During my thesis interviews, one of the big questions I ask the filmmakers is ‘how do you not give up when you think you can’t go on?’. That ability to keep on going is a trait that all creatives must have. Or to put it another way, when your work is deemed to be a failure how do you get off the ropes.
The Importance of Failing was the third in The Saturday Sessions, a series of panel discussions put on by those fine people at The PACT Theatre, a venue that actively encourages a space for artists to experiment.
I viewed this topic as having similar themes to The Art of Perseverance and I was very grateful to spend 90minutes discussing The Importance of Failing with a diverse panel (see bottom) of varying creative disciplines in the arts. We were also joined by a medical researcher and an elite sportsman to give their non artistic perspectives of failure.
Sifting through my notes afterwards, the following key strands of thought hit home.
Measurement of success and failure
Sportsman Tom Decent started proceedings by stating how cricket is totally statistic based. You are out or you are not. When he was in a golden patch, he would write down the things he was doing right, so when he hit the inevitable barren patch he was able to recollect the positive things he was doing.
But the arts of course are subjective, and feedback is mostly of a qualitative nature. Laita Taumoepean pondered as to whether failure should be judged by the outcomes or the process, and she said she was much more interested in the process of the current project, and what she could learn from it to help her be better for the next project. Process doesn’t have finality whereas an outcome is final. She cited relationships with individuals, the organisation or the audience that she could take into the next project, as examples of process measurement.
Outcomes are hard to quantify when working with ideas. Augusta Supple quoted poet Sylvia Plath who said that whenever she sits to write a poem, she might plan for it to be about a chair, and then the poem becomes about a table, and that’s not bad, its just a change in expectation.
Director of Fine Arts at Parsons in New York and visual artist Simone Douglas said that we measure failure from the wrong perspective. If you don’t risk a big idea then you lead a safe life. If you don’t attempt, you don’t learn.
You get to know the most about yourself when you don’t succeed.
Internal and External Evaluation
Augusta Supple offered the point of view that we are often our worst critics allowing the little dissenting voice in our head to rule our own inner confidence. She furthered this by saying that all humans have difficulty with the simple language of communication, and often when having to provide negative feedback, we say things we shouldn’t as we try to find the words to be diplomatic, and afterwards kick ourselves for what we said.
Then there are the external pressures of friends, families, bosses, and of course the dreaded review, where it is so easy to focus on the one negative comment and not congratulate yourself on the positive feedback.
The Art of Feedback
The performers amongst us discussed the torture that is the Foyer Feedback! That moment when friends awkwardly praise you, ‘it was… interesting….’.
When is the best time for giving and receiving feedback. Certainly not in the foyer when everything is a bit raw and immediate. Possibly in the bar later when things have settled down. More appropriately in the cold light of morning the next day.
One panellist advised that they have a formal structured debrief one week later in a safe environment which seems a great process for artistic evaluation.
Disassociation was discussed at length – the ability for us to think the worst when in actual fact it was fine for the audience. We performers often set our default to apologize for something yet if we don’t reveal the negative aspect in our eyes, the audience might not have noticed.
But also, so often in modern culture, positive praise is rarely given. Critique naturally highlights the things that need improving, yet rarely highlights the things that worked.
I did find the group a bit reluctant to embrace methodologies to critique their process. Corporate frameworks like Key Performance Indicators were almost sneered at, as was the administrative bureaucracy of arts grant applications and assessment (hoop jumping), yet personally I do feel that adequate accountability and self-responsibility is missing in the creative artists’ space.
Failure implies a point in time – think long game
Katie Pollock, a recent recipient of The Edward Albee Scholarship made a fine point that we only ever evaluate the current project, but rarely evaluate our development of over a year or five years for example. The group concurred that everyone wants success now. The current project is seen as the ‘be-all and end-all’. But art develops over time and projects.
Augusta Supple did say that traditionally the funding models have all been based around ‘Excellence’, whereas the artist’s journey is a long game methodology. Recently however, there does seem to be a shift to ‘artist development’ in addition to ‘project development’ by the funding bodies.
Indeed talking to Katie afterwards, we observed about how we rarely look back to the beginning of our career and our first performance, remembering how terrified but excited we were. We forget how far we have come, and often benchmark ourselves against the top level portrayed in the media. A portrayal that is increasingly being ‘perfect’; a utopian aspiration. Reality TV is infact an un-reality.
How did you feel when….
I also asked Katie the question I asked the filmmakers when they got their funding: ‘How did you feel on getting the news and knowing you have to make this thing?’ ie the point of no return, and you are committed to making this project happen. Katie expressed exactly the same response I got from the interviews – initial shock, followed by utter euphoria, followed by the ‘Oh Shit, I gotta deliver now’ fear. I mention this because it is another example of the little voice I was talking about earlier. But Katie did say that she loves, infact needs, the Oh Shit factor, it drives her on. And indeed I think the successful artist does need to have that ambition to test themselves on bigger canvases.
I always ask artists to sign the The Art of Perseverance postcard, describing their art of perseverance in a few words and I thought I’d share them with you..
August Supple: stubborn, resilient, bold and long game
Simone Douglas: occlusion, trial error. perseverance is innovation
Katie Pollock: I tried to stop and failed.
So it’s was an invigorating afternoon of honesty and insight into how we all deal with failure. Personally it gave me a perspective on how to improve giving feedback, and an insight in how to assess my own process and outcome. At the end of the day, if we fail as an artist, no one dies. If you are a medical surgeon on the other hand…….
Resources to check out
A few materials were referenced
Kathryn Schulz – Being Wrong Book – an adventure in the margin of error, in Wrongology.
Stephen Pressfield – The War of Art
TED talk by Kathryn Schulz on Being Wrong
For more information on The Saturday Sessions, The PACT Theatre and their upcoming 50th anniversary celebrations in October, (hey they sure have The Art of Perseverance!), please check out http://www.pact.net.au/
The Importance of Failing: It happens to all of us, so what’s the big deal? Saturday Sessions #3 is all about the forbidden ‘F’ word.
We all fail at some point and often we fail brilliantly. But do you fail and quit? Or do you get back up and try again? Join us in a discussion with sporting, entrepreneurial and arts experts about how their personal experiences of failing helped them take the crucial next step toward success. What did they learn from their mistakes? How did it make them stronger? Why is failing such an important part of growing and succeeding?
Come and share your stories, or just participate in a frank and open discussion about failure and why we should embrace and learn from it.
Join the discussion with Chris Ryan, Augusta Supple, Simone Douglas, Matt Prest, Latai Taumoepeau, Margie Breen, Tom Decent (first grade cricketer, SMH sports reporter), and Cate Carey (Senior Clinical Project Coordinator, Kirby Institute for Infection and Immunity in Society UNSW), moderated by Katrina Douglas, Artistic Director at PACT.
SATURDAY 9 AUGUST, 3PM – 4.30PM
AT PACT – 107 Railway Pde, Erskineville
IT’S FREE!! MORE INFO: http://ow.ly/yJ8nv
WHAT IS SATURDAY SESSIONS?
It’s an opportunity to talk!
It’s a chance to engage in critical dialogue with a vibrant cross section of established and emerging artists. It’s an informal environment to ask all those questions you’ve been wanting to. It’s about rigour and it’s about fun. It’s about taking some things seriously and others not quite so. It’s about meeting lots of new people or having a chat to someone you have wanted to for a long time. It’s about being bold. It’s about sitting back and taking it in quietly. It’s about you.
The Saturday Sessions work closely with the PACT program to bring a deeper understanding and connection to the work we make as artists and why we do it.