NEW WORKS (or the necessity of failure)

by Casey L. Oakes 
Director of Artistic Engagement

10425101_1526728704228741_7929174179063471211_n[1]We must fail.

To fail is to have tried. Art is a process of risk and failure, in which individuals piece together new ideas and see what coalesces. The great artists were all trying something new, and many were scorned for their work. Some of our most renowned painters died poor and without recognition, failures in their time. These failures are now held up as shining emblems in their field and the world over. Failure and experimentation with new ideas are intrinsically linked.

Ask anyone about their greatest learning experience and chances are it stemmed from some sort of failure. To succeed while implementing tried and true ideas is merely to confirm what we already know. To fail in attempting something new is to experience a unique angle and a fresh perspective. While we may not hit the center mark every time, often there is more to learn from dancing along the perimeter.

Van Gogh sold but a single painting in his lifetime.

As theatre makers we must fight against re-creation. We are artists and we must be forever challenging ourselves to compose something new. It is not necessarily a success to mount Broadway’s last big hit. There is no risk in producing a proven commodity. More and more theatre seasons continue to look like the marquees on 43rd street from the season prior. We’ve become content in piggy-backing off of someone else’s risks. We re-create the already tested material, pat ourselves on the backs, and claim to be the original genius’.

Our egos have become so swollen and fragile that any sort of failure risks deflating them entirely.

I was recently asked what excited me about new works. I thought on this for a time before realizing the answer was right there buried in the original question. I am excited by the very prospect of newness. A story told from an unusual and intriguing viewpoint, words strung together in a measure I may not have experienced before. Every new work, in some way great or small, offers up a new perspective and shines light on a previously shaded piece of the whole. Through the exploration of this unlimited multitude of perspectives the whole is ever so slightly illuminated. And little by little the totality of the human experience comes into a slightly crisper focus.

In reading new works the subject matter seems to be invariably the least essential component. Whether it is a puppet drama or a musical centered on the Russian mafia it needn’t matter as long as the story is rich and expressed from a singular viewpoint. I ultimately want to be moved and transported. I want to be entertained. I want to laugh. I want to feel. I want to be surprised. I want to witness the making of a great play. Whatever that may be is truly limitless.

A great play can come from anywhere.

Can theatre still change the world? Of course it can. It is through theatre that we can reach an individual on a level no other institution can. Theatre develops empathy and critical thinking. Theatre teaches us to be understanding to a set of circumstances that may be entirely foreign to us. Through the theatre we have the power to transform the individual, and through the individual, transform the world.

FailThe theatre is changing. The theatre has always been changing. We can no longer blame the Cineplex for our decreasing audiences. True change never comes from without but instead must have its genesis from within. We cannot control external forces. Yes, we are now competing with Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, YouTube, Smart Phones, Apple Watches, Blackberries, Strawberries, Blueberries and Raspberries ; an incredibly wide swatch of entertainment for the “right now” generation. This is a generation for whom everything has been perfectly tailored to their precise pleasure. We’re living in a time in which a person can watch whatever they want, whenever they want, right on their watch. Understandably, we may have lost some of our audience to this wave of customization. But still, nothing can or will compare to the flesh-and-blood experience of live theatre.

In the theatre everything is always on the verge of collapse, it’s a tight rope walk without a net, and that is why it is unequivocally thrilling.

Time is the great evaluator. Only through the passage of time do we cement what are truly the great works. If we insist on living through the past successes of others, our theatres may survive, our mortgages may be paid, and our offices may remain staffed. But we will be forgotten. Our work will be without meaning because it will not be our own. We must be willing to look like fools and try. Trying is the bravest thing we can do.

And what if we succeed?

Casey Oakes Signature








*GSC Blog posts are the select opinions of individual employees and may not necessarily reflect the views of Gloucester Stage as a whole.