According to American writer/director/actor Woody Allen, “if you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.” Failure is a precarious beast. It doesn’t feel fun to fail, and in the theatre, when one fails live in front of an audience, it can be humiliating and devastating. Yet, Woody Allen is right, failure is intrinsic to innovation and it is a fundamental part of learning. It is a necessary aspect of the creation of art. It is not something that we should be avoiding or afraid of, it is something that we should be leaping toward with an ardent desire to fail once and then to fail again, better.
I have seen a lot of theatrical productions fail- some of them spectacularly. I have seen theatre productions fail in big houses and small houses, with professional actors and amateur actors. I have seen Shakespeare fail and new work fail. I have seen Fringe fails and Broadway fails. I have seen productions that have failed BECAUSE the producers or Artistic Directors were SO obsessed with wanting to NEVER EVER fail that they drained all the life out of their show in the process. #Fail. I have seen productions that have, metaphorically, fallen on their faces. The important thing to understand is: just because a production fails doesn’t necessarily mean that the play is irrevocably horrible, that the artists involved aren’t talented or EVEN that it wasn’t an exciting and interesting evening at the theatre. Sometimes there are plays that are riddled with problems that are SO exciting to see because, even though there were lots of things that didn’t work, the IDEAS were fantastic and the artists were being innovative and it was clear that they were on the road toward something that had all the potential in the world to be FANTASTIC. That’s allowed to happen in the theatre. That is what Fringe Festivals were MADE to showcase, for example. Failing is never the problem.
The problem is the fear. Failure is a stepping stone toward success. It is a TREMENDOUS learning opportunity. Yet, in order for one to truly benefit from her failures, she has to be able to acknowledge them and allow them to help her grow and learn. It is one of the MOST frustrating and disheartening experiences to sit in the theatre and to watch a show fail and to know, from experience, that the likelihood of the artists or the theatre company or the piece growing, developing, or benefiting from that experience is slim.
If a second grader spells the word “Mississippi” incorrectly there is no reason for her to be ashamed of her mistake. This does not insinuate that she is a BAD speller. In fact, her passion for wanting to spell such a long word at such a young age may indicate that she will grow up to win Spelling Bees. She has taken a risk by trying to spell “Mississippi” instead of “Iowa,” which may be easier, and she should feel confident in her risk and she should be congratulated for her bravery. Yet, if she is never corrected in her spelling of Mississippi and she doesn’t accept, or ideally, embrace this correction, she will go on to keep making the same mistake for the rest of her life. Her feelings may be protected in the short term, but her potential for greatness at spelling is severally stifled.
I see potential being stifled every time a show riddled with problems, but teeming with possibility, disappears after its first run, never to be seen again. Often, instead, those artists will immediately begin to work on something new, and often the new play has the exact same problems as the first one. I see potential being stifled when Artistic Directors play their seasons safe, to avoid any possible failure. I see potential being stifled when they sacrifice quality for money or ego. I see it being stifled in smaller companies when they sacrifice quality for quantity. I see it being stifled when, in the name of being “supportive,” everything is heralded as being great by everyone, so no one ever has to feel the negative aspects of failure. Thus, they are robbed of the huge opportunities that failure brings with it: the chance to succeed. A lack of critical discourse, both in the media, and in the theatre community in general, is a dangerous thing for the artists and, especially, for the theatre’s prospective audience.
By never acknowledging failure in the theatre we imply that it is wrong to fail. The truth is: It’s inevitable to fail. Instead, we should all be fascinated with it. The answers to the question: WHY DIDN’T THIS PLAY WORK is the key to us making better theatre.
We are here. Theatre in Halifax exists. It exists in little houses and it exists in big houses. We are still protective of it. We all want it to succeed. We want it to thrive. We want it to continue to be. We have to be brave. We have to trust that we can admit little defeats and that it won’t make theatre here disappear. It won’t suggest that we are inferior. In fact, it will help us win the larger battle. Maybe this one play was just bad. Bad plays happen to the best people. Maybe this entire theatre company isn’t working well. That’s OKAY- learn from what didn’t work and try something else. Maybe someone is great at writing, but not at directing. It’s not a mark of inferiority to be excessively talented at one thing and only mediocre in another. It still means that you are EXCESSIVELY talented. We don’t have to hold on to things that don’t work because it’s “all we have.” We have all helped make this community; we have all created new things. New things can replace old things. We don’t have to bubble wrap ourselves or each other. We’ve already proven we’re resilient.
Being supportive doesn’t mean being a crutch. Sometimes it means giving someone a push in the hopes that they will fly– and if they fall on their face, don’t pretend it never happened, instead, encourage them to go bigger and fail better next time.