Pursued By A Bear: “My fringe show failed. What next?

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.

“Hi Adam. So I finally took the leap to put my show on in the fringe. (I won’t say what or where, and I guess I just have to hope you won’t google me.) I cleaned out my savings account and used nearly all of my holiday time to make it happen. I’d been working on the play for years and I really believed in it. But if I’m being honest, it was a total flop. The critics (at least the ones who came) hated it, and the industry people I invited won’t write back to my emails. I saw some of my family at a wedding over the weekend, and they were making jokes about it. I laughed it off, but honestly, I’m gutted. And broke. I thought this was going to be my big break (naive, I know), but it seems like it was all a big mistake. I still want to be a writer, but I used up all my resources, and don’t know if I’d have the heart to try again. Where do I go from here?”

I’ll start with a great quote from Albert Einstein; “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” Whether Einstein said this or not (because I’m never quite convinced with these online quotes), the sentiment remains perfect.

Failure is part of the learning process. Wanting to succeed at something doesn’t necessarily affect your failure rate. However, it does affect how likely you are to keep trying after a failure. If you really want to be a writer you shouldn’t let this setback stop you.

Einstein himself struggled to gain initial momentum in his career as a physicist, working as a patent clerk for two years after graduating because he couldn’t secure a teaching post. He didn’t give up though, and of course eventually went on to become one of the most influential people to ever live through his revolutionary work in physics. He also now holds the dubious honour of having more inspirational internet quotes falsely attributed to him than anyone else in human history.

The short answer to your question is simple; carry on. Put this play behind you and start writing something new. Get back on the horse. And do it today.

I don’t care if what you write is pure nonsense, just make it fun. Start writing whatever comes into your head if you don’t have any ideas lined up. You don’t have to use what you write, it doesn’t have to be good, you just need to enjoy it. Put the last one out of your mind and have fun writing for a while.

It doesn’t feel like it now, but in time you’ll get over your disappointment. Once you start to get a bit of distance and the emotions have died down, I’d suggest going back to the unsuccessful play. Pretend it was written by someone else and imagine yourself as an audience member. Analyse that shit. Try to figure out why it didn’t work.

Was the message you were trying to get across strong enough? Were your characters unique? Were their motivations believable? Was the plot original? Was the dialogue engaging? Were their dull moments? Did the story keep moving forward?

Ask yourself all of the above questions and try to pinpoint exactly where you went wrong, in your opinion. If you spot a gaping plot hole or a dull character which is dragging the whole thing down you might be tempted to start rewriting it instantly. Don’t do it; put the play away in a drawer and come back to it in a year if you still think you have something important to say on the topic.

I honestly think sometimes we set out to write plays which require skills we don’t yet have. If an idea is vital but you haven’t managed to do it justice you might not be ready for it. Put it to one side until you’ve got another couple of plays under your belt then come back to it. I’m always surprised how easily I can spot problems when I revisit an unfinished draft from a few years ago.

A key piece of advice I’ll give is not to dwell on the critics’ reviews or remarks you overheard from audience members. It’s sometimes difficult to let that shit go, but you really have to, it will never do you any good. Some of it may be constructive criticism, but coming from strangers it’s very difficult to separate the helpful stuff from the throwaway comments.

Remember, a lot of critics tend to use hyperbole in negative reviews for effect. They want their reviews to read well, and saying “I was a little bit bored in the middle,” isn’t as interesting as saying “I desperately wanted to gouge my eyes out with a Peanut M&M.”

At least that’s what I always tell myself.

I wouldn’t worry too much about your family members laughing either. If the play really went down that badly you need to understand it’s probably awkward for them too. I’d say it’s better to all have a laugh about it than have them shower you with embarrassing sympathy and pats-on-the-back. Or even worse, watch them do their absolute best to avoid talking about it altogether.

I once had a chat with a friend after a show of mine she clearly hated, and in a misguided attempt to say something nice all she could come up with was; “I really liked it, yeah, the part with the – that was great, well done you. And the actors did so well remembering all those lines. Had a great burger before the show too, so that was nice. You look like you need a drink, I’ll get the drinks in.”

