Songs for the Struggling Artist

The Chance to Fail
November 12, 2012, 12:37 am
Filed under: art, theatre | Tags: , , ,

That’s it. That’s all I want. All I want are multiple opportunities to fall on my face, to stumble into a wall, to trip over some obstacle and then keep going.
In my first clown class, my teacher, the incomparable Jane Nichols, taught us an exercise called Mr. Flop. In it, we’d enter with some big idea and then inevitably, sooner or later it would fail. We’d be stuck, onstage, squirming in front of the audience, dying to exit and leave our failure behind, but the point of Mr. Flop was the failure, to discover what we do when we fail – because often, the spirit of our clowns lived in that failure, in that human encounter with the flop.
Mr. Flop taught me a lot about clowning, that’s for sure, but it also taught me a lot about Art. I learned how to embrace failure, to seek out where I might not succeed – because that was where the gold was. When I play it safe, trying not to fail, I’m boring. My work is predictable and uninspired when I fail to flirt with failure. I think, when I court the possibility of failure actively, I make work that is infused with that sense of risk.
I had a one-off performance a while back and one internal voice said, “Use this as an opportunity to network, call “important people”, bring press packets and business cards, advance your career” and the other said “Use this as an opportunity to fail. Invite no one. There will be an audience but you won’t know them. Use them to help you fall on your face. Fuck it up.”
I went with Option 2 because I’ve done Option 1 too many times and not only has it never really paid off, it usually resulted in a stale overly careful performance. Option 2 felt like an opportunity to break free. And in the end, I didn’t fail, the performance went well, actually, but I think even if it had bombed, I would have been grateful for the opportunity to bomb. I would have learned as much, if not more, from bombing than I did from it going well.
In this theatre culture, there are very very few opportunities to screw up. Every performance requires so many funds raised, so much expensive rehearsal space, an expensive performance space, lots of dollars spent on marketing – all of which becomes such a heavy burden on a little piece of theatre that just wants to emerge and be seen. The extraordinary effort it takes to make anything here means we can never fail. And if we do it anyway, if we fail after having spent our donor’s $10,000 and no one liked it and no one came, the chances of us raising another $10,000 to put on another shoe-string show are slim to none. Fail once, pay forever.
There is no net. We are all just out here on the trapeze and sometimes we just swing back and forth on the same bar because we do not want to reach beyond our grasp and possibly crash to the ground.
I think this is why there is so much crappy theatre in this town. Everyone is trying so hard to never screw up, to never make an unpopular choice, to impress, to advance, to get that agent in or the critic or the publicity team or whomever it is, that the work is stultifying. In trying not to fail, we fail big time. Failing is the only way to get better – but to make just one show here requires so many resources, we never get to really attempt it. To become a great writer, you will likely have to write many terrible pages. To become a brilliant painter, you will need to make many terrible paintings. But this art form requires so many people, so many resources that we rarely get the chance to make many terrible shows that will lead us to greatness.


2 Comments so far
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One rare gem of a place that I have found that encourages this kind of spirit is The Brick in Williamsburg.

Comment by Julia Beardsley O'Brien

That’s interesting! All the times I’ve ever submitted anything there, I’ve never even received even an acknowledgement of receipt – but maybe I need to give them another shot.

Comment by erainbowd

I'd love to hear from you. Gentleness and kindness encouraged and appreciated.

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