Earlier this year, I wrote about artistic failure and what can be learned from making a piece of theatre perceived to be a flop, or experiencing an unexpected career disaster. The people I spoke to were all very open and honest about what they perceived as their own failures, and what failure felt like. Many pointed out that although painful and sometimes humiliating at the time, in retrospect they had often come out of the experience with positive lessons and had gone on to create better theatre.
Everyone I spoke to for that feature – in whatever field they operate – would be considered among the industry’s leading success stories. But since writing the piece, I have been thinking about why some people go on to have successful careers despite failure – sometimes very public failure – and some don’t.
In the business world there is a concept known as ‘failing upwards’ in which some people seem to have a knack of always coming up smelling of roses even when everything goes wrong. These are the people who are not crushed when they get sacked from one job and instead go on to get a more prestigious and often better-paid one. In theatre, these are the playwrights, directors and producers whose careers continue to blossom, despite mediocre reviews and box office, or less-than-stellar achievements when leading an organisation.
Of course, everyone should have the right to fail. One of the things that became apparent when I wrote the original piece was that even the most glittering career has failures that are hidden from view. The trajectory is rarely a seamless upward curve. But we like the idea of ever-rocketing careers almost as much as we like the A Star is Born scenario. Tamara Harvey told me that after she applied for, and didn’t get, the artistic directorship of the Bush, she was advised by someone in the industry to edit out some productions on her CV that might be considered less successful than others, to create a different narrative around her career.
But while everyone may in theory have the right to failure in theatre, I believe we need to look much harder at who gets the opportunity to fail upwards. We’ve talked a great deal in recent years about who gets the opportunity to make work. But we also need to talk about who, once an opportunity has been secured, is allowed to fail and who isn’t.
I believe the very same people – artists from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds, artists of colour, disabled artists – who find it hardest to get opportunities in the first place are also the least likely to get the chance to fail upwards. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that lists of famous people who became successes after failure are dominated by white men. That’s true in theatre too.
‘The people who have the fewest opportunities in the first place are also the least likely to get the chance to fail upwards’
Those who do not get to fail upwards may be less nurtured and connected. As a result, they are often less confident than their more privileged peers. But I also suspect that when a playwright of colour or a disabled artist is given an opportunity by a theatre, other factors come into play. They’ve not always been given the long-term support and nurturing that all artists need to ensure they can take full advantage of an opportunity when it arises.
In addition, the individual is often perceived to bear the burden of being representative of all playwrights of colour or disabled artists. If they are seen to fail, they are not only failing for themselves but for all under-represented artists. It allows organisations to invoke the ‘they are not ready’ mantra.
This culture allows theatres to signal that they are giving commissions, or employing diverse artists, without putting in the necessary time and effort to support those artists over a long period. It takes time for shows such as Misty or An Adventure (both produced by the Bush) to come to fruition, and for their creators to grow in skill and confidence.
Equally, a director such as Lynette Linton can be sure that she is ready when she is offered the chance to direct Lynn Nottage’s Sweat at the Donmar – because as the theatre’s resident director she has had a chance to assist on four productions and knows the space intimately.
If theatres really want to embrace diversity, they need to take three steps: nurture artists and make sure they are skilled up; let them take centre stage, and whatever the outcome give them another chance. After all, if we look around British theatre, plenty of highly successful careers are built on failing upwards.