On Failure

Beckett wrote ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better’. [1] Recently I have been thinking about failure. Partly because having applied for several opportunities this year I find myself receiving multiple letters saying things like, ‘… we regret to inform you that on this occasion you have been unsuccessful…’. After receiving so many it becomes scant consolation that there has been an ‘overwhelming number of applicants’. The fact remains: I am going on the ‘no’ pile at these shortlisting meetings. I am riding a carousel of rejection. I have started to feel like maybe I should stop applying for things for a while. I have even started imagining the scene at the time when my application is considered; Am I too old? Am I too emerged or too established? Too traditional or too experimental? Is it the tone of voice? Is it the font? Is it because I have a proper job? Is it because I am seen as an academic not an artist? There is a learning curve here and I’m learning not to apply for every opportunity I see on Arts News, Scudd or Twitter. But even when it seems like the perfect fit I’m still not getting selected. To put it into context, after applying for 12 opportunities this year I have been rejected by 10. I don’t have to do the math.

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not scared of rejection. I don’t mind negative feedback either – I was on the page of shame in The Scotsman and wrote the worst play of the year according to The Telegraph (some might say this is a badge of honour). I even got a critical kicking in The Telegraph’s review of the next show at the same theatre. It bruised but it didn’t scar. Because I was making the work I wanted to make. However, it is hard to take a rejection when people don’t even offer any feedback any more. Or when they don’t even reply to let you know you’ve been unsuccessful. The time it takes to write an application far outweighs the time it takes to send a generic email saying ‘sorry but no’. As far as I can see it takes a few seconds to copy and paste and hit send. But it seems that some people are far too busy nowadays planning too many festivals. The other thing I would resist is suggesting work that might fit the brief that I don’t actually want to make. I still make the work I want to make but maybe there are less contexts for that kind of work now. Maybe I don’t know the audience any more. Maybe I don’t know the promoters anymore. Maybe I just don’t know the context anymore. I don’t know.

Fire exit

Someone told me recently that if there is no context for your work then you make the context. When we set up the Nottingham-based organisation, Hatch, we described our ethos as follows: ‘”We decided that Hatch would embrace work that often succeeds but is not afraid to fail. We wanted to work with artists who didn’t know what to call themselves, who wear too many hats. We wanted to showcase work that sweats on a low budget, or no budget. Work that might not ordinarily find a home outside a festival. Work our parents would say was ‘interesting’. Work that is unexpected and unfinished and unashamed of the fact it might not work’.[2] We welcomed failure, and to a certain extent, we encouraged it. We wanted things to break. As Matthew Goulish, co-founder of Goat Island theatre company, says: ‘If you want to study a system, first look at how it fails’.[3] My system is failing. We might follow Samuel Beckett’s instruction here: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’[4] Or we might just stop trying.

At times like this, I return to another quote from Matthew Goulish in his seminal book, 39 Microlectures in proximity of performance (2000). He wrote: ‘Some words speak of events, other words events make us speak’.[5] I always try to make work from this kind of impulse, always inspired by events, events that happened to me, events that happened to my world. Right now, I am thinking of making a show about failure. I want to render my serial rejection into a creative impulse. For example, writing this blog post is one way of making myself feel better about it, perhaps by sharing how I feel with you, it might open up a dialogue about it. Maybe because I have turned 40, I am starting to think about my legacy and what I will leave behind. As an, as yet, unpublished playwright, my work only exists in the memories of those who have seen it. In a few online videos and reviews (including The Telegraph one!). I have recently discovered that I am a footnote in Tim Crouch’s Wikipedia page here. Perhaps I will only be remembered as a footnote in other peoples’ profiles, someone referred to in passing, someone whose work was a cover of someone else’s. Even this has inspired me to make another performance, The Footnote Show, where I interview Tim Crouch about it. I haven’t asked him yet in case he says no. But it might make an interesting footnote to the footnote.


In 2010, I made a show called The End about retiring from the theatre because I felt like this then. A failure. It was inspired by endings and exits and used the Fire Exit sign as a motif for my leaving the stage. This year, I am resurrecting that motif for an, as yet unnamed, new project about exits – maybe because of Brexit, maybe because I feel closer to leaving the theatre again because of these recent rejections. I learned another phrase last week from a colleague at the University of Lincoln who is planning a Festival of Failure. John Cage wrote: ‘Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make’.[6] That is what I will do. Make. At the very least, I will have a range of failure-related T-shirts ready to sell. If anyone will buy them…

[1] Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho (London: Grove Press, 1983)

[2] Lyn Gardner, ‘Lyn Gardner’s theatre roundup: Monsters have a ball on stage’, The Guardian Blog [online] (28 May 2012)

<http://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2012/may/28/lyn-gardner-theatre-roundup-monsters> [accessed 8 April 2015].

[3] Tim Etchells, ‘Tim Etchells on performance: 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration’, The Guardian Blog [online] (12 October 2010)

<http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2010/oct/12/tim-etchells-on-performance-dance> [accessed 20 April 2016].

[4] Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho (London: Grove Press, 1983)

[5] Matthew Goulish, 39 Microlectures in Proximity of Performance (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 152.

[6] Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (London: Pengun, 2012).