Failure and Critique


 she was regarded as a failure: loser, underachiever, ne'er-do-well, disappointment; informal, no-hoper, dead loss, dud, write-off.

Sir Ken Robinson, the internationally recognised leader in education, creativity and innovation at a TED talk in 2006, said:

“Kids will take a chance. If they don't know, they'll have a go. Am I right? They're not frightened of being wrong. Now, I don't mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original -- … And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong."

Ok, so I'm over it. I have read one too many unforgiving, harsh and downright offensive reviews! 

I feel to be an artist you need a fair amount of sensitivity. But this sensitivity is an absolute liability when reviews come out. I have witnessed (and have experienced myself) the embarrassment, shame and humiliation after a ‘shocking’ review. I am more than happy for people not to like my work – to not get it – to find it difficult, confronting, meh or just plain boring – they have every right to their opinion. And all power to them. I am putting my work out there for them to receive however they will. I do believe however that a reviewer has a responsibility – not only to the audience they are writing for but to the artist whose work they are trashing. I am not suggesting a review cannot be negative or critical but I am suggesting that respect for the integrity behind the art making and a contextual understanding of the work inform the critique.

    I am haunted by my failures. Haunted by the mistakes I have made and the public humiliation I have felt from “bad reviews”.  However the shame and guilt I feel about these failures is always countered by the knowledge that I have learnt the most from these moments of debacle, collapse and disaster. Failure has sent me down a rabbit hole of investigation. I have asked myself some really hard questions and come out the other side a better theatre-maker for it.  And on reflection I recognise the learning happens in the doing. - in the preparedness to fail, in the risk-taking and the simple act of actually staging something.

    So whether you are reviewing, tweeting, posting, commenting, consider: 

    • The months (often years) invested to stage a piece of work.
    • The nature of collaboration – the fact that this product is the result of hours of input from a whole host of unseen creatives.
    • The compromises the team may have had to make, willingly and unwillingly on independent and main stages.
    • That most of the creative probably aren’t being paid very much.
    • That each creative has gone into the process with the best intentions, with integrity and above all to communicate something to you.
    • The ephemeral nature of theatre and the fact that documentation of it is exceedingly difficult – a reviewer’s words are the written legacy of that work for history to judge.

    Theatre is not always good. The conflicting influences of collaboration, space, time and a weird alchemy, means sometimes it works and sometimes doesn’t. And sometimes all the pieces independently are ‘right’ – but the thing just doesn’t work. Sometimes you don't agree with what the piece is 'saying'. But that is no reason to humiliate the artists involved. Talk to the ideas. Talk to what you liked and what you didn't like. Write about the productions failures, where it missed the mark. Personal attacks just aren't fair.

     The mere fact that Melbourne’s stages are so full of such strong creative output is testament to the strength and resilience of its artists in spite of the unpredictable, moody and spiteful critique they receive.

    I’m not reading any more reviews  (my own or those of others). I’m not going to let myself continue to be exhausted and disheartened and afraid of the judgement and ridicule from short form critique. I am going to continue to embrace my failures (or my opening for future learning” – Balies, S.J, Performance Theatre and the Poetics of Failure) and by doing so create something. It might not be wholly successful - but at least I can take comfort in the fact that I have set myself the goal of stumbling across something truly original – and that can only be found by being prepared to fail.

     “….ask yourself this question: What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail? If you really ask yourself this question, you can't help but feel uncomfortable... Because when you ask it, you begin to understand how the fear of failure constrains you, how it keeps us from attempting great things, and life gets dull, amazing things stop happening. Sure, good things happen, but amazing things stop happening... The path to truly new, never-been-done-before things always has failure along the way. We're tested. And in part, that testing feels an appropriate part of achieving something great. Clemenceau said, "Life gets interesting when we fail, because it's a sign that we've surpassed ourselves."

    Dugan, R. (2012, March) Glider to humming bird drone [video file] Retrieved from