How Do You Fail in the Arts?

posted in: Blog | 7

Last weekend I failed.

Not spectacularly. I failed modestly well, which is perhaps modest of me to say so. But failure, is failure.

Last weekend marked the end of the residency I was undertaking with Maddy Costa with our project Dialogue at Battersea Arts Centre. As part of this finale of our month-long residency we hosted For the Love of Theatre: Dialogue at BAC. We billed it at as a look into what the future of the theatre critic could be:

Theatre criticism hasn’t changed in about 300 years. But theatre has, radically. What could theatre writing be in the 21st century?

The event brought together theatre writers, theatre-makers, audiences, and industry professionals into the Rec Room at BAC. Three hours of discussions in an open format, to thrash out and dream of what the future of theatre criticism could be. We had run a similar event at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with Northern Stage during their time at St Stephens Church. This discussion was much smaller, but in many ways it had worked, albeit a word of warning from Lucy Ellison on ensuring that good facilitation was put into use for future events was received, and noted.

I guess we’ve all been there. We are given a piece of advice (and here I’d like to point out that Lucy’s advice was very sound), and we nod in agreement and promise to do so. Every intention is to follow the advice, but when it comes to it, for whatever reason, the intention isn’t met, and we fail.

Now I’m not saying that I completely failed, and that For the Love of Theatre completely failed either, but the advice that was given wasn’t put into action, and because of this, I failed. Facilitation is key to any large discussion to ensure that everyone within a given space has an equal voice and that discussions and actions can be made. Not everyone feels comfortable within a group to have their voices heard, not everyone has the courage to speak openly in large groups, and facilitation with a facilitator can assist in this.

On the day, through a lack of facilitation, and through a lack of chairing, For the Love of Theatre suffered from voices heard and unheard clashing and crashing against each other. It was exhausting, it was tough, it was like trying to calm a screaming child that had no intention of calmly playing – legs kicking, cries and screaming aplenty. As one half of Dialogue, and as an individual coming to an end of a residency, this ending was heartbreaking. Knowing that an event you had devised, brought colleagues and strangers together for and then failed on a basic principle of group discussion was tough to accept. More than tough if I’m being honest, and perhaps me using the word ‘heartbreaking’ goes to describe how I feel, or have felt in the last few days.

The problem is not so much that I failed, but being able to talk about failure. The arts do not fail. There is no room for failure in funding reports and creativity. There is no language or guidelines to report failure, or space for failure to be accepted. Although perhaps if I could have failed anywhere in the arts, to do so in BAC (a place that thrives off experimentation and in some ways failure itself) is acceptable. Since For the Love of Theatre I have struggled to talk about failure, both to colleagues and friends, because admitting to failure is admitting that you are wrong or did wrong.

So I’ve spent the last five days in a state of self-pity and wallowing in depressive thoughts. I’ve questioned theatre, and my engagement with it. I’ve repeated continuously certain aspects of the event, like a motion picture on repeat in my mind, and it never ends well. The praise that we received with Dialogue and from the discussion was bittersweet for the failure I felt was overwhelming. (Side note: It isn’t just about a mistake of not having a facilitator at an event that needed one, but a complex mix of anxiety and uncertainty towards myself and the role I play within the arts, the theatre writer vs marketer vs maker vs digital producer vs dramaturg).

I’m reminded of the blog Sarah Spunshon wrote recently on failure and how our gremlins hold onto us not allowing us to embrace the mistakes that we make. Sarah’s blog is personal to her, but in many ways it speaks universally. There feels as if there is no right way to admit to ourselves first and to others second that we have failed. There is no room for accepting failure, and this is a failure that we all share, especially working in the arts.

So I’ve kicked my feet in the dirt like a schoolboy being told off, and for the best part it has helped me to accept the failure. Now I’m admitting it and saying it publicly: I failed.

So now what? Do I continue to just wallow in this failure and let it consume me as I have done? I can, but it won’t be productive. Failure is about accepting your faults, learning from them and moving on.

Writing this has helped me but it throws up questions that I don’t think have answers:

How do you fail in the arts?
How do you monitor failure and report on it?
Can an artist fail, and can this be part of artistic practice?
How many institutes accept failure?

