The Year in Two Kinds of Failure

There is the failure to do what’s expected of me, and the failure to do what I expect of myself.

What was important to us in 2015? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the quiet reverberations of the year’s big issues, and the loud ring of its smaller ones.

“There are two kinds of decay: mine and everyone else’s.”
– Sarah Manguso

Approximately more than one week ago, in the middle of a darkened soundstage down by the lake, James harnessed the camera to himself, Jeremy adjusted his headphones, Emma filled a pitcher with water and placed it next to two perfectly cylindrical glasses. Each glass had a seam separating it into halves like a Kinder egg. They were surprisingly light. Special effects glass, the kind you see people being tossed through in TV and movies, is often made of sugar, molded into usable things—bottles, tumblers, windows—created to be destroyed. We had six glasses for three takes, which meant that if we didn’t get the ten-minute scene in full one of those three times, we’d be out of glasses. Around me, kind, competent people busied themselves with prep for what we were about to do. As I examined the sugar glasses, I realized something that none of the 15 or so other people in this warehouse knew: I, the actor, was going to wreck this.

*

Approximately less than one year ago, I travelled to New York with a group of artists, actors, and writers to perform in Sheila Heti’s All Our Happy Days Are Stupid at The Kitchen. We had done it twice before—in late 2013, at Videofag, to a nightly audience of 32 damply packed into the tiny storefront. That original two-week run felt enchanted, the impossible play done impossibly, the front window fogging up from all the people inside. A year and a bit later—after four performances at Harbourfront World Stage Festival—the entire company boarded a cramped Megabus, hauling costumes, guitars, and an accordion. I took an Ativan in Buffalo and arrived in Manhattan disoriented and thirsty. The next day, we loaded in at The Kitchen.

On opening night, I faced the audience to deliver my first line—as I had done dozens of times previously. But in that moment, I didn’t say a word. All I could think was, I can’t see their faces. This was unprecedented. I have reversed words, missed beats, walked into prop trees—but never have I completely strayed from the reality of the play. Sandy, the actor playing my husband, and Lorna, my on-stage daughter, also froze, waiting for me to say the thing that would allow them to say their things, that would make this performance move through time as it characteristically did. After what felt like a century, I said something. I don’t know what, but the play went.

Months later, I found that my failure had been in the waste of my feelings, the failure to connect my emotions to the character I was supposed to be.

At intermission, I cried so much and so relentlessly I had to scrub all the carefully applied makeup from my face, now a dull grey wash on my cheeks. No one spoke to me as I dropped tissue after tissue, black with makeup and snot and tears, into the trash. I didn’t blame them. I was wrecking this unbelievable privilege we’d been granted—Canadians abroad, don’t fuck this up, Canadians, don’t prove that you’re the clowns Americans think you are.

I sleepwalked through the second act, dying to get off stage, hating everyone, the audience, the cast, the crew, for being witness to my failure. On the phone to a friend the next day, I tried to explain the depth of my humiliation, the heatof it. I told her how I’d stood across the street from the theatre, listening to Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along and imagining those goddamn boards I’d soon be treading. The most embarrassing kind of hubris: showtunes. While my friend couldn’t speak to my music choice, she agreed that it sounded like a living nightmare. That made me feel better, enough to return to The Kitchen that night. I deleted all the Sondheim from my phone.

The remaining shows were carried out with no further mishaps. I took the overnight bus home with the aid of a sleeping pill, a farewell gift from my New York host.

For months after that opening night, I saw failure projected out in front of me, a lens refocusing my identity in the past, present, and future. I was aware of a self-absorbed paranoia driving my behaviour, that “everyone” knew what had happened. I walked 15 kilometres daily and tried to remind myself that likely, no one cared what I’d done. I did a lot of jigsaw puzzles and listened to public domain recordings of Edith Wharton books. When people asked if New York had been a really exciting experience, I trained myself to say yes and change the subject.

I began to feel at home in my fuck up. Yes, I’d failed, but I had completed the run in one piece. While a part of me believed this event confirmed that I was in fact, a total failure, it was liberating to have finally hit that bottom in such an extravagant, Gena Rowlands-in-Opening Night way. I re-watched Opening Night, because I had liked the movie for how exhaustingly emotional and inelegant Myrtle Gordon’s instability was. I liked how she didn’t look good, because failure isn’t supposed to look good. That’s what makes it so terrible to endure in the company of others.

