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Too Big to Fail

03.17.11 | 9 Comments


CATEGORIES collaboration, community, conversation starter, development, ideas, new plays, partnerships, supply / demand, the process

So I have to start out by saying I am not used to blogging and the rules for it confound me.  Along with that I have an education where I never learned Grammar or Syntax so if there are glaring errors, I blame Dasher Green Elementary School as well as Oakland Mills High School.  So with that out of the way I thank you for putting up with any mistakes you may find in this.

There are many things I want to talk about.  I want to talk about reactions to the “Supply and Demand” conversation, how we frame our conversation and debate, the sense of balance in the theatre and many others.  I thought I would write about what is on my mind right now:  Failure.

This discussion came up at a recent Inkwell meeting with our new Board Member.  We wanted to meet with him to talk about our past.  We needed to catch him up on 3 years of history and meetings and discussions that we all have had and who we have had them with and what they were about.  Sounds like a long meeting–well, it was–but it was easy when we had already started a lot of these discussion and note consolidations before the meeting.  

He said that he was impressed with the way we look at our past constantly to help shape our future.  It’s a statement I have heard before, “Looking at the past to shape the future”, but I don’t think I understood it truly.  I asked him what he meant.  He said that he was amazed at how after every program, every event, and even every large meeting, we process not just the information that we got from it, but the program, event or meeting and how we got the information.   We constantly are having “After Action Reports” and “Post Mortems” to figure out how to improve on our system. Which brought us all of us in the room to the thought that permeates a lot of our thinking at The Inkwell:  Getting over the Fear of Failing.

As Artists (like other creative jobs) we don’t look at failure as a stopping point or a wall, we look at it as a bump or curve in the road.  It’s something we look at, learn from and move forward.  We use the “Failure” as something to propel us towards our next step, or at least we should.   In our rehearsals, in our artistic processes and even in our journeys in creation, we look at the times we failed and learned what not to do in our process, what to do differently, and even, “why didn’t that thing I thought would work, work?”  

Even theaters both large and small are turning their “Failures” into success by the discussion of them.  Woolly Mammoth recently produced HOUSE OF GOLD. This was not one of the productions that was hugely successful from an audience standpoint nor a critical standpoint, but the smart thing they did was use it to open up discussions not just about the topics brought up in the play, but why people viewed this play and how it served Woolly’s mission.  The same thing happened recently with another smaller theatre that I went to see a play at: I watched the play, and afterwards talked to the Artistic Director, wondering why his theatre would choose to do this show.  His response was enlightening, and he had mentioned how they had been using a number of talk backs with the audience to not just discuss the play, but how it fit into the larger picture of what that theatre produces and the kind of theatre they want to produce.

It’s hard to talk about failure in a financial climate this bleak.  It’s hard to see institutions that do hire and pay hundreds of artists a year–we can argue the living wage/pay scale some other time–think about risking its financial status.  Its hard to not see these institutions as “Too Big to Fail”.  The thought process of what would happen in DC if someone like Arena Stage suddenly found themselves facing bankruptcy is truly unthinkable to most artists that depend on that theatre for their livelihood.  I am not a crazy dreamer thinking that all theaters should be bold and produce a new play no matter what.  No.  I am a big believer in theaters sticking to their missions.  If your mission is to produce Shakespeare then please produce Shakespeare or something that is like Shakespeare that can spark the discussion of Shakespeare.  I won’t judge you for doing work that I perticulary don’t want to see–yes, I am not a huge fan of watching Shakespeare plays, sue me–because obviously someone does want to see it, even if it’s just your friends.

The topic at hand though is the term “Supply and Demand”.  It’s something we all should be looking at.  Does your theatre really need to do eight shows this year or could you produce seven and make them all stellar and profit in the same way.  Do you really need to be competing with that theatre of the same size that does work similar to yours or can you find ways to team up and create a better piece of art.  Are you really creating work just because you want a chance to create something–not that I find that wrong in all cases–or should you be creating work because you feel you have things that need to be said.

I feel like I am tangenting a bit so I want to get back to the heart of my discussion: Failure.  

I think as we move forward in these next couple of years at least at The Inkwell, the conversation that I want to be having with my fellow artists is a different term from business, “Risk vs. Reward”.  

