Thursday, August 3, 2017

I am a Failure.

Now, don't argue with me on this title. I am a failure. I've failed. I will continue to fail. I will always, always fail.

At least, I hope so.

Not this kind of failure, though. This is a whole new level.

Variations on a Theme closed Saturday. We did not win Best [Average Attendance] of Venue. That's happened before, and it's usually a fair bet that we will. We did not place in the Top Number/ Percentage of Total Attendance of the Festival. We had six performances: The first two were decent, attendance-wise, the second two were small houses, the fifth was good, and the sixth was strong. Those two in the middle hurt our chances of winning Venue, irreparably. But that's not what I was upset about.

I was upset because I was working hard to get people to come see our show - my first solo-written production. I was upset because these people who agreed to join this project are remarkable, as people, as friends, as teammates, as skilled creatives, and I wanted more people to come appreciate them and their hard, hard work.

And it was hard, hard work.

There are productions where everything falls into place simply and beautifully. The schedule is simple, the work comes easily, and everyone loves each other and is ready to commit 1000%. Those productions are very rare.

This was not one of those.

There are productions where not everyone is on the same page, and even if there's plenty of politeness and such, some people just aren't excited to be there, and it rather casts a pallor over the entire experience. Those happen fairly often.

This production was not one of those, either.

There are productions where everything *should* be the right combination of people, schedules, temperaments, material... but they somehow just don't jibe. Those are not uncommon.

Not that either.

The rehearsal process for Variations was difficult. To begin with, the schedule was really hard to set. In fact, it was in constant flux. It was no one's fault, really, we're just a bunch of busy people with our own personal struggles that can't NOT affect what we're doing.

A partial list of various Life Hurdles dealt with during this rehearsal process:
Child care
Rehearsals for other shows
Commercial shoots
Physical illness
Physical injuries
Mental illness
Mental/emotional injuries
Medication mix-ups
Moving residences
Day jobs
Relationship difficulties
Co-parenting difficulties
Transportation troubles
Out-of-town work trips
Out-of-town family obligations

These are not excuses. Everyone experiences this stuff. It's just life. But during this process, I became keenly aware that everyone single one of us who was putting this show together was going through extremely trying - life-changing, in fact - times. And yet, we all made it to rehearsal. Well, most of the time. I think everyone had at least one rehearsal that Life crushed as a possibility, for whatever reason. And then, there were lots of revised rehearsal calendars floating around, for a bunch of the other reasons.

So it was not an easy rehearsal process. In fact, it was difficult. But we had this one thing going for us: Everyone wanted to be there. Even if depression was gnawing some of us from the inside out, we beat it back for a few hours to come to rehearsal. Even if someone had to go to one rehearsal for two hours across town, come to our rehearsal for three hours, then go back to the first one, they did it. I can't count how many time I hugged people, either as they showed up to rehearsal, or as they left, and one or both of us ended up crying.

Because it's hard. Theater is hard. Life is hard. The two together can be almost impossible to navigate.

But these inspiring people... They wanted to be part of this project. They wanted to be there, often to support each other, even if that was a blankets-over-your-head-because-the-world-is-too-big day.

After the show opened, and I was away from everyone, I cried, because I'd failed: at publicity, at house counts, at review-receiving... at everything I could think of that measures success. I wanted this to pay off, at least emotionally, for my team, and I didn't think it was. Every single other show Bryan and I have ever done was in the Top Ten Best-Attended; we had THE best-attended show in 2010 and 2014. Nobody was coming to see this show, and it's surely because I'm a crappy writer with delusions of grandeur. (Mind you, others surely think that I have delusions of grandeur. I really far way away a lot don't feel that at all.)

One day (okay, at least two days... um, three...), mid-run, I was in the shower and crying again. I suck. I can't do anything right. I've disappointed my cast and crew, I've disappointed the audience, I've disappointed the Fringe, I've disappointed myself. I don't know whether anything I've written is any good. I've blown it as a director, and I've absolutely tanked as a producer.

Then I heard my past self tell others, "Fringe is a great place to fail."

I've said it so many times. I've been quoted in articles as saying that. I even said it to another Fringe artist, just before the festival started this year. But I hadn't failed. All of our shows have done really well. All of them, since 2008. We took risks, sure, but they'd always paid off, some better than others. But I could say in bios and interviews, "All of our show have been in the Top Ten."

Because that's success, you know.

