Shortly after graduation at the age of 50 with my MFA in interdisciplinary studio arts from UC Irvine, my performance teacher, who liked and encouraged my work, invited me to participate in a well-known annual performance art event in Los Angeles. It was a way for me to be launched. I was thrilled and scared. Then I made an unwise decision (to try something new that involved some tricky tech) that collided with some mishaps and the worst happened––I failed utterly. ART SHAME. (Trust me on this, I did an awful performance and the audience agreed: the sound guy blew all the cues, I was too inexperienced to re-bound; I froze up, left my body, lost my humor, my connection with the material and the audience––the whole catastrophe.) The shame I felt was intense. It’s true I have a predisposition to be easily shamed, but nonetheless, I had blown it in front of some of Los Angeles’ best performance artists and affcionados, so this shame was earned.
After the show, my lover, and a good friend, found me backstage crumpled into a corner, hands over my face, indulging in thoughts of suicide and never again setting foot in front of an audience. They managed to talk me down and loved me up, reminding me that in the grand scheme of things, it did not matter that the performance failed, but it did matter that they loved me. And that I stand up and get on with life. Which, eternally grateful to them, I did.
I went back to the theatre the next night, because I knew if I did not, I would never perform again. Yes, it is the climb-back-on-the-horse scenario. I went back, did a different performance, one I was comfortable with, that I knew the audience would like, and one that did not rely on the sound guy or any tech. I did just fine; not great, but good enough.
I wish I could say that all went well from then on, but no. The teacher who had invited me to participate in this event never again invited me to participate in anything she sponsored. Etc. Etc. There has not been a steady trajectory to success (although I have had many successes) ; it remains hard work. As they say in Nepal when things aren’t going well, or you are lost in the wilderness (literally), or things are just tough –– Ke Garné. Which translates as, Oh well.
That experience of failure, has made me tougher, stronger and more committed a performer. I learned that although I both like and am willing to take risks and to experiment, I must also pay attention to the event and the circumstances. It is important to match up the event and the audience. Important to know the space and what it will allow. If tech is involved, one must have the time to make it work. Mostly, I learned that shame is survivable, that my friends still love me even when I fail, and that with lots of practice and experience, my skills continue to grow and my resilience increases. And there are the blessings of age, and the wisdom that comes of it. If someone asks me, “But what if I fail?” I can respond with great compassion, “Well, what if?”
I do not wish failure on any of you, but should it happen, learn from it, don’t turn away; face those inner demons and outer critics, the harpies hovering in the corner; learn what you need to learn, toughen up your outer layers, and make sure you have friends who love you. Then keep on making your work, finding out what you have to say and saying it.
The core skill of an innovator is error recovery not failure avoidance.
––Randy Nelson, former dean of Pixar University