What can we risk? And by that, I mean, what can we do that has the chance of being a total failure?  What are the rewards, what can we take from that failure or what can we gain if the risk is a success?  I feel it’s our job to not follow the pack in how things are done, but as artists it is our job to have the discussion and lead that discussion wherever it goes.  We shouldn’t shy away from the topic of “Supply and Demand” but I feel a little worn out from that discussion for the past couple months.  Let’s start “Risk vs. Reward” and “Can we Fail successfully?” Let’s talk, how far can we truly risk?  What are we willing to give up to take the risk?  Should we be risking anything at all?  Can we risk or is that for someone else to hopefully do?  Is Failure even on the table?

I am curious about a lot of things, but lets start with this question.  Thanks for taking the time to read, I do appreciate it.

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  • Great post, Lee! No huge grammar mistakes as far as I could tell 🙂

    I have always been of the mindset that we cannot be afraid of conflict, risk or failure. So many opportunities and new ideas arise from disagreements or from jumping off a cliff. I do think that what needs to be developed is the art of “failing successfully,” as you put it, and Inkwell is definitely on the right track. You can’t just put on a show and then hang your head and slink away due to a bad review or a less than full house. Post-mortems should be a necessary part of the process. What didn’t work as we had hoped? How do we approach producing a play in the future? It’s not a time for back patting and massaging the ego–roll up your sleeves, look at your work in the real word and not your ideal one, and do what you can to improve the quality of what you’re sharing with your audience.

    So I think failure should definitely be on the table, at least coming frommy perspective of being in a very new company. This is where we can afford to fail, when we don’t have people on a payroll and are contributing to employee’s retirements. Yes, fail! Fail BIG, cause then you’ve got nowhere to go but up. I suppose as a theatre company grows, the failure option diminishes, but I would hope the idea of risk-reward would not. Woolly is a great example of this, in my opinion. They keep it edgy, take risks, but also offer their audiences stuff they know will be a hit. It’s a great combo.

    But that’s just me…

    …And I think I’m just preaching to the choir and basically repeating what you said in my own words. Ah well….So I’ll close with this, also not my own original thought:

    “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” Henry Ford

  • Great post! Looking at the risk/reward relationship is at the heart of (arts) entrepreneurship. When people ask me why I think artists are entrepreneurs, I can now point them to your posting. (BTW, your grammar and syntax is excellent — you did Dasher Green Elementary proud)

  • I agree, let’s move away from a “tired discussion”, in my opinion, of Supply and Demand and “MARCH” forward with: “Risk vs. Reward” and “Can we Fail successfully?”
    We need to talk and ask:
    – How far can we truly risk?
    – What are we willing to give up to take the risk?
    – Should we be risking anything at all?
    – Can we risk or is that for someone else to hopefully do?
    – Is Failure even on the table?
    (BTW too – you did Dasher Green Elementary School as well as Oakland Mills High School PROUD!)
    I began a discussion about “SUSTAINABLE CULTURE IS THE NEW FRONTIER ISN’T IT? http://bit.ly/g4k16C http://wp.me/pVjZw-7T

  • Lee,

    More efforts are held back from wild success by fear of failure than any other constraint. You fly by falling without hitting the ground.

    Howard Shalwitz says the further out on the limb you go, the better the work needs to be. I would extend that to say you shouldn’t spend all your creativity and courage on the stage. When you are doing bold art, you also need to market boldly, assemble resources boldly, and boldly build a context around the art to help people experience it as you intend. I see too many cases of daring work put on stage but surrounded by very business-as-usual support structures. (I am often one of very few to see such work.)

    No one can ever succeed or fail without clearly defined goals. State clearly what it is you want to accomplish in terms that everyone involved can understand and that you can measure, and you are well on your way to success or a very satisfying failure from which you can learn a great deal.

    Woolly’s biggest lesson learned out of House of Gold was that we weren’t sufficiently clear about what we were trying to achieve with the production, so different people were trying to make it different things. We are working very hard now to make sure everyone involved with each project communicates about what a given piece of work is and is for. By the way, I’m alive to the fact that what a production is may change late in rehearsal. We’re figuring out how to put a shortly before opening event in each schedule to evaluate whether the production is still what we were expecting to market and talk about, so that if it has organically changed, we can also change the marketing and surrounding activities.

    All of this is to say that the path to breakthrough success is not to avoid risk but simultaneously to embrace and to mitigate risk.

