Response to Failure

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How I responded to the worst week of my life

There I stood in front of the entire faculty and student body of Dell’arte Internatonal School of Physical Theatre, wearing a red dress, a black curly wig, and listening to the instructor saying, “you are a disgrace to the student body, the faculty, and anyone who has ever gone through the school.” Oh, and less than a week earlier, my wife told me she had her mind set on getting a divorce.

It was a Friday afternoon, during what was called a performance lab (or p-lab for short). Every week at the school we were given an assignment on Monday to get into small groups and create a new piece of theatre (typically 5-10 minutes) to be performed and critiqued by the entire school. It was also the unit where we studied clown.

For context, what the instructor had said wasn’t directed at me, though it was directed near me. And because I wasn’t wearing my glasses or contacts, I thought the instructor was talking to me. If it sounds incredibly harsh, it was harsh, but par for the course in clown. The entire process of the school year was like being squeezed a little harder each week, and it was during clown that the fist really started to bear down tight. I honestly don’t remember much about the week of this performance lab. I was in a bit of a traumatized haze from the news from my (soon to be ex) wife. Many of my classmates knew the news, but I hadn’t told any of the teachers. I know I missed many of the classes that week, only slept a few hours total over the course of the week, and was present only in body for the rehearsals with my group for the performance lab.

Our performance was a trainwreck. The concept was weak, the play between actors driven more out of fear of being yelled at than by any genuine delight, there were no comedic bits, no interaction with the audience, and for some reason my clown character that week was a weird cross between Julia Childs and Groucho Marx. It was a superficial character, with superficial motivation. To be honest it was a character “thrown” onto me by my peers that week as I continued the search for what a “clown” is. Within thirty seconds of the piece, the head instructor interrupted the piece to say we better finish what we are doing in one minute. It only got worse from there. He stopped us quickly, and began the critique (which is where I found myself at the beginning of this story).

There were many difficult moments throughout the year. Many victories, and many failures. By this point in the school year (approximately three-fourths of the way through the year), I had compartmentalized most performance labs. No matter how successful or disastrous a p-lab, I had learned to commiserate or celebrate next door at the local brewery’s happy hour (which just happened to coincide with the end of the performance lab), learn the lessons to be learned, and move on. But this particular week, with the state of my life, I was the lowest I had ever felt in my life. When people ask me what the worst moment in my life was, it’s a close battle between that day and week, or a moment early in my sobriety (but that’s a topic for another day).

 

So what was my response to failure?

 

Another teacher was remodeling his house, and offered food and beer to anyone willing to help him with demolition after the performance lab. I had, two years earlier, helped my in-laws with the demolition of their home when they were remodeling. I felt like if I didn’t do something productive immediately, I was not going to be in a good state for the rest of the evening (or the weekend for that matter).

So I went and destroyed walls. My teacher did not know about my personal circumstances at that point, and I didn’t want to talk about it. Instead, we talked about clown. And we tore out sheet rock. When we finished, he invited me to have dinner with him and his family (his wife was also an instructor), eating home-made pizza. I said sure, since it would probably be a better nutritional choice than whatever I may have eaten at that point. And since I was the only one who showed up to help, he split a generous amount of beers with me to take after the meal.

At the risk of sounding overdramatic, that experience probably saved my life. Or at least stopped me from putting myself at risk for very serious harm.

 

The next day, I arrived at the studio to work. Particularly during clown, students were working every spare moment to find a successful clown. At the time, I couldn’t tell you what that meant. Even today, six years later, I have my own little theories and ideas about what a successful clown might be, and I could quote you clown teachers, or research articles. But in practice, a clown doesn’t live on stage purely based on intelligent phrases. The typical Saturday during clown involved people running back and forth from the costume area to the studio, trying different combinations of goofy clothing, weird mannerisms, and sometimes ridiculous premises.

In such a state as I was, I was starting just where I was: on the ground. I sat down on a rehearsal block, in front of a mirror, and I just looked at myself. To tell you the truth, I was tired. Physically, emotionally, spiritually exhausted. I didn’t think about what type of clown I wanted to try to manifest next. I wasn’t rolling through clever gimmicks. I just tried to be empty of all that. Chaos surrounded me. People were deep in thought, coming up with comedic bits as their new personages. And I just couldn’t do it anymore.

I think something snapped. Or perhaps I finally understood something my teacher had said during the clown unit. A story he told about a student from many years ago who wanted desperately to be funny. And when the teacher did something to emphasize a part of the student’s body, the class laughed, and the student left the room, vowing to never do that again (it was something the student was self-conscious about). Again, without THINKING about this, I FELT this story. As if something divine was moving me, I stood up, walked to the costume storage area, found a pair of Zubaz pants, some body pillows (normally used to make someone look fat around the mid section), and after putting on the pants, I stuffed them with the pillows, making my pants appear to be filled with massive tree trunk legs (which didn’t take much effort since I’ve always been well-known for having large legs). I happened to be wearing a long sleeve blue stripped shirt, and the pattern of the clothing made me happy. I walked into the studio, someone looked at me, laughed, and said, “hold on, you have to try this on”, and he picked up a helmet that wasn’t quite a football helmet, and not quite a batting helmet for baseball, but it was like a weird love child of the two. I put it on, and immediately, when I looked in the mirror at my goofy proportions, it felt right.

Another classmate saw me and immediately said, “you look like a Bradley!” As I walked around, I began to act as a needy football player. Organically, a lazzi developed that whenever I was with someone, I would refer to them as my coach, and I was highly dependent upon their commands to know what to do. Something just worked. Another lazzi developed organically in play, that anytime someone wanted to distract me, they would knock on the top of my helmet, causing me to pause, stand at attention and ask earnestly, “Hello?”, waiting for a response from the unknown knocker.

A bit I had created during our study of vaudeville, where I performed in an opera as the musician, playing both an acoustic guitar and an old beat up baritone horn (sometimes simultaneously), allowed for a virtuosic moment to counter my seemingly helpless natural state.

Something worked with that character in that moment. Bradley was an exaggerated embodiment of who I was, particularly in that moment of my life: a helpless oaf, desperately in need of someone to tell him what to do, easily distracted, with huge legs, and quietly can provide a lot of talent behind two opera divas.

Post-Dell’arte, Bradley was no more. He died, something just didn’t work about him. But the lessons learned abound.

I was at rock bottom in that particular moment in that performance lab. And instead of pushing harder, I relaxed and took it easy. I became meditative. I stopped trying to make something successful. I allowed myself to be. And I followed my heart for guidance. Let things build organically. And found success in the process.

It wasn't a failure, it was the beginning of success

I had a conversation with someone recently about that moment, and they reminded me, “That moment wasn’t a failure.” And they’re right. It felt like major failure at the time. Failure as a student. As a performer. As a husband. But that’s only because I didn’t know what the future had in store for me. The truth is, the adventure I have been on since has been incredible. Rock bottom only led to experiences far greater than I ever dreamed for myself. The truth is, I easily have a tendency to box myself into a very small, “achievable” goal, and deny myself the possibility that ANYTHING is possible. But I have to give myself permission to dream. I have to give myself permission to not know how. I have to give myself permission to take moments as they come, and allow life to unfold. I have to say “Yes! And…”, a popular rule for improvisation.

Today’s failure is not failure. It simply returning to the ground, to firmly place your feet down, as you prepare to leap into the great wide open.

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Photo: Nine18 Photography