A Great Failure

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An Essay written in an AWA writing group

It seems that our culture says that if you are alive, you have somehow, somewhere, failed, and therefore you are not okay.

Scene: Del’ Arte, a European clown school, Blue Lake, CA circa 1980

“Here’s the assignment,” spoken with direct command, “You will get up in front of the 20 of us and deliberately fail. You will experience what it is to fall in front of other people. You will not entertain; you will fail. Carlo Matzone Clemente, the Italian director, turned Californian, announced this, and everyone was suddenly beside themselves. I mean, I could see people step outside their bodies and be next to themselves.

Carlo was talking about discomfort, the great discomfort. Failing which could not be hidden and wasn’t supposed to be. It was in front of an audience.

“Pick a prop, take it up in front of the class, and fall, fall hard.” Carlo continued.

And I continued in my silence, “Shut up, please shut up. Why did I bother coming today? It was usually challenging but also fun. Not this, definitely not this.

All that was left for me to do was to curl up into a ball and disappear. That was possible, right?
It’s hard enough figuring out what makes people laugh, but figuring out how to deliberately fail? And I was sure that to succeed at this failing, you really would die. What a conundrum! Succeed at failing. In theory, it is a great idea. In practice, for me, it was all about facing shame and humiliation. My life had been to that point, getting it right. Whatever it was, I was going to get it right.

Carlo sent us all off into our individual variety of suffering. Mine was simply pain dipped in humiliation.

I watched others get up there, do what they did, and succeed at failing. That meant in the end, people laughed or were awed and felt something. This was just too hard. But in this school, you didn’t get to, not do. You had to, whatever it was.

I stepped up there, choosing an umbrella for my prop. I am sure I was looking for something to hide behind, as I knew this would not be my experience of success at failing. It would just simply be failing.

I can still feel the humiliation in the flow of my blood. I can still feel the sadness of not getting it, of not even knowing how to fail correctly.
Just let me be the clown I had developed. The one in the huge fishing yellow overalls with suspenders, the one who didn’t speak, and drooled, and carried Harpo Marx inside. She was the one who had all the permission in the world to have the wonder of a 3-year-old, the curiosity about the smallest thing. And failing or succeeding wasn’t even a thought or consideration.

I want this story to end with how well I did. I didn’t. I was just up there wearing pain as my costume, and my character was humiliation. I didn’t know what to do, and so I didn’t.
It was 5 minutes of failure that didn’t succeed. It was 5 minutes of complete torture, a complete undoing.

Did I learn something from this? I suppose I learned that no matter what, I was still alive, still breathing. People in the class still talked to me, and there was another day, in some hours, after some minutes, and a night’s sleep.
I also learned that failing is painful, but with layers that deserve examination, deserve kindness, and sweet attention.