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Nathan Thomas

I Failed  


January 2015

I’m certain we were in the kitchen.  I was getting something (a glass, perhaps – or a snack?) out of the cupboard when my brother said, “Mr. S___   says you don’t have any rhythm.”  Mr. S___ was our band director.  My brother and I played in regular band and in jazz band together. I played piano.  Now I can admit that I didn’t play too well as a sophomore in high school.  I think I’ve gotten better since.  (I hope so.)


I don’t think my brother meant it to be hurtful.  And I like to think that I didn’t let on how hurt I was at the time.


But it’s one of those little statements that showed me that I had failed, and changed my life. 


The former part of that statement is something that we all know about, the latter I wasn’t to realize or understand until many years later.


I wish I could let you know that this will be an up-lifting column about the optimism and determination with which we should learn from our failures. But I can’t, because it’s not.


Failure is just awful.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve never gotten good at it.  I think I do reasonably well at presenting a kind of public equanimity when I fail, even when I’m full of crushed glass on the insides.


And then, sometimes even a pacifist wants to punch a well-meaning sap who talks about learning something from your failures.  Sure.  OK. 


I directed a terrible production of True West that closed opening night.  What did I learn from this failure?  We learned:  Don’t open an un-advertised and under-rehearsed play in a small town in 1984 against the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in L.A.  Boy, I’ll know not to do that again the next time it’s the summer of 1984 again.  (Only two people in the house – not members of anyone’s family.  They were early adopters in those halcyon days and were taping the ceremonies on their new VCR!)  (It was probably beta-max. . . . .)


Most failures and mistakes are like that.  Those failures are dumb things we did, and we will likely do similar dumb things again.   And there’s no guarantee that we learn the correct lesson from our failures.


But occasionally we do start to figure out something better from a failure.


One thing that I wanted was the respect of my brother and our band director.  So, I started to try to figure out how I could be a better jazz pianist and how to be better with rhythm. 


Did much change that year?  No.  Not really.

Did much change the next year?  No.  Not really.


Again, life in the 1980’s didn’t mirror the popular inspirational films of the late 70’s and early 80’s.  No power chords were heard in the background.  I wasn’t instantly inspired to practice the piano until my fingers were bloody and wow the crowd at the big end of the year concert.


In theatre history in college, I heard about the work that Adolphe Appia did with a guy named Dalcroze in a place called Hellerau.  It sounded odd, but it had something to do with rhythm.  It got filed away in my head.


A few years later I was a touring actor with a day off in Manhattan. I went to the old Drama Books Store, up on an upper floor of a building not far from Broadway.  I was poking around and found a reprint of a book by Emile Jaques-Dalcroze.  It looked odd enough to be interesting to read on a 10-hour van ride.  On the “buy” pile it went.


This Jaques-Dalcroze fellow seemed to say that real musicianship – particularly rhythm – could be both taught and learned.  Rhythm, he indicated, wasn’t simply a matter of, “You got it, or you ain’t.”  While this proposition seemed dubious in the context of an essay translated from the French, it got filed away.


Then when I went back to grad school, all of the pieces sort of came together.  I did more and more research on rhythm and rhythm perception.  Not in how it applied in music, but how rhythm research could be applied to theatre.


Rhythm studies fell in sync with Russian theatre history of the fin-de-siècle period.  Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, and Eisenstein were all interested in what Dalcroze developed. The technique was used in college training programs in the USA.


It’s been a useful and rewarding topic for thought, research, and investigation. 


Likely I would not have paid much attention had not my brother said what he said in the kitchen when I was a sophomore.


And the application of my work led me down some blind alleys. Once, many years ago I taught a beginning acting class utilizing mostly rhythm games.  They learned something about rhythm  -- and not much about acting, I’m afraid.  In a sense I failed them.


I’ve been teaching at my current location for just over ten years. When I came here, they really didn’t have theatre – some interested students, but not an active program.  I thought at the time, “Well, if I fail, I’ll fail big and fail publicly.”  As time moved along, things appeared to go well.  We were building in the right direction.  We grew appropriately.


Over the past two years, though, we’ve been in a place that college football teams would say, “We’re re-building right now.”  And, were I a football coach and not a theatre person, I’d have been fired by now (I think). 


The strategy that helped us grow ten years ago doesn’t appear to work as well now.  As things were going well a decade ago, I thought that I had learned the correct lessons from my many failures. 


Now I’m not so sure.  In the midst of that uncertainty we continue to try and make shows.  Some seem to go well.  Others seem to go less well.


The life of the arts is exploration.  Searching uncharted territory is the name of our game. 


The great explorer Magellan never made it back home.  One source I read had Magellan’s crew’s death toll at 232 of about 270.  The cost of exploration.


We’re going to fail.  I hope that it’s a good kind of failure that hurts the right way that pricks your mind in the right way to learn the correct lesson.  And I hope the un-helpful failures are few.


Happy New Year.

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles,
Check the Archives:

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©2015 Nathan Thomas
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January 2015


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