Thoughts about a Successful Failure
Sometimes you come up with an idea for a show and it seems to fit perfectly with your vision as a company. You think you have a great idea how to approach it. The audience laughs and you feel you had a success.
And in one way, you did. Most of the audience left the theatre thinking your show was hilarious. You can’t please everyone so it is foolish to try. However, it is the way in which you displease those audience members that says a lot about the success or failure of your show.
Friday’s Vilification Tennis show was, by most measures, a success. We only had one structure that didn’t work and we got a lot of laughs. Most of the people who left the theatre thought it was a very funny show and they told us so.
Not so the people who left the theatre early. Clearly we crossed a line that made them uncomfortable. Too uncomfortable to stay in the theatre.
Now that’s OK. We do offensive humor and sometimes what we do goes too far for some people. I’m never happy about a walkout, though. When someone walks out, I feel that I failed at my job.
My primary job is to prep the audience for a show. That means I need to tell them exactly what they should expect. If I don’t do that, they can rightfully be angry at me because I didn’t set the show up properly. They weren’t ready for where we decided to go.
So wait – don’t those people know we are going to do an offensive show? Yes. probably. Not always.
But that doesn’t mean they’ll know how it is going to be offensive.
So what? Let the buyer beware, right?
What if the buyer believes they are buying something else?
On Friday, we were doing our White Male Privilege show and our other failure was that we made the whole show about enjoying white male privilege rather than lampooning it. Now let me say that it would have been fine had we done both. We didn’t, though. We did the one rather than the other.
Having a bunch of white guys lampoon white male privilege is hard. I confess that I didn’t really have any great ideas how to do it. Neither did any of the other cast members. So rather than try harder, we went the other direction.
We were overtly racist and sexist and that, at times, was funny. Problem was, we never managed to poke fun at ourselves. We viewed ourselves as presenting a satire of white male privilege, we instead simply presented white male privilege. There was no point at which we became the butt of the joke, as we really should have. We just looked like a bunch of racist, mysogynistic jerks who were enjoying the fact the show theme somehow gave us the right to be that way.
I know the cast and I know that we aren’t those people. We were putting on an act. It was an act that made some of us (myself included) a little uncomfortable. Good for us, I guess. But in the absence of any jokes directed at ourselves, we failed to show our intent to anyone except the people who already knew us.
Now, had we done everything right, would those people still have walked out? Maybe. It is possible there was nothing we could have done to make our show accessible to them. We could have tried, though, and in the process we probably would have put on a better show.
We may have missed an opportunity with this show. If we’d really applied ourselves, we probably could have come up with a way to make fun of white male privilege. We could have found a way to turn the tables on ourselves. I think in the end, we were too uncertain of the topic and that resulted in a timid approach.
I know it sounds ridiculous to say we were timid when we were so offensive, people left the theatre. That sounds anything but timid.
But it isn’t really. We were already a bunch of white guys. We already enjoyed a level of privilege. To stand up there and exploit that was not difficult. It was easy.
And that’s too bad. Because we are most definitely better than that. We didn’t fail, per se. But we didn’t succeed either.
At least we learned a lot. I’d like to believe we won’t make the same mistakes twice.
Thank you for your post Tim. I must say that was the first Vil Ten show I have ever felt uncomforable with regarding the content, and not even until the “country club” bit. I must confess shat I had two nightmares that night about my previous experiences with child sexual abuse, and adult domestic violence and rape. That has never happened at any other show no matter how graphic the content. This was different. It didn’t “feel” funny, for all of the reasons you mentioned. Don’t really want you to do or say anything, just wanted to tell you (wasn’t going to till I saw your post).