On Failure

Last week, our "Theatre in London Today" class was visited by performance artist Bruno Roubicek, who has worked a fair bit with Forced Entertainment. For those unfamiliar with Forced Entertainment work, I definitely suggest looking them up..will include a few video links below for you as well. Anyway, Forced's work and Bruno's work focus on the aesthetics of failure, something he suggests "reflects the failings of authority. . . questioning the legitimacy of the establishment" and which reflects "the postmodernist concern with failure of society and economics". Rather than aiming for a performance which would be successful by the regular standards - realistic set, believable performances, clear narrative, etc - Forced Entertainment seem to perform the anxiety of the modern (Western) experience. In one show, Bloody Mess, the characters express how they want the audience to see them in an honest confessional style format looking almost like an AA Meeting. The play then continues on to portray them in a way that undermines these desires, hence performing their failure to achieve a desired effect.

While sometimes trying to the audience, this work most certainly affects the audience (even if the result is frustration, boredom, or anger). I respect this fully, because so much "enjoyable" and "successful" theatre has no effect whatsoever on its audience, who happily leave after their evening of entertainment, unmoved by that which passed before them.

Now, in Bruno's discussions, he took us back through a history of failure in performance, demonstrating the skills of people like Jack Benny, Monty Python, other comedians (unfortunately my limited familiarity with Brit comics pre-2000 limited my ability to grab all the names...). One commonality I noticed was the relationship with the permission to laugh and the performance of failure; every performance, even the ones that took themselves most seriously, seemed to set themselves up to give permission to the audience to laugh. A free pass to identify failings and laugh at their performance in public.

This, of course, got me thinking; what happens if this free pass is not provided? If we do not give the audience permission to laugh at the characters, their situations, and their failed attempts to perform a task, but rather demand the audience's serious attention. Is it possible to perform failure in a situation which does not first give the laughter permission to escape? Or is this our only way to watch failure without turning to despair? Further yet, is performing the despair of failure functional? Does it, too teach us something?

I performed in a show in 2011 which, now that I examine it from this perspective, did perform failure; in that case, it was the failure of the characters to act in a way that would get what they wanted. The piece allowed them to re-visit those situations from their original plays, role-playing to re-enact situations where they could be dominant. One reviewer picked up on the heavy thread of despair running through it. Perhaps despair is the dramatic equivalent to laughter. For many people seeing this show, the despair was overwhelming, to the point that some reviewers criticized it for doing so, not allowing a reprieve so to speak. But do we not have something to experience from this as well? If you consider the ancient Greeks, plays like Medea and Oedipus are one long-running moment of despair and hopelessness after the next, but this adds together for a final result of hope; the ability to act or choose differently. Despair can be a useful tool.

If this is so, it is certainly difficult to ask audiences to come experience despair for an hour or two, and pay to do so. But perhaps this is necessary; for too long we have seen a comic approach to performing failure, and in fact, it has become mainstream with programs like John Stewart in the US, Mock the Week in the UK, and This Hour Has 22 minutes in Canada (among others reaching further back). I suggest that while these comic approaches to failure have worked to incite action in the past, they are becoming common, and therefore not causing the impact they might once have had. Forced Entertainment's work does seem to straddle this gray area between comedy and despair, having their audiences feel slightly aware of the impropriety of their laughter. I think this can go further.

Some videos from Forced: