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Fail again, fail better: theatre’s high-flyers on flops and fiascos

Mischief Theatre’s long-running hit The Play That Goes Wrong parodies a disastrous show. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Behind even the most glittering of careers lies a trail of poor decisions and faltering missteps. Industry leaders tell Lyn Gardner how theatrical disasters have given them cause to reflect and spurred them on to success

From the outside, Vicky Featherstone’s career looks like one seamless success story. It has taken her on a trajectory from artistic director of Paines Plough to becoming artistic director and chief executive at the National Theatre of Scotland to her current high-profile position at the helm of London’s Royal Court. Last week, she reached the number one position in The Stage 100.

It is undoubtedly an impressive CV, but Featherstone would be the first to admit that sometimes looks can be deceptive and her career has not always had upward momentum in the way it might appear. There was the artistic directorship of the Bush that she applied for and didn’t get; the joint applications with John Tiffany to run both the Citizens in Glasgow and Hampstead Theatre, neither of which came to fruition. If they had, of course, Featherstone might not now be running the Royal Court, and Tiffany might not be directing Pinnochio at the National Theatre and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End and on Broadway.

Tamara Harvey. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The road not taken can be a source of regret or relief, but in an industry where success and failure can be very visible, Featherstone is rare but not entirely alone in being upfront about the jobs she didn’t get, as well as the ones she did: the failures as well as the successes. Yet the truth is that most people’s careers encompass both, but most of us are less keen to talk about our failures, even though often more can be learned from them than our triumphs.

The wise know that. When, after the success of Oklahoma!, Oscar Hammerstein took out an advert in Variety listing all his previous flops, it was a reminder to himself and the industry that success seldom springs fully formed from nowhere but involves years of hard work and failure along the way.

Tamara Harvey applied unsuccessfully for several artistic directorships, including the Royal and Derngate in Northampton and London’s Bush Theatre – where she was associate at the time, which made the failure to land it all the more devastating. She says that, as a young director, you can feel as if you are running out of time before you have even got going.

“There is a pressure that you put on yourself. You think, ‘If Thea Sharrock or whoever was running a theatre aged 24, then I should be too.’ ”

Read our interview with Tamara Harvey

Cultivating a 15-year ‘overnight’ sensation

Steve Marmion. Photo: Jonny Birch
Steve Marmion. Photo: Jonny Birch

Soho Theatre’s artistic director Steve Marmion recognises that impulse but says it doesn’t reflect reality: “Everyone loves an overnight success, but actually they hardly ever happen. Instead, what we have is the 15-year ‘overnight’ success in the case of somebody like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who is feted as if she came from nowhere but had actually been working forever and working really hard before she had a hit with Fleabag.”

It may be that playing into the narratives of overnight success – and being slow to admit failures and the jobs applied for and not attained – can do a disservice to those setting out on their careers. They look around as they start out and find themselves constantly measuring themselves against not just their peers but also those they look up to in the industry. After failing to get the Bush job, Harvey was advised to edit her CV judiciously so it promoted a narrative of success about her career.

Christopher Haydon, who was until recently artistic director at London’s Gate Theatre, who now works freelance, says: “When I was doing the Young Vic’s directors course in 2005 I remember Sue Emmas saying: ‘Your career is not a race.’ She’s right. Now, when I mentor young directors, I always tell them that – and point out that the icing of success sits on top of a cake of rejection letters and failure.

Christopher Haydon

But although you can tell other people that, sometimes it’s harder to apply it to yourself and your own career. There are lots of artistic directorships I’ve applied for over the past two years that I’ve not got, but if and when I get one – and that is not by any means a certainty – the success will come out of stamina, persistence and resilience in the face of failure.”

Haydon has considered giving his mentees a copy of his anti-CV, like the one famously produced last year by Princeton professor Johannes Haushofer, which detailed all his career failures and proved that the path to success is never a smooth one. But Haydon also appreciates that because making theatre is a collective endeavour, it is not always appropriate to talk publicly about failure, because it can show a disrespect to other people involved.

Derby Theatre’s artistic director Sarah Brigham agrees. “I know when a project has failed, but it wouldn’t always be the right thing to go around saying that loudly, as audiences might have liked it and staff at the theatre were invested in it. There are more useful ways to talk about failure and learn from it.”

Perils of early success

Nonetheless, there’s a danger that by holding up the industry’s success stories to aspiring theatremakers at the start of their careers, we don’t just fail to prepare them for the failures that will inevitably occur along the way, but we might actually make them feel inadequate and unable to measure up. It’s all very well to talk about failure breeding resilience, but if you are entering the industry from a background without educational and financial privilege, the barriers you already face compared with some of your peers may mean that rather than spurring you on, failure makes you decide working in theatre is not for you.

Scott Graham. Photo: Warren Orchard

Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham is involved in an MA in devised theatre in Coventry. Initially in the first term, he invited many famous and highly successful practitioners to come and talk to his students. After a while, he realised that contact with too much success proved inhibiting for the students who felt they could never live up to the levels of accomplishment with which he was presenting them.

“It was paralysing, rather than liberating. It made them feel like they were charlatans. It made me realise that we need to talk about failure and how to deal with it and not just success.”

Even so, Graham reckons that even for someone like him, who has enjoyed international success and whose production of Things I Know to Be True returns to the Lyric Hammersmith this month, admitting failure can be gut-wrenching.“When you asked me about my failures, it made me feel sick,” he tells me.

He’s not alone, although Fuel’s Kate McGrath reckons that while success in the theatre is a less lonely place to find yourself, we are not very good at talking about that either.

“We’re just as bad at evaluating success and learning from it as we are at evaluating failure. It’s just that success doesn’t leave us feeling so embarrassed and wanting to hide. But we need to examine both more closely.”