Eventually, I stopped thinking about it, in the way that any notable past event gives way to drama of the present. When I did think of that night, the thought was different. The failure I was previously conscious of, of having spoiled the show for everyone, was not the one I cared about anymore. The residual disappointment I couldn’t release was this: that night, I had felt panic and humiliation and despair more than I ever had in performance, but I was unable to funnel it into the art, even though in my own soft way I did try. Returning to the stage for the second act, I had intended to take my current state and channel it into this character I’d spent so much time with—a mother who abandons her daughter and husband to lie on the beach with a Frenchman in a panda suit. But I couldn’t make the jokes work and I couldn’t make the non-jokes work. Delivering the operatic speech Heti had written, that I worked towards every night, I felt nothing but immense tiredness. Now, months later, I found that my failure had been in the waste of my feelings, the failure to connect my emotions to the character I was supposed to be.

Approximately more than one month ago, I began filming a project I’d been involved with as an actor for about two-and-a-half years. It had always been in the middle-background, something I’d do should all the funding and support come together. And when it did, I was mildly concerned that this would be another opportunity for (indelible, digitally recorded) failure.

Days before filming began, I was walking with my friend Anand, an incredibly gifted actor and comedian. We were discussing the show he had just performed in that night, which I had written, that I was in fact still writing. I felt unhappy that I had written his character as a loser and suggested legitimizing him in some way. “I don’t know why he has to be bad at what he does,” I said. “Maybe I can write him to be a little more successful.” Anand, who has the most expressive face I’ve ever encountered, looked alarmed. “It’s better if he isn’t,” he said. “It’s powerful to fail and still be part of the story.” I felt defensive and curious at the same time. “Aren’t I just forcing your character into a humiliating position?” I asked him. We were stopped at the corner of College and Grace under a string of flapping pennants typically reserved for car dealerships. Anand, who is Indian, said, “What I want is to see a non-white character fail. To have the freedom to fail.” I understood what he meant. White characters, male characters, status quo characters: these are the ones we get to see fail in TV, theatre, film. Perhaps even in life. And they’re the ones invited back for another round. What Anand said stayed with me, and stays with me. His character would remain a failure.

When I got home, I looked up the clip from the first episode of Scandal’s third season, the lecture that Olivia’s father lays on her in an airplane hangar. “How many times have I told you, you have to be—what?” he says, ready to pounce. “WHAT?” he bellows, as Olivia fumbles her words. “Twice as good,” she finally manages, quietly. “Twice as good as them to get half of what they have,” he shouts back, a gospel call-and-response for those with no expectation of heaven.

What Anand said was not the same as this, but it felt like kin. The right to fail and return is the right to be human. It’s not about being twice as good—it’s about being as shitty as them, and still being allowed to come back, to be seen, to be represented. I thought about Don Draper, who over the course of Mad Men’s seven seasons failed in so many remarkable ways, and yet continued to return with only the occasional sense that he might’ve fucked it up for real, personally and professionally. It was intoxicating and infuriating to see a character so rhythmically destructive remain the most central figure on the show.

*

Last week, I tried to drink a cup of water handed to me by Maddie, the first AD. The cup, clear plastic, was not made of sugar, and I squeezed it in my hand, comforted by it’s pliancy. Daniel, the warm and brilliant director I’d worked with for the past month, came over and told me that we were going to shoot the first take in about a minute. I put the cup down and walked to my first mark, by myself on a chair on a small raised stage built specifically for this occasion. The audience consisted of miscellaneous crew and creative, wrapping cords, adjusting booms, generally absorbed in their own tasks. I recalled that feeling of being on the dark stage in New York, the light bouncing off of my cheekbones and hitting the underside of my lashes, of not being able to see their faces. I’m going to fail again, I thought. It made me angry. There are two kinds of failure, mine and everyone else’s. There is the failure to do what’s expected of me, and the failure to do what I expect of myself. There is the failure I don’t even know about yet. I can fail if I want, I thought. I have that freedom. Daniel called action, and I began the scene ready to fight.

Ten minutes later, I was kneeling in broken glass as Claire, the actor playing my best friend, wiped away a line of snot dripping from my nostril. I lifted her from the ground as we embraced, her blood soaking into my ivory silk blouse. Then it was over. “Thank God this is a poly blend,” Julia whispered, massaging the orange stain from my collar. The blouse was a rental. The glass I flicked from my bare ankles, harmless as candy.

We see bookends where we want to, and this is me wanting to. Essayer, to try, where “essay” comes from, an opportunity to fail with an audience and the promise that you can try again, because maybe, among other things, that’s what this space is for.

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The Year in Being Orphaned
It’s strange to have moments of gratitude for something that’s slowly ruining a person you love.