Thesis: Introducing bold new kinds of productions will require change. Change can be frightening. This post is basically a sermon intended to help beat back the fear.
“How do you give
In to the true
That wants to become
A new part of you?” – Craig Wright
I expect most diversification in programming to come from new organizations and growth in currently tiny organizations, but bringing it about will still require a couple of things from established, even august, arts institutions.
First, established institutions have an interest in fostering a wide diversity of smaller producing organizations in order to enrich the theatre ecosystem and benefit from the greater number of low threshold doors into playgoing. In order to properly serve this interest, leaders at those institutions will have to overcome fear of competition. As I may already have written and will certainly write again, I don’t believe in competition between arts organizations. We are all fellow travelers. Our common competition is the couch. For every attendance Woolly Mammoth loses to Arena or vice versa, both of them lose thousands of attendances to “Stayed Home,” a long running and well attended production in every city. Still, many company leaders, both paid and volunteer, cherish a fear of helping other organizations succeed due to concerns that success is a zero sum game. That fear has to be quelled if large organizations are to step forward to their proper (and self-interested) role of fostering diverse productions through the sweat and treasure of others.
Second, established institutions will carry some of the responsibility to create diverse productions. All organizations, in order to radically increase attendance, will need to make changes in the plays they choose, in the ways they produce, in the partnerships they make, in the ways they communicate with audiences. I am fomenting revolution, here. I expect it to be unsettling. In times that are rich with both threat and opportunity, currently successful organizations often feel especially at risk. They have, from one perspective, more to lose. They feel they should pause, regroup, and stick to the predictable for a while – just until conditions improve. But when there is real substantial change in progress, retreating to the familiar rarely works. What looks like the safest ground to stand on is probably the place you should be most worried about standing. Your best path forward is probably into the dark, which is understandably scary.
Then the tiny companies themselves need to deal with fear of rejection, fear of ridicule, fear of disappointing partners; in aggregate, fear of failure. Fear of failure that will get in the way of exactly the kind of bold innovation we need them to carry out. Many of the leaders of these tiny companies will emerge from jobs in more established institutions. Their fears could easily drive them to emulate those institutions rather than making their own innovative ways.
So there’s plenty of fear to go around. Here’s all I have to offer. I call it “Failgreat.” In coining this term, I borrow from the engineering concept “Failsafe.” A lot of people missunderstand failsafe. It doesn’t mean engineering in such a way that failure is impossible. It is a tenet of engineering that any system can and almost certainly will fail. Failsafe is the philosophy of designing systems in such a way that when they fail, they will fail in a way that is least likely to harm people or damage property.
The way I would like you to think of failgreat is as a philosophy of making art in such a way that even if a particular project or your entire organization fails, it will be obvious to any observer, especially yourself, that you were credibly striving for greatness right up to the moment of failure.
Organizations that innovate fail often, but when they fail in the midst of striving towards a worthy goal, that failure is more often praised and valued than looked down upon. Failed projects and failed organizations that do attract scorn are those that are shown, after failure, to have been covering up the probable failure or wasting the last available resources on some unworthy activity.
I am convinced that embracing the failgreat principle will help organizations and individuals listen more closely to their aspirations than to their fears, and further that it will create a sense of excitement and progress that will make the very failure it seems to invite less likely. So, I encourage you to go out and make some failgreat art.
Self ordained chaplain of the American theatre.