Learning Failure and Defining Success

 

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On the closing night of Project 2: Tomorrow and All Days After, I noticed the flashing blue lights of a cop car outside of my friend's apartment, which was serving as our performance space, but I didn’t think much of it. We were moments away from the climax (affectionately called “the shit-fan-scene”) in which my best friend locks my angry boyfriend out of the house so that he can talk to me alone. The audience (sitting in an empty living room) hears my boyfriend’s uncaged fury outside the door. Every time he came back into the apartment, my heart practically leapt out of my chest as I focused on my character’s single objective: to stop one character, from literally murdering the other.

However, on this night, when we let the beast inside, a pair of cops followed right behind him. Our director instinctively blocked the policemen at the entrance, harshly whispered “We’re doing a scene,” and shut the door. After seeing the audience off, and convincing the cops that this was not a case of domestic abuse, I huddled up with my five collaborators on this project. It was over. I reflected on the endless hours spent conquering my fears of improvisation, the collective bruises that had come and faded away, and the time spent researching the environmental issues that framed our story. I let out a sigh of relief and joy at the successful closing of a challenging junior year. As a team, we had devised, and produced a show that connected the depth and spontaneity of human relationship to the chaos that water-fracking caused in the Delaware Basin community. I was invigorated because each performance our 25-person audience sat or stood so close to us, they could feel me shaking. When they left I was content because my work had shown them something emotionally and politically important.

Afterwards I wondered what separates my peers whose experience seems dominated by nightmarish internships and torturous project schedules, from those who proudly look back on the work they have accomplished thus far. Further reflection on my undergraduate experiences to date took me back to a particularly difficult time I had in one of my first creative endeavors at Emerson. In my sophomore year a friend and I started a non-profit called Atomic Age Theater. We collected a diverse group of students to serve on our board, I built a website, my friend wrote bylaws, and by the good grace of St. John’s Episcopal Church we had a place to rehearse and perform. The company was entirely DIY. Need lights? Hop onto the orange line and buy extension-chords, clips and bulbs at Home Depot. Need costumes? Go to Goodwill and start scavenging. Need props? Check the Anthropologie display throw-aways. To conclude our first season, we decided to do a Sam Shepard double feature at the church.

 

 I wondered what separates my peers whose experience seems dominated by nightmarish internships and torturous project schedules, from those who proudly look back on the work they have accomplished thus far.

 

Without going into the gory details, suffice it to say my production of Cowboy Mouth caused enough controversy to generate letters from the local and student community. Some people left inspired, but others were gravely offended. The words of a particular patron—that “the show seemed more self-indulgent than thoughtful”—haunted me for months. So what do these stories with diametrically opposed outcomes have in common? They illustrate, for me, what distinguishes hard work from successful art. In both of these situations I got to collaborate with inspiring individuals and committed myself daily to working towards a vision. But in my directorial debut with Atomic Age I never took the time to define my desired outcome of the production. I chased a product without an intention.

I was dissecting a script, and putting together a spectacle with the hopes that it would say something, but I was unprepared for the message it would convey. In fact, I misrepresented my beliefs: the work was not an expression of my values, and therein laid the failure. Needless to say, at the age of nineteen I was not prepared to outrage a crowd of people with art. When I committed to Project 2, I learned from my mistakes. I sought to grow an ensemble I could trust. My success was defined by the honesty with which we told our story and the level of intimacy that we established for our audience. In the end I walked away from Project 2 with five unbelievably close friends, and a genuine sense of growth (as a performer and theatre person). Emerson College is never lacking in opportunity; quite the contrary, it is exploding with it. As my senior year draws towards a finale, I am compiling the life-lessons I want to take with me into the real world. If my experience here has taught me one thing, it is that success in the arts must be self-defined and pursued relentlessly with sincerity and heart.

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Thoughts from the curator

A series on HowlRound's partner, Emerson College.

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Michelle - as your friend, fellow Atomic Age-r (?), and just a... person who was there for many of the events you describe, this piece makes me think about many things in a different light. I'm excited by how wisely you've thought about these experiences, especially since they are personal and therefore often emotional. And it answers a lot of things, about me, the people that are close to me, the community at Emerson, and the larger community of theater-makers.

The identity question of "what separates me from my peers?" is one we often have to answer as individuals and definitely in college. Sometimes it feels frantic because we're looking for an answer to a mistake we believe we made and sometimes it feels self-indulgent because we're seeking to elevate a quality about ourselves and make it more important. But the beauty is that you don't ask the question with that binary way of looking at things. You just seem to be asking it to learn. That galvanizes me. It makes me so happy that you go to school with me. And, better yet, that there are a lot of wonderful people here that are similar in that want to learn.

"Me" always exists in the work even when we're running away from it and trying to make the work about something else, so this reflection of "What does me want from me?" seems so important as we're coming into our own. These reflections feel like fertile soil.

Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. Continue to inspire and teach this philosophy to the next generation of theatre artists who stand beside you and even those who follow you. Bravo!