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This Year Let’s Redefine Success

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So it’s New Year’s resolution time and I’m thinking about mine. I’d like to save more money this year. I have this obsession with men’s fashion and too much of my budget is going toward J.Crew. But part of how I justify this spending comes from how I identify success for myself. When I can get up in the morning and put on the exact right clothes to express my androgynous self, I feel like me all day and my ability to navigate the world goes up exponentially.

This feels shallow and perhaps not something to admit publicly, but it’s as true as anything else about me.

And I think this idea of digging deep or in my case, not so deep, and sorting out “success” for ourselves is perhaps the most important task any of us will face in the coming year—coming to terms with what success looks like both at the surface and down deep.

Success in Theatre 
I think the idea of what defines success in our field has become significantly more narrow over time, like a uniform you wear day in, day out with no allowance for personal style or taste. In fact, I might argue that what defines success has become so tedious and tiresome that new definitions of success are coming out of the closet to challenge a version that is just serving as a cover-up from my vantage point.

Tired Trajectory to Success:

Theatre artist gets trained > Theatre artist emerges > Theatre artist gets small gigs in small theatres > Theatre artist gets big gigs in small theatres > Theatre artist gets small gigs in big theatres > Theatre artist gets big gigs in big theatres.

I realize when theatre artists at the front end of that trajectory ask me for advice, I can no longer under any circumstances continue to support the tired trends of the past, hence my recent piece on the MFA question.


In fact, I might argue that what defines success has become so tedious and tiresome that new definitions of success are coming out of the closet to challenge a version that is just serving as a cover-up from my vantage point.


A J. Crew model looking at the camera
The clothes make the man. Photo by J. Crew. 



This journey toward success suggests many things that I find problematic for any art form:

  1. That success is linear—that becoming a successful theatre artist starts at point A and moves its way down the alphabet.
  2. That the definition of success is predetermined.
  3. That success in the theatre is realized by simply counting the number of people sitting in the theatre who see your writing or your performance or your design—the bigger the house, the bigger the paycheck, the bigger the impact, the bigger the success.

These problems beg the question: Why? Why do we love theatre? Why do we make it? Because if in fact we make it to achieve success, and success is a linear and predetermined trajectory decided by theatre size, then our definition of success is the same as Wall Street’s. We are training theatre artists in the same frame of success as we’re training our future “successful” business leaders—to go down a path of acquisition toward predetermined markers.

Why Theatre?
Recently, I flew to Minneapolis to see my ten-year-old nephew perform in the musical Narnia. He was one of the youngest performers, played a small bird, and had only two lines. But in talking with him after about the play, about why he loved doing it I heard about the preperformance exercises they do together, about the bonding between the older and more experienced performers and the newbies. I heard about how much he loves to sing. And I watched him after. The entire cast stood in a line in their costumes in the lobby and greeted the audience. Many young fans approached my nephew for his autograph.

I’ve paid pretty close attention to my nephew over the years, held him in my arms as a baby, was the primary babysitter for awhile, hosted him for “Aunt Camp” for a week in the summer and went to museums and ate copious amounts of ice cream with him. And I saw a transformation in him, standing in that line, greeting his audience. He had gravitas. Through several weeks of rehearsal and performance he had gone from a precocious, typically self-centered, I-want-what-I-want kid, to a gracious and more mature ten-year-old.

Fifteen years in, I keep redefining success for myself. I have been thinking since returning from Minneapolis about the immense privilege my nephew has to explore his interests and desires with the support of family and resources. And I keep thinking about what I want theatre to mean for myself, my community, my family, and my world.

Success for me might just mean creating theatre with more gravitas—a profession that has more weight and bearing in the world—by making theatre in whatever way we do it, we succeed when we become more gracious and generous people.

The problem with predetermined paths to success is that for better or worse, the paths are well trodden, and the deep grooves cause us to try and find a way to make ourselves fit into something that has become ossified and unoriginal. And the truth is that not many theatre artists, because they are such creative people, can make it down that predetermined road with any regularity.

And strangely, many artists who do find success on these terms don’t recognize it when they get there. I’ve met very few theatre artists who will acknowledge that they’ve “made it” even though from the vantage point of those success markers, they clearly have.


