The right to fail

DISCLAIMER: re-reading the post below, I realize it sounds a bit like I’m having a breakdown (and it’s hard to judge, on a blog, what is “for real”). This is a framing device so that you can read it without being worried for me. I’m not actually having a breakdown (at least, not here and now, while I’m writing this). I wanted to write something that conveys the strength of emotion which, for me, is associated with notions of success and failure. I have actually felt a lot of what I write about here, but not in an all-consuming or paralysing way: at the same time as feeling it, I’ve been able to gain perspective and distance, to contextualize it. I imagine a lot of people who live in precarious conditions (and I know that many people live in more precarious conditions than me) will be able to recognize the stuff below. So please read this as if you were reading a character.

END OF DISCLAIMER

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I have failed at life.

I write that in jest, but (to misquote Stewart Lee) coincidentally, as well as writing it in jest, it’s also what I happen to genuinely believe. By any objective measure of success and failure (and there are objective measures, you know there are, so don’t pretend) I have failed. Granted, I have failed in a relative way. There are people who are far greater life-failers than I, and I’m grateful not to be in their place, but that doesn’t stop me from falling firmly into the camp of failure. The line between failure and success may be fuzzy; it is difficult to ascertain whether certain people have failed or not. But I am not one of those people. I am one of the ones that has failed.

At the age of thirty, I do not own any of the following: a house, a car, a motorbike, a boat, a swimming pool, a property portfolio, land, shares, my own cutlery or china, wines, a record collection, a sound system, a TV, a sofa, an armchair, furniture (apart from an Ikea bed which my parents helped me buy last year and a couple of bookshelves from Argos), white goods or electrical appliances, livestock, jewellery, life insurance, collectibles, branded clothes, a hat stand (or a hat), nice bedlinen, a spare room, an office, a small business, a rug, pot plants, art, a lamp, a toolbox, curtains, a mirror, a clock, a watch, scented candles, a wastepaper bin, a vase, a picnic basket, a beanbag, a barbecue, an iphone, an ipad or, indeed, any Apple branded computer or device. If you own any of the aforementioned things, you have failed less than me. I have no savings. I cannot afford to eat out in restaurants, let alone ones with small portions or where we all pretend the food is being cooked by someone who has been on TV. Sometimes my friends will ask me out for Sunday brunch, and I am too embarrassed to tell them I can’t afford it, so I dig a little deeper into my overdraft. I occasionally find myself on a bus, but more often I cycle (on my second-hand bicycle) because public transport is too expensive for me. I don’t have children, and if I did, I wouldn’t be able to support them unless I fundamentally changed the way I live. Sure, I could spend time with them and play with them and teach them stuff,  but I couldn’t get prams and toys and cots and a baby room and baby clothes and all the paraphernalia. I couldn’t take care of them, materially, and if I wasn’t able to take care of my (as yet theoretical) children, you would think “fine, be a failure, if you can’t get yourself together, if you’re too lazy, or sad, or broken to do otherwise. But don’t impose your failure on your children. That’s not fair. At least give them the chance to succeed where you couldn’t. You don’t even have an excuse, mate. There’s nothing even wrong with you. Think of all those people who are ill, or disabled, or haven’t had the same opportunities as you. At least they have an excuse to fail. You don’t even have an excuse.” And you would be right: I am even more of a failure for imposing my failure on my made-up children. Even by the standards of my own choice of career – working in the arts, working in theatre – I have failed. On a personal level, this is what hurts most, because I have convinced myself (in the face of all evidence to the contrary) that I am good at making theatre. But a good hard look at reality compels me to face up to the fact that there is little to suggest this: my work has not been reviewed (favourably or not) in national newspapers, I have not been given any awards, I have not won any competitions or prizes, I am the only person who seems to want to employ me as a director, assistant director or performer, my work is not recognized by anyone in the “industry”, let alone respected, nobody wants to fund the work I am proposing to make. Apart from a couple of “work in progress” performances, I haven’t even had anything on for over a year, and I have no immediate prospects of working in a rehearsal room (this has to do, in the case of my own work with the fact that performers and creative team need to be paid, and in the case of working on other people’s projects, that other people don’t want me to work for them).

I’m not complaining, by the way, like “ooh, it’s not fair, everybody else has got stuff and I haven’t”. That’s not what I’m saying, not at all. I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I’m just explaining why, according to all objective measures (that we all accept) I am a failure.

And you will say: “But, Ben, the things you’re talking about, those aren’t the things that really matter. All those material things (that we have and you don’t) all those trappings of success, all that praise and recognition that people who are good at the job that you want to do get, all that doesn’t really matter. That’s not real. What really matters is love and friendship and beauty and ethics and working hard at things.” And I totally agree with that. But at the same time, that isn’t what you really believe, is it? It isn’t really what you think, otherwise you wouldn’t spend all your time and energy working to get all that stuff – all the houses and cars and gadgets and careers and professional recognition and all. Would you, you hypocrite?