  • Wow people commenting on my post, thats pretty cool. Thanks for the kind words all. I do think that the 2amt crew probably took a little time out to edit my post for grammar. So I have to give a big thanks to David for that.

    I am glad we are having this discussion out in the open. Its something I feel gets hidden to often and being someone who Jessi Burgess has converted to an open process its something that is most helpful in the light of day.

    Pete I couldn’t agree with you more if I had said those exact words myself. I hope my post before shows that. I also agree that not everything a theatre does is on the stage so as we move to putting bold new developments on the stage we need to really examine how to be “Risky” or bold in how we market, how we look at the experience, how we acquire resource, how we speak about it how we think about it…truly everything, even the goals we set for it.

    I love that a company as large as Woolly Mammoth is having these exact discussions. Not looking for the easy reasoning of why something didn’t work. You know :The play wasn’t good, the performers weren’t good, etc. Not that I am saying that about HOUSE OF GOLD cause I liked the performances but to really look at their process and see where “The Cracks” are. See how they can fill in “The Cracks” for next time and how to things they tried worked out for the show and didn’t. How the organization as a whole looks at things and not just the production department. That is the strongest way to get everyone on the discussion of how to embrace risk while mitigating it at the same time.

    Avoiding risk, avoiding discussions, avoiding examinations is a sure fire way to find your self failing more often and moving towards a stronger future.

    I like to use the Neil Gaiman Quote from SANDMAN, “Sometimes when you fall you die, sometimes when you fall you wake up, sometimes when you fall you fly.”

    I am glad to see that you are helping Woolly move forward and examine its experiences in all aspects.

    How do other companies look at Risk? How do you discuss failure? How do you set goals?

  • Deb

    Well said!

    I agree whole-heartedly with your perspective regarding mission. Theatre has so many definitions. It can do so many things. And the most powerful thing that I can see it doing in the most generalized terms is offering up a chance to experience a journey or live experience in a room with real living breathing other people.

    Human contact. Humanity. We simply can’t have too much of that. There is no substitute for it. It’s not virtual. It breaths.

    For me, at Venus, I go over this time and again. Artistic success vs. economic failure. The moments where there were so few people in the house and yet one of them had some profound reaction to the work and carried it into their life. In one case a man decided to reconnect with a child after 22 years of estrangement because of a monologue in the show. Now they have a relationship. In another, a woman decided to get out in the world after a piece we did on an agoraphobic. For me, it seems like every time it looks too bleak to carry on, another story comes up and its power wins over any kind of darkness. These experiences stretch across my life now and it feels like quite an honor.

    It’s important that each company define success based on its own mission ideal. And, oft times you can’t pay the grocery bill or the rent with that. Hence, the tension and division. And the resentment. Honestly. Change the mission to make the money or go without the money to stay true to the vision.

    That’s the harsh reality. Or it has been. I think we can change that though.

    That mainstream marketing and the huge budget which bring the press that bring the grants that bring the recognition that grows the mind set of “success” in terms of commerce is dictated by the size and bank accounts of boards and six figure budgets. It’s who knows who that decides what should be popular. That feels like an enemy to me now. It feels like federally funded ignorance too. It seems to disregard the idea of appreciation toward and respect for risk-taking artistry. When I say disregard, I mean not invest in it financially. And, this is where the great chasm becomes ever more vast and this-for me-is where the truly depressive struggle sets in.

    Commercial theatre is one animal. But, it’s not the only one worthy of respect, recognition, and support. And, here’s where ignorance seems to be leading artistry straight off the cliff. Do we turn and run? Do we jump?

    Ultimately, I have found that the best way to take the largest risk is to jump with both feet. You can’t do that and hold down three other jobs. At least not by the time you hit mid-30’s. The best way to get there is to surround the work, the company, and the members with every ounce of trust and specificity that can be mustered all rooted in the definition of success stemming from the unique vision of the theatre. How’s that for a run-on sentence?

    Then the whole thing then becomes all about growth and connection.

    Still, there’s the issue of money. Still the chasm. So, we need to get out in our communities and find a way to break through and share the actual power of theatre without the pretense of success. We need to grow audiences because the power of theatre moves them and not because the plush red carpet in the lobby make their pedicures gleam. We need to educate the general public about the value of theatre. We need to hike up the mountain and hope for water.