Success for me might just mean creating theatre with more gravitas—a profession that has more weight and bearing in the world—by making theatre in whatever way we do it, we succeed when we become more gracious and generous people.


Why is that? Is it because they had to make so many compromises along the way? Is it because like for those who go down the Wall Street road, there’s never enough? Never enough money? Accolades? Positive reviews? Awards? Standing Os? Like the billionaires, they’ve spent so much time in acquisition mode, they can’t stop wanting more, they can’t stop and see that at some point there is enough for them, and perhaps in a more generous world, for everyone?

Clothes Can Never Make the Man
On that same trip to Minneapolis a couple of weeks ago, I stopped in at my favorite Minneapolis hangout, the Playwrights’ Center. I love that organization so much because it’s a true home for so many theatre artists. I sat around with a bunch of those artists and we talked about this very issue, about how they define success for themselves. I fell into that preachy mode that I can sometimes fall into (sorry) and implored them:

  1. Spend this next year imagining your own definition of success as if it was as important as the next play you write or show you perform in. This will be your most creative endeavor, trust me.
  2. Commit to the success of at least one or two other theatre artists you care about. Imagine, in the most creative way, how you can support that artist’s career. Make this part of your workday. You will learn so much about your own definition of success this way.
  3. If you haven’t created a personal ethics statement for how you will achieve your definition of success, do it. If your success is achieved on the backs of your collaborators or by breaking the backs of others, I promise you it won’t feel like success when you get there.

I’m old enough to know that clothes don’t make the man. I know that no matter how many orders I make to J.Crew, the clothes can never tell the whole story and that the surface can never stand in for the depth. If I can hold this thought long enough I might just save some money this year.

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Thanks for this, Polly. I fear that as artists, at times we tout our success without truly knowing how we achieved it and that there are ethics involved.

Dear Polly, Practically everything you so eloquently say here applies with equal force to music, I feel. Over the last couple of years I've become increasingly radical on precisely this issue: we must resist at all costs squeezing our round selves and our crazy lives into the square hole defined by that Wall Street model, and even more resist the temptation to measure what we do by that yardstick. It is horrendously difficult because it is, at least in the US culture, a very seductive yardstick: there is little in the culture --should I put that in quotes?-- that militates for any other model, and what there is generally evokes a response which is anywhere along the scale from open ridicule to envy. ¡¡BRAVA for a wonderful post! I am sharing this with everyone I know.

Alongside my artistic and professional pursuits, I've been teaching since the age of 14. Upon receiving my first paycheck, I found myself saying aloud, "Oh, right! I get paid for this." That moment has defined success for me ever since. There is no acquisitive, Wall Street model for teaching. There's no big time to hit. I impart something and get to feel I've been heard. My students and I enrich one another's lives. If I can have a theatrical career like that with my colleagues and my audience... the big time is optional. Sure, I always want a paycheck, but I also always want to be a little surprised by it.

Thanks Polly. I recently experienced a setback in bringing a work to audiences that I have worked on for nearly a decade and it has in it my heart and soul. The abrupt silencing of my creative voice was devastating. I was speaking to a room of about 60 people a couple days ago and I stood in front of them and shared that an artistic vision I was carrying got smashed and I felt devastated. I explained the production had been canceled, that I had stretched really big to bring this work to fruition--had humbly asked for support and received it and that in my quest, I had failed. I stood before them and said I had been powerless to change the course of events. I was crying, standing fully in my vulnerability. Then something strange happened. A friend of mine stood up and said she admired me and was inspired, that this is what life is--to long for something, pursue it and sometimes to fail, and to keep going. A stranger thing happened, everyone rose to their feet in a show of support. It got even more wild, they began to clap and they wouldn't stop. They gave me a standing ovation--the longest I've ever experienced--just for being me and for being willing to fail. It went on so long, it felt like opening night. Someone handed me a nearby orchid and someone else imitated paparazzi and snapped photos of my tear-stained laughing self. I was howling in delight. It felt great to fail and still be encouraged. I don't have to prove my worth by the work I make, I am enough as I am. The work I make will find its audience, my job is to be brave enough to keep making work that speaks from my heart. I am willing and I know the sacrifice, the reward and the slog. Every part of making a play and bringing it to life is an act of generosity of spirit and an act of faith.

