In case you’ve been in a coma for the last year, there’s this Broadway musical, it’s called Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, and it’s made some headlines. There were accidents and script problems and fights with critics and the official opening kept being pushed further back and back and back and…etc.
Basically, it redefined the term “hot mess.”
And the amount of mockery, vitriol, and somber head-shaking coming from the theatre world as this tragicomedy dragged on has been spread across the Twitterverse/blogosphere in a fine layer of outrage and schadenfreude. Take a few minutes, hypothetical coma patient, and catch up.
The thing is, it’s not the safety issues or the script problems or the lackluster musical numbers that sit center stage when theatre artists take aim at this hot mess. It’s the money. It’s the $75 million spent on said hot mess.
The prevailing argument is that those $75 million could have been used to fund who knows how many other theatrical ventures. Many of which, odds dictate, would not be hot messes.
As I was writing this, theatre artists were debating under the #2amt hashtag on Twitter about NYC spending millions on a new Brooklyn theatre. And there was the inevitable comparison to Spider-Man. I think that comparison will be made for some time to come. Whenever a shit-ton of money is dropped on a single project, one that is too commercial or disintegrates into a headline-grabbing clusterfuck, there will be the question of whether this was more or less wasteful than Spider-Man.
So, here’s the thing. I’m going to say it and I’m going to say it in public. I am grateful that $75 million was spent on Spider-Man. I am ecstatic. I think it’s awesome that producers decided that they wanted to spend $75 million on a single show.
And that gratitude is not diminished one iota by the fact that the show and the process of its creation is, by all accounts, a hot mess.
I have spent the last two years teaching devised theatre and new play development to teens. There are a handful of things I tell them during the first class that I desperately hope I can pound into their skulls by the last. One of them is that it’s okay to fail. In art, failure happens all the time. As artists, this might be institictive. But these are teenagers, and the last thing they want to do is look stupid in front of other people.
“If you are going to fail, fail spectacularly,” I tell them. “If you are going to run into a brick wall, I want you to be going full-speed when you hit. Think of this process of theatre creation as a science experiment. Because even failed experiments teach us something. Which means they’re not really failures at all.”
And now here are a bunch of Broadway producers, a world-class director, and fucking Bono running full tilt at a brick wall. It’s glorious.
Next time I give that talk, I can point to Spider-Man, and I can say this: You think it’s embarrassing to make a big, wrong choice in an acting exercise? You’re afraid of what your friends will think? Here are a group of professional theatremakers and a couple of world-famous pop stars who went and made a big messy risky choice for the whole world to see and criticize. And they hit that brick wall going 100 mph. And they got back up, dusted themselves off, and kept working. Do you think Julie Taymor is going to change her aesthetic? Will her next show be any less theatrical, any less insanely complex and challenging? Of course not.
Or, at least, I sincerely hope not.
Would I love to see $75 million worth of $100,000 grants spread out across threatermakers nationwide? Of course I would. As an audience member, I’m far more interested in seeing what the Rude Mechs can do with $100k than I am seeing Spider-Man, even if it were produced to perfection.
But, as an artist, do I also want there to be people willing to sink $75 million into a single hot mess of a Broadway show so pumped full of spectacle it makes your eyes bleed? Abso-fucking-lutely.
Because if we’re going to fail, let’s fail big, fail in public, and fail informatively. And, yeah, failure can be expensive. But sometimes it’s worth it.