I’ve been thinking about failure a good deal lately.
This is partly because after three years of working hard to get hired, then another three of teaching, I’ve been told that my contract with the Helena School District will not be renewed. I wasn’t told why this decision was made. My students have succeeded by all our program’s measurements and my evaluations have been glowing for as long as I’ve been in this position. But nonetheless, despite my best efforts, I will not be returning to teach with the Helena School District this fall.
A great irony of this is that my classroom is built around turning failure into learning. I encourage students to try things that might not work, to submit answers they’re unsure of, to openly discuss texts they may not fully understand. I ask them to embrace each failure as an opportunity to improve.
This perspective on failure is directly connected to my experience with improv. Improv is an exercise in failure. The joy of some forms relies completely on failure. We find humor and fun in our inability to accomplish certain tasks, like being unable to rhyme, or speak in Elizabethan English, or to deliver a fitting pun.
The failing is part of the fun.
I recently took a break from performing short form games partially because I felt I’d lost the freedom to fail within them. They became rote and I’d grown too comfortable with the comedic mechanisms. Failing became more difficult, and without the excitement of potential failure, the games became less fun.
In this sabbatical I’ve explored some forms that are more challenging and have fewer safety nets, like our In Progress show, in which two or three of us improvise for an hour with nothing but our mutual commitment to each moment driving the show forward.
This show is scary for me because there’s never a blueprint. There’s no structure, no game, no edits, no escape route to fall back on, we don’t even take a suggestion from the audience. It’s a frightening undertaking, and I love it.
The nerves in the moment between when the lights go out and when they come back on at the beginning of the show remind me of the electricity I felt 13 years ago when improv was brand new to me.
I’ve heard it said the reason kids should play sports isn’t to learn how to win, it’s to learn how to lose. This is the same reason adults should do improv, to learn that failure, and how we handle it, is central to our growth.
So in this season of readjustment, I’m trying to embrace this failure I don’t fully understand as a true improviser should, with an eye toward the next scene and an opportunity to discover the joy waiting just around the corner.
- By James Buscher