Thanks for this lovely article. I found the implication - that success may be collective - how we are building a field together (what do we want that field to do successfully?) - a resonant frame.

Poly, I really love that you wrote this. As someone who has been climbing that little chain you described and feeling unfulfilled by checking off the rungs as I went along, I recently sat down and did exactly this for myself. I did a lot of searching about when I find fulfillment in what I do, what I really do best in my work, and what work has made me most proud and happy in the last couple of years. And it had so much less do do with checking those steps of my list and so much more to do with what the work was saying to the audience, who I was working with, and how well I challenged and inspired the artists I worked with and the audience who saw it. I created a sort of personal mission statement from this, and I must say, it almost instantly made my "fulfillment in career" go up.


Thank you for this article. I continue to be amazed by your gravitas and your ability to steer ourconversations.

I have to admit that I count myself among those artists whohave found success without being able to recognize it. Maybe it’s because I found success in TYA (a realmof our field that is marginalized by critics and professionals alike) when, asa young upstart, that was never even remotely a part of my “plan.” Maybe it’s because I founded a company withinthe confines of a social service organization, a relationship that is mutuallybeneficial but riddled with frustrations. These, of course, are reasons unique to mypersonal experience, that only I can grapple with in my quest for peace of mindand a sense of fulfillment. But I wonderif it isn’t something else more common that nags at me constantly to do better,go further, dig deeper – that is, achieve something that looks like stability.

Could it be that the very transient nature of our work feedsa kind of nagging insecurity about our endurance in the field? There is something sort of reasonable aboutthe linear way of thinking. As if theaccumulation of experience/accolades/awards/standing o’s were filling ourcoffers and making us more robust/capable/willing to endure the dry spells, therejections, the not-quite-right-for-this-one conversations. Given the amount of insecurity that feeds theaverage artistic soul, is it any wonder that we crave as much as we do? Based on observation, it takes apretty-damn-near Zen-like attitude to endure this field’s ups and downs, mostof which come early in the process when we are young and impressionable.

I suppose Wall Street has its ups and downs, too, but what Idon’t know is if Wall Streeters migrate from one job to the next as frequentlyas we actors/directors/writers/designers do? I find it interesting that we could easily steer this conversation backtoward institutions and the role they play in stabilizing the lives ofartists. But even on a more fundamentallevel, this is a vocation that has (more or less) clear beginnings and ends. The middles may have a tendency to get muddy,at least for writers. But on a veryfundamental level, we build our careers (and our definitions of success) out ofincremental blocks that seem to lack any sort of consistency in and ofthemselves. Depending on who we areworking for/with, the process can vary widely and so can our sense of accomplishment.

All the more reason to take heed of your advice and definethese things for ourselves. To lookinward for satisfaction instead of outward. I see an inherent contradiction in advice tolook inward for success when so often the metrics of success are external(media coverage/applause/paychecks/etc.). But it is sage advice nonetheless.

Here’s to a prosperous 2013!

Thank you Polly for your rich contribution to this community with another noteworthy contemplation. As usual your sensitive and insightful articulation rings several bells of what to pay attention to, inquire into, and take creative action upon. So enjoyed the reminder of "how can I support another" perspective. I was at a playwright group the other evening. And while I did have a piece of mine read and commented upon, which was nice and helpful of course, I had an engagement of real excitement in asking questions to a young playwright about a piece he brought in that all of us found quite intriguing. It was a real delightful feeling to have that conversation with this young writer, to perhaps support in some way his continued investigation of the piece, and excitement about it, through genuine interest and inquiry. Sometimes it's the little things in the day to day movement of relationship with our life and craft that provide the juice and spark of appreciation, and enjoyment, and ultimately success.

Starting out, I measured my success in number of productions or publications. Looking back, it does feel very "Wall Street." Sometimes thoughts come at the right time. This did exactly that. Striving to help other artists - returning generosity that was given to you. Really a heartening way to begin 2013 - especially when you live in Minnesota! Can feel the warmth.