In theatre, in the arts, amongst artists, we talk about the “right to fail”. I mean, I don’t, but it’s a phrase you hear a lot. It’s like “taking risks” (I’ll have a rant about that some other time). Lyn Gardner, who writes about theatre for the Guardian, uses it a lot. And if you go to any theatre workshop or talk or whatever, you’ll hear lots of people bandying it about. And to me, that phrase, the “right to fail”, is really upsetting, right, because being a failure is fucking terrible. What kind of a right is the right to fail? I don’t need your permission – my failure is a fact. It’s like telling a tramp they have a right to be homeless. It’s very insensitive. Because it implies that not only do I have to live with failure, not only do I have to pretend that I’m OK with it, but I have to defend it as a right? Compound my misery, why don’t you.

In the utopia (when it comes) the concept of failure will not exist (just like the concept of shame does not exist for Tories). In the utopia, every time something doesn’t work, we’ll remember that “there’s been a time in the evolution of everything that works when it didn’t work“, and just get on with it. Until then, any art which is made in a capitalist society must grapple with conceptions of success and failure that capitalism imposes. Within the system, these describe an objective reality, and since we cannot remove ourselves from the system, QED. David Lan has suggested that the theme of all Western art is suffering. I think that’s pretty much what I’m trying to elucidate here.

So yes, I am a failure. And my work is about failure. But please don’t tell me I have the right to fail.

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Postcapitalist theatre – thoughts from the rad reading group

Hi Seiriol,

Ben here from the rad reading group. How’s it going?

When we were discussing Paul Mason’s book in the studio, you asked how the “new subjectivity” could manifest itself in theatre / the arts. At the time I came out with some half-baked thoughts about fractured narratives / multiple selves – a pretty superficial re-hashing of some of the things Mason writes about. You and someone else rightly pointed out that this wasn’t necessarily new / to the point. It’s been bugging me since, so I’ve come up with some more half baked thoughts.

The new subjectivity involves a different relationship to work:
– a place of work and working hours are not necessary (in fact they limit productivity in many cases). There is breakdown between work time / leisure time. Old structures of work don’t make sense any more – they are absurd. Perhaps this was already the case for the artist / the aristocrat / the oligarch, but now it is the case for a most of your average audience too.

A different relationship between social space and physical space:
My social interactions need not have anything to do with who is physically in the same space as me. Again, not necessarily a new idea per se, but new in that it is a shared reality for most of us.

A re-thinking of the public / private boundaries:
There is a lot of literature about the “stoop” and the interesting relationships that are formed in that space. We now carry a stoop with us wherever we go.

A different language:
The constraints on linguistic expression imposed by social networks / writing on a touch screen / the speed and volume of communication changes the way we use language.

A different relationship to sexuality:
Free access to pornography; a safe space to explore sexuality which didn’t exist a very short time ago; intimacy / sexual relationships at all times, mediated through the network.

A different relationship to space:
Reality is augmented; a fundamentally different way of mapping / finding our way / getting lost.

With all of these, the shift is still happening – the new character cannot be pinned down. But maybe, alongside sociological studies which attempt to document it, the new character can be imagined or written (maybe this is what post-capitalist theatre does?).  All of the above involve a different perception of space and time; I think new theatrical forms will emerge from attempts to transpose this new space and new time (maybe this is what Mason perceives in Ravenhill). This transposition will use the same tools which theatre uses now and has always used: rhythm, tension in bodies / in the space between bodies, musicality, narrative, play, etc. It’s not for anyone to prescribe what this theatre will look like; it may not attempt to literally describe or represent the new reality, but it will be shaped in response / reaction to it: in the re-writing of old stories in a new context, when it comes into contact with the new reality or tries to mould it. Like Alex said, it may be that theatre offers a quiet, uinified space for reflection, away from the fractured reality / multiple selves, etc.

Re-reading the above, I realize that it’s all basically lifted from what other people have said / written. A lot of it is probably better articulated in Mason’s article on postcapitalist theatre and his WTF is Eleni Haifa.

Some final thoughts. I believe that both capitalist and post-capitalist / not-capitalist theatre co-exist at the moment:

Theatre is capitalist when:
– you get better seats when you pay more
– it is rated out of five by newspapers
– it is “award-winning”
– it happened because that guy who was on the TV wanted to be in it
– it is something to do before / after an expensive burger
– It is publicly-funded: theatre-makers (including people who work for the Arts Council) spend lots of time and energy dividing up a small pot of money; work is produced in accordance / in response to how that money is divvied up.

Theatre is postcapitalist / not-capitalist:
– in the re-telling of it: e.g. I go to see a show and it moves me to tell you about it, so I do. My re-telling is a creative act (not deliberately, I’m not trying to misrepresent what I’ve seen, but what I tell you, what I remember, might not be verified by video footage of the show). Re-telling can involve chatting to friends afterwards, or writing a criticism for free online. If it is monetized (i.e. a review written by a paid reviewer) this changes the nature of the re-telling and it becomes a capitalist action.
– when it is free
– when it is not a “leisure activity”, it transcends the work / leisure division
– when it is publicly funded: it is not subject to market forces
– when it is made because of an ethical imperative

That’s it for the moment! It’s been useful to write, so don’t feel like you have to respond, but would be interested in your thoughts.

