Fail. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better

(Originally posted September 16th, 2011)

Why can’t I figure out how to start this post?

It’s about something I have talked about innumerable times : failing. That means this post is also about something I have done myself hundreds of thousands of times : fail. Failure is a deeply personal and revealing process that can either stop or propel your work. Why can’t I begin?

Let me try this :

About 12 years ago I went to the National Studio in the UK. John Barton was running a workshop/symposium on verse speaking. Very important people in the theater world were there. Actors, directors, educators and designers all struggled with identifying root causes to why verse speaking (circa 2000) was flagging. Educators blamed directors. Directors blamed actors and audiences. Actors blamed educators. Educators then blamed designers… Round and round it went. However, every so often there would be a piercing and poignant exchange between John Barton and the rest of the assembly. One of them is particularly relevant to my post today.

Actress Harriet Walter asked John Barton “What is the best way you know of to improve your speaking?” He thought about it long and hard and replied with “Lay in a warm bath and read the text out loud slowly, one word at a time.” We all giggled, which I suspect he bristled at. So he threw down the gauntlet with another suggestion. “Come up here, Harriet” he urged. John Barton handed her a piece of paper. “It’s the third chorus speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V: “Thus with imagin’d wing our swift scene flies…” (John Barton is so knowledgeable about Shakespeare, I suspect he can quotemost of the great speeches from memory).

He then continued with his challenge. “You need to go outside and learn this speech off-book [ie direct to memory]. As soon as you have learned it – the instant you no longer need the script, come back in here and no matter what we are doing, begin the speech.” Silence. Then Harriet began to shake a bit. “But John, you know I have dyslexia and struggle with this.” Interesting but true point : Harriet Walter has played most of the great female roles of Shakespeare, but usually learns the lines by audio, rather than by reading them (she speaks candidly about her process in Other People’s Shoes : Thoughts on Acting). “I’m not interested,” shot back John Barton, “get out there, learn the speech and come in when you’re ready.” Harriet Walter’s jaw tightened and she thumped out of the room. John Barton then began to work on a scene from Othello. He asked actor Danny Sapani to recite a speech, and invited input from all of us to best help the actor rehearse the speech further. And the directors and educators in the room then began talking and Danny Sapani didn’t say another word. For 15 minutes. Directors argued about intention of the character, the tone of the language, the period of Shakespeare’s writing that the play cam from, etc etc. And John Barton was supremely quiet. Then, without any warning, the doors to our studio flew open and a frantic Harriet Walter entered.

“Thus, with imagin’d wing, our sift… SWIFT scene flies!” She had entered as requested – as soon as she could put down the script. She spoke the speech with intensity, passion and yet always involved us, like she was wrestling our attention away from any other distraction. She stumbled through the text, constantly correcting the text or reading on our faces that the word she had just uttered perhaps wasn’t ‘right’ so she re-spoke the word to ensure it was valid. She paused mid speech, mentally fighting to find exactly the right word Shakespeare had used. And when she was done, she breathed so deeply we all leant forward in our chairs.

Simply put, it was the most arresting and beautiful moment of live verse speaking I have ever seen. It was messy, sure. It was chaotic, definitely. But it was invigorating and revealing at the same time. We had watched an actor do something almost impossible – learn an epic speech in 15 minutes, only to perform it instantaneously, without any direction. And succeed. After our applause died down, John Barton smiled and explained the past 15 minutes had been designed to show us how easy it is to get it ‘right’ with verse speaking : learn it, and do it. The whole Othello experiment had proven the opposite – how confining and unproductive it can be to discuss ‘intention’ with an actor, rather than just do it. In fact, there had not been a ‘discussion’ at all. Danny Sapani had stood silently for most of that particular process. With Harriet Walter, however, she had been given a simple but frightening direction : learn it, then do it. John Barton then said something that has stuck with me for years

“99% of directors get in the way of starting. Instead, you must create a situation where you and the actors can get it all ‘wrong’.”