Thanks for this, Polly. I struggle with these questions all the time, and it helps to read your articulate thoughts on the matter. There are at least two different aspects to success in our playwriting careers--the first, as you point out, is the production/exposure side, while the second has to do with quality of the writing itself. The two do not necessarily go hand-in-hand, and I think neither proceed in a linear path. Sometimes a poorly-timed production of a play in the life of the script might actually set back the quality of writing for a while (or the retard the growth, anyway), while sometimes a dry spell production-wise leads to a certain freedom to explore in the writing (once the desperation has had time to evaporate) that can change everything.

I'm still at a point where I'd like more and larger productions for my plays, for many reasons (ego and cash included), but especially to learn more about what makes my writing work on stage and to stretch myself. But I feel fortunate, and successful, right now that I'm working with other artists whom I adore and who give so much of their energy and spirit, in a theatre community that is buzzing with possibility. Taking the time to recognized this as success seems like an important step towards happiness.

oh my.
i hope you felt the success of writing/sharing #2 with all of us.
as thanks, where do i send the j crew gift card?

I've been redefining success for myself as well. This post reminds me of Shawn Achor's Ted talk. It's a well put and very amusing short talk about the problematic relationship between success and happiness. Well worth a watch. Happy new year.

Thanks, Polly. The worst experiences I've had as a playwright were pressure filled "potential big breaks." The best was writing a play specifically for an actor I totally love as an artist, so that he could use his talents that have been largely overlooked by the cold New York City Acting gatekeepers, and together we could take on a subject we both were dying to explore. Picked up a director who's also never had much chance to get noticed, and together had the best, most creative, most fulfilling theater experience we ever had. Yes, yes, yes, give more to others, think less less less about an abstract goal of success in the eyes of others. That's really a substitute for love, anyway, in my humble opinion. Just go straight for the love.

Thank you, Polly. What a good, important conversation you've begun. And I ask this question: what if success is defined not so much by how many people know our names, as how many people have been affected by our work? That is, what if success is not self-serving? If we (all us narcissistic, self-critical artists) shifted our thinking into what we were giving rather than getting, how does that then change the work? I'd like to see that revolution. In fact, I'd like to challenge myself to be part of that revolution.

Reading this and the excellent comments brings me a great feeling of hope and a good solid twinge of pain. I have had some successes in my career and I have had some failures. I'm currently working at a day job and wearing my "office drag," so do not be so quick to dismiss dressing exactly as you wish as a frivolity. How lovely to feel like yourself all day! I was asked not long ago by a playwright who saw my resume what it was like to "succeed" but not really "be anywhere." Wow, do you have any lemon juice you can squirt in that cut? Private success and public success are not the same thing, obviously. I have a body of work I am proud of and ambitious writing goals for 2013 that really excite me. And that is true inner success. But as has been said before on this thread, a career devoid of public success is awfully hard to pursue. And pursue and pursue. I will definitely be thinking deeply about this topic now. Thank you.

Great article Polly - thank you. I'm in the process of number 1 now. I'm trying to break the habit of defining success and myself as an artist by my most recent project, or last achievement I am proud of as an artist. Hopefully that definition will include my ability to do what I love today, include my work in the past and be open enough to include that which I have not yet dreamed of achieving.

I did number three at the end of last year, very helpful, and unconsciously (and now consciously) committed to number 2 this year.

Great writing. Though clothes can never tell the whole story I say treat yourself to a trip to Rag and Bone.

I'm afraid I fall into the category of an artist who wouldn't recognize success in the mirror, partly from a "never enough" personality flaw, partly from a childhood immersed in the Wall Street model. Well, Silicon Valley, but a similar ideology. I’m excited to engage with your three suggestions at the end of this piece, particularly incorporating #2, helping other artists, into #1, my definition of success. Thanks for the prompts.

How wonderful. Thank you, Polly!! I feel this but could never express it in words. I want my grown children, both in different parts of the world - 1 an artist, the other a saver of people - I want to share this with them. Thank you and thanks to Heather McDonald, as well!

What if there were no such things as success or failure? Are there such things? What would I do today if there was no money? How would my life change if I got all the attention I wanted all the time? How much trouble do I need in my life to keep me awake? Who knows where the best swimming holes are in Austin? Who tells the best jokes in my circle of friends? How many more times will I get to go deer hunting with my Dad? What is it that sings to me in the theater? More than 50% of the success I have in my writing happens alone in the laundry room of my house where my desk is. How can I raise that percentage?