B x

Seriously: Ivo van Hove, a portrait (a moment)

Last night, I went to see Song From Far Away at the Young Vic Theatre. It is directed by Ivo van Hove, a much-admired Belgian director who runs a big theatre company in Amsterdam. In the bar afterwards I remembered the following, and recounted it to a friend who had seen the show with me:

On 8 June, I went to the Almeida to see a talk about Greek drama. The speakers were Rupert Goold, Deborah Warner and Ivo van Hove. Much of the discussion revolved around the perceived “remoteness” of Greek drama – its form and content, the context in which it was written; how could a contemporary audience relate to it? About half an hour in, Goold asked Van Hove about the political resonance of Greek tragedies. Van Hove replied that it was not something that had interested him as a young man, but over the past 15 years, political context had become increasingly important. The previous year, he had been preparing to direct Antigone when Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over the Ukraine. Almost 200 of the passengers killed were Dutch. In the Netherlands, the attack was a national tragedy. Then, he says: “Also, somebody from my company, related to the company [who] played DJ two weeks before on the opening party of The Fountainhead that I made, he was in the plane, killed”. He stops. He says, “Just a moment”. His voice has cracked almost imperceptibly. He leans forward and takes a moment. The video recording does not give any sense of how long that moment lasted, or the silence in the room. For half an hour we have listened to this intelligent man, this precise man, this softly-spoken, well-dressed, elegant man, and now, suddenly, there is his grief, on stage before us, hanging like a drop before it falls. We wait, and wait, and wait and, after a moment, he straightens up and continues: because of the hostilities in the area, the mission to find and retrieve the bodies was delayed. Dozens of bodies were left rotting in some field in the Ukraine. “And that’s what’s happening in Antigone.” And then he talks about the bodies being returned to the Netherlands, and how the Dutch people grieved as a nation, and how each body was given an individual hearse which was driven through the country and how this was what Antigone was about.

Seeing this at the time, and then remembering it again last night, I wondered whether it would have been possible for an English director to speak publicly in this way: to speak with that level of seriousness, of intellectual rigour and honesty about their work and how it intersected with their life and the world around them. Above all, I wondered if it was possible for an English director to show emotion in that way. Re-watching footage of that talk, it is most clear for Goold: he talks intelligently and fluently, but he compulsively undermines the notion that he might be an artist or an intellectual. With self-deprecation and irony he makes a little joke out of what he does or what he thinks, he excuses himself, he doesn’t want to frighten his audience, he cannot let them see him as taking himself seriously. With Warner, it is less stark: maybe in a different context, in a different country, she could be straightforwardly serious (earlier in the discussion, she speaks about not necessarily thinking of herself as an English director), but here, at the Almeida, it is not possible – the little jokes, the self-belittling jokes are there too.

I do not want everything to be serious all the time. I do not want everything to be a group therapy session. But it is important for there to be a space to be serious, and a space to show emotion (it is OK to show emotion, it does not mean you are having a breakdown). I feel like there is no such space in mainstream artistic circles in England.

In the bar at the Young Vic last night after the show, I felt I had not entirely connected with the play, with the script in particular (even though there had been moments, and it had affected me – it had numbed me). But it was a serious piece, and I am glad that, today, away from the bar, and the press night crowd, and the mingling, and the joking and the people, I am glad I have taken a moment to reflect upon it seriously.

Documentarianism

Call me Ben. When people ask me what I do, I usually say I’m a “theatre-maker”. That means I write, direct, produce and perform in theatre . The projects and shows I work on are mostly produced by my own company, on the button, which I set up and now run with Sophie Winter.

I am going to carry on doing my theatre-making like before, but I also want to define “what I do” in a way that encompasses more of what I actually do (I’m also wagering that in expanding the way I think or talk about “what I do”, I will end up doing more).

I am going to be a documentarian. My practice or work or art (it gets called different things depending on context and the person I’m speaking to) will be documenting, chronicling, re-telling, remembering, sharing (and hopefully amusing, provoking and probing too).

What I chose to document or chronicle or re-tell or remember or share will be what I do.

A lot of what I will do can’t be monetized, or has no financial value (this is contentious; I will spend a lot of time trying to unpick and explain this assertion). Another way of saying this is that there is no sense in trying to talk about what I do in terms of monetary exchange (or even in terms of straightforward exchange).

To survive, I will need people to give me things.

When people give me things, I will owe them one.

I will make a page about giving me things and how that will work once I have worked it out myself.

Let it go

I feel excited and quite scared. I have a good nervous energy in my stomach: not a knot or a hole but a ball. I am stepping out into the unknown. I am falling backwards into the unknown. I have spent quite a lot of today pacing up and down, staring silently into the middle distance, stroking the fuzz on my face, asking myself the question. Now I’m going to do it. The trouble is, I / we won’t know whether I have truly let go until much further down the line.