Success and Failure, Part 2

(The following is continued from last week’s post. The issues at hand are sticky enough to require at least two, if not more, written explorations for me to figure out how to move forward.)

In our reality show pilot (filmed 12/21/09 with Rapt Productions,) we created a situation where one person
would win and one person would lose, based on the scores given by a
panel of judges. We talked about it a lot as an ensemble beforehand,
and all decided to go ahead and experiment with this structure. And
while we were ready intellectually, I don’t think we were at all
prepared emotionally.

Without going into detail about the day, I’ll
just say that it evoked a lot of emotions and pushed a lot of our
buttons at a primal level. As an ensemble, we’re still processing the fall-out. The impact that this simple, self-created game structure had on
all of us, makes me think that we’ve touched on some juicy material. I
want to explore this more. And I also want to be careful.

We’re heading into dangerous territory. While this is for me
what “Experimental Performance” should be about, I also realize that I
don’t have a lot of models for how to protect ourselves from major
wounding along the way. This will also have to be part of the experiment. Exploring
the nature of winning and losing, for me touches into issues around
self-esteem, wanting to be liked, wanting to be successful in the
public eye, competition for things like grants and publicity, wanting
to be a “great” artist, avoiding people’s anger or displeasure and much
more. It leads me back to much of my core, early wounding, and calls upon all my spiritual and psychological practices to stay centered in the midst of all that arises.

It reminds me of the irony of someone like me
traveling a path of experimental art-making. I want to make work that
is provocative, transformational, challenging, thought-provoking, and
uncomfortable, because I feel that is where powerful growth can happen in my art.
And I want people to like me and not be upset with me. So my art has
led me into an arena where I’m going to have to face directly my attachment to approval. Provocative, challenging work is going to make people upset. And
with me at the helm, as the director, much of that upset will be
directed my way.

This speaks to me of how “the Lord
works in mysterious ways.” If I can, I often will avoid negative
feelings being evoked towards me, by any means necessary. Yet, my love
of visceral, truth-telling performance leads me over and over again
into exactly that territory I hoped to bypass.

Every major project I direct seems to come up against a major
conflict, in which people are quite upset, and usually upset at me. I’m
slowly learning to embrace this part of the work. Part of this dynamic
is how I think “following our truth” plays out. Truth is often
upsetting and confrontational. And part of the dynamic is in line with
what Edison said, that it’s part of how I figure out all the myriad
ways that my art “doesn’t work.”

And so, I aspire to court mistakes, embrace embarrassment, face
anger and disapproval, be willing to lose, and seek to bring forth my
humanity, and the humanity of all that I encounter with my work, “warts
and all!”

One of the ways I approach challenging issues in my work, is to reflect on aspects of Buddhist teachings that might offer some insight. I am inspired here by the Buddha’s teaching on the “Eight Wordly Dharmas.” He spoke about eight things we can count on facing in some way in our lives, including: praise and blame, fame and disrepute, gain and loss, pleasure and pain. This teaching reminds me of how much I strive for the “positive” part of each of these pairs, and how much I hope to avoid the “negative” part. But there’s another way to look at them.

Seeing all of these states as ultimately positive, changes the rules of the game significantly. It redefines the very nature of the concept of “positive.” In this view, “positive” means true. It means the way things are. So praise and blame are both true aspects of any life–sometimes people will like us and what we are doing, sometimes they won’t. That’s just how it is. And there’s beauty in the way this is set up. Praise and blame depend on each other. When we can see them as inseparable, we have the opportunity to view our experiences from a much larger vantage point, beyond duality.

After our first foray into reality show filming, some of the company members expressed discomfort with the notion of a loser. “Could we just have a winner, and no loser?” But I think that takes away the potency of this experiment. Winning and losing are inseparable, like each of the Buddha’s Eight Worldly Dharmas. When we can fully embrace both winning and losing as inevitable for each of us, then we transcend their psychological drama, and are returned to a more essential part of our nature.

One of my favorite spiritual teachers, Pema Chodron,  reminds us that this particular spiritual path is not one of escaping our foibles and difficulties, but rather one of “rubbing our noses in them.” Not as a punishment by any means, but instead as a way to move beyond our fear, grasping and aversion. This is the spirit with which I hope to infuse our investigations into winning and losing, success and failure.

Mantra, one of our ensemble members, likes to remind us of this quote by Samuel Beckett, that I find quite helpful here:

Try again

Fail again
Try again
Fail again
Fail again better
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