A Failure Story
by Lauren Donnelly
I fell in love with acting at an early age. As a child, I was attracted to acting because it promised to make real the imaginary worlds I could enter vicariously through books and films. To achieve a new reality through artificial means. My parents, ever encouraging, enrolled me in acting classes at a local theatre school for children.
Before I was accepted, however, I had to audition.
I was asked to prepare a poem for my audition and I chose the most beautiful, complicated, lengthy poem I could find. We rehearsed it at home, I memorized each stanza carefully, I prepared gestures to underscore the words. in Winnipeg’s Exchange District, stepped onto the stage—
Then on audition day, I stepped into a creaky wooden-floored room in Winnipeg’s Exchange District, stepped onto the stage—and promptly forgot the words.
My seven-year-old self was crushed, and shaken at this cognitive malfunction. How could all my hard practice abandon me in my time of need? They gave me a spot in the theatre school, I don’t think the auditions were meant to be competitive, but I had come face to face with one of the only constants in a mercurial industry: Failure. It’s a difficult thing to try and make sense of.
My own understanding of failure is complicated.
Overall, I don’t consider myself a failure. Yet there is no doubt in my mind that I fail more frequently than I succeed. Artists live in failure the majority of the time. The definition of failure, after all, is merely a lack of success. Therefore, we all know failure intimately. Every audition I go to and don’t book, every contact I make that doesn’t follow through, every screenplay my writer friends create that goes nowhere—these events are relegated to the failure pile in the back of my mind.
I’ve been reading Mason Currey’s book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, and artists throughout history have overwhelmingly dwelt in failure.
There is much more stagnancy, fear, despair, agony, non-success than there is triumph in our artist lives. A musician friend of mine described feeling like a failure when he plays a certain gig. Even when we are working artists living our dreams, failure is still a possibility, if not a given.
Residing in failure isn’t limited to artists either.
I’ve been lucky enough to fall in love over the last few months.
It has been agonizing. It has been beautiful. As the world becomes more full and brilliant in my lovesick eyes, I experience the ache of knowing that now that I have love, it could leave me. A separate, equally fallible human being has the ability to affect my mind and body with words, memories, hundreds of thousands of allusions I may happen upon in my day-to-day life.
My strong single-self is reduced to uncertainty in love. Knowing that I’m wonderful on my own, but that being with this person is a pleasure as much as it will be pain at times. If vulnerability is weakness, than this is the best kind of weakness I’ve ever known.
There are other kinds of failure.
Self-imposed and society-imposed concepts of failure confront us day after day. All of the things we fail at, whether we are aware of it or not, whisper to us as we go about our days.
My body isn’t the body I see splashed on billboards,
I am not a doctor or a lawyer,
I don’t own a house,
I spent eight years in a relationship that ultimately fizzled out.
It’s even easy to see my successes as minimal.
I just graduated, but only with a Bachelor of Arts (and they’re a dime a dozen these days). I’ve been blessed with luck in joe jobs, but that’s a necessity, not my passion. I’ve been booking roles in independent projects, but I’ve yet to have my mainstream “big break.”
I’m a failure in many ways.
I live in discomfort more often than not and my successes are few—but they are brilliant.
That’s what I’ve come to understand better and better as time goes by. The thousands of abysmal failures I produce in a year are actually dazzling success as a whole.
Every audition I attend that I don’t book, every date that didn’t result in a relationship, every coffee I’ve spilled, and every run that has turned into a speed walk at best… they are all inextricable from the equation of experience.
For instance, it was my mainstream failure that led me to look for auditions on Craigslist amongst the ads for web cam girls and topless servers. It was the frugality imposed by my artist life that led me to walk to the audition I found on Craigslist in a freak snowstorm and arrive a soggy, albeit energized, mess. Those failures booked me a role. The end result was an incredibly rewarding, enriching experience with one of my favourite crews I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.
That role led to a number of positive relationships that have led to other roles.
Perhaps my greatest failure then, is forgetting that failure is integral to success.
I know logically that things will turn around, but every time I get excited about a role that I don’t book, or when I was dating and found someone who was interesting to me, but who wasn’t interested in me, I beat myself up for my perceived failure: “Why me? Why doesn’t anything go right? What am I doing wrong? What can I be doing better?”
I recently applied to an acting program in another city.
I was hopeful that I would get in—so hopeful, in fact, that all of my plans for next steps revolved around the certainty of my acceptance into the program. Months ago I received my rejection email.
It was as though I was back at square one: the first audition I choked at, the exams in high school that I sat down to write and realized I had no clue, the first relationship that bit the dust. I immediately tried to rationalize their rejection of me, while also allowing it to shake my confidence in my abilities.
Maybe I wasn’t attractive enough,
maybe I was unremarkable,
or maybe my acting just isn’t great.
The failure of being rejected from the program gutted me. This was my light in the darkness, this was my hope and blueprint for the future, and I wasn’t even being given an audition.
Friends have said to me: “Something else will come out of this.” My mentor always says: “If it passes you by, it wasn’t yours.”
These things make sense and I do not doubt that they are true. Yet my disappointment at my botched course of action screams “FAILURE!” at me in spite of the headway I’ve made and the experience I’ve gained. In my clearer moments I am able to ask myself what failure really means. What do I see myself as failing at?
As beings, we are given the basic goal of survival, and therefore a successful life is a life lived. I am definitely living: breathing, eating, loving, moving, observing, communicating. Every week I’m confronted with new kinds of failure—from minutiae to mountains.
My challenge is to reframe the acting failures in the same way I treat my social failures, or my joe job failures, or my baking failures.
They exist, they may be observed, laughed or eye-rolled at, swiftly forgotten, and moved on from. The moving on will be enriched because of the layers of life inside me, and every one of those layers—painful, sad, joyful, ponderous—is a resounding success for its livedness.
Maybe it’s cliche to say that it’s the failure that makes the success so pleasurable.
I can’t help but believe it’s true though.
Every time we fail we are setting the foundation for success. It takes layers of sadness, anger, defeat, and fear to realize the integrity of your core.
So my greatest failure is also my greatest success.
They’re inseparable and they’re constantly evolving.
One day I can’t stand my lack of willpower and I berate myself for being weak-minded. So I reassess and I re-examine things to determine what needs to happen so I won’t feel bad about my choices. It’s the tonnes and tonnes of failures that inevitably lead to success.
My shortcomings are valuable because my realization of them brings me greater awareness of truth. As artists, it is our duty to know and represent that truth through our art so that others can experience it, feel it, and recognize something in themselves that resonates with the artistic object.
The truth that resonates within all of us is that we are fallible, funny creatures bent on surviving in this world, but driven to complicate the survival drive by every means possible.
About the author
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Lauren Donnelly was actively involved in the independent film scene. She made the move to Vancouver, British Columbia to pursue further acting opportunities. In Vancouver, Lauren trains with acting coach, Shea Hampton. Lauren is an old-soul and was inspired to pursue acting by watching classic film. A graduate of the University of British Columbia, Lauren has a lust for knowledge. She loves to make discoveries through travel and has recently developed her singing abilities under the guidance of voice teacher, Red Heartbreaker.
About the Creative Life Essays and Stories
“Theatre is a safe place to do the unsafe things that need to be done” said John Patrick Shanley. Likewise, Creative Life is a safe place to share ‘unsafe’ things that need to be said.
The stories and interviews from this site share the personal experiences of courage, fear, vulnerability, flow, creativity, and happiness from the perspective of the artist.
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