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Embracing Failure in the Drama Classroom

Whether we choose it or it’s chosen for us, change is hard. Further, change is a risk, and when something is both hard and risky, it opens up the possibility of failure. And if there’s anything people fear as much as change, it’s failure.

Sven-Göran Eriksson: “The greatest barrier to success is the fear of failure.”

How many of you have students who fear failure to the point where they won’t do something? The thing is, failure is important. Progress depends on making mistakes. In science, failure is a data point. We cannot transform without failure. In the creative process, we need failure to do our best work. Failure is a vital step on the road to success in rehearsal, group work, devising, playwriting, and everything else that happens in the drama classroom. We want students to embrace failure with a try, fail, try again, fail again approach. That’s how we grow and improve.

Samuel Beckett: “Try again, fail again, fail better.”

The transformation from caterpillar to butterfly can represent embracing change and failure and moving forward. Failing is a way to gain knowledge, especially when things are hard or go wrong. Progress depends on making mistakes. When that improv scene goes wrong, it’s an opportunity to try again with new knowledge. When a student playwright writes a scene and it doesn’t get the desired response, it’s an opportunity to rewrite.

Thomas Edison: “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

These failures are not negative. They feel negative, but the point is to get students to try again. You may have noticed that students like to do things in one go. I’m only going to present this scene once. I’m only going to write one draft of that play. I got to the end, I’m finished. Why would I write another one? That’s the mindset we want to change. True failure is only doing something once and refusing to try again, instead of learning from it and improving.

Caterpillars also let go. They shed their skins and move on. To use failure successfully, we have to let go of ideas that don’t work. 

Peta Kelly: “Failure is like a caterpillar, before it becomes a butterfly.”  

How do we encourage ourselves to use failure as knowledge and try again? One way to do that in the drama classroom is to redefine failure. The traditional definition includes a lack of success, falling short, and not doing what’s expected of us. Therefore, it’s no surprise that we feel awful when we determine that something was a failure, because we don’t often say, “It failed,” or “That failed.” We say, “I failed. I am a failure.”

J.M. Barrie: “We are all failures — at least the best of us are.”

Here’s an exercise in redefining failure that you can do with your students. Just as you set etiquette guidelines, classroom rules, and expectations for your students, you want to set the definition of failure for your classroom before you do any creative work. First, look for some quotes that put failure in a positive light. For example:

Edward Albee: “If you’re willing to fail interestingly, you tend to succeed interestingly.”

George Bernard Shaw: “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”

Collect enough quotes to fill a page, divide students into groups, and have each group review the quotes, read them aloud, discuss them, and choose one that speaks to them. This will be the inspiration for their new definition. Have them write their own definition based on the quote they have chosen, starting with the term “Failure is.”

For example, Morihei Ueshiba said, “Failure is the key to success; each step teaches us something.” A new definition using this one as inspiration could be, “Failure is just a step on the way to success.” Have your groups share their definitions, then have the whole class choose one to be the classroom definition of failure. Write it up, post it where everyone can see, refer to it often, and make it your failure mantra.

Along with redefining failure, you want to define success. Traditionally, the definition of failure includes a lack of success, so what does it mean to be successful in the drama classroom? You don’t want to leave it ambiguous. That’s when failure can come rushing in, when you don’t have a specific goal. 

The caterpillar has a specific goal: to become a butterfly. And they have to go through a huge transformation to reach that goal. How would you define success? Winston Churchill described it as “stumbling from failure to failure, with no loss of enthusiasm.”

You may encounter a few issues when defining success. The first is that we often give it a narrow definition. X only succeeds if you do Y. Right? That’s a trap. If Y is the only thing that makes X successful, what happens when you don’t do Y? Make sure your definition of success is not too narrow.

We also tend to confuse overall success with day-to-day success. Overall is your eventual goal; day-to-day is today’s goal. What are you striving for at the end of the project? What are you striving for today? These are two separate goals. Think of success like a ladder — the overall goal is at the top, but to get there, you have to climb each rung one at a time.

Day-to-day success is important because every day is different. The overall success may stay the same, but daily goals will depend on what you’re working on. If you’re doing playwriting, devising, or scene work, the creative process will be constantly changing. Daily goals are dynamic, attainable, and encourage students to keep moving forward.

In your classroom with your students, identify what you need to do each day to be successful. What is today’s goal? What is the next step on the ladder towards the overall goal? For example, if you’re devising, your overall goal is a producible product or experience. If you’re standing at the bottom of the ladder, what’s the first step? Brainstorming on a topic.

Lama Surya Das: “With every breath, the old moment is lost; a new moment arrives.”