Fear, insecurity and inferiority were all things Harriet Walter had to confront immediately in this process in order to get to a performance. There was no ‘safety net’. And for every flub or stammer in her performance, we forgave her instantly, because it actually came across more like a character struggling to find exactly the right word, rather than an actor trying to remember the line. We empathized immediately with her as an actor, and were prepared to allow ourselves to be transported by her as a character.

Perhaps Shakespeare knew this by being an actor himself. Asking actors to remember lines then say them in front of an audience is a pretty much a guaranteed recipe for mistakes. And his audience knew it. Add on to this the fact that Shakespeare’s company probably only had three days to rehearse a new play before it was publicly performed. To put that in context, The Maly Theater in St Petersburg can rehearse a play for as long as six months before showing it. The rehearsal process, John Barton argued, is one to begin as soon as possible, and that means creating situations where mistakes are not only possible, but inevitable. After all, that’s what Shakespeare did, and he seems to know what he was doing.

In the modern theater (if that isn’t too much of an oxymoron), we have perfected the art of insulating us from making mistakes. That goes for training all the way up to performance. We penalize mistakes in school, and instead emphasize the competitiveness of the business. Rehearsal periods are bloated by endless discussions that amount to little more than an attempt to prevent every possible mistake conceivable. Technical rehearsals are rushed, leaving neither performer nor designer the option of screwing anything up. And when performance finally rolls around, everybody in the project says the same thing “wish we had more time!” But do they mean that? Or do they mean “wish we had gotten to this point sooner.” Namely, if we had gotten our performance up sooner, we’d all be better able to handle our mistakes.

Making mistakes is fundamental to the construction of any skill. And like the tightrope walker, skateboarder or skyscraper builder, the potential to make mistakes is a crucible to develop your skill. Like some of you, I recently listened to director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2) speak candidly on KCRW’sThe Business about how much he learned from making Cuthroat Island, the largest financial flop in cinematic history. He spoke openly about how his adherence to his ego and its’ invincibility led him insulating himself from believing he was capable of making mistakes. The result was being incinerated by the critical fallout of Cuthroat Island. Being reminded how to be humble, he argued, developed his skill and returned him to the business. “Mistakes teach us more than any success”, he insists.

None of us know someone who shuffles around on their knuckles because of early childhood failures to master walking erect. When we’re babies, we mess up constantly and learn that way. We learn to walk by falling over. We learn to talk, by talking gibberish. Interesting that as we begin to lose our capacity to put failure at the center of our learning process, our ability to learn rapidly decreases. Our brains massively slow in growth at about 7 years old – right when we can begin to form sentences like “I’m no good at math because I keep getting the answers wrong”. Or “I can’t sing, because I keep losing the note.” By abstaining from mistakes, we abstain from skill development. Which is also our talent development…

And there is another casualty. As we tolerate fewer mistakes in ourselves, we tolerate them less in others. Making us a nightmare to collaborate with. I struggle with this one daily. If you can’t be generous with yourself as you make mistakes, you will not be generous to others. And accepting you don’t have all the answers is actually the fastest way to endearing yourself to new potential collaborators. But you have to accept your limitations first.

A close friend of mine was recently released from prison. Inevitably, the whole situation alienated him from many friends and some family. It altered his business forever. By accepting his mistakes and the consequences of them, he has actually become a happier person. He’s even been invited to speak publicly about his recent past, as it is inspiring, cautionary and perhaps even instructive. He is a kinder guy, now. He is more aware. He is better at his job. He is very well-read, too, using prison as an opportunity to read over 80 books in five months. His mistakes, therefore, and his acceptance of them led to the single largest point of growth in his skill since he was 7 years old.

So get out there and do something, as an actor. Don’t wait to be invited. Don’t wait to learn your lines. Don’t wait to be told where to stand. Make a choice. The worst that can happen is being offered a different choice by someone else. But that ‘other choice’ is only a response to what you tried to do, and could not have come about had you been too frightened to make a mistake.