And saying that Fringe is a great place to fail, when you can say "blah blah blah, Top Ten every year," well, that's a little on the hypocritical side.

And that's also an extremely narrow definition of success. In fact, it's not even my definition. It's how I think others will define success, and I claim it, so I can appear successful to them. Like, trying to be the cool kid at school, so others will like you. I hate that. And it never works anyway.
Image result for something inspiring funny brosh
The answer is always yes.

Sometimes, a student will ask me if I've ever been on Broadway. It feels like I'm being tested: Anything less than Broadway, and you're a hack. But truly, I never wanted that. No, I've never performed on Broadway. I don't even want to live in New York. But that's not the true measure of my success, because it never even sounded that appealing to me.

I told myself, with the shower water running down my face, I need a new definition of success. Because I'm hearing beautiful things about this show. Not like people are going to tell me that it sucks or anything, to my face, but they're holding my hand... looking me straight in the eye... hugging me... whispering in my ear... tears welling up... This isn't being polite, this is being moved.

It means something to them. The words I wrote, the team that created this production... This is important. This is what I love about theater. This team is creating a space for people to laugh and cry and think and feel. This is why we do what we do.

This is my definition of success.

But this is what failing apparently looks like, because house counts, "Best of," et cetera.

So my success often looks like failing to others.

To people who are not me, it's easy to see that I'm not a "success," by the standard definition. I'm an individual, doing my own thing, with a few select, sincere, passionate, and hard-working friends surrounding me. They believe in me, and with their considerable help, we're able to create things that inspire others.

Image result for I failed michael jordan
Yeah, but can you explain the significance of the coin in
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead? Didn't think so.

When I got out of the shower, still crying, but for different reasons now, I found a flood of texts from my dear friend, and Variations cast member, Marcie. At the very same time I was reframing this experience, she was too. Her new definition of success complemented mine. So I mashed them together.

I am proud of this play. I am proud of my beautiful, tender, gentle, loving, hilarious, hard-working, tough team. I am proud of their work. Of our work, together.

Was it perfect? Aw, hell, no. It never is. That's why we keep doing it. But was it meaningful? Very, very definitely.

House counts (which I never had any control over anyway) aside, I reached every one of the goals that I hadn't realized I'd set. That's because I'd set them my senior year in college, 1994.

I was auditioning for the Kathleen Turner (yes, that one) Performance Scholarship. It was a big to-do: two monologues, a song, an essay, and an interview with the panel. I had no chance. I was up against the biggest deals in the department - people who are now on TV and in movies and, of course, on Broadway. But what the hell, right?

During the interview, which took place with me still onstage after performing my audition pieces, I was asked something to the effect of, "Where do you see yourself in ten years?" (I hate that question. I have never been able to wrap my mind around it.) I answered that, if no one hired me, I'd create my own theater, even if it was "in a closet, with a friend shining a flashlight on me."

I left the audition feeling good. I didn't know why. Because that certainly was not what anyone wanted to hear about my big plans for the future. But, screw it, theater was the important thing, no matter how it happened. I had no chance at this scholarship anyway. Right? Why try to sugarcoat?

When the department head came down to where I was working in the scene shop a couple of days later ("Put the paint can down first, Tara"), and told me I'd won, I screamed and jumped up and down and hugged him and laughed. It was just so preposterous. How could that even happen?

One of my instructors (and panel members) caught me a few days after. She told me the reason that she voted for me because of my interview answer. I couldn't believe it. I'd been so... unambitious. She explained: "That's the attitude you have to have. That's exactly it. Create it yourself. Do it."

What I thought was unambitious was actually very ambitious. I see that now.

This production was a success in a hundred different ways, most of which people will never know about. Some people, maybe those who had shows in the Top Ten, might consider Variations on a Theme a failure. But that's an awfully narrow definition.

The cast of Variations on a Theme: Mike Ott, Amy Hurrelbrink, Parry Luellen, Marcie Ramirez.
Not shown, because he's backstage, striking props: the lovely and talented Michael Golliher.


  1. Agreed, though it's a bit more difficult to see alternatives when the rest of the world is telling you there aren't any.

  2. Brilliantly put and stated, Tara.
    I now look forward to attending my first Tara Varney production at the 2018 Kansas City Fringe Festival!

    1. (Finally able to get into this account again - argh.)

      Thank you, Joe. I appreciate the feedback, and I hope you enjoy Fringe! (And everything else, for that matter.)