A significant portion of my high school career was spent hungry, tired, and listening to Weezer’s The Greatest Man That Ever Lived on a loop. If I got my energy from anything, I got it from Rivers Cuomo singing:
“Somebody said all the world’s a stage and each of us is a player. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. In act one, I was struggling to survive. Nobody wanted my action dead or alive. In act two, I hit the big time and bodies be all up on my behind…”
Open on an empty stage. Bare interior. Grey light. It’s 2012, and there are three actors standing on the stage—long-dead playwright Samuel Beckett, my sixteen-year-old self, and my high school drama teacher. Samuel Beckett says, “Fail again. Fail better”—and in this entirely hypothetical situation, my high school drama teacher nods. And I, a teenager, say something stupid.
In non-hypothetical 2012, my high school drama class studied and performed scenes from Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Endgame. It follows characters living in limbo, etching out familiar circles and familiar routines in a creaky house, never going outside, never speaking a single sentence that made any kind of sense—Beckett was a dude who revelled in the nonsensical. His plays make a lot of points, but they don’t make a lot of sense. Nevertheless, 16-year-old me—lots of hair, not a lot of courage—took on the challenge. I performed scenes from that play in front of my peers multiple times a week. And, multiple times a week, I was terrible at it. I walked onto that mercifully dim-lit stage, stood my ground, projected my voice, and I was terrible. It was like I was stuck on step one of Acting School for Dummies: make yourself a blank slate. I could never quite get myself to step two: emotion.
This isn’t something I’m realising in hindsight, like when you read your poetry from four years previous and you feel like your spine is being ripped right out of your back. I knew it at the time. I knew it in my bones, but year after year I came back to that classroom. The drama students were my comrades, and our drama teacher was our spirit guide through the wilderness of real life. The best mix of cynical and inspirational, like a walking TED Talk. In that class, I failed a million times every day. I failed in the same spot, right in front of the green screen, three to four times a week.
I’m pretty sure we all want talents. We all want to have those things we’re preternaturally good at: writing, dancing, sewing, climbing trees. Because when we do those things, for at least a moment, we have purpose. In those moments, for me, I feel built for something. And a sense of purpose is a powerful thing to have on a rainy Wednesday afternoon. It’s the fire that makes people want to go out and spend their free time learning and growing.
But in that classroom, performing scenes from a play with no path or purpose, I realised the true power of being crap. Like, no-one-can-save-you, no-teacher-can-teach-you, crap.
As a teenager I put myself under supernatural amounts of pressure: to be good, to be smart, to be better. And now, I still drag myself into the trenches from morning to midnight. As Ze Frank would put it, I have an abundance of “healthy little fires that are gonna warm up my ass.” There are things I work for, that get me out of bed, that keep me on the very tips of my toes. Stories I want to tell, people I want to talk to, things I want to get out into the world.
But there’s a strong case to be made for being crap at something. It’s a relief. Find a safe space, something you’re bad at, and be bad at it. It’s akin to standing in the middle of a desert, or on the edge of a cliff, or on a metre by metre island in the Pacific, and just screaming into nothingness. And learning how to fail and fail again, especially when you have no hope of making it anywhere significant in the scheme of an overachieving mind, is valuable. Learning how to squeeze enjoyment out of failure, is valuable. Having somewhere to go and something to do that’s at least a step away from your own expectations and the expectations of others, is valuable.
Every day spent in that classroom was a lesson in failure: how to handle it, how to get back up, how to get up in the first place. In acting, I got incrementally better. I played a zombie unsatisfied with post-apocalyptic circumstances. I played Clov from Endgame with an anything-but-believable limp and a bad accent. I improvised in front of examiners, did a shaky impression of a waitress smoking a cigarette, and got a C average (woo!) and a pat on the back for not giving up and falling into a heap under the spotlight. But in failure, I earned at least an A- and a lingering applause.
Open on an empty stage. Bare interior. Grey light. There are three actors standing on the stage—long-dead playwright Samuel Beckett, my twenty-year-old self, and my high school drama teacher. Samuel Beckett says, “Fail again. Fail better”—and in this entirely hypothetical situation, my high school drama teacher nods. And I, a young adult, give them two approving thumbs up.