Being an artist & failure

shakes quoteI recently moved back to my home country of New Zealand after spending five years in the UK, the majority of my time spent in the city of Glasgow, in Scotland.

A week or so before I moved back, myself and my good pal Isobel McArthur (initially my classmate at Drama School) spoke with current students on the course that we had studied.

We were to present our experiences of getting a show produced after having developed it for the On The Verge Festival which was part of the drama course.

Both Isobel & myself created solo shows for the On The Verge Festival in 2014 that went on to receive funding and performance platforms.

I created a slideshow in preparation, and noticed quickly how important it was to me to point out how many failed applications I had written in pursuit of getting my project funded & staged. I even went through old emails, as I had at some point stopped keeping track of quite how many applications I had written that had been rejected.

My show, What Would Kanye Do? (which did ultimately secure development funding from Creative Scotland and then premiered at Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017) began life under a different title, and in a very different style in 2014. I began writing it in late 2013.

After graduating, I further developed the project under the new title, and it took until late 2016 for it to receive more than a slot of 15 minutes at a scratch event.

I explain all this because, during that two year period of ‘failure’ I crystallized a deeper understanding of the show, I engaged in the creative community around me, I made a short film out of frustration, I made other work and collaborated with artists on their projects, I learnt A LOT about hip hop both past and present, and I flexed my creative muscles in ways I hadn’t been brave enough to do before.

It is a cliché to harp on about how important failure is. But it needs repeating.

I want to emphasise something that I have only fully comprehended after the wild journey of creating that show. Failure WAS success for me. I got knocked down a bunch, and getting back up and trying again trained my muscles of self-esteem to become robust, flexible, energized, detail oriented.

I reread an old article I wrote for my highschool magazine recently. It was a report on a Shakespeare competition, in which I seemed intent on cramming in as many Shakespeare quotes as possible. One quote though blazed out at me so brightly that it’s now my desktop background, in big bold black letters:

“Things won are done, Joys soul lies in the doing”

It’s very easy to get caught up in pursuing a product. Even when we say we aren’t, most of us secretly imagine the 5 star reviews, the media coverage, the awards.

We can’t help it, that’s what our culture has emphasized to us over and over again as the definition of creative success.

Recognition. Fame. Even money (dare we dream).

Anyone who has wanted to be an actor since childhood will recognize the cringe inducing feeling when a well-meaning relative jests about getting your autograph before you’re famous. Of course, you want ‘success’, but you’re not drawn to it for that. And if you are, you don’t last long.

You’re drawn to acting, theatre making, writing, creating because it opens up your heart, it moves you, it pushes you to question and expand the culture within which you were born.


Culture desperately needs creativity.

And you will be at your best if you can enjoy process. This includes enjoying whatever phase or stage you’re at now.

Success if unchecked can be like this endlessly moving target. You reach the level you were aiming for, and then the target shifts further ahead, baiting you on. Of course, it’s good to challenge yourself, to stretch and expand and evolve.

But it’s also easy to forget to enjoy the moment you’re in now.

Because if there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that no matter how far ahead you think someone is, they’re dealing with the same anxieties and concerns as you.

There’s no such thing as ‘making it’. This is what I love about the honest actor’s podcast. It pulls back the veil and points out that most actors have doubted their path, gone without work, had to do shitty jobs to make rent, watched friends succeed while they’ve struggled to survive.

The culture we’re in isn’t great at supporting artists. It expects a lot from us and provides very little support.

So you write your own rules, you set your own boundaries, you go work as a vets assistant for six months if you need a break.

You learn from others and figure out what works for you.

It’s easy to rage against the system. But it’s also exhausting and rarely a productive use of your time and energy. If you know what you want to do then  your job is to find ways to do it, in a way that works for you, not just now but long term. This can mean pursuing and creating work, but it can also mean nourishing your relationships with fellow creatives, or responding to issues within your industry by drawing awareness to injustices and finding a way to do something about them (I’m looking at you Louise Oliver).

I recently attended a general audition for a theatre company in Auckland and was struck by how many people didn’t show up for their audition. I wanted to tell these actors that no one’s forcing them to be actors if they don’t want to be. If this doesn’t bring them joy, they don’t have to keep doing it just to save face.

Of course I understand performance nerves exist, as does an unhealthy culture of perfectionism.

I know I’m not perfect at what I do. I make mistakes. But what I’ve learnt is that it’s when we make mistakes, when we fail that we learn and grow.

If we can find a way to enjoy failure, we will save ourselves a lot of pain.

I saw an amazing dance show recently and it prompted this thought, which is also a reflection on my drama schools current slogan ‘life is not a rehearsal’.

In a sense, yes, life is not a rehearsal, we are all performing and there are times when we only get one chance. There are probably many moments in my life when if I had done something differently it would’ve had a ripple effect, however small, on myself and those around me.

But I feel there is an argument for the opposite belief: ‘life IS a rehearsal’

Let me unpack this.

In a supportive rehearsal space you: try stuff out, take risks, make mistakes, finesse and refine, get messy, disagree (hopefully in a constructive way) investigate and research and collaborate and improvise and evolve.

In a performance, you hope to recreate the aliveness of the rehearsal room, which can often be a psychological tightrope walk between past creation and present creation.

Surely life is a little bit of both of these states of rehearsal and performance, balancing mess with clarity, past with present, whilst always tumbling forwards toward the mystery, beauty and terror of our uncertain futures.

I think that the way we rehearse in our real lives, the way we treat ourselves, the way we learn new skills, bleeds into who we are and how we are.

Life is always right now. To wish it away or dismiss it as not the real thing yet is to lose out on the truth of this moment.

And this one.

And this one.

Even when it’s small. Even when it’s drinking a cup of tea alone at night in your grandma’s house, or catching a bus into town, or washing dishes.

If you practice never being satisfied, you will get very good at never being satisfied.

I also want to bust this myth: feeling content and fulfilled does not mean you’ll cease to work hard.  But perhaps you might enjoy working, or you might even find ways to work well, rather than hard.

I am proud of my failures. I learnt and grew from them.

Of course the aim is not to fail, because aiming to fail means you’re not truly failing. To fail you have to be aiming to succeed (whatever your defining success as in that moment).

Disappointments will happen. As will struggles and doubts.

But if failure can be embraced, imagine all the ways we could grow.

It is a cliché for a reason, that it is not what happens to us but how we respond that truly matters.

And as I continue to reboot myself in a new old place, I am learning this every day.



If you want to delve further into this stuff, I highly recommend (in no particular order) :

  • Making your life as an artist, a brilliant free pdf book written by one of the founders of dance company Headlong,  it simplifies and unpacks what can feel like an overwhelming task of creating your life as an artist/creative
  • Big Magic by Liz Gilbert, there’s also a free accompanying podcast 
  • Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch, a beautiful simple piece of writing which also touches on meditation, if like me that’s your jam
  • The Honest Actors podcast – another free piece of content, this time in audio form! Jonathan Harden is a total delight, and his conversations with actors are both restorative and deeply reassuring, especially if, like myself, you are an actor. I particularly recommend his chats with Denise Gough & Michaela Coel, but all the conversations are excellent in their own way.