If anyone has an answer I’d be keen to hear it. For now though, I’m going to kick my feet a little longer before starting next week afresh.

“It’s always helpful to learn from your mistakes because then your mistakes seem worthwhile” – Garry Marshall in Wake Me When It’s Funny

7 Responses

  1. Jen Toksvig

    I’d really like to respond to this, because I was glad to have attended, but I’m not sure how you failed, so I’m not sure how to respond.

    (Not saying you didn’t fail. If you felt like you failed, then you have every right to address that feeling. Just not clear how you failed.)

    I don’t know if there was something specific that you were hoping to get from the event, or if your goal was solely to hear all voices present. If the latter, I would hope that people felt they could email you afterwards if they had more to say. You certainly invited us to do so. So that doesn’t feel like failure.

    If it mattered more to you to have all those voices speak in that room during that time… I don’t see why you’d want that, necessarily. Did you want that? Some people prefer to listen, think and then respond a while later. Also, dialogues can happen via email, or on Twitter, or whatever. Whenever it happens is the right time. (You might not like open space, of course. Which is also not a fail.)

    It’s true, you might have been able to guide us towards more focused responses had you given us a specific thing to which to respond, but the very broad question that brought us into the room was “What could theatre writing be in the 21st century?”.

    People came because they had some response to that. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have felt they could make a contribution, and they wouldn’t have come.

    Who chose to rock up, and why they did, was not in your control. Even people making speeches pointing us in a certain direction isn’t going to stop anyone from sharing what they specifically brought with them to share. So… not your fail.

    Maybe you could have made the question more specific… except my earliest question to you was “What are you guys looking for?” and there was no straight answer, so I think you didn’t exactly know.

    And I think that’s not a fail.

    So, either you’re being massively unfair on yourself, that you wanted to be steering a collective conversation down a specific path but, actually, all sorts of different conversations had rocked up and people were therefore going to bring it, regardless… or you’re being very down on the conversations that were brought.

    Which might be a fail, of a sort, I suppose. But you have every right not to like anything anyone said. I’d be interested in hearing what you thought about what did get brought into the room, because then I could respond to your response, and we could have a dialogue about it.

    Where, actually, it feels like the only fail here is that you’re failing to share any of your actual response to what actually did happen in the room.

    – and as it happens, that’s the stuff I’m interested in. From you. From critics. (Is that irony? I will never get irony.) The one thing to which I can’t really respond is you hating all over yourself.

    … no, that’s not true. I could tell you how much I hated myself in that process. Shall I? (Would THAT be irony?)

    I am a voice that stifles others in single group dialogues. I’m not afraid to say what pops into my head, I have a loud voice, and I can’t do sitting still. I need to at least be making something in order to do proper listening.

    I get vociferously passionate.

    I am distracting for many.

    Sometimes, I feel that I have failed as a collaborator. No, often, I feel that way. I should be more open, quiet, let other people speak.

    Except I’m not, and I don’t.

    In an effort to never have to sit through a fucking proscenium arch show, ever again, where the rules are that I must be still and silent and attentive to heavily single-voiced storytelling, I am writing musicals that allow people to interact in other ways. Their own ways. Not only that, but they get to move away from people whom they find distracting. More than that, they even get to start a dialogue with those people, if they want to.

    (I wish it was this amazing, innovative thing, but It’s just open space.)

    I like to think of that as innovation, but actually, I’m just denying my failings in a VERY BIG WAY. So much denial, that I’m inventing an entirely new way of doing musicals.

    (Well, no, I’m just using open space. I’m not clever, just crafty in my failure-avoidance.)

    I still don’t know what kind of fail you actually did. Whatever it is, my advice would be not to get touchy-feely with it. It’s failure, for fuck’s sake. Who wants to admit to that? Every time you encounter another instance of it, your ‘learning from it’ will just be the same shame button being hit, again and again and again. That’s not learning, it’s abuse.

    Just deny that you failed, and say you have proved that X does not, and was going to, work. And then find a way to totally swerve doing X by doing Y, so it is impossible for you to do the same fail ever again.

