ARCHIVE - FACING FAILURE (5-27-14)

 

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As a professor and artistic director of a small youth theatre, I see a lot of emphasis on achievement, which of course brings its unwanted cousin, failure, into the mix. I’ve had students argue poor grades with me, claiming the failure isn’t their fault for this reason or that. I’ve had parents insist that I made a mistake in my casting choices because their child never gets a small role. It’s a common enough kvetch amongst us TYA artists, that the “participation ribbon” culture is a serious problem.

I understand this, and I’m not going to argue it. But I have a confession: I hate failure. I hate it when I don’t get what I want. Depending on the size of the failure, the repercussions range from ruining my mood the whole day, to rage-filled declarations that I’m quitting. In the last few years, though, I’ve started to discover something that has tempered my reactions and given me a considerable amount of peace of mind.

Failure is beautiful.

Maybe I failed because I did something wrong or inadequately, or because things spun out of control, or because someone else did the same task better. Regardless, what opportunity arises from failure! What strength! Before you dismiss my eloquent waxing, let me tell you a story. (And by the way, isn’t that our trade? How boring stories would be if our heroes achieved their goals with no obstacles, or if they simply gave up and dissolved into self-loathing once they failed.)

One of my university students recently discovered, while directing a play at my youth theatre, that creating a fun, educational rehearsal process for children wasn’t enough for this particular project. The parents didn’t agree with her methods of running rehearsals or of time management. And they. Were. Harsh. She and I both got what I lovingly refer to as “nasty-grams” from several parents demanding an explanation for things like why she spent 10 minutes of rehearsals having the kids stretch and warm up. Confrontations about how their children’s previous theatre experiences weren’t like this one, how they perceived lines weren’t being memorized and were concerned the play would turn out badly. And so on.

Now, I probably don’t need to tell you that this student wasn’t a perfect director because, well, who is? But this young lady spent the better part of a seven-week rehearsal process in tears because she had never before been so stressed, confused, and berated before.

The show went up. There were mistakes. Some kids didn’t know their lines—but hey, they put a lot of great work into their production and, for the most part, they were really pleased with their product. Many of the parents grudgingly admitted the show went fine but they never wanted to work with this person again.

So. You might imagine this student’s grieving process. She thought she was a terrible TYA practitioner. She seriously questioned her ability to make TYA her chosen profession, and had several tearful venting sessions with her classmates long after the play closed.

This was in May 2013. By November, she presented her TYA portfolio to Dr. Jo Beth Gonzalez and myself as part of her final undergraduate requirements. She spoke passionately about her experiences and excitement to apply for jobs in the field, particularly in the area of performing for child audiences. Her love of TYA had clearly returned. Then, Jo Beth asked her to speak about a difficult experience she had, and how she dealt with it. The student and I made eye contact and I grimaced. I worried her emotions would spill everywhere in a tear-soaked rant about how much she hated directing children and working with parents.

She sat up, smiled, and sighed. She then began to tell her story. Professionally. Eloquently. With perspective. She talked about how she came into the field in love with TYA, but a little naively so. She explained to Jo Beth that she was shocked to see how unkind and difficult people involved in the field could be, and how it seriously shook her resolve to be a TYA professional.

But, she said, “After a while, though, I realized that not everyone is going to like me. And that’s okay. I don’t need them to. I got tougher, I got better at standing my ground, and I got a clear idea of what I need to get better at.”

Snaps to her, right? This woman is a highly driven, striving-for-perfection, passionate individual, and as such, failure is not a common experience for her. It would have been so easy to let herself be broken over it. Based on my observations of the people in this field, I’m guessing a lot of people reading this are seeing themselves in this story. It’s okay, I’m right there with you.

However, I myself dabble in screwing up—don’t tell my students and actors. When I first started teaching and directing, I planned everything to a “T,” and if things started to stray from that plan, I would lose my freaking mind. Things sometimes spiraled quickly and my most desperate attempts to keep things according to plan only exacerbated the situation. Don’t even get me started on larger projects—you know what? I’m going to stop this resume of failures on my part. It’s getting embarrassing.

The point is, I eventually learned (am still learning, to be honest) to calm down and get purposeful about failures. I won’t lie and say I don’t have an emotional reaction to failure or things going wrong, but I can get over more quickly because I know it’s wiser to say “What happens now?”

Now, when I teach a class and the students insist on doing things contrary to how I guide them, I try to let them go for it sometimes. When my actors ask to try something completely off-the-wall, I try to give them the opportunity to explore it. Because letting go of (my idea of) perfection acknowledges the fact that I’m not done learning, and I can learn from anyone, at any time. How arrogant I was, to think that I could use my current expertise to control all the variables of my teaching and artistry, and that it would create the best product. When things go according to my plan, there’s only one possible outcome. When things go outside of my plan—well, the possibilities are endless. My husband jokingly calls it “screwing up in new and exciting ways.”

Maybe we should call it that. Maybe we’re giving the wrong labels to things. Maybe what I used to call “failure” or “poor planning,” only put me on the fast-track to despair and self-loathing. And burnout is a common ailment in our field, is it not? I suggest that chronic perfectionists-turned-failures like myself need a way to let go of our idea of success, so we can open ourselves to the scary, but rewarding, and ultimately maturing experience of things going terribly, delightfully wrong.

 


 

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Aimee S. Reid is an Instructor of Theatre for Youth and Arts Management at Bowling Green State University and the Artistic Director of the Children’s Theatre Workshop of Toledo, OH. Her current projects include devising scripts with her students at CTW, chairing the Ohio TIOS mini-conference, and directing/managing the touring TFY troupe at BGSU.

 
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