The Evil Imp

Embracing Failure

If an alien species were to visit this planet looking for information about arts and culture to take back to their own world then said alien would be forgiven for thinking that the arts, in the UK at least, are nothing but an unmitigated success 100% of the time.

No project ever goes awry, no tour is ever disappointing, no performance ever fails to deliver the publicised levels of euphoria, no workshop ever fails to fill young minds with copious knowledge, no project ever hits a speed bump, blows a tyre and ends up upside down in a ditch.

It’s all perfect, all the time.

We also cannot forgot the never ending reserves of “excitement” that everybody has on tap, 24/7 for almost everything they do.

So much so that we quipped on Twitter a few weeks back that if the levels of alleged “excitement” in the dance profession were accurate then everybody in the wacky world of dance would be on anti-hypertension medication.


Can it be true? Is the dance world a finely honed machine that never ever gets anything wrong?

Well, of course it’s not.

Things go wrong all the time and everybody knows things go wrong all the time. Rarely are things so bad that a project completely collapses under its own weight but it does happen.

Smaller things happen on a daily basis. Poor audiences for shows, workshops cancelled through lack of interest, tours that don’t match up to expectations and individual staff members at venues who give a whole new meaning to the word “git”.

Mistakes in planning, execution and delivery. Dodgy publicity, poor communications and, sometimes, staff that are completely incompetent.

It all happens, and we all know that it happens so how come we never here about it from the companies and organisations themselves?


From our perspective, here in TheLab™, the answer is simple.

The arts have adopted the communications strategy of all politicians where the biggest mistake that you can possibly make is to tell the truth.

Admitting you did something wrong or that something didn’t work is a sign of weakness and weakness will not be tolerated. Failure is not in their creed. At least admitting failure is not in their creed.

Part of the blame for this is the adoption of the “big smiles” communication strategy but the other elephant in the room is Arts Council England (ACE) and all the reports they demand.

Take a show on tour and they don’t just want to know how many people turned up but they demand details on how those people felt about your show. Did you change their life and if you did, have you got it in writing?

Fail to attract the required and completely unquantifiable number of people who’s lives have been changed for the better and your funding is in serious trouble.

Never mind the fact that trying to persuade people to buy expensive tickets and make their way to a mid-scale theatre on a rainy Wednesday evening is a task akin to getting oil out of water.

Embracing Failure

It is of course ironic that failing at something is how we learn to do something better. It is a fundamental tenet of learning dance, whether you’re a professional or otherwise.

You try, you fail, you learn and you do it better the next time.

If children were taught to read using the methods adopted by the arts then five year olds would be thrown out on the streets if they couldn’t recite Chaucer after a week in primary school.

What is sorely needed in dance and the arts overall is a new mantra, a more honest mantra that is easy to live up to.

“Look, all we can do is try, give it our best and see what happens, sometimes it’s going to work and sometimes it’s not going to work. Get over it.”

Elegant it’s not, but then again, we’re not Chaucer.

ACE needs to play their part and back off with trying to justify everything to the politicians and the public all the time. The funding monolith is the biggest culprit when it comes to refusing to acknowledge failure and never learning from their mis-steps.

If companies and organisations start to communicate the things that go wrong as much as they pretend everything is going right then everybody can start to learn from everybody else’s mistakes.

We can stop pretending that anybody knows what “good art” is or what “their” audiences do and do not want in a theatre. We can admit that, for the most part, everybody is flying blind and that a change of direction or policy is not an admission of failure it’s an illustration of intelligence.