I made a huge mistake. In the summer of 1984 I worked to build a summer theatre program in a small tourist town in the southwest. In the summer of 1983 I'd mounted four shows with variable success. I decided that in the summer of 1984 we needed to grow to six shows.
I enlisted the help of friends from college. We mounted Harvey without any trouble. We immediately ran into trouble with show number two. I wanted to produce a two-hander with a friend, but she opted out. So I was left with an open slot at the last minute. I got some guys together and directed a quickie production of True West in about 10 days. That was the first mistake. True West is an enormously complicated play. It is not a play that lends itself to a learn-the-lines and get-on-with-it kind of production. The show was more than a little rough.
We opened the same night as the opening ceremonies to the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Now, let the reader understand that I speak here of 1984. Despite the growing use of the VCR, most people didn't think to watch a major live event like that as a recording. And there was no streaming internet, etc. etc. etc.
I had two audience members in the house. For a four-person cast.
We closed opening night.
That was nearly 30 years ago. Yet the failure of that project – my failure – is as alive in me as any memory I have. While I can make a light story out of it, the failure of the situation still has power. And it is out of respect to the other men involved in the production that I don't mention their names or the town. They were good guys, I led them to folly.
That's the power of failure.
In the theatre we deal rather oddly with failure. If it's not ours, we can be cavalier about a failed show. How many snickers and guffaws have been made at the expense of the debacle that was Carrie-The Musical? Notorious failures become the stuff of many a green room story.
But rarely do we even mutter under our breaths the awful work we've done. And, if we're honest, we've done some real wowsers.
Generally we're like the cat who falls to the floor and then looks around with an air of "I planned that" before moving on. Yes, I planned a one night rough production of True West. Why not?
The life of a person in the theatre is close to impossible. For one thing, our art form is in perpetual death-throes. That can't be fun.
But more than that, we have so little basis to determine the effectiveness of what we do.
Newspapers diminish by the day. And even in the good-sized cities that have an active theatre scene and an actual newspaper that covers the arts – there are too few writers who know how to write well about theatre. Even good writers rarely have anything to say about the work of designers. What does a reviewer know about a stage manager calling a show amazingly well? The reviewer usually doesn't know the first thing about what an actor does. And even experienced theatre people can have a hard time articulating what a director does, let alone write about it in finite column inches.
What other feedback is available to the theatre artist? Friends? Family? They love you. What are they going to say? Even if they're honest, will there be depth? Balance?
So we make our own way.
I have often noticed this confusing conundrum. The actor goes through a rehearsal or a performance and thinks, "Man, I'm great. This feels fantastic. I'm doing a great job tonight." And the director says, "Y'know . . . . . I hate to put it like this, but have you thought about maybe spending more time in food service?" Conversely, the actor goes through a rehearsal or performance and thinks, "Man, dog breath would be more interesting than me right now. I should put paint on the walls so they could watch it dry – at least it would be more interesting than what I'm doing." And the director says, "That was perfect. Keep that!"
So what do we have left?
I guess the only thing left when everything else is all said and done is to find that place where you trust yourself. Sadly the trust yourself place is very near the self-delusion place. But if you can find a reasonably solid trust yourself place; you have an opportunity to work through the impossible.
Failure is going to happen. I've done what I thought was reasonable things that turned out to be awful. And I've learned. I try not to make the same mistakes twice.
Elijah felt awful. He was out in the wilderness. Folks were trying to find him and kill him. So a storm passed by, but God was not in the storm. A whirlwind passed by, but God was not in the wind. Then Elijah heard a still, small voice.
We're theatre people. Particularly actors should know how to listen. Listen for that small voice. It can help you through the failures and continue to do the impossible.