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I Don’t Believe You

Nathan Thomas-Scene4 Magazine |

Nathan Thomas

An elementary teacher writes on a board for the students:


The kids laugh and say one is wrong, ignoring the fact the ‘harder’ sums are correct.  The teacher explains this is a metaphor for life.

Despite nine correct answers, people focus on the mistakes.

This is a story that I’ve seen rolling around the internet.  The earliest version I could find was dated from 2016, but I couldn’t find its author.

If you are someone who works in the arts – particularly in the theatre – chances are that you’ve given a “note.”  And it’s incredibly likely that you’ve received “notes.”  Probably plenty of them.

When I just started out as an actor, I recognized a particular phenomenon.  If I felt a rehearsal had gone amazingly well, it was highly likely the director would come back for notes and suggest that they were holding a place in the food-service industry especially for me, given the condition of how I acted that night.  If I felt a rehearsal was absolutely awful, and my acting was about at the level of dog-vomit; it was highly likely that the director would come back for notes and suggest that I keep everything I did that night, and that it was all a revelation of the role, and why hadn’t I done this before?

Criticism.  How do we give it?  How do we take it?  It’s a part of our everyday work lives, and it’s rarely easy.

Early on in my career, I worked with a director who, at some point in every rehearsal period, yelled with great ferocity at the assembled cast and crew.  As a young person in my first encounter with this behavior, I was scared out of my wits.  (And I don’t have many wits to begin with.)  After working with this person other times, I learned that this burst of ferocity was this person’s way of dealing with the anxiety of work on a show.  As I gained more experience with this person – the yelling would happen, and I’d wait patiently until done, and we’d move on.

I’m not indicating who this person was or where it took place.  Some people might be led to think that I think little of this director or that I was in some way harmed by it.  I wasn’t.  And that person shouldn’t be thought of any less because of this quirk.

What was more hurtful was a director who had been part of an original off-Broadway cast of a musical that she was directing at a university where I was working.  We had a student costume designer who had had several production meetings with the director.  And yet on the night of the first dress rehearsal, the director came into the main dressing room, took costumes off of hangars and threw most on the floor with loud declarations of how these costumes would never do.  Not surprisingly, the student walked off the project, and we had to scramble to replace the designer and the “unworkable” costumes.  This was bad criticism that hurt people and the show.

When I started out as a director, I tended to be louder than what I am these days.  Occasionally I do get angry.  But if I get angry, it’s because people are not meeting their potential.  Any pleasure I got from yelling at people (if any) disappeared more than 30 years ago.  And if I’m in a place where I feel I must even speak sharply to someone, I feel inside that I’ve failed.  If I’d done a better job prior to that moment, I would not have had the need to speak sharply.

Sometimes it can be difficult to find even one word of praise for some work.  I had a student many years ago who went on stage to perform in a scene with his partner.  He had not read the play.  He had not even figured out how to secure the couple of pages of script of the scene he was going to do, and he hadn’t read those pages before either.  He was insulted that I called him out on this.

I’ve observed that many people feel unsettled in their self-evaluations, and consequently they take criticism as if they’re not liked – or even likable.  The Russian director Yevgeny Vakhktangov had such an actress in one of his studios.  After a few bouts of tears at the receipt of notes, the cast put together signs and placards that read, “We love you, Sveta” and would have a little parade for her when Vakhtangov gave her a note.

And some people cast notes into a moral category – “If I don’t get that bit right, it’s because I’m a bad person.”  I often explain to casts that according to some actors, that as the son of a preacher, my notes can have a tone of moral disapproval that I don’t intend.

The title of this piece is the criticism so often made by Stanislavsky.  An actor would hear from the stalls or from the couch in his home studio, “I don’t believe you.”

I don’t believe you.  Regardless the play or the genre, it’s not surprising that it seems always comes back to that.  Belief.  Somehow, I in the audience need to be able to believe you a little.

These days I find many of my notes starting with this preamble, “I understand what you’re doing here, but it’s not helping you.”  In recent years, I’ve been doing more work in helping actors get out of their own way.

Y’know, if you want the key to taking criticism well, then what you have to change is –

If you want the key to giving criticism perfectly well, then you need to stop –


I’ve given some examples and old stories.  You could add several pages yourself, most likely.  I don’t know you and haven’t seen you work.  And there’s no “one-size-fits-all” recipe for dealing with criticism.  If you’re an actor, it is your body and your voice and your ability to make people believe in some way in the fiction of the play.  It is incredibly hard some days (most days?) to not take that personally.

So, nothing concrete to give you.  But if you haven’t thought much about how you take notes, think about it.  Ask a trusted friend or colleague not to criticize, but honestly report what they observe when they see you get criticism. 

If you’re someone who gives notes, think about it.  Do you only focus on “mistakes?”  What is the process and/or logistics of conveying a note to a person?  Do your body and your eyes tell the same story as your voice – as the tone of your voice?  How often do you repeat yourself when you give a note?

It’s going to happen.  How can you do better at being a person who can give and take criticism?

I believe you.

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia University. He writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2019 Nathan Thomas
©2019 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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July 2019

Volume 20 Issue 2

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