When Failure and Feedback Are The Goal

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I’ve spent over two decades working as a music teacher and performing musician, and one of the benefits of that has been the chance to spend a good deal of time working in the theatre. As a pit musician and conductor, I’ve worked on nearly 50 different musicals, and served as a sound designer for more than a dozen plays in my local professional and scholastic theatre community. And one of the benefits of THAT has been the chance to watch a lot of amazing, skilled actors as they shape and refine a performance, from first rehearsal to closing night.

Being able to witness this process has slowly stoked my long-smoldering interest in taking part in it myself. I’ve always been captivated by the idea of acting, of taking a character from the page to the stage and breathing life into it through the power of imagination–both my own and the audience’s. And over the past couple of years, I’ve finally managed to make that idea a reality: in spring 2018 I auditioned for a part in a musical revue I had always dreamed of performing in, not really expecting to be cast but knowing I would regret not at least trying, and suddenly found myself spending that summer singing and dancing on a stage in front of a paying audience. In the fall of 2019, I stretched myself again, auditioning for a more challenging part in a bigger musical, and spent the winter months actually ACTING while I sang and danced–my first time playing a character with a name, and dialogue, and who appeared in more than one scene. When that show closed, the director of both shows laughed and said, “He’s got the bug now.”

He was right. I can’t see myself stopping here. I have bigger goals for myself and the stage. I want to play a major character, to be responsible for driving a scene and a play forward. I want to sing a big duet, with all those great harmony moments that bring a Broadway audience to its metaphorical knees. I want to perform Shakespeare–a dream since my very first effort at sound design on a production of Much Ado About Nothing. I want to know what it’s like to disappear inside a character for a couple of hours, and what it’s like to come back, perhaps a little bit transformed by the experience.

So what to do about that? The answer, of course, is to do what I ask my students to do every day: make the effort, look at what needs improvement, make changes, and try again. The answer is to put the growth mindset into action.

What this means in reality is putting myself up for parts that I’m not truly ready for…it means stepping up knowing that failure is a near certainty. And it means not only being okay with that but embracing it. In the past two weeks, I’ve auditioned for two very different productions, a light and frothy Broadway pop musical with one company and a production of Shakespeare’s Henry V with another. I haven’t been cast in either one (although I got a callback for the musical). And having seen other actors in the same auditions, I think I can see why.

As I mentioned, over the years I’ve been able to watch a lot of very talented actors hone their performances, but this inside look has been even more revealing: I’ve been able to see these actors (some of whom I’ve known and worked with for years) as they shape a character from the absolute beginning. And I’ve been able to see what should happen as that process unfolds…and to see where I’m falling short.

I’ve learned that thinking you know what a character wants and is trying to accomplish with a speech or a set of actions is not enough: if a director asks you what a character’s goal is and you can’t clearly articulate it right at that moment, you haven’t thought it through clearly enough yourself.

I’ve learned that my words and actions, my choices of gesture, look, and tone, are not as big on a stage as I feel they are. Things that are clear in my head are not as clear outside of it. (This might be good to know in my life outside the theatre as well.)

I’ve learned that placing yourself in a situation where you expect and even need to fall short of success can feel wise and mature and emotionally wrenching. For me and my 30+ years of experience playing music, making mistakes in a first rehearsal is not too troubling, because I can spot those mistakes and have the confidence that I have the knowledge and experience to correct them. I don’t have that same level of comfort with acting; I can’t as easily envision the success on the other side of failure.

There’s something both unnerving and exhilarating about paying your dues all over again at age 44. The uncertainty is a difficult but valuable feeling to embrace as I try to hone my new craft. And it’s a feeling I need to recognize in my students.

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About the author

I am an instructional technologist for the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry in Richmond, VA. Before that, I spent more than 20 years as a public school music teacher in Chesterfield County, VA, primarily teaching guitar and music technoogy at the high school level. I hold a Bachelor of Music Education degree from the University of Richmond, and a Master of Education degree with a focus on Digital Learning and Leading from Lamar University. I believe that every person has the need, the desire, the ability, and the right to learn, and that as educators we must meet our students wherever they are, and help bring them to where they want and deserve to be.