Lovely article, Polly, What resonated especially for me was #2 at the bottom - commit to the success of others.

And, as you say, I think we all have to reimagine ourselves all the time, and fine personal definitions of what is success for us, what makes us happy.

We also, I think, need to trust serendipity. I went to grad school studying directing and thinking i would teach at a university or run an avant-garde theater. Might have made fun of those i called the 'children's theater geeks'. Then, in the mid-80s, 8 years out of school, I stumbled into a production job at the Kennedy Center's Theater Lab, then home to the children's theater program, and, surprise, surprise, I'm now approaching 30 years as a children's theater geek and have never looked back. I don't even necessarily use the term success - i'm happy to be working in theater, and doing work for young audiences, and trying, as I often say, to change the world, one child at a time.

Thanks, Polly! What a great way to start the year - an opportunity for reflection that invites us to move closer to our own deepest impulses! One thing we can do - perhaps as part of contributing to the life/work of an artist - is to actively make the choice to do what you've been doing to eloquently on Howlround; tell the truth about ourselves and our choices. Not the inspiring truth. The real one. I'm often faced with questions from soon-to-be grads about what to do next - they so deeply want something linear and based in their familiar sense of merit (school) to hold on to; both in terms of actions, and a definition of success. More and more I find that I talk to students about their lives - how they want it to look and feel. I try to be brutally honest about my own path; which was not at all linear. I did everything wrong and backwards. Sometimes I made choices, sometimes I was not allowed a choice. I spent too much of life punishing myself for things I didn't do, only to discover that I probably didn't do those things because I really didn't want to - and that is okay. In fact, it's great.

I really appreciate this writing. I can't always put my finger on it but it seems like we as artists recognize the insecurity in our field and the illusory nature of the work (and the accompanying "glory"), therefore we operate out of a scarcity mentality most of time. Some of the most gracious and generous people I have known are performing artists and yet, so many factors in our field result in competitive, petty, and "grasping" behavior. The commercial theatres are no help to us in this regard - generally, they are problematic, Wall-Street-esque institutions, full of good people trying to get by while simultaneously perpetuating this scarcity mentality.

With every project I take on, I try to commit to abundance...but it's a practice! In the face of micro, poor-theatre budgets, scant audience numbers, and never-enough time, I still look for the joy, the magnanimity and patience of my collaborators and the curiosity of those who do make the time and effort to show up and share in the work. This is difficult. Especially when we're all tired. But hey, ultimately, don't we do this work because we like other people, want to connect on a deep, human level, and learn about ourselves and our world? If that's not the compass (or some version of it), I'm not sure what is.

Polly, thank you so much for sharing this. I spent the past week reflecting, debating, crying over much of this. I love #1. I shall do it, and focus on that. Because, I do actually know what I want: Relevance, gravitas, using theatre to teach children grace, generosity and maturity. Thank you.

You don't have to be in New York to do phenomenal work. Maybe in 2013 we can encourage a split between success in the moment and success for all time. What if everyone gave 1000 percent to the work being done in the moment - no matter where we are? How would it change the trajectory of the field for all of us if we gave our audience our very best selves?

This is the most powerful/ transformative thought that hit me:
Commit to the success of at least one or two other theater artists you care about. Imagine, in the most creative way, how you can support that artist’s career. Make this part of your workday. You will learn so much about your own definition of success this way.

TRUE!!! This will not only shift our arts world, but the world!

I have struggled with this question for a long time, because I don't think of myself as successful at all, yet I will close this season with about 50 productions of my plays---which is no small accomplishment, but the result of a foundation laid a dozen years ago with a well-received professional production that was parlayed into a published script with a sustained afterlife in the educational and amateur theatre. All well and good. Yet without continued opportunity in professional theatre it is difficult to repeat that pattern or even to create a career---and one bad production (or reading) in a highly visible venue can derail you for a long time. Theatre is very unforgiving in that sense. Redefining success is a great exercise, and good for the soul, but the fact is that with so little financial payoff in this field, and the amount of energy and time required to create a well crafted script--time that takes you away from friends, family, and a host of other enticements---the only real compensation for me is to see my work done well---and that means professional productions. Without that, it is brutally difficult sometimes to keep convincing yourself that this is something you ought to keep on doing.

