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Three types of failure-uity

Caro Milo,

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that I haven’t learned anything. If there’s another thing I’ve learned, it’s that it never gets easier. If there’s one thing I’ve learned–see thing 1.

The blog has been silent for the past week while I’ve been taking G2’s workshop with SOTG. Although I have many thoughts on the exercises we did, they aren’t thoughts that are ready to share. Instead, on a quiet day off–all my friends from the workshops have departed Poland, the apartment is empty, and silence blankets me in Wroclaw–I thought it would be a good time to talk some about the Nowy Horizonty film festival and the idea of failure in the arts.

(SILENCE)

How do you feel about that? I feel about it roughly the way I do about the idea of someone beginning a yoga class by saying “We’re going to focus on core strength today.” Spinach!

[animated jpeg of cheerleaders: F! A! F-A-I! F-A-I-L-U-R-E! FAILURE! FAILURE! WHAT’S THAT SPEEEEELLLLL…? FAILURE!]

My friend D has been in town from Berlin for the past week, too, and while he was here we saw two movies at Kino Helios as part of the festival; “The Seventh Bullet,” a Soviet Western directed by Ali Khamraev, and Lost in La Mancha, which probably needs no introduction, but is a documentary about Terry Gilliam’s failed attempt to film Don Quixote.

The Seventh Bullet is about an unsatisfying victory; a situation in which the good and bad guys, as outlined from the film’s beginning, become less and less clearly “good” and “bad” as the film progresses. D, who has Russian Jewish parents, said he couldn’t watch it without several levels of irony. Not having Russian Jewish parents, I may not have seen as many levels as he did; but it was still a movie of increasing and troubling density.

Lost in La Mancha, as I knew it would, hit very close to home. Brilliant director Terry Gilliam tries to make his movie, a movie he’s been trying to make for years. Catastrophes ensue, including rainstorms, fighter jets, decrepit soundstages, unavailable actors–all the usual perils of “wind and weather” we must endure.

What do you do, as the helmsman of a production, when things do not work out–or don’t work out as you had planned? Do you resist them? Do you resist resisting them? If you’re Gilliam, you press on, until your lead actor–your Quixote–becomes unavailable for medical reasons. God, I felt for him. It reminded me of a time when I lost my lead actor from a production. It reminded me of many things.

The film made me reflect on my greatest failures in the service of the theatrical arts. Needless to say, I can call them to mind very easily.

Some of the failures that come to mind (I’m getting older, I have lots to mention, more with every year!) are not yet sufficiently chewed to be swallowed. But I can think of three, off the top of my head, that are stories so old–or so well-told–that I don’t mind telling them again.

1) SMORGASBORD PRODUCTIONS

I founded this company my sophomore year of college in the wake of 9/11. I conceived of a flyer that unfairly capitalized on the grief and shock people were feeling. It read, in black capitals on red paper, “There comes a time in the course of human events to change the world. That time is now.” It continued to say that persons interested in organizing a political theater group should assemble for an initial meeting in some barren dormitory lounge, on Stanford-issue couches. The flyer brought lots of people to our meeting, enough for me to net an ensemble of, I believe, nine, and my first-ever donation–unasked for, un-thought of, a gloriously generous check of a hundred dollars. With that on top of funding from a Stanford research grant, I was the wealthiest theater director I had ever imagined being.

I used the hundred dollars to buy a four-track Fostex recorder, and the Fostex to create the soundtrack (I wrote the music) for our play, an “epichoral” horror called, I believe (no, no, I know, I just don’t want to remember!) KLYTEMNESTRA SPEAKS/CASSANDRA REPONDS. It rhymed, it was dreadful, and it was about 9/11 and it was supposed to have something to do with Afghanistan. All choruses, all the time, of course. Of course.

I used the group as a outpouring for all my least well-thought-out ideas; Greek choruses; all-female ensembles (I eventually relented and let one dude in); me performing as part of the chorus; a chanted invocation that began the entire process and ended with “THEATER IS FOR THE MASSES!” (no, really. I’m sorry.); enormous Hebrew letters scrawled on the outside of green binders; capes and sticks for all. I could go on. I could also point out that I only really seem to perform when it’s my group, my writing, my ball of string, my rodeo, my horse-and-buggy, my bowling alley, my bag of golf clubs.