    My question is do we need to educate the professionals? I mean, shouldn’t they have learned this by now? I refer to Victor at the Helen Hayes announcement boldly and proudly stating that they support both the very old and the very young companies. He defined the cliffs that border the chasm. There used to be a day when Woolly Mammoth and Studio and Source and so on were respected and revered for churning out incredible works in very modest spaces.

    Where did that go?

  • Deb I totally appreciate your honesty and passion for what you do and for the debate that is constantly going on in the theatre community. I don’t know if there are simple answers at all.

    Your comment goes a lot of places and at times is hard for me to follow (I am sure my posts are the same way)…but I will try to follow your thought process and what you are talking about.

    The issue of Money vs Happiness seems to be a lot of what you are talking about in your comment. Both are markers and can be goals that we have set to measure a product. But my question for you is how do you evaluate the product after its done. Do you have a team or board that you have an after action report with. People who are able to divest themselves from the process so that they can evaluate it objectively. And if you do that since you say for you risk is jumping in with both feet. What happens after you jump in? In the aftermath? Do you evaluate and say perhaps next time we need a more calculated risk?

    I mean part of the Inkwell’s development was figuring out how we bring more people on board and build bridges between artists that want to work with us. This came from one of the biggest cracks we found with some of our programing: We have a limited Capacity. So we looked at how much capacity our programs took each time and last year we decided to cut our programing back and focus on capacity development. Evaluate how to grow. There is nothing wrong with trying and saying you know what I need a break to reevaluate. I need to cut back from doing 3 shows a year to doing 1 show a year and 2 readings (something a little more financially viable.)

    The best example for this thinking to me is Rorschach Theatre in DC. After years of pushing forward and trying to find a permanent home and having a permanent home and financial backing and getting in the mindset that they have to do 3 shows a year and that the budget for this and that needs to be this much…the said we can’t go on doing this. The risk vs reward for them wasn’t equaled out. So they said you know what we are taking a break. We are going to reevaluate. We are going to try something different. Something that is financially viable. We are going to do small projects that fulfill our mission that don’t cost a lot to keep our minds and artistry going and when we are ready we will produce a show. And now they are. There is no timeline, no season, no nothing. Trying something new and bold. Will it succeed? Who knows but after a year of trying it they hope is that they would sit down and evaluate what worked for them and what didn’t. Then try something else.

    I honestly don’t know much about your company so I am not using any of these as examples of what I know of your company…I am just using them as thoughts of discussion of things we can do to look at how we risk.

    the only other thing I wanted to say was about your last comment. The last sentence. What happened to Woolly Mammoth and Studio and Source being respected and revered for churning out incredible work in very modest spaces. Well I wasn’t around for that, but I would guess the same thing that always happens and should always happen. They grew, they expanded, they risked things on getting a space and trying new things and they are still doing respected and revered work (not by all, but by many) but now in great spaces. Now there are other theaters doing respected and revered work in modest spaces and at some point they will risk and grow. Look at Dog and Pony DC. one of thier last show COURAGE was one of the best shows I saw last year and it was done in a small theatre that seats about 50 and the budget couldn’t have been enormous. Its how these things cycle. Seriously look at some of the work these companies are doing. Woolly constantly does a number of shows that aren’t just beautiful and well acted, but also are bringing up community discussions and looking at how we create art. Same with Studio. Same with Source.

    I hope that this comment doesn’t come off as me trying to knock down your post…your post has total validity and brings up a lot of good discussions. I am just trying to continue it.

    thanks for commenting.

  • You’re right, we should be talking risk vs. reward.

    But we have to take the risks that have commensurate rewards, and take a pass on the big risks that have very small rewards. If you take a risk that doesn’t have a potential reward that is at least as big as the reward you could get from other similar risks, then it’s not risk-taking. Then it becomes gambling.

    But I totally agree with you that this discussion needs to be re-framed toward risk & reward.

    Another business phrase that belongs in the discussion is “opportunity costs.” What is the ABC we have to give up in order to pursue XYZ? And it’s not just about us. If we start a new theater company that doesn’t offer much that’s new, and instead just competes for attention with other similar companies, we have missed the opportunity to use our time and energy to support what is already good, and instead we’re competing with it.

  • Your risk/reward posting inspired my reaction to Collective Arts Think Tank’s “open letter.” See http://creativeinfrastructure.wordpress.com


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