Friday, May 18, 2012

Fabulous Failures & What Can We Learn?

What can we learn from our mistakes?  Leading puppet slam curators and artists open up to reflect on some fabulous failures and spectacular slam disasters and what can be learned. Have you had a fabulous failure at a slam? Join the conversation on our Facebook Page and share your story! 

Austin Puppet Incident #Austin
Amanda Maddock, Jessica Simon & Caroline Reck, 2011, Photo: Chris Owen
Alissa Hunnicut, guest curator of New Brew #Brooklyn
Mostly you learn that it's live theater and anything can happen.  So think on your feet when there are technical glitches and be honest in your performance.  You also learn pretty quickly what doesn't work in a slam context when you have no control over what comes before your performance..

I don't think any of them have been disastrous. Some of them have pieces that are "less successful" than others partly because it might be a less curated slam or a slam that really welcomes less experienced performers, but that's the good part about a slam.  

Everyone can try something out and if it doesn't really work, the audience is on to a new thing pretty quickly. Like we all say, "too short to suck."

Gepetta, Performer-At-Large #Philadelphia
I think I count on failure or at least making mistakes to some degree. A lot of my stories are very wordy, more poetic than funny, and I often forget my lines, though if I can quip with the audience its okay.  A lot of mistakes graduate into being essential parts of the show.  Recently, I lit my hair on fire during a performance at a crowded loft. That wasn’t at a Slam, though I think it would have gone over better if it had been.

Roxie Myhrum, Curator of Puppet Showplace Slam #Brookline 
I once put together a slam with a lot of artists who typically did shows in all different styles of puppetry, but somehow I overlooked the fact that the pieces they wanted to do for the slam were all shadow puppet acts. Oops. After that I implemented a more thorough tech form. We also once had a speaker fall on an audience member. Now we warn people who sit in the front row.   
One of Kristin McLean's occasional collaborators was the director of The Revolving Museum - an organization that curated site specific shows at various different locations all around Boston.  The director of the Revolving Museum had set up a show for First Night (New Year's Eve) Boston that he populated primarily with Puppet Slam performers.   He asked me to perform at it.  It was at the Cyclorama in Boston and there was a very cool set, and we were all in different rooms of a mocked-up house.  People were encouraged to wander around and it was definitely a very cool set up if you were a more interactive performer.  But the problem was that I was performing a 15 minute version of the "Ex Machina" show I described earlier.  And this piece also now included an audience-plant routine.  The biggest issue is that my pieces are narrative and definitely require the undivided attention of an audience.  Here, we were playing a venue where people would essentially wander through look at what we were doing for about 2 minutes and then move on. Because I perform with a recording it's difficult to stop or start over and nearly impossible to improvise.  So we just kept performing it over and over, often with no one in our space and just me and my friend and collaborator Mark Myatt (who was my audience "plant" originally intended to blend in with the never-constant audience).  Most of the time we were performing for no one, or else for people who took a brief interest akin to viewing animals in a zoo.. After performing in this show I have always taken pains to clarify that any show I am booked at is organized as a theatrical performance and not an "installation" style environment.
I can’t say I’ve ever been to a disastrous Puppet Slam, sorry! One slam I did attend was a bit awkward: it emphasized audience participation, insisting space be left for the public to contribute to the work. Unfortunately it underestimated the audience’s bravery, leading to long passages of awkward silence!

Kat Pleviak, curator of Puppet Meltdown #Chicago 
I was in a slam at a puppet festival and we were asked to bring two pieces, one of which was cut because the slam went to long. The piece we did show was too small for the space to be seen by anyone in the venue so no one got to enjoy it.   
A note to producers: Your slam performers are your guests and it should be your number one goal to help them succeed and have a great experience. A note to performers: be true to your work. If you walk into an event and can see your piece won't work, pull it. It does not help you to do a piece that disappoints based on a technicality. Know your work and show it to it's best.
Well, just this week I feel like I’ve experienced one of my biggest failures to date.  Between what felt like the great success of the first slam in February, I ran into some problems.  As I’ve said, I just directed Inspector General for TAG, a show with live actors and two different kinds of puppets that play minor characters.  Literally, the night Inspector opened several of TAG’s board members complained that sock puppets have no place on the TAG stage and are “not to the quality of what we do.”  The poster and all the promotional material used had the sock puppets to promote the show, but apparently that somehow got past the attention of some board members.  And they apparently hadn’t talked to the Artistic Director, who’d been talking excitedly about the puppets for around six months before the show ever went into rehearsal. At this point, I must take pains to again thank Brad Powell, TAG’s Artistic Director.  He went to the mat to defend both the puppets in Inspector and to defend the slam to his board.  But after some of the longest days I’ve ever experienced, it was clear that it was not in the best interest of the slam or of TAG to hold a puppet slam at a theatre where there were hostile board members. . .
A friend and fellow artist here in Honolulu gave me a “buck up” talk the other day saying that this was a lesson about focusing on the kind of work you want to do and making your own opportunities.  I guess that’s as good as a lesson as any.  This is all just in the last week, maybe after a few months of reflection I’ll have a real good perspective about what the moral of this tale is.  

Again, if there are other curators who have walked through similar experiences please, please, please email or call me.   I’d love to hear how others handled it so I can properly reflect and learn from the situation.

Lana Schwarcz, curator of Slam Noir #Melbourne
Hmmm... I think we've had a couple of pieces go longer than five minutes, and that was tough. I don't feel comfortable to name names or even describe these shows, but sometimes new pieces (which is what they are for the slams) can drag on a bit - the fat needs to be cut from them.  If there is one thing I have really learned from Pam Arciero (and by gosh there were many many things learned from that Hawaiian goddess) it's that things really have to be too short to suck.  So I think in the future, we really stick to that 5-minute rule. If it doesn't fit in 5 minutes, it doesn't go on. It makes the artist really think about what absolutely needs to be in there. Although sometimes that still gets ignored....

Beau Brown, curator of the  Puckin’ Fuppet Show
The Puppet Slam at DragonCon and the National Puppet Slam  #Atlanta 
Never try and simulate the sound of someone’s pelvis cracking by breaking celery into a microphone. It won’t work. 

Valerie Meiss, curator of the Wham Bam! Puppet Slam #Asheville
Oh wow... maybe my reluctance to say means that the wound is still fresh? . . Lets just say, technical requirements and Murphy's Law make wretched bedfellows. I have learned to cope with technical disasters in fun and friendly ways, to curb egos in a non-defamatory manner, and to (most importantly) take control of a situation (which is easier said than done), but I have certainly learned its importance
Oh, also, don't ever ever use a smoke machine!

Carole D'Agostino, Performer-At-Large #NYC
I succeed and fail at each event. I now always travel with my own tables, tape, extension cords, light bulb replacements, shadow screen replacements, scissors, sharpies, wipes, etc etc etc, because at each and every venue there has been something wrong or missing and I don't want my performance to suffer because the venue or I am ill prepared. Professionalism can only come by learning from failures.  
Jessica Simon, curator of Nasty, Brutish & Short Puppet Cabaret #Chicago 
[taken slighly out of context]  I got a bruise on my head from a flying piece of chocolate at the National Slam in Atlanta...

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