    (Then properly embrace the new thing. Annoyingly, it seems you have to really mean it in order to make it work.)

    Why did you fail, again?

  2. Daniel Bye

    i don’t mean to sound flip, but surely the arts fail all the time?

    Often in public, but more often in rehearsal rooms. Rehearsal and the whole process of making work are nothing more or less than a series of attempts to increase the chance of success when you meet an audience. You then have work-in-progress performances, scratch nights, previews, all sorts of mechanisms for apologising if it doesn’t succeed yet.

    The difficulty isn’t that the arts aren’t allowed to fail. The difficulty lies in how we talk about that failure.

    I did a series of work-in-progress performances of a new show over the last two weeks. The show doesn’t entirely work yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s a failure. If anything it’s quite promising. If we don’t succeed in making the show work when it’s ‘finished’, *then* maybe it will be a failure.

    Or at least a mixed success. The word failure is so absolute: it implies a total, well, failure; a lack of any redeeming characteristics. When I’m marking undergraduate essays, I notice that they have to work remarkably hard to fail completely.

    So I don’t know, Jake. I don’t think you failed – the response to the event makes clear that there were loads of successes.

    And some people thought my work-in-progress was loads better than I did: I don’t want to invalidate their experience, but it can be way better. Obviously it would be nice to nail everything first time, but it sounds to me like what you had was a successful work-in-progress event. Lots of positives; heading in the right direction; plenty to rework. If what you’re doing is anything like putting on a show, just know that it usually takes more than two or three goes.

    Although obviously that doesn’t mean you don’t hate yourself for not nailing it.

  3. Jen Toksvig

    I’m with Daniel.

    The event aside, failure as an abstract concept is one of the reasons why I want to, and can, embrace collaboration with critics.

    Press nights are all about succeed or fail. Criticism has a culture of succeed or fail, and I thought we were talking about moving away from that.

    Although the sense of failing that happens in work-in-progress seems to be more not-yet-succeeding than failing.

    Whereas the sense of failing in your post, Jake, seems more like a very final and decisive sense of failing.

    I belong to a writing group that did a cabaret evening of work-in-progress recently, to a small audience in a London fringe venue.

    It was a prosc arch evening of well-rehearsed songs that the writers were confident enough to bring to an audience.

    Except for my bit. My bit was a few brilliant actor friends, and me, improv’ing and riffing on some brand new ideas we’d had in the coffee bar during the first act.

    We couldn’t watch the show. There weren’t any seats. So we walked in at the very end of a performance that had already run over.

    I asked for house lights to be put up and stage lighting taken down.

    I talked to the audience. Asked them how the show had gone.

    Then I talked to the characters we’d brought with us, started exploring who they are, what they were doing in that situation we’d roughed out.

    The point of this was to explore audience members talking to characters.

    It was horrendous. Couldn’t have been more unwelcome if it tried.

    Some members of the audience even got sort of abusive about it.

    In the end, we did all of maybe two minutes, and I said, “I think we’re done, aren’t we?” and we literally just walked offstage.

    Mostly, for me, it was an utter failure because I put my friends through that experience.

    (AGAIN! One of them went through a similar thing with me a few years ago.)

    And I could say “Oh yes, we learnt XYZ from it” which, of course, we did, but the consequence of the experience was that I left the writing group, and feel like I wish that moment could be erased from my memory.

    I don’t think that’s failure. I think that’s shame. Like I said earlier, it’s a button that hurts when it gets pressed, and always will. (Same for the previous similar experience.)

    What’s interesting is that I cannot call to mind one thing I learnt from that experience without hitting that button, so it colours everything that might have been useful to take away.

    Those things are still useful, but now I’ll treat them with the kid gloves, which will inhibit the process in the future.

    It will inhibit the failing in future.

    It’s true, about Edison needing to fail many times at the lightbulb. I hope I can fail again with as much confidence as I did before.

  4. Leonie Hart

    Sorry, this is a waffling and perhaps slightly confused response

    I firstly wonder if this is a thing about risk, as an inevitable something resulting from taking risks. As we well know risk-taking and embracing this wholeheartedly is an essential ingredient of experimental, innovative practice that can challenge and develop. The only way to do anything new and certainly the only way to do it well.

