Singing off key: the beauty of failure

Convener(s):Karin Verbruggen, David Cottis

Participants: Ben C, Zoe C, Fiona D, Tom M, Emma F, Mike K, Tom B, Rhiannon, Laura, Alicia R, Francesca, Jocelyn C, Hugh H, Rena Arora, Sue Frumin.

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

Two distinct areas of failure were discussed – the failure of an individual project, or aspects of an individual project, and the sense of failure in general in one’s career.

It was generally agreed that it is necessary to fail, sometimes many times, in order to produce anything worthwhile. 

Karin discussed a piece of work she is working on and will/could incorporate intentional failure. Nick made a distinction between work that you generate yourself that doesn’t work, but that you learn something from, and something that you’re engaged to do.  Ben mentioned a production of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ he’d directed, where he hadn’t been happy with the child actors, and had learnt important things about casting.

Tom talked about the idea of creating a piece of work that was intended to fail, and asked whether this was possibly a cop-out.  It was argued that, so long as you produce work with integrity, it can’t be defined as a failure.

We discussed the importance of research and development before putting work in front of an audience, and being selective about the people you work with.  Hugh pointed out that it’s possible to overdo this, to the point where you don’t work with anyone. 

It was suggested that, with the current financial situation, the space to fail is disappearing.  The idea of punk rock, where people were encouraged to ‘have a go’ was mentioned as an ideal.

People discussed ways in which we coped with the sense of individual failure – one female actor talked about self-belief, as something she’d learnt from Lee Simpson.  Nick talked about the importance of mentors, and drew the analogy with sport, where people rely very much on their trainers.  David discussed the idea of a ‘fanbase’, a group of people who appreciate you even when your work isn’t going well.  People talked about different things they did outside the theatre, especially physical things like dancing.  Karin discussed an exercise she’d done where she was encouraged to have an imaginary dialogue about her work with an artist she admired.  A female actor mentioned a similar exercise – ‘Come into the room as someone you admire.’

Hugh argued that the idea that ‘talent will out’ is quite dangerous – that it is possible to produce good work, to work hard, and still not to be successful.  He said that failure should be thought of as the norm – that to succeed is the exception.  Nick said that, for people in the theatre, rejection was the default situation.

We discussed whether it was necessarily wrong to acknowledge that people have strengths and weaknesses, and that people can improve through realizing this themselves.  It was argued that not every piece of work is for everyone, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

It was partially agreed that, because of the live nature of theatre, there’s little chance of being posthumously recognised like van Gogh, and this was something we had to live with.

Towards the end of the session, a new participant said that he found the idea of failure hard to understand, and that it was possibly more helpful to talk about being in some way ‘off-balance’.  He said that, far from being a bad state, this was actually the human condition, and that we shouldn’t worry about it.  He rejected the idea of ‘homeo-stasis’ and said that we should rather think of ‘homeo-dynamics’, as its in the nature of human beings to be constantly changing and seeking new things. 

It was generally agreed that this was a good note on which to end – the idea that there’s no such thing as failure, and that, even if there is, it isn’t a bad thing.  It was also generally agreed that, ironically enough, it had been a very successful session, and a good one with which to start the weekend.