When The Worst Possible Outcome
Is Exactly What's Needed
Originally published 25/02/2014
It’s been a rough couple of weeks – and I’m trying to get back in the swing of things. I’ve spent the last 10 days in stasis, unable to be productive in almost every way.
I failed 10 days ago – a big, ugly, fundamental failure. A failure I didn’t see coming because I’ve always been able to pull something out of my ass when I need to most. Not this time. This time a huge wall loomed up out of nowhere and I went straight into it, full speed.
My confidence is low. I’m not sure if I know anything or how to do what I do and I’m beginning to see that that is the point. It’s a humbling experience. To be honest, it sucks, the way heartache sucks, the way missing the last turn-off before a bridge sucks, the way losing or coming in second place sucks.
We don’t celebrate failure enough. We talk about it in the arts as something not to fear and we even go so far as to recommend it – ‘fail big.’ Samuel Beckett advocated for it: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” Right now, I want to tell Beckett’s dust to fuck off. If this were a quote from a gutter rat, asleep in a pool of his own vomit, I might be less bitter, but coming from a Nobel Prize winning author it’s a hard pill to swallow. There’s nothing more galling than an exceedingly successful genius expounding the virtue of failure. (Personally, it’s the ‘no matter,’ part of the quote that chaps me most. Right now it feels like all that matters – but maybe that’s his point.)
Failure is different than being incapable. Failure is being capable and not succeeding. If you can’t climb a rope, you haven’t failed if you don’t reach the top. You can’t climb; you’re incapable. But if you can climb, and have been doing so for decades and you come to the rope one day and don’t make it even half way to the top, no matter how much effort, skill or means you put into it, then you have failed. Striving to become capable has its own frustrations, but it is nothing compared to the hopelessness of real failure.
For a fleeting moment, I wanted to blame the rope, but I know that’s a lie. Blaming anything else at this point is a lie. I’ve been doing this for too long. There isn’t a circumstance or obstacle that I haven’t faced before that ever prevented me from getting up the rope, and this latest rope wasn’t anything special. I should have been able to climb it with one hand and no legs.
After spinning this around my head for 10 days trying to figure out how to fix it, I’ve realized the failure in itself is kind of perfect. In the way that a success is better and more dynamic than the sum of its parts, this failure is more profound than the sum of its mistakes. It is its own entity – and if I look at it objectively, it serves its own purpose.
I have spent most of my artistic life looking for the best way to express ideas and concepts, emotion and intellect, chaos and human existence, but I’ve somehow missed the forest for the trees (and the irony of not being able to express the crux of this failure except in an analogy about a rope is not lost on me). The situation has caused me to start to question what I know and what I rely on, which is like peeling back your own skin layer by layer because you have to get to the bones. You have to get to the structures that hold everything up, the foundations upon which all the muscle and sinews grow.
Surprisingly, I have not lost faith in the theatrical theories to which I subscribe and which led me down the garden path to this freshly mowed hell. Much as it would be easier to give up on abstraction and play it safe with realism, I know that merely depicting life as we know it on stage fundamentally reduces the art form to its least powerful aspect. And while I fear that some involved with this failure and some on the sidelines will use this as proof that abstract expressionism does not work in the classroom or at the theatre, I have to let that battle go. It’s like fighting a religious war and it’s distracting me from my real work.
The thing is, I feel like I’m on the verge of a fundamental breakthrough, I just don’t know what it is yet – and this puts me back in the Petri Dish slogging away for an answer. It’s not pretty, and it comes at a cost, but it’s exactly what’s needed if I am ever to fail better. (That sounds neat and tidy and like sentimental bullshit at the moment, but again Sammy may have a point.)
My point is that I think we need more discussion about failure. Like death, we need not be afraid to look at it head on, to go deep inside and see the abyss, and as Nietzsche said, let the abyss look into us. If we can look at the void without flinching and allow ourselves to be seen for what really are, removing all defensive posturing, then maybe expansion is possible. Because if I can walk into a rehearsal without ever being sure of anything, if I can let go of needing to believe in anything (myself, the process, the story, the actors), then what might I discover? Because it was the things I was sure of that let me down 10 days ago, and if I had not been sure of them when the process started, I would not have relied on false premises to begin with. I actually feel like I know nothing right now, and while my identity is slightly impaired by this, it is oddly liberating and possibly exactly what I need right now.