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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Final seasonal thoughts (may contain mild expletives)

So yesterday I popped into my daughter’s school to see a Christmas show performed by Alive and Kicking Theatre Company. Three actors, three flats for scenery, some music, one puppet, a story and a happy ending. A roomful of delighted, transported little children (and grown ups too). I’ve been luck to work with John Mee – one of the core company of Alive and Kicking (though not in this show) – an inspirational drama teacher and practitioner who has been opening up potential in children and students for decades.

Two thoughts: first this is the kind of theatre happening all around the country, and all over the world. And that has happened since the first homo something-or-other told a story somewhere in Africa. It is the first theatre that many experience. I don’t think I’d be doing what I do now if it wasn’t for some formative children’s theatre experiences with Simpson Primary School, Milton Keynes (for the people who made the live action Punch and Judy show in about 1978, thanks I was traumatised for years…) It is the most important theatre we have, the simplest and sometimes the best. We should treasure it.

Second – my daughter’s school is quite mixed. They are doing a project at the moment looking at all the places around the world that the children are connected to – Katarina contributes Serbia and Greece. When one of the actors asked for ideas or volunteers the hands that shot up were of all different hues. In the light of recent kerfuffle about whether theatre is in some sub-set of humanity’s DNA, can I just say that all those children were equally entranced – there wasn’t anyone sitting around going ‘sorry not in my DNA’. Besides which that notion of racial determination by DNA is utter bollocks – and scary bollocks at that (Africa has the greatest genetic diversity on the planet it being the cradle of humanity and all that). However, looking around the theatre (and film and TV) world as it currently stands I know that some of those children have a greater chance of becoming actors or writers or artists than others. That some who would want to go into the arts may not see themselves on stage so never consider it, they may not see the stories that reflect their lives, they may be told it is not for them, they may not have the money. I really want by the time these children are making those decisions in 10-15 years time that this is NOT the case, that it doesn’t matter where you come from, what your background or what you look like, anyone with the ability and commitment can make a career in the arts. But it is up to all of us now to make that happen.

Seasons greetings everyone.