My sister is always reminding me that happiness (and success) is a choice -- of how we think and see the world -- and not simply what happens to us. It seems like such an obvious way to think, but like so many seemingly small adjustments to one's thinking, its effects can be profound.Thanks, Polly, for reframing things and making me rethink, and rethink again.

Each Thanksgiving we have a tradition of writing down on a card what we are currently thankful for and on the other side of the card what we hope to be thankful for the next year. On Thanksgiving morning each year, we open the cards and see how we did. This year I did my card in a whole new way. I urged my daughters to do the same. The youngest is in the midst of the brutal process of applying to colleges. Instead of goals and resolutions, I said that I was going to write about how I hoped to feel, how I hoped my life would look, who I hoped to spend time with, what I hoped to do in my work, but mostly, how I wanted to feel. We got stuck for a bit and then I said, think about what and who makes your soul come alive. This simple thought isn't uttered once in the godawful college process and it's certainly not any definition of success in our profession. I love this piece, Polly, because it speaks to small seismic shifts on so many levels. As a person, as an artist, a mother, a friend, a writer, a daughter ... I want to simplify my notions of what constitutes success and embrace how I want my daily life and, thus, my life, to look and feel.

Hey, I really like that tradition, Heather. It resonates with me and all the women at home in the house I live in (and at the home I work in at the theater too) -- very important musings and practicals rituals from both of you, Heather and Polly. Thanks and happy new year (and birthday!).

Bravo, Polly. My thought for 2013 is ti stay small with my company, to keep the salon feeling of our performance events, and to enjoy it all rather than stress out about who's coming. Re: fashion. Don't know if I can give up my TJ/Marshall's habit. It's just too much fun!

Polly, I love this so much. I recently found myself in a dressing room with a despondent actress who was looking at a very unusual dry spell in her work, telling her over and over, "It's not cumulative." You don't just leap from one thing to the next better thing higher up. But reading your article helped me to realize that it IS cumulative for me. My path so far has brought me so much joy and danger and beauty and I know that affects who I am more deeply than I can ever express. I do feel successful. I am immersed in what brings me joy. I am always fighting to make my work and the work around me better and deeper and I can afford to shop at the sale racks at Anthropologie at least twice a year. If that's not success I don't know what is.

I love "I am immersed in what brings me joy." That's as good a definition of success as I can imagine. I want more recognition. I want more professional productions. Of course I do. I may never stop envying those who have achieved a higher profile version of success. But I have made a life for myself that allows me to do what I love--and I have sometimes been in the position to help other people find their way to such a life as well. And I am grateful for it.Thank you, Polly and Kittson and all, for this conversation.

Oh, thank goodness.

The current definition of American playwright "success," as you detailed above, seems so bleak and soulless to me. Ultimately, the work must be its own end. I consider myself a success because I get to spend most of my time making the art I want to make with a community of brilliant collaborators. If people don't see it--including Major Theater X--that's their loss, not mine. I still get to be happy, either way.

"I still get to be happy, either way."

I just love that response, Monica. Why is it that we, in the theater, are s quick to let others define not just our success path but also whether we get to be happy about ourselves and our work?

In Diane Ragsdale's book about the commercial/nonprofit intersection she reports on one particularly troubling and moving moment in the weekend conversations where Michael Friedman lamented that, owing to the success of Rent-- in particular-- nothing he does now will be considered a success unless it runs for a decade on Broadway.

There is a scary truth to that and it guarantees that so many people will be unhappy, that so few will even be judged "modestly successful" it reveals how empty and absurd it is to live inside these definitions.

So, good on you for defining success in terms that have relevance to your happiness and for being able to celebrate being happy as a marker of your success

That was my big takeaway from Outrageous Fortune--that even playwrights who'd "made it" weren't happy. So? I knew I had to radically redefine success for myself at the outset. It'd be nice if the rest of the industry reframed that definition, too.

Have you guys seen Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk about creativity and success? Well, she doesn't call it success but it's what she's talking about. She's processing a writing life after her international success "Eat Pray Love," a success that completely caught her off-guard. As I listen to it now, I realize how poignant it is not only to the Michael Friedman/RENT reference but to the conversation of success we are all engaged in here.