On Critics and Creating Work

On Critics and Creating Work

On December 3rd, I opened a new show called TOUR GUIDES. The piece, a collaboration between 10 poets from different neighborhoods across the city, is an ode to everything we love and hate about living in Chicago. We talk about big things (segregation, gang violence, gentrification) and little things (beer, parades, germs on the CTA). Performed by (most of) the poets who wrote it, TOUR GUIDES is often a raw experience, an act of poetic truth-telling from people who are not seasoned or polished performers but who love their city in the way it seems only Chicagoans do: protectively, fiercely, and cynically, bracing against harsh weather and even harsher racism but warmed by summer and the beautiful sight of city lights reflected in the lake. As the director of the piece, I’m proud of the work the poets involved have done. But beyond that, I genuinely love the show. I find myself remembering lines from TOUR GUIDES as I move about the city, “whispering to myself that so much is still unknown.”

Critical reception of the show, however, has been decidedly mixed.

One critic accused us of trotting out “musty white-people-are-like-this, people-of-color-are-like-that setups,” while another argued that our take on Chicago neighborhoods is clichéd and “blatantly reductive.” Both complain that we take cheap shots at Lincoln Park, a criticism I find baffling, if only because we talk about Lincoln Park for less than a minute of a show that lasts 90 minutes, and in the context of a piece that trashes neighborhoods ranging from Rogers Park (smells like pee) to Back of the Yards (smells like smoked meat). Though I disagree with both of these critics’ assessments of the show, I don’t bring up these reviews to defend myself against them.  I bring them up because many of the people who read/come to Proyecto Latina are trying to figure out how make their way as Latina writers, artists, and performers. Proyecto Latina has long served as both a platform and a forum for emerging Latina artists, and a space to discuss the ins and outs of making work as mujeres y Latinas.

There was a point in my career when reviews like this would have made me cry. I remember reading a review of S-e-x-Oh! (a show I created with Teatro Luna) that called the piece “incomprehensible.” Despite sell-out houses and rave reviews elsewhere, this review made me sob for an hour, hunched over the steering wheel of my car.  Even today, I can’t remember a single nice thing a critic wrote about S-e-x-Oh! but that review (written, incidentally, by the same critic who called TOUR GUIDES “musty”) is burned into my brain. When I went to one of my mentors for advice on how to handle bad reviews, she told me to handle them the same way I would handle a good review: “not at all.” She warned me that if a review could change what you think of your own work, you aren’t creating from a place of confidence or certitude. To be an artist, you have to have a vision of what you want to make; you have to believe in what you set out to do.  This is not to say that you shouldn’t be open to criticism—indeed, as artists there is little more valuable than friends and collaborators who offer us the kind of feedback on our work that pushes it to a better place. But that kind of commentary is rarely found in a newspaper, a facebook status, or twitter feed. It is developed through community and relationship with people who are rooting for you, who want you to be the best artist you can be. (It is developed in spaces like Proyecto Latina!)

Now, when someone criticizes my work, I do pay attention. I look for patterns (are lots of people saying the same thing? Maybe there’s some truth to it.) I look for point of view (Who is saying this? What social position—race, class, gender, nationality—is driving their opinion?)  But most of all, I ask myself if any of it rings true? On a fundamental level, do I agree? If so, I challenge myself to do better next time. And if not, I let it go.

This time, I’m letting it go. I think TOUR GUIDES is a beautiful piece. But you don’t have to take my word for it. See it for yourself December 10, 11, 17, or 18th at 7:30 pm at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets and info at www.guildcomplex.org And then, tell me what you think. I promise, I’ll listen…

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