I subjected the group to extreme forms of what I conceived European-style theater training to be. Of course, I now know that my ideas of extreme were mild! I should have asked them to rehearse all night like Gardzienice! Ha ha ha! (not funny) No, but truly, they were quite extreme ideas for a group of Stanford undergrads who thought of doing a play as a fun side project.

I overdid it by every measure of “it.” I made them go on field trips with me (I bought them all tickets to a show in San Francisco, only to guide us to the wrong Caltrain stop…woe is me, 22nd Street…and force them to hike miles through hills and gray streets, only to arrive there having missed most of the show). I made them assemble to paint props, sew costumes, to decorate their own sticks. (Massive wooden dowels. Shades of SOTG.) I accepted no form of input from anyone.

We performed, once. Our show was about fourteen minutes in length, but felt eight times as long. It had hands so heavy they were sandbags. Our performance was followed by a number of speakers, culled from my kind professors of the time, speaking on things like political theater, Brecht, choruses, politics in Greece. It was an event that felt very special and complicated, because so many different people had assembled, including Sixties-radicals who were excited to see someone trying to do political theater again…but there was no joy in the group. I had browbeaten them to death. They delivered the play I had directed, but they were not happy doing it.

In an effort to nudge out some of the more problematic (read: justified) actors from the group, I arranged that everyone who wanted to be part of our next production–a BEOWULF, which has become my QUIXOTE, I fear–should meet me in the living room of the French House at eight o’clock one evening, after dinner, and we would discuss how to proceed.

I sat in a darkened room. Blue carpet by a piano. Window seat.

I don’t have to tell you that none of them came.

That was the first and the worst time that I ever quit theater. When I did return to directing, some years later, I never treated actors in such a cavalier way again.

LESSON: BE NICE TO ACTORS.

2) THE DREADED CARTWHEEL PITCH.

Il y avait une fois there was a theater I directed for–had already directed one play there, by a living playwright, to acclaim and success. The theater resolved to put on a second play by the same writer–the writer personally requested that I direct it. Candy from a, etc.

I went in to pitch it, dressed like Helena Bonham Carter, and was so excited to be there in what I was almost certain was going to be a successful pitch meeting that I did a sort of cartwheel while still sitting in my chair. (You had to be there.) In front of the BOD representatives and all the grumpy people making the decision. This did not impress them with my professionalism.

They refused to either deny or accept my pitch–they simply said they were “accepting more pitches” for a very long time, until, frustrated with how long it was taking, I found a friend of a friend through my boss who I thought could do it, put her up to it, told her to pitch the show, and she got it. I thought it was funny that, in effect, my candidate could get the job when I couldn’t.

This particular failure was made worse by knowing too many people behind the scenes who kept telling me what So-and-So was saying about Me. It was also made worse by thinking I had it in the bag. Nothing breeds failure like an inflated sense of success!

Lesson: DO NOT DO A CARTWHEEL IN A CHAIR AT A PITCH MEETING. Or wear a dress that looks like Jack the Bodice Ripper with too much Amanda Palmer lace. and also DO NOT THINK YOU HAVE IT IN THE BAG. You have nothing, nothing, nothing in the bag. There is no bag.

3) What was I going to do for this one? I had a good idea, I think. Smorgasbord–cartwheel pitch–ah c’mon. Oh yes. GRANT HELL/BLAME THE ECONOMY. (Another version of the bag lesson.)

After year of freelance assistant directing / incurrence of buckets more debt, I was close, very very close, to receiving a grant for two years of funding to work with Theater O’My Dreams. I was so sure I would get it–I had one of those premonitions of success that always mean you’re effed–that I gave up a day job in New York prematurely.

Admittedly, I wanted to get out of New York. A lot. I was stifling there. But I found out, just about a week after skewering the job, that the theater sponsoring me had lost funding from a major donor, and was on the verge of bankruptcy. Needless to say, with my sponsoring institution on the verge of collapse, I did not receive the grant.

Rather than stay in LA where I might have had a prayer of finding more regular work, I kept up my pattern of abrupt movement and running away. I moved to Chicago, where my shoulder failed, and I found myself cobbling together income from babysitting, telemarketing, and woe.

