Some thoughts on failure and risk

I first started writing down thoughts about risk back when we were doing the workshops on Tajinder Singh Hayer’s North Country. It seems appropriate that I’m finally getting to finish them a week into rehearsal for the full production.

Back then we had committed, no I had committed, to showing a script in hand performance at Mancunicon (the largest SciFi Con in the country no less) and at Upstart’s DARE festival at Shoreditch Town Hall. We had three days to prepare and no time in the Con venue to rehearse; we were just going to have to go in there and do it. When I say we, I mean my amazing actors, Natalie Davies, Philip Duguid-McQuillan and Kamal Kaan. There was a very, very real possibility that it wasn’t going to work at all.

So why do it at all? Why put all of us through the stress? After all, we could have not committed to the showings and just had a couple of stress-free days on the script. Or opted for a much more laid back rehearsed reading instead of attempted to stage the entire play in three days.

The point was to try out my idea for the production, an idea of how the play worked, in front of two very different audiences. To learn from them, in advance of a production, whether the ideas were any good. And (breathing a huge sigh of relief) it did work, the audiences, of widely disparate experience, backgrounds and nationalities, understood and responded to the play. Of course, as a risk it was a calculated one; I had a great cast and a good script.

Still, it could have gone wrong. And even now, with a refined script and thankfully the same great cast, it could still go wrong. We are running the play in The Wild Woods (basement of the old Marks and Spencer on Darley Street, Bradford). It’s a longer run than Freedom Studios has done in Bradford for a while, trying to reach new audiences.

All of which has made me think again about what it means to try and to fail. A lot of times failure is talked about its through the perspective of eventual success (you’ll never succeed if you don’t try), or is somehow glossed over (fail again, fail better). Because failure can be horrible, stomach-churning, palm sweating, skin crawling awful. You put yourself out there, a part of your heart and soul exposed to the world and it wasn’t good enough.

Any creative work, in fact any kind of work in which you are doing something new, you risk failure. In fact, it is pretty certain it will happen at some time. In work, in love, in life. A lot of what I do, as a director, a dramaturg working with artists, is to take that fear off. Yes this could fail, yes that would feel awful, but it will be ok. You will be ok.

You can’t create out of the fear. Deep down you know what it is you want to do, want to try. Maybe it’ll work, maybe not, but it’s what feels right for you. And if you don’t know it yet, you have to listen to yourself until you do know. Sometimes that’s about knowing what is the right thing to do, sometimes it is about knowing when it is right to say no, walk away. That can feel as big a failure as anything. Will I ever get commissioned again, employed again, loved again? Maybe yes, maybe no. There are no guarantees in life. But if you make your decisions from fear not desire, then you have to live with what you know you don’t want. We have to have risk in our lives, have risk-takers in our world, or nothing will change. Just entropy slipping us back further and further.

But, here’s the thing. We can only take those risks, face those fears if we feel the safety net is there. That if we fall we will be helped up. So this is what I think we all need to do for each other, as friends, as artists, as communities, as a society. We need to say that failure is not a shame, it’s a necessity. The welfare state is not just for those who need it but the basis on which we can all rise up. We can be there for each other, hold out our hands, our belief, our love. Say it’s ok.

You will be ok.

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Play Date 3 – How to survive in theatre (part 1)

Our third and, at least for the moment, final Play Date was at the beginning of the December. ‘How to survive in theatre’ is a topic that could take a lifetime and I’m sure it is one to which we will return again. But here is a first go in exploring some of the questions, and possible answers, around this. As part of a living demonstration I brought one of my children with me and set her the task of explaining herself and the world to some aliens who were going to come at the end of the session…(nb this did not end well – never make promises of aliens you can’t then produce).

First thing to say that this was a discussion shaped and lead by the 8 of us (9 including 5 year old Katarina) in the room. It felt very much like a session where we were all able to help each other. So if someone had a question about filling in an Arts Council form then there were one or two others with experience of that who could help. Even to one brilliant person (Thanks Carolyn) taking Katarina to the loo while I finished off some point or other.

