Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Fail better.

So, the preparations are now well underway. Venues are booked, tickets are onsale, audience numbers have been decided upon. I need to look into getting some public liability insurance apparently so that if one of my audience unexpectedly keels over and dies, then I’m not to blame and can’t be sued into oblivion. I’ve even had some little business cards made which have the OEM project and this very blog written on them. It’s all going really well.
Apart from one tiny fact that I keep forgetting ...
This is supposed to be an experiment. It’s not supposed to be a show.
Oh shit ... I keep thinking I'm actually producing a show. I'm not. I'm performing a series of very public performance experiments.
So, the question I need to keep asking myself is what exactly am I setting out to do here and why – oh God, why? – am I doing it before a paying public?
The answer to the first half of that one has been covered quite a bit in previous blogs but I will address it here since I’ve only gone and raised it again. I want to move forwards from the kind of performance work that I’ve been doing over the last few years, both alone and with Volcano. The interaction with the audience that somehow transcends traditional boundaries without simply turning into a free-for-all discussion. The subject matter being decided amongst us on the evening and during the show – without somehow setting myself up to be Ross Noble. The idea that I can be totally open, vulnerable and present in front of an audience and that is rare enough and strange enough to provide the basis for an experience. I’m looking to see if I can create a new working methodology that allows me to make theatre at the drop of a hat about and for the people I’m presenting it to.
It’s an experiment. I have – genuinely – no idea if it will work. I actually have no idea what ‘working’ means in this context? If it’s funny, does that mean it’s ‘worked’? If it’s moving/boring/profound/silly, does that mean it’s worked? If people feel that somehow they’ve had value for money for their £3 ticket price, is that a sign of success?
Or has it 'worked' if people have had an experience of whatever kind that has interested them and been unexpected and out of the ordinary and challenging without being pretentious? But does that mean it’s failed if it is pretentious?
There it is. The key word.
By acknowledging, both to myself and to an audience, that it could very likely be a failure I’m speaking about the elephant in the corner. Experiments have perceived and hoped for outcomes but often they don’t achieve them. The Bunsen burner farts and gurgles and the test tube explodes. Or nothing happens at all. And the scientist takes his findings back to the drawing board and starts again. But an experiment is not seen as having failed if there are things to be learnt from it. You change the key ingredients and conditions and you try again.
Can you see how this might apply to what I’m attempting to do?
I will be doing two offerings per night – at 7pm and 8.30pm. The reason for this is simple. If the first experiment fails then I don’t have to endure the agony of waiting 24 hours to try it again. I have to get right back in there with a different group of people and see what happens when the essential ingredients change. But I can’t guarantee that the second offering of the evening will ‘work’ any more than I can the first. I’m trying to bottle lightning here. And let me be clear, this isn’t being done out of any bravado or bloody mindedness. I love theatre. Always have. And because I love it I want to push at the boundaries of what it can do and play around the edges. But I do it with a due sense of respect and fear. Theatre as we now know it has taken millennia to evolve. Maybe it’s reached its apotheosis. Maybe it has peaked.
Or maybe not ...
The second part of the above question should be easy to answer now also. Why do this in public? Because a performer without an audience isn’t a performer at all. I’m trying to have a conversation – as all performers are – and the experiment is reliant upon the raw materials of performer and audience meeting together in a space. I need an audience in order to conduct the experiment. The ticket price of £3 was arrived at since I feel that offering something for free (my first instinct) automatically suggests to people that what will be offered is worthless. So, £3 seems like enough to ask for people to make a commitment and be bothered to come. It's certainly not to make a profit. And, of course, I do worry about offering value for that commitment. But for all that I’m going out on a limb, I have been doing this job for 20 years. I can always fall back on a knob gag or a Shakespeare speech ...
The upshot of all of this is that I am utterly terrified of what I’m about to embark upon. I could fall flat on my arse 36 times and be embarrassed to my dying day whenever anyone mentions this project. I could be utterly dull and boring and people could be furious with me. I could simply be ignored.
In short, I could fail. But isn’t that risk what makes it so exciting? And what is failure anyway?
This week, as part of my ongoing preparations I have been reading a terrific book by the comedian, Stewart Lee, called ‘How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian’. Lee went through something of an epiphany with his work several years ago, falling out of love with it and quietly giving up performing around the time he became involved in ‘Jerry Springer – The Opera’. After the furore surrounding that show – all of it unnecessary and overblown in my opinion – he returned to stand-up and quickly became a must see. And why? Because – love him or hate him – and many people do both – he was risking failure with the work that he presented. He risks audience alienation (and often succeeds in achieving it); he risks boredom, irritation, repetition; he breaks from the stage and roams the auditorium; he allows himself to fail. And his work is thrilling and strange – and yes, irritating and boring – as a result. I saw his show, 90s Comedian, when it was recorded at Chapter in Cardiff – below are a couple of sections of that act. If you’ve never seen him live, I really recommend it. The sensation of being in a room with him and his audience as he dances on the edge of utter failure is quite something to see.

So, here’s the point really – David Cameron and his ilk would have us believe that all art must be successful in order to justify its existence. And how do they quantify 'success'? If it is not universally liked and accepted by all then it is valueless and should simply not exist. But this view doesn’t work. The greatest artists the world has ever known were often failures in their lifetimes. They pushed the boundaries of their artform and challenged the conventions of their day. In my own small way, this project is my attempt to do just that. Pretentious? Quite possibly. But as an artist, the right to fail is all I have.
I hope you’ll come along and watch me walk the wire. I may fall flat on my arse.
Or ... who knows?
‘Ever tried? Ever Failed? No matter.
Try again. Fail again.
Fail better.’

Samuel Beckett

Keep well.
PS - Tickets onsale via Taliesin Swansea and soon Sherman Cymru Cardiff.
Follow me on Twitter @manoneeye
and Facebook: The One Eyed Man Project
And please leave me any comments or thoughts you may have on the project. I’d love to know what you think.

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