At one point, out of desperation, I actually interviewed for a job as a receptionist at a car dealership in Downer’s Grove. Then I took an only slightly less depressing job as a receptionist at an autism clinic.

And then I went to Poland. And now…well…we all know how *that* turned out. Quite well, really. I suppose that every failure is only the bounce that smashes you into another success.

Lesson: (all together now) DON’T QUIT YOUR DAY JOB. Ever. No matter how much success you have–I mean, I don’t care, MacArthur, whatever–you are going to be sorry. The only time to leave a day job is when you actually have an identical income-generating job that overlaps in the exact same hours. That is, another job!

Don’t quit your day job,
Don’t buy a new phone;
Don’t let them persuade you
That you’re close to home.

Oh, don’t quit your day job,
Don’t buy that new dress–
If you hold out for more
then you’ll settle for less.

– “Don’t Quit Your Day Job,” Bathsheba’s Ballads of Very Grumpy Poems for Theater People, Volume 2, strona dziewiecdziesiat-dziewiec…

Well that’s enough about failure, isn’t it? How about something about partings and nostalgia? Old friends who you don’t know when you’re going to see again? Sounds good! Aren’t you glad you didn’t say “banana?”

*

D. departed last night. We had pierogi and cutlets at Chasta (Ciastka? Ciasta? I hardly know…) and then wandered in the direction of where I thought Kalambur was, in this picture-postcard-postage-stamp of a labyrinthine Stary Miasto…but arrived at another bar, outdoors in a courtyard. We shared beers there until midnight. The courtyard was bare dirt except for one enormous tree, with a canopy so tall that its black branches against cloud appeared to be the sky. The walls were thick. The place felt secluded. Secret. We congratulated ourselves upon having found it.

That is, until we departed, when we saw a sign outside the wall of the courtyard that said the bar was the site of a former fourteen-century prison, and a cute little gnome (Wroclaw is spotted with gnomes) with a great steel ball chained to his foot.

*

Here’s a quote. Quotes help. Here are some, from an old review of an old book; that is, from Richard Webster’s 1974 Critical Quarterly review of Frank Kermode’s book of criticism THE SENSE OF AN ENDING, archived here on Webster’s site, which I stumbled onto because I was looking for reviews of Julian Barnes’s new novel THE SENSE OF AN ENDING…anyway.)

“In many of the most influential writings on literary studies a version of religious faith has been displaced onto art, and literature, conceived of as innately good, has been dispensed as a benison for ailing souls. Few critics have questioned deeply the nature of artistic achievement and fewer still have gone beyond that to examine the moral assumptions which lie behind their preference for literature as against other forms of cultural activity. In this respect the profession of literary criticism may be said to lag more than a century behind the literature it studies.”

[…]

“We might also, of course, learn something from literature; we might learn that literature is not about time, order, or contingency, but about love, pride, animality and human identity; about the kind of society in which we live and the kind of society in which we might live. It is more than a little disturbing that such a truism needs to be stated at all.”

-Richard Webster, from his review New Ends for Old: Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending

So, you know, there’s that.

I do think we learn from our failures. If nothing else, we learn how to get over them more quickly, and how to respond, like a Superball, with vigorous energy. Bounce bounce bounce bounce. It took me years to get over the first one. Second one about six months. Third one a couple years, yes, but it was a big one. And I learned from it.

These days, I’m failing faster and faster–failing so quickly that I barely even notice. It’s not really a failure, as much as a change of direction.

Like that exercise G had us do where you close your eyes and someone is tapping you, prodding you, and you change your body’s position. Sometimes they push you too hard, and you stumble, but before you have time to recover, they just push you again. And again. And again.

You’re always falling, but falling forward.

Yr
Dara-In-Poland, not to be confused with Dara-Upon-Avon

[insert enormous graphical flourish made with calligraphical pen like a bunch of sideways cursive L’s to indicate conclusion and that what comes below has been written by some sort of MARGIN GNOME]

Oh, why do we blog,
why do we blog,
why do we blog if not–
to whine and complain
like a bucket of “rain”
poured out of a chamber pot
from a window–HEY!
why do we blog,
why do we blog,
why do we blog when we
know perfectly well
there’s nothing to tell
except about ME ME ME ME!

(I know. Forgive me. Bracket ellipsis bracket.)

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