    You point out how Sarah Punshon, in her rather brilliant blog post, (which had passed me by before so thanks for drawing my attention to it!), recognises her need for her gremlin as this is what drives her. And unfortunately, the inevitable flipside of all this wonderful risk-taking and all the wonderful work born out of it, appears to be that risk of failure. Bleurgh, it makes me feel queasy at the thought (and excited and anticipating and all the other scary intoxicating things that make us want to do it in the first place).

    The brilliant Erica Whyman, at an Edinburgh event for producers and arts organisations at St Stephens on how we can best work together to support artists, highlighted this as one of the most key things for her: Providing support and enabling artists and companies to take risks and feel safe doing so. I believe she was specifically talking about financial risks, which is a rather different issue, however, this in itself is necessary to enable the artistic risk-taking and the same principle definitely applies.

    As Sarah learns to come to terms with being wrong, through admitting to it, perhaps also in risk-taking/mistake-making/failure what we have to come to terms with is trust. Trusting our audience to not judge whole projects/ideas/concepts by one mistake, trusting our collaborators/producers/funders/venues to believe in our work and be supportive of it and understand that mistakes are an inevitable part of the process. And trust in ourselves to accept that we will make mistakes and fail from time to time, but not every time and these other, non-failing times outweigh the failing ones, but that perhaps each is equally valuable. Perhaps this trust might make it an easier cross to bear, I don’t know, I haven’t tried it yet.

    This is something I’m certainly no good at myself, and when I read your piece it really struck a chord. I felt for you terribly. As an arts project manager, at the end of a project/performance/event, I find it difficult to see anything other that the things that didn’t go quite according to plan. I rarely get to indulge in the traditional post-project euphoria one might hope to expect. This I am sure drives my colleagues, friends and family nuts and so, for the sake of social harmony, I do now attempt to stem my rather harsh self-criticism. As years of mistake-making has taught me, no matter how I may desire the catharsis only ‘fessing up can bring, folk really don’t want to know, don’t care even, and would much rather bask in the glorious glory of all the wonderful things that went right. And who can blame them. I always want to do a project again, the following day, to right all the wrongs of its first outing. Sadly for us, however, no matter how long a project, or the run even, you never get a second first go, first stab, first night.

    Sorry, I’ve digressed horribly. But I think what I’m trying to say, in not answering your questions at all, is that it’s obvious from all the wonderful feedback and thoughtful discussion generated by your work at BAC that your residency and the event achieved an awful lot, however, I also appreciate that hearing that doesn’t necessarily help or that that alone isn’t necessarily enough for you. In answer to you, whether or not you think you failed, or even that you weren’t successful, that’s not the story people want to hear, and whatever you tell them, it’s the bits that did work that they’ll hold on to. And in some ways, whilst you’ll always feel failure in your heart of hearts, we can perhaps try and persuade ourselves, at least on some conscious sanity-preserving level that what’s good enough for them…?

  5. Matt Burman

    I’m with Leonie. If you don’t fail at some point then you haven’t taken a big enough risk. If you don’t take risks, you won’t discover something new. If we don’t discover new things then we might as well give up. It has become a cliche perhaps but “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” (Beckett)

  6. Howard Sherman

    The event may not have come off as you planned, Jake, but you didn’t fail — you learned. And as the founder of “A Younger Theatre” you and your constituents need to understand that everyone fails now and again, although from your own narrative, I’m not really so sure that you did. As for failure in the arts? There must be room for that, at least in the subsidised realm. The only area of the arts that tries (and yet constantly fails) to avoid failure, is commercial work.

  7. Sarah Punshon

    I’m very late to this conversation, but I’m so glad I’ve discovered it today. At the end of an incredibly difficult month, it is like suddenly having a window opened into my head, and some cool light and sanity drop in. Thank you so much, Jake, and thank you Leonie, for expressing so brilliantly exactly what I do to myself after (and during!) every project.

    And now on to the next difficult day.

    Chin up, Jake, and live to fight another day.