite terms about what is right or wrong.
Provide constructive feedback sandwiched between two honest pieces of positive feedback. It’s important that feedback sessions highlight areas of growth as well as areas of strength. Sandwiching feedback helps keep the emphasis on the positive.
Speak the truth
Don’t say anything inauthentic. Constructive critique is not a cheerleading session – that’s what we have friends for. Avoid the temptation to sugarcoat or gloss over uncomfortable topics – your honesty is far more helpful than your protectiveness.
What, this again!? Can’t say it enough! Being asked for your critique is an honor, because someone is inviting you into a space of vulnerability for them. It means your opinion is respected and your time is valued. Be grateful.
One of the great pleasures of having been in the community so long is that I have been able to see so many incredible artists grow from baby performers to powerhouses of the stage. Those folks who have made that incredible journey have something in common – they’ve all constantly worked to see how they could be better, and have been deliberate about honing their skills and elevating their art. As a result, they’ve improved dramatically and, as such, the overall burlesque scene has improved as well.
Now it’s your turn. Elevate your art.
More on the topic: Bisecting Burlesque: Production
As an educator, activist, and artist, most of Lillith’s time is divided between teaching, studying, and sewing sequins. She is a burlesque dancer, event producer, artist, and pianist, and is currently completing her Ph.D. in psychology. She is the founder and co-producer of Dallas’s weekly Queer variety show, the Tuesday Tease, and is the founder and producer of Glitterbomb, a weekly Queer performance art showcase on Thursdays in Denton. She performs, produces, and hosts frequently in the D/FW burlesque community, and works to create space for identity development and personal healing through performance art for Queer-identified folks.
In addition to her performance and production work, Lillith presents educational workshops on a variety of topics at events and conferences across the country, including sexuality, research, personality, sign language, relationships, and multicultural & diversity issues. She has worked as a therapist and currently teaches at the university level, including courses in women’s studies, psychology, social work, and American Sign Language.