Sunday, August 1, 2010

Embracing Failure

As most people are, I'm currently in the process of rediscovering who I am. In April, this manifested as a desperate search for my calling.

Over the past three months, I've realized that at my core, at the deepest part of my being, I'm an artist. For a couple of years, I've been on the outskirts of the artistic community. There were reasons for that, both good and bad -- but I'm now in the process of re-immersing myself into theatre culture: both by becoming a company member of The Naked Stage and by becoming active in the 2amt community on twitter.

The culture of artists, specifically theatre artists, is vastly different than the Unitarian Universalist culture where I've spent my time in these past two years, despite people of both cultures holding very similar views. Theatre people embrace the messiness of life; where as Unitarian Universalists search for order. Neither one is better than the other (and both have flaws), but I naturally fit in more with artists.

One of the aspects that I love about theatre culture is that we have set up a system that accepts failure. It's being encroached upon by the demands of the greater American culture, but we would never say "failure is not an option."


I was raised by a scrappy Shakespeare company in Columbus, Ohio. Instead of belonging to a Thespian society, I fell in with the Rosebriar Shakespeare Company.

One of my favorite stories of my time working with Rosebriar is when we produced Cymbeline. Cymbeline, for those of you not in the know, is the real cursed Shakespeare play, or as I could call it, "the Welsh play."

I signed up to be the stage manager of the production. At the time, I was understudying Mortimer in The Fantasticks at the Fort Hayes Pre-Professional Theatre Program. Fort Hayes is a vocational arts high school, and I went there for the second half of the day, after taking academic classes at my regular high school. Since I was only an understudy, I was bored and thought that adding the duties of a stage manager for Cymbeline would fill out my time. I've always been one of those people who does better when she has five things to do as opposed to one thing to do.

So I asked Valerie Meachum, director and playing Imogen in this production, if I could stage manage. Val said yes, and my time was filled.

Actors kept dropping out. Always for very good reasons: health issues, deaths in the family, etc. I went from being the stage manager to playing one prince to playing both princes rolled up into one role. At the same time, I went from being an understudy in The Fantasticks to actually having the role. It was a stressful time.

Opening night. Pete, the actor who was playing my adopted Father in Cymbeline, came in during tech week. He had been rehearsing with us for three days and I had been rehearsing in my role for about two weeks. Both of us were marginally off book.

Then came the scene where I had to bring in a severed head.

I completely lost it. Here I was, holding this severed head prop, which looked ridiculous, and I could not stop laughing.

In middle of my uncontrollable giggles, I said, in my best Shakespearean English, "Hey, Dad, I chopped off his head."

And Pete responded, "Oh that's okay."

To this day, thinking about that experience makes me giggle. (I hope Val is at that place too. She's a great actor and director and deserved better circumstances.)

It's a perfect example of how by having a "the show must go on" mentality, we embrace failure. Neither Pete nor I nor Val ever thought to say, "this is doomed. We should stop."

If anyone involved in that production had caved to perfectionist tendencies, it wouldn't have happened. There's an argument to be made that it shouldn't have happened, but then I wouldn't have one of my cherished memories of how I bombed as an actor.

Everyone involved in that production was committed to making it work as best we could, despite overwhelming odds. If we had an aversion to failure, we would have never gotten to opening night. The company had a serious amount of endurance, and despite the less than amazing product, I'm proud that I had a chance to work with such people. And I'm happy to have the memory of my worst moment as an actor. (If nothing else, it's a great story.)


In the professional world, we tend to have slightly better circumstances. But even there, we have a system in which we give ourselves the room to fail: rehearsal.

The whole point of the rehearsal processes is that there is room for folks to take risks. And when you're taking a risk, you're giving yourself room to fail.

As a theatre artist, I live for rehearsal. It's where you're allowed to be messy. It's where you're allowed to explore. As a playwright, I can throw scenes up and work on them with actors and hear what's working and what isn't working.

Rehearsal is the process of failing until you get it right. It's a place of constant learning, of constant discoveries.

I'm filled with gratitude that we have this mechanism to work on our art. Most of the world does not have this process built into how they operate: there's only one chance. I come from a culture that embraces many chances, many failures, and knows that you learn from each time you fail.

Now, outside of rehearsal, there is far less room to fail. But even there, we're making strides. For example, the National New Play Network has set up the concept of rolling world premieres. Three theatres within NNPN commit to producing a play, which means that if one production bombs critically in one city, the play is no longer doomed to never being produced again. I've also noticed that local critics mention when a play is a world premiere, suggesting that it takes two or three productions to polish a script.

The outside world's view of failure is encroaching in on the theatre community. Mainly through scarcity thinking. Professional theatres have less money to spend, and therefore are shortening rehearsal periods. There's also an argument to be made that theatres will take less risks in uncertain times, relying on old audience favorites.

But the theatre community has something very unique in our willingness to embrace failure. We should treasure that, and I hope that, we, as theatre artists, make sure that way of thinking is in our everyday lives. And I hope that I can bring the positive aspects of theatre culture with me into my work with Unitarian Universalists. I think the world would be a better place if everyone was more comfortable with failure, more comfortable with messiness, and more comfortable with play.

(This blog post was requested by Rev. Naomi King on twitter. Gwydion Suilebhan requested the Cymbeline story.)


  1. God bless Pete and his freewheeling paraphrasing! It saved the show and the last remaining shreds of my sanity more than once.

    And oh, yes, I've been in the giggly place regarding that production for years now. It's a good place. :-D Thanks for the walk down a slightly wonky few blocks of Memory Lane.

  2. Thank you, Andie, for sharing this.

  3. Hi, I came across your blog via seeing your 2AMt post about Florida Rep being posted on Facebook. I really enjoyed the authenticity and sincerity of your writing.