How Do You Fail in the Arts?

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