Success or Failure in life usually appears pretty straight forward. You pass the test or you fail it. You get a promotion or someone else does. You meet your sales quota or you don’t meet it. Of course, it really isn’t that straight forward. I mean, what if you got an 80 on the test and you wanted 90? Is that a success or a failure? Is it a little bit of both?
But performing success or failure is often even more amorphous. We all have those performances which feel like a colossal wreck. The kind where you wonder why you even bothered, you might even shed a few tears afterwards. They feel terrible, but sometimes they aren’t as bad as we think they are.
Take my recent performance of my cat number. The strings on my corset got knotted – something that has not yet happened in the ?? however many times I have practiced and performed this number. I could not get it undone. So I started batting the damn strings around like a cat, winding myself up in them even more and then pulling the damn corset off over my ass… Then my shoe wouldn’t come off, the easy off hook got stuck – so I snarled at the audience and unceremoniously hanked that fucking shoe off my foot. Did the audience know something went wrong? They knew it was funny – I still act like a cat. I have things that are intentionally fucked up in that act – like shredding my stocking. I know Mr. Velvet and a couple of other people who had seen that act before knew it didn’t go well, but other people I talked to had no idea that the drama and strings weren’t intentional. Failure in completing the act the way I had wanted to complete it, but success in getting through it, success in staying a cat, and success in fooling the audience into thinking it pretty went pretty well….
Another huge failure of mine happened when I performed at a friends birthday party. I had a really lovely fan dance to classical music. They had streamers. Streamers met feather fans and it was not a pretty mating. So, instead of wasting time trying to unwind the paper streamers from my fans – I just said ‘”fuck it” in my head and got stupid silly and just started getting more entangled in the streamers. My whole act became a silly parady of a fan dance instead of what was intended as a real fan dance. I smiled and giggled as if the whole thing was intentional. On one had – biggest failure ever of a classical fan dance. On the other hand a performer friend said that was the most professional performance she had ever seen because I had a mess on my hands and I just smiled and worked with it.
I have had many fuck-ups – for some reason, no matter how often you practice taking off your clothes, there is the thing that can go wrong occasionally – I have had many and seen others. I had the top that got stuck in my pony tail, I have seen the corset hook to the fishnets, the tear away pants that get don’t, the easy release costume pieces that decide to release too early…. I have thought I was nearing the completion of an act only to discover the live band decided to add an extra verse in – gee, what do I do now that I am already naked? Improv!! Then there was the time I had a migraine and threw up right before and right after my number? Well, it wasn’t as high energy as usual, but I managed NOT to throw up on stage and the audience didn’t know I was sick – so success… So many failures that aren’t really a failure at all…
And then there are the successes that still manage to feel like failures. There are so many times you do a performance and it feels great – the moves are there, the energy is there. But then things can happen that suck all that good feeling away. Like after one time I MCed and someone came up to talk to me and ended up telling me how absolutely hilarious someone else who often MCs is. Not a real feel good moment. Or when you know you nailed it, but you didn’t win whatever you were competing for, or you sent the video of your most spectacular number on the best day you ever did it and you didn’t get accepted into the festival. Those are all moments that make that really great performance feel like a failure. But often those negative things that happened are not really about your performance at all – you did rock it – you know when you do, but sometimes there are other things that impact decisions or are not in your favor.
I had a job interview once and I knew I nailed the interview. Every question seemed like it was made for me – I had experience in all the areas, I knew everything I needed to know. I was, in a word, perfect for the job. But I didn’t get it. Because they already knew who they wanted and because I wasn’t the kiss-ass “yes” person that they really desired to have in that position. Not that all experiences are that clear cut… but people have preferences. Maybe, for whatever reason, you were not their preference. Maybe they prefer blondes and you are a brunette. Maybe they already have 10 brunettes in the show and they didn’t pick you because they wanted a redhead. Just because things happen that make you feel like crap, it doesn’t mean that your performance was actually crap. I have learned that when I MC at a bar, the attendees enjoy different jokes more than when I MC at a theatre. Different audience, different level of alcohol. Maybe you didn’t get something because you weren’t the best choice – at least in the person’s eyes that was picking. We don’t all have to be the best to be fabulous.
Sometimes we compete too much with everyone else. It is natural. There are only so many shows, so many opportunities. Whether we like it or not, we compete a lot. It feels like a failure when you see other people getting things that you want – but it doesn’t mean you are bad and it doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve it. Sometimes I get scared because I don’t want to stagnate – I don’t want to be the sluggish, non-moving, scum-covered part of the stream. I want to be in the middle of that stream. How do we get there? What we really need to do is try to compete with ourselves. What do we need to work on? What doesn’t feel good? What could be better, smoother? We don’t have to scrap whole acts, but maybe bring things new perspective once in awhile, try different angles, different perspectives so we can grow as a performer and maybe as a person, too.
So, it is hard to differentiation from our successes and from our failures. Maybe that is one reason that so many of the performers I know are both some of the most self-assured people I know and at the same time some of the most anxious people I know – (including myself. It takes a lot to put yourself out there on stage and you have to have a level of self-worth to do it, but then those can be immediately or subsequently replaced by self-loathing and self-hatred because this feeling of success can turn on a single performance or a single comment.
Success or failure? It is what you make of it. While it is hard, we should make each moment an opportunity for self-reflection, not self-loathing, and better ourselves both mentally and use the information we learn about ourselves to better inform our physicality and stage presence. Not that it is ever easy…. But, if it was easy, we wouldn’t be doing this to ourselves, now would we?