Marmion learned the hard way how too much success can be damaging. The cliche may be that “you are only as good as your last show”, a saying that feeds into the idea that when you get your big break you only get one shot at success, but Marmion thinks that it is always better to remember that you are “never as good as your last show”.

“Too much success can lead to an emperor’s new clothes situation where you and everybody around you thinks everything you do is going to be great,” says Marmion. He arrived at Soho Theatre in 2010 much less feted than many he had leapfrogged over to get the job. “I was the only person on the shortlist I hadn’t heard of,” he jokes.

In fact, his first season was such a success both artistically and at the box office that he admits he over-reached himself, conceiving a multi-authored project called Utopia, consisting of short plays written to counter the glut of pessimistic dystopian plays he so disliked. The trouble was that Marmion didn’t commission sufficient plays to allow him to choose those that should be performed. In some cases, a play was not good but to reject it would have compromised the theatre’s future relationship with that artist, and the timescale on the project was such that he had to go ahead with everything he had.

Kate McGrath. Photo: Sheila Burnett

“What I had done was to make myself different sets of handcuffs and then proceed to put them on at the same time,” recalls Marmion. “What I should have done was commission the plays, make sure they were good and then announce the season six months later. But I was giddy with success from that first season. Utopia was not a success. But it might have been if I had done things in a more considered way. Instead, I had to build my credibility up again and I struggled to get reviewers back. But I learned a good lesson from it about how to manage risk and about the tensions between my responsibilities as an artist and as an artistic director.”

McGrath, producer at Fuel, agrees there’s much to learn from failure. One of the most awful moments in her career was when she had to tell a large crowd who had been patiently waiting in the pouring rain in Bristol that the show would not be able to go on because the conditions made it dangerous for the performers.

“I felt terrible. It was the right decision, but in the awful moment when I was standing in front of that disappointed crowd I learned a lot about what we hadn’t done so successfully. We couldn’t manage the weather, but we could manage that it was an outdoor show and therefore weather dependent, and we could manage the audience’s expectations. We hadn’t, and I learned from that.”

Defining success and failure

One thing that comes into play when talking about success and failure is how we define those terms and what you are measuring your success against: are you running a theatre by your mid-20s? Do you have a string of awards and five-star reviews to your name? Sometimes success and failure can be deceptive. Theatremaker Rachel Mars, whose show Our Carnal Hearts won a Total Theatre Award for innovation at Edinburgh last year, knows that only too well.

Rachel Mars. Photo: Christopher Shea

“People keep saying to me, ‘You are doing so well.’ Am I? Yes, I won an award last year and I’ve never been busier, but my overdraft is bigger too. So is that success? It doesn’t necessarily feel like it.”

Brigham thinks that you have to resist being seduced by the trappings of success. “How do you judge it? Is it getting a West End transfer or a bit of really good star casting?

“Or is it helping to open the door to people like me from backgrounds that make it harder to be in the industry? You need to keep checking your levels of success and what you mean by it. Sometimes people ask me what I want to do next after Derby. It’s a well-meaning question, but the question I have to ask myself is if I went to another theatre – one that perhaps is bigger, better funded and better valued – would it skew my values? If it did, then there wouldn’t be much point and it wouldn’t be my idea of success.”

Haydon recalls a show from his time at the Gate, which was a critical and box office success, but which he felt that he had programmed for the wrong reasons: “While from the outside it looked like a success, nobody who worked at the Gate knew why it was there. So really it should count as a failure.”

McGrath has had a hit on her hands with Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles at the National. But for all the praise, the moment she most thought it was a success was when a young black teenager felt so comfortable and at home in the NT’s Dorfman auditorium that he plugged his phone into the set so it could charge. For McGrath, that moment outdid every other measure of success surrounding the show.

It’s all about the bottom line

In the commercial sector, success and failure is measured almost entirely by whether a show recoups and makes a return for its investor or doesn’t.

“A big commercial failure can’t be hidden,” says West End producer Eleanor Lloyd, whose production of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution is enjoying an extended production at County Hall. She’s never had an out-and-out financial disaster, but admits she has to stand up for shows that do less well than expected. “You have to look your investors in the face and say, ‘I really believed in this.’ But it can be hard if a show is an artistic success and gets great reviews but you can’t deliver an audience for it, and so everyone loses money.”

Eleanor Lloyd

Lloyd believes you should own your failures as well as your successes and, if you do experience failure, remember that sometimes good things can come out of it.

Harvey knows that: she directed the poorly received From Here to Eternity in the West End.

“It was perceived as a failure,” she says “It took me at least two years to be proud of the things we got right. For such a long time I felt that I had let everyone down. But there were things about it that were good, and one of the things I learned from it was to recognise that you have to claim the things you got right and not just beat yourself up about the things that didn’t work. That way you learn for the future.”

Improbable artistic director Phelim McDermott describes being pushed out of the directing seat on The Addams Family Musical just before it opened on Broadway, having nursed it through out-of-town previews, as “incredibly humiliating”. One day he was helming a big Broadway musical, the next he was off the job.

“It destroyed my ego,” he recalls. “It made me more humble. It was hard having a really public failure and knowing every-body knew, and it took me three years to recover. But the best thing that came out of it was that I stopped believing my own publicity.

“Failure is lonely and frightening, but some of my best work has come out of it because it makes you vulnerable, and being vulnerable is a good thing when you are making theatre because it makes you reassess what you want to do, and it can make you more prepared to take risks.

“The fear of failure never goes away, but you also realise that you’ve got nothing to left to protect and so nothing to lose by taking a risk.”

Success may be sweet, but failing and then failing better can be sweeter still.

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