I would have honestly preferred if she’d said; “Well that was a pile of shit.” That would have nicely cleared the air and we could have moved on knowing our friendship was based on mutual honesty and respect and I wouldn’t have had to delete her from Facebook or piss through her letterbox or disconnect the brake cables on her car.

In all seriousness though, you can’t murder everyone who hates your work (however satisfying it might be). Putting a play out in the public domain inevitably opens you up to all kinds of feedback; positive, negative and indifferent. This is something you’ll have to learn to accept/ignore eventually. It’s probably better to learn that lesson early on than have it come as a big shock once you’ve got used to people saying nice things about you.

The other half of your question concerns using up all your resources taking the show to the Fringe. I don’t want to trivialise this, but in my experience it’s easier to recover financially than emotionally after an experience like this.

Pragmatically speaking, you managed to gather the funds for this show so there’s no reason why you can’t do it again. You said you used up all your savings and holiday, which tells me you probably have a job. The next Fringe is almost a year away so start saving again if that’s what you want to do.

My suggestion would be to learn as much as you can from this experience. If you’re not happy with the amount of money you lost on this show look into other sources of funding next time. Speaking from experience, taking a show to Edinburgh is expensive and exhausting. With your next show it would be worth trying to test it somewhere closer to home, even if just for a single performance, before going up to the Fringe. Once you have a script start looking for opportunities, however small, and see how the play works.

A test run will give you the chance to see how it plays in front of an audience. You’ll then be able to fine-tune things before going to the Fringe.

Another option is to approach producers or companies with your script. If they decide to put the play on they’ll do a lot of the work in terms of securing funding and organising all the logistical aspects, leaving you to stick to the writing and continue honing your craft.

Self-producing can be a fantastic way to showcase your work as an unknown writer. At the same time, it requires a huge amount of self-belief, organisation and a thick skin. Not everyone is cut out to do everything, ask yourself honestly if you’d be better off taking a back-seat once the writing is done.

Audiences are unpredictable, artistic merit is subjective. Putting all your resources into an untested show at the Fringe was a big gamble. This time around it didn’t pay off. Learn from the experience and do things differently next time. You’ll become a stronger writer, and a stronger person.

 

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Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via CC license

4 thoughts on “Pursued By A Bear: “My fringe show failed. What next?”

  1. Really enjoyed your response – it was on target. And you give some great advice on how to keep going after a bomb. (Seeing a therapist for the depression is also a good idea – better than eating piles of chocolate or downing copious brew!) But one thing left undiscussed – what did the WRITER think about the mounted play? Did the writer see and hear the problems, did the writer cringe at the dialogue, fall asleep in the dull spots? If the writer thinks the play is great, the writer needs help – a friend, assistant, dramaturg- someone with talent and taste that they trust to say, “nope, that doesn’t work.” Because if you can’t see and hear it for yourself, you need someone else to do it for you – so you can fix the problems. And seeing as many other plays as you can – good, bad, in-between, can help teach the techniques needed to learn how to spot problems in your own work. Because if you can learn to fix your own mistakes, you will save a lot of grief. And pounds…….and hangovers!

  2. Thanks for posting this question and response – honest and really helpful.
    I agree with the points raised by Adam and Janet above. Audience testing, collaboration, learning – and try again! Good luck.

  3. A really fab response and some useful take away there. Not enough can be said for planning an initial table read, making use of scratch nights, festivals and competitions (and ideally an R&D process) to really pull the piece apart and make sure its water tight; before taking in to the next stage and going for a full production.

    There is also a lot to be said for realising our ‘passion projects’, verses commercial projects. You should be proud of yourself for not just letting a project you have worked on for years languish in the bottom drawer!! You made it happen, and let a live audience hear it. Sometimes, this is enough to provide a sense of accomplishment (or closure!) and allow you to move on to the next project with a clear head.

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