Sunday, May 28, 2006

Pursue Failure (Damn It!)

Andrew Eglington, over at Desperate Curiosity, achieves a fascinating insight concerning his photographs that he calls "Vain Pursuits of Perfection." He writes:
I have uploaded around 150 photos to flickr over the past year, I even joined some of the photo pools, encountered the work of others, made some contacts, had my pictures rated and commented on, but it’s only now that I realise what has been troubling me about all this: the collective striving for perfection in the image. Good composition, balanced light, the right subject matter, in focus/out of focus, good depth of field/ miscalculated angles, erasing the elements that jar, the obstructions to beauty, hindrances to perfection, these pursuits are the mark of the amateur photographer. These pursuits mark my photos. I am an amateur photographer because I dare not depart from these rules lest my work be deemed unconvincing. I do not have the photographic conviction to present a medicore photo as a work of art.

What a great realization! Tom Peters, in his fascinating book Re-Imagine!, has a section that I've used as the title of this post: Pursue Failure (Damn It!). In it, he writes:

Consider this exchange between Regis McKenna, Silicon Valley's premiere marketing guru, and the late Robert Noyce, co-inventor of the integrated circuit, co-founder of Intel, and Silicon Valley legend:
McKenna: "A lot of companies in the Valley fail."
Noyce: "Maybe not enough fail."
McKenna: "What do you mean by that?"
Noyce: "Whenever you fail, it means you're trying new things."
Or, as futurist Paul Saffo puts it: "The Silicon Valley of today is built less atop the spires of earlier triumphs than upon the rubble of earlier debacles."
Kevin Kelly, author of Out of Control, makes the point this way: "The secret of fast progress is inefficiency, fast and furious and numerous failures."
If nothing goes awry, then nothing new can emerge. That is the Iron Law of Nature.
The secret to Success is...Failure.
The secret to Fast Success is...Fast Failure.
The secret to Big Success is...Big Failure.
It is failure, not success, that makes the world go around. Because failure typically means that someone has stretched beyond the comfort zone and tried something new...and screwed it up...and learned something valuable along the way.

I wish that theatre people would develop this attitude, because then I think we'd start getting somewhere. It is difficult, however, because we see the margin for error as so slim in theatre. With the economics of theatre becoming ever more desperate, the tendency is to play it safe, to hedge your bets, to create a variation of what has been created before (a better variation, of course, but still a variation).

Harold Clurman, in the wonderful video tribute to him called "A Life of Theatre," said that we don't need more masterpieces, we needed more flops, because if you have a lot of flops it means that there is a lot of activity and a lot of people taking chances, and masterpieces come out of that kind of environment. I couldn't agree more.

I think we have to embrace failure, because when we do, we can pursue risk, and that's what creativity is all about. This is not only true on the level of individual creativity, but institutional creativity as well. Regional theatres should embrace failure and seek risk, the NEA should embrace failure and seek risk (the current head of the NEA, Dana Gioia's recent crowing about how great it is that the NEA hasn't been the object of controversy sounds the death knell for the arts), college theatre departments should embrace failure and seek risk (especially college theatre departments, who simultaneously are educating the next generation AND are shielded from total financial destruction). We need to try things -- things we believe in, things that are wildly imaginative, and backed up by incredibly hard work. We're so afraid we're going to "ruin" theatre that we're letting it go to seed.

My friend, mentor and co-author, Cal Pritner, is fond of referring to theatre as "bio-degradable," and he is right! We may stink up the place, but eventually the air will clear. Nothing about theatre survives, and that's a GOOD thing -- it should give us great courage. Unlike an embarrassing film performance, which will hang around in perpetuity, a bad theatre performance disappears into the mists of history, unnoted and unremembered. What a great sense of freedom that should give us!

Of all of the art forms, theatre ought to be the most daring. George Hunka proposes "Erotic Tragedy" -- that's a risk. John Clancy proposes a League of Independent Producers, and that's a risk. Who's next? What are some of the other risks people are taking out there?


AndrewE said...

Thanks for stopping by Desperate Curiosity. I have been reading through your blog and I have found a lot of food for thought here.

On the subject of making mistakes in the pursuit of art, and using this as a springboard for deeper excavation of thought and process, I recommend watching a film by Lars Von Trier and Jorgen Leth called 'The Five Obstructions'.



P'tit Boo said...

Great film indeed !

Failure is based on things being right and wrong.
It's based on an idea of what is perfect and imperfect.
It's based on assumptions, judgments and it is so so western.
We have a lot to learn from the eastern philosophies when it comes to taking risks and not seeing it as failure or success.

Don R. Hall said...

I agree.

The paradigms of failure/success in western terms is focussed solely on capital gain. Can a play that is both entertaining and thought provoking that takes place in a laundromat and is only seen by 70 people who paid five dollars apiece and is not covered by any newspaper or website be considered a success?

If not, what did we learn from the failure?

In 2005, WNEP Theater wrote and performed Soiree DADA: Neue Weltaffen - we received a number of critical raves in Chicago as well as in NYC (for the FringeNYC). We ran the show for 15 performances in Chicago, 5 in NYC and, combining the two short runs, lost app. $6K (the trip to NYC was the bulk of the expense). Most would call the show a failure because we lost so much dough and only performed it 20 times.

As the director/producer, I thought it was smashing. It was fun, angry, and those who saw it either loved it or hated it. It always provoked discussion and raised questions concerning art and politics.

If it was a success, I can't afford to create too many more successes. If it was a failure, what do I learn from that?

I'm not disputing the need for more risk - I think you're right on the money there, Scott - I do, however, question the failure/success nature of the discussion you've initiated.

Jamespeak said...

This stunting of creative growth may explain why a lot of theatre made by recent grads of theatre programs seems so…by the numbers. Very workmanlike, very literate, very technically proficient, but kinda soulless. That’s why I’ve always preferred those productions and production companies that are a bit deficient in their technical know-how but are clearly bouncing off the walls with enthusiasm and zeal when they helm a project.