How Do You Define Success?

In 2015, Haven Theatre Company in Chicago, IL launched a program called the Director's Haven, giving three directors at the earliest stages of their careers space to showcase their vision for the Chicago community. The program continued with its second cohort in the fall of 2016. Here, each of these artists to share their observations, experiences, and perspectives from their vantage points as directors at the very start of their professional journeys.—Josh Sobel, Artistic Director of Haven Theatre

When Director’s Haven closed last fall, I celebrated by reading a book, Peace is Every Step, by Thich Nhat Hanh. The following lines popped out to me:

“To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself.”

It felt painful to admit that I had spent the past several years doing the exact opposite of this. I had tried incredibly hard to be accepted by others as a theatre director while at the same time believing nothing I created had value. In my mind, none of my productions were beautiful. None of my productions were successful.

My experience after graduating college in May of 2012 was, in retrospect, similar to those around me and yet felt so isolating at the time. All of the theatre artists I knew were eager to start in new places while also terrified of not making it. Immediately after moving to Chicago, I found a job as an assistant stage manager through a friend. I had a fun time on the project, but then flat lined for several months. No work appeared ahead of me and the little work that did was more administrative than creative. The shift from the academic into professional world was greater than I had prepared for. I was an artist in a new city without any of my past collaborators and I felt so alone.

We often fixate on our suffering to the point that any joyful experience is forgotten. And I had truly forgotten what I loved about directing.

I reverted to my comfortable role of student and considered all the artists around me to be the professionals. It felt like everyone else was sprinting, flying forward in their careers, while I was crawling. It became easy to believe that my success and value were determined by the criteria of Which company are you working with? Who is reviewing your show? What do the reviews say? How many people came to see it? Who recommended you? I worried so much about how small my career looked to others that I stopped enjoying directing all together. At that lowest of low points I asked myself the question—

What is it about directing plays that brings me joy?

We often fixate on our suffering to the point that any joyful experience is forgotten. And I had truly forgotten what I loved about directing.

So I went back to the beginning. I revisited my memories from the first play I directed in high school. I remembered standing in the lobby and talking with audience members and teachers about what the play made them think about and feelings it had brought up. I thought about the casts I’ve worked with over the years. How their trust in the rehearsal room brings such warmth to my heart. The privilege I feel guiding us towards new discoveries. I thought about how much fun I have playing in rehearsal rooms. The affection I feel towards the students I’ve directed over the years, some of them kids who never thought they’d be on a stage. And the surge of excitement and compassion each time a character, a moment, a story clicks into understanding in my brain.

two actors speaking at a table
Colleen DeRosa and James Munson in Tutus. Photo by Austin D. Oie.

Those moments are where my love of theatre lies. And that is all okay. That’s the silliest part to me. Ultimately, I was the person creating a narrow definition of success for myself. I was the one buying into expectations that led to suffering. The good news is, we can change our definitions of success whenever we want. It was once I began re-defining success for myself that I applied for the Director’s Haven program and was given the opportunity and support to direct any play I wanted.

“Sometimes it is better not to talk about art by using the word ‘art.’ If we just act with awareness and integrity, our art will flower, and we don’t have to talk about it at all.”

-Thich Nhat Hanh

Since last October, I’ve directed a one-act and two staged readings, and on the horizon I’m directing in The One Minute Play Festival, another project in New York, and I’m devising a play with my friends in our group, The Electric Brain, to produce in living rooms around Chicago this June. All of them are projects that align with values that define success for me. I worry less about how my career looks to other people. I don’t know what I’ll be doing a year or two from now, but for the first time since leaving school, I feel successful. I feel beautiful. I feel acceptance towards myself.

This is all to say that when you feel like you’re the only one not finding success, please remember that success is not a place to find. It is a path that changes over time and varies person to person. Just think of what wonderful discoveries you may find on your unique path of success, acceptance, and beauty. Take a moment to ask yourself: What brings you joy in the creative process, dear one?

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Thoughts from the curator

Three emerging directors speak on their experience as part of the Director's Haven program in Chicago.

Directors Haven

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Alyssa, I love this realization that you have had. In my work as a career coach for artists (mostly directors) I share many of the same realizations. Redefining success has made a world of difference to me too. My current definition: I am successful when I am fully expressing my deepest values. It has stuck with me for quite awhile now and it changes the choices I make and my reaction to the work I do. I wish your ever deeper and impactful insights as you move forward.

Happy Day on realizations that plague more of us creative types throughout our "careers" and work histories. Needed reminder to us all.