If there is one thing that is worth taking way from this session and this blog, is that we are stronger and better together. Peer support, whether that is meeting up with fellow creative friend, getting together in small groups like this or larger groups like upcoming D&D, is vital for surviving in theatre. Of course, there are some people who do without it – but they’re probably miserable anyway. It is easier as well to do this outside ‘networking’ events which are often uncomfortable pressured environments when your inner voice is screaming ‘make contacts NOW’ while you juggle too warm wine or orange juice. So find people you like and who you find a connection with, get together to share problems and work out solutions. Finding supportive peers can be the tricky part which is why D&D, the wonderful Theatre in the Mill and, um, sessions like these are important.

Second, especially as nobody in this session had been in Play Date 1 we went over some of the same exercises. In particular, working out what it is that you want. This seems to me to be at the heart of surviving in theatre; not least because it is so easy to be seduced by what you are supposed to want – be that ‘a big show’, fame or fortune. These are the things that are impossible to control. The things you can define for yourself are who do u]you want to be, what do you want to make, for whom do you want to make it? Then look at the obstacles that are in your way – both internal and external. So an external obstacle might be funders and promoters not coming to see your work. An internal obstacle might be not feeling you’re good at selling yourself or your work. Identifying these as obstacles means that you can deal with them as obstacles – which will have solutions. It is easy to internalise them as failings, which is when it starts getting dispiriting and demotivating. The solution to the above obstacle might be investing a bit of money in a really good video trailer or promotional DVD of your show (you can get them done for as little as £50 ask me for contacts). Or applying for one of the showcase opportunities in your area. In the North our brilliant regional venues have come together to produce this invaluable guide to their programming policy and opportunities. Of course, you need to know about people who make trailers, and the programming guide to start with. Which is why being connected in person and through social media is so important.

Answering the question of what you want – what you make and for whom – is crucial because it defines what makes you, you. What is unique about your work that no one else can do. It is also about what audiences do you reach. Your audience is your most valuable asset. Everyone, funders, promoters, venues, are all after audiences. If you demonstrate how your work reaches those audiences then you become valuable. If they are not interested in your audience, or the way you engage with them, then find someone else who is. There ALWAYS will be somewhere else that is. Don’t fixate on the larger organisations; they’re great but not the solution to everything. Will your audience be more likely to come to local pub, cafe, park, community centre? Can you go to them? Posit your relationship with funders, venues, producers not as adversarial – you want their resources they want the best work – but collaborative: you are all working to make something, bring people together, create some kind of a difference. And you will meet people who have no interest in collaboration, who are just unpleasant and adversarial. They exist in every walk of life. Leave them to it and get on with what you want to do.

We also talked a bit about trying to find the time and the energy for making work, and finding all the things you need to make work, when you have other commitments. This might be family, it might be other dependents that you care for, it might be because you have illness or condition that takes your time, energy and money, it might be just that you have no money – and that takes all your time and energy. It might be many or all of those things. It is important to say that sometimes this does suck. And it is too hard to do by yourself. Which is why you might need the right kind of space, support, and yes, money to help you. If you can’t see it then ask for it – use the comments here, or email me. I’m gathering ideas and input in order to create an organisation precisely to support people. Sometimes it is also about being clear and then being disciplined, about what you need to do. So if you are expanding all your energy on setting up projects that cost you a lot of time but give you very little financial return, then you need to make yourself carve out time for work that pays better for time/resources put in (this is my note to self!)

Balancing family, work, self, commitments – these are hard things. You will never have enough time. You will probably never have enough money. Decide for yourself what it is that you want, what is driving you, what makes it worth it. Identify what your obstacles are. See if you can find the people and places who can overcome them. And if that doesn’t exist yet- let’s make it together.