I felt completely confident the night my new act flopped. A fellow performer remarked as much in the dressing room, and I had the audacity, now hilarious in retrospect, to say, “I’ve been doing this a long time.”
Humility replied, “remember me?”
It’s true. I have been a circus performer for just shy of a decade. I have performed for 25 drunk people in bars, for swarms of kids who want my autograph afterwards, and for thousands of athletes at international sporting events. I have performed on theater stages, in intimate black box theaters, schlepped aerial rigs onto beaches, done back-to-back, rainy shows at the county fair. I have performed in uneven grassy knolls at the public library, and in filthy warehouses where I dare not take off my shoes.
Experience feeds confidence, at least it has for me. I am at the point in my circus career where I take a couple deep breaths backstage and offer up what I’ve got, which is high level acrobatic training and character work developed from scratch.
Though it wasn’t always the case, I generally feel at home onstage, able to charm even the toughest audience. Not this night.
The performance opportunity itself was ideal—an out-of-town show that offered the chance to try out new material with a friendly crowd. The audience offered raucous laughter for the clowns, gasps of amazement at the absurdity of a tricky juggling act, and an appropriate level of reverence for the violin contortionist and gold-clad aerialist. The performers chatted casually backstage, celebrating a cruise contract and encouraging the first-timers to take a couple deep breaths. The producer was chill as one can be.
None of this stopped the shame monster of failure, that reminder that we’re human. How humiliating to be flawed at what you love to do.
“Humiliating? Really?” a friend who saw the event said afterwards, as she attempted to interrupt my descent into the approaching shame spiral.
Yes. Humiliating. That feeling of having planned out every cue, missed one, and gone down a pathway you couldn’t return from. That feeling of having to improvise the second half of your well-crafted act, out of time and off cue.
I’m supposed to wrap this post up in a lesson—I recognize that. It’s the responsibility of a writer, just like it is the responsibility of a performer, to not leave the audience feeling disappointed or disconnected.
I was trained in gymnastics, where when you fail, you drill until you don’t fail. This requires taking your gaze internal and removing any barriers, in your mind or body, to doing what is required exactly right. Failure looks, for example, like my five year old self doing back handsprings onto my head until I had enough self-protective instinct to not fail, to keep my arms straight. Not failing looks like Kerri Strug competing a team gold winning vault while seriously injured and becoming an American hero.
In sport, failure is seen to be something that lives within the gymnast, which can be exorcised with enough practice. Shame is what happens when we internalize our failures because we’ve been taught, and we believe, that they represent something bad about us.
This particular failure stung because there seemed to be no logical reason for it.
I’d practiced the act so many times. I’d signed up for the show months ahead and had done many things in my power to prepare: took time to rest when a bad illness derailed my training for a couple weeks, got a good night’s sleep, abstained from coffee for fear of being too jittery. I had performed this act well in front of a live audience several weeks prior; and this particular night, I failed well.
That, my friends, is the nature of live performance.
I can’t say I am grateful my act went badly mid-way, and I went still, quiet and internal, to try and figure a way out of the path I’d gone down. I can say I’m grateful for the chance to fail well, to feel that distant sting I remember—the sting of knowing I have not done my best. Because in art, failure is seen as experience, proof that we were brave enough to experiment.