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The Theatre of Failing: A Manifesto

I wrote this manifesto last night in about 10 minutes. If it is ill-formed, or incomplete, I welcome criticism and open communication. Discussion needs to happen, and it needs to happen now.

I demand a theatre that denies the existence of fear. A theatre that stands with its toes over the edge and leaps, trusting that the worst thing that can happen is that they fall instead of flying. A theatre that says, hell, why DON”T we reinvent the wheel, because we sure as hell can’t improve it anymore, and it’s not working.

Theatre is dying right now. Audiences dwindle, subscriptions wither, and artists are struggling. This is a result of a huge shift in the socio-political climate that we exist in. Now we are left with a few options: 1) keep doing what we’ve been doing, but work harder at it, 2) try to educate the public and get them into our seats through what is essentially educational recruitment, or 3) do something new.

What we’ve been doing worked, and we love it, because it’s the theatre we fell in love with, but it might be time to let it go. We need to experiment, make art that exists outside of our history. Our playwrights shouldn’t seek to emulate anyone or share their spotlight, but turn their backs and love the work, the process, the new.

Let’s shake things up. Let’s do it bigger, badder, cheaper, louder, and more god-awful than ever. Let’s be prepared to fall flat on our faces. Let the audience boo us offstage, because THAT is our art: our failure. We have found yet another way to not make a light bulb. If we succeed, huzzah! We’ve done it! But don’t cling to it like a life vest in the open sea. Experiment more, tweak, change, radicalize, improvise.

We have created a theatre that locks us into contracts with lawyers and budgets before it locks us into a contract to ourselves. They have become “too big to fail,” and the fear of failure has made us stagnant, weak. We must demand a theatre that is prepared to fail, and in fact, prepared to fail almost half the time. THAT is risk, danger – art.

Museums scoffed at Basquiat in the 80s because they were so wrapped up in what-had-been that they forgot to look for what-might-be. We need to give our artists places where they can experiment radically, without compromise, and fail when they need to, for they truly need to fail. As dramaturgs, we can’t be the museum curator stuck looking for Eugene O’Neill or Beckett when they’re dead and gone. Look for the artist who will overtake them, climb to the top of the mountain, and cry out over the treetops “I have scraped my knees and broken my fingers, but I have prevailed!”

We are at a crucial time in our history, I think. This is either an end or a beginning, and it is up to US to decide.

Let’s break rules, throw it all out the window, and start fresh. Let’s draw on the things that ARE successful and use them to help us. Why are sports more popular? Because no one gets shh’ed at a Bruins game. Let the audience scream, cheer, holler: let them participate without their participation being regulated. Let them eat cake in the seats! Make them want to see us, and to come back. Edify and entertain, that is our mission. We have become too insular an art to be serving anyone anything. Your show was great, but it DOESN’T MATTER if no one new saw it. Make them see. Make them listen.

Most of all, let’s stop settling for the commercial as a necessary evil: you do a musical to fund something experimental. It’s not working. Why? You’re just going to wind up doing a second musical, because the first one cost too much. Either use the commercial to fund the truly experimental, risky work that needs to be made, or throw it all aside.

We need a laboratory, where experiments can fail all in the hopes of finding the new. Something more effective, more vibrant, more lively, and more true than anything that came before it. We have created institutions and a creative culture that is weighing us down. Undo the shackles, leap without looking, and pray that this time it will work. It’s all we can do.

About Oz

An English Major and Theatre Minor with concentrations in dramatic literature in both, I hope to be work professionallt as a dramaturg(eventually).

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