Why do we all follow Liz Lerman?

In September 2015 I was lucky enough to show my latest work in progress at The Place’s Touch Wood season. This platform follows the bi-annual research period, Choreodrome, hosted by The Place. I was terrified because not only was it my work in the frame, but for the first time in 7 years I also had to perform it! Each Touch Wood night four companies presented their new ideas, fresh from the studio. Afterwards the audience was divided into 4 groups and each group was joined by one of the artists whose work had just been performed.  Over the following 20 minutes the groups were (very skilfully) led through a feedback session, providing their input into that particular choreographer’s work that evening, following Liz Lerman’s critical response template.

The Liz Lerman structure is aimed at providing artists with the feedback that is helpful to them, and protecting them from the less helpful input. It has an artist led focus. The artist can ask for feedback on specific questions, audience members could then ask their own questions before the floor is opened to ‘opinions’. In offering an opinion, audience members had to first ask if the artist wanted to hear an opinion they had on a specific aspect. The artist could decline or accept before the opinion was offered. This is a well-known structure that I have followed a number of times. I was grateful for the structure on that particular occasion because I was feeling extremely nervous and insecure about my own performance. However I also sensed that I wasn’t fully getting to the crux of what was not working. Something was sticking and I wasn’t quite getting the reaction that I wanted.

After this I went to every single Touch Wood night and participated in feedback sessions for each one. The really intriguing thing was that I noticed that not only was the experience painful for me as a receiver, it was also quite strained as a feedback-er. You simply cannot say what you think! Sitting on the other side of the fence I was painfully aware of my enforced restraint. Sometimes this turned into sheer panic at the thought of having to say something when all I had to say was an opinion. I started to wonder whether all this protection wasn’t in fact a little too sheltered. Are we actually extracting constructive feedback, or are we hiding away, too scared of knowing the truth?

Surely the real question to ask is: what do I want for my work and for the profession in general? Do I want to keep myself safe, to hide behind a protective framework for fear of being found out, for fear that someone will realise that I do not have all the answers and that most of the time I have no idea where I’m actually going? Or do I want to use the lens of people’s external viewpoint to help me to make the best possible work I can make?

In Ed Catmull’s ‘Creativity Inc’ he talks about the importance of ‘candour’ and how this is a valued and necessary part of the creative development at Pixar Animation Studios. Catmull states:

The hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions and criticisms. Lack of candour, if unchecked, ultimately leads to dysfunctional environments. – Ed Catmull, ‘Creativity Inc’ 2014.

Now to be clear, what I’m not saying is that the critical response should be thrown out with the proverbial bath water. I’m certainly not qualified enough to say so and there are contexts where this system is a very useful tool. But I wonder if we may be taking it a little too far.

When we invite feedback, we’re aiming to use other people’s external viewpoints to help us to see what we cannot see.  We have to be open to hearing what we might not want or like to hear. It’s always tough. But without access to candid feedback we cannot learn from each other and progress as a profession. We may well all be walking around in circles wearing the Emperor’s New Clothes. Waiting for the critics to shout ‘he’s naked’ is just a wasted opportunity to make something amazing. Rather than adopting a framework because it exists, we need to be mindful of what it is and what it is not achieving. We need to have open discussions with people we trust to speak their minds and with the knowledge that their thoughts are not personal or resulting from competitiveness. What we all want is just to make the best possible work at this time. Our egos are surely secondary to this.


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