Back to our caterpillar friend. In the pupal phase, the caterpillar melts into goo, and from that, the butterfly is born. It is a moment of nothing in which so much happens. Sometimes doing nothing can be valuable. We cannot go at full speed all the time; the creative process doesn’t work that way. Occasionally you may need to melt and see what happens. 

I suggest incorporating meditation into your class sessions. Encourage your students and yourself to find a moment of calm. When we meditate, we exhale and let go of the old moment. In doing so, we let go of the person we used to be. Then we inhale and breathe in the moment that is becoming. In doing so, we welcome the person we are becoming. Then we repeat the process. You can use guided meditations in your classroom, which are easy to find online, or you can simply breathe as a group.

Mandy Hale: “A season of loneliness and isolation is when the caterpillar gets its wings.”

The pupal phase is a time of extreme change and isolation. The caterpillar has to transform alone. Both failure and change can be lonely. What if you want to change but everyone around you would rather you stay the same? And when we’re struggling we often think, I’m the only one who is going through this. Everyone around me is succeeding.

You’re not alone. Reach out to your fellow teachers, even the ones you think aren’t struggling. It’s likely that they’re going through or have gone through the same thing. There’s no shame in admitting that you’re having a hard time.

But how do we deal with the loneliness of failure in the drama classroom? Well, we can make failure familiar. It’s something that happens to all of us. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. But when you fail, if nothing bad happens — the buildings don’t crumble, there are no explosions, and Carmina Burana isn’t playing in the background — it’s easier to fail again, and maybe again.

Maya Angelou: “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”

Here’s a quick activity you can do with your students: “The worst thing that can happen is…” Go around a circle and have everyone say the worst thing that could happen in a situation, like an audition. You could fart, you could forget all your lines, you could give the worst performance ever, you could throw up, you could faint, you could insult the director, you could fall through a trap door, you could set the whole place on fire. Push your students to go to the extreme when imagining the worst.

You’ll see a couple of things happen in this exercise. First, people often fear the same things — we’re rarely alone in our fear. And if you push your students to come up with ridiculous scenarios, that will create levity. Everyone will laugh together, which will relieve tension and fear. And when you release fear, you take failure off its pedestal. That’s what we want.

Another way to demonstrate this is to share famous failures — people who failed and didn’t let it stop them. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Walt Disney declared bankruptcy when he was 22 years old. Oprah Winfrey was demoted and fired early in her career. Dr. Seuss’s first book was rejected 28 times. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first American woman to receive a medical degree in 1849, after being rejected by 29 schools and only being accepted into one as a prank. The inventor of the glue used for Post-it Notes was trying to create the opposite: a strong adhesive.

This is the drama classroom, so we can also personify failure. Divide your students into groups and have everyone write a character profile for failure. Who is failure? What is their name? What physical traits do they have? What clothes do they choose to wear? What are their personality traits? What are their pet peeves? What are their likes and dislikes? What is failure’s favorite movie, and what food do they hate? The more details students come up with, the more they will be able to see the character. Then, have them write a scene in which failure is a character.

Trina Paulus: “How does one become a butterfly? You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.”

Then the butterfly emerges, hooray! But we’re not done yet. The butterfly does not just emerge from the chrysalis, give a little shake and fly off. Rupi Kaur said, “You do not just wake up and become the butterfly. Growth is a process.” When the butterfly’s wings come out, they are wet and wrinkled, and it needs to find space to expand them so they can dry. If it rushes this process, the wings won’t dry properly and the butterfly will not be able to fly.

You want your students to embrace failure and change, but you can’t rush it. They will need time to spread their wings. Instead of fearing failure and change, make it something to celebrate. If you’re playing a game and it goes awry, instead of fretting, have fun with the mistake. If you want students to improvise without fear, try a complicated scene, or tackle set design, they need to be comfortable making mistakes.

Another thing you can do to celebrate failure is create an atmosphere of Yes. We tend to default to No. “I can’t do that.” “That’s not going to happen.” “I’m no good.” Get into the habit of saying Yes in your classroom. 

Here’s a nice warmup game called Yes. Stand in a circle and have person A point and make eye contact with person B. When person B sees that eye contact, they will return the eye contact with person A and say Yes. Then person A will move across the space to take person B’s spot. While person A is moving across the space, person B will point and make eye contact with person C, who will then say Yes, and so on. Once they get moving, you will have students making eye contact with each other and saying, “Yes, yes, yes!” You’ll have the whole room saying Yes. 

Yes is a powerful word, so why not use it for good? Get students in the habit of saying Yes, especially when it comes to failure. If you want students to improve, they’re going to need to leave their comfort zone and take risks. If you create an atmosphere of Yes, failure will be less stressful and more positive.

I’ll leave you with three quotes:

Ken Robinson: If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” 

Denis Waitley: “Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Never confuse a single defeat with final defeat.”

Click here to download a free Redefining Failure Exercise and Quotes
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