The Uses of Failure

by Maddy Costa

A bridge in London that had to be closed the same day it opened, for nearly two years of extra engineering work to stop it wobbling. A bridge in Washington State that collapsed completely, four months after it opened to traffic. A bridge in the Hague built for squirrels, to cross a motorway in safety, used by just five squirrels in its first two years. Why might it be useful for entire classes of primary school children to learn about these cultural oddities, these instances of human foible? Because they are all stories of useful failure: failure that eventually, with time, patience or a lot of learning, became something else.

This idea of positive failure is the impetus behind Epic Fail, a show made by musician and storyteller Ed Patrick, aka Kid Carpet, in collaboration with children in Year 5 (aged nine and ten). It’s energetic and chaotic, as you might hope of a show embracing the concept of failure; the kids dress up as squirrels and scientists – resourceful inquisitiveness meets rational experiment – and interrupt Patrick’s bridge stories with skits celebrating their own amusing inventions: fizzy milk, anyone? How about an umbrella for your shoes?

Kid Carpet first made Epic Fail in 2020 with classes of children in Bristol, where he also lives, but this year he’s been touring the work in England and Wales as part of Moving Roots, a collaboration of five organisations all interested in getting people in their local communities participating and co-creating: Common Wealth in Cardiff, the Old Courts in Wigan, Jumped Up in Peterborough, and Restoke in Stoke-on-Trent, led by Battersea Arts Centre in London. Enthusiastically silly, the show is also vital stuff: with a rapid rise in children experiencing anxiety amid the pressure of an education system focused on testing and league tables, it invites a reconsideration of failure not as a disastrous ending but a point in a journey or a new beginning, a space-maker opening up alternative possibilities that might not previously have been imagined.

Fear of (talking about) failure

Such thinking is important not just for the children who participate in workshops and performances, but the families and teachers in their audiences – and indeed, for society at large. And yet, if you search for writing in the public realm about Epic Fail you’ll find, amid a few brief local acknowledgements that it exists, just two substantial preview articles (in the websites Broadway World and Lou Reviews), both of which have the same opening paragraphs quoted directly from the press release. In common with most work that happens with children or in community settings, Epic Fail isn’t deemed interesting enough for focused media attention.

Perhaps you think public dialogue around this work is unnecessary: after all, failure is hardly an under-explored topic. Everywhere from podcasts such as Elizabeth Day’s popular How To Fail, to countless self-help guides, you’ll find encouragement to see the positives in things going wrong. In the realm of community arts, however, there’s a wariness about discussing failures out loud. Instead there’s a tendency ‘to focus on celebratory facts and figures about a project’s success and conceal or brush-off negative outcomes or issues’.

So write Leila Jankovich and David Stevenson in the introduction to FailSpace, their AHRC-funded research project thinking about how the subsidised cultural sector can articulate and learn from failure. Although the ‘right to fail’ is a catchphrase widely repeated, the fierce competition for public subsidy creates an atmosphere in which that right is eroded: only success feels permissible. Jankovich and Stevenson offer a different approach: they’ve designed a ‘wheel of failure’ that enables the makers of community projects to consider the ‘differing value systems’ behind all evaluation and critique, and where each element of a project might sit on ‘the scale between outright success and outright failure’.

Is this pressure really necessary?

This point about different value systems, and the necessity of asking ‘success and failure for whom?’, combined with the lack of coverage for community arts, are two strands of the thinking behind another project happening within Moving Roots: encouraging people who live in each of the participating places to write about Epic Fail and their thoughts on failure. In overseeing this writing project, I’ve been curious not only to hear what people in each community make of the show, but to think about how conversation on the topic of failure might continue, long after Kid Carpet has packed up his squirrel outfits and returned to Bristol.

The writing that has emerged gives a clear indication of why such a project might be worthwhile. Although all four writers had the same starting point – the local performance, and post-show conversations with some of the children who took part – their texts are strikingly different. In Wigan, Chandan Shergill experiences the show through the lens of new parenthood: listening to the children describe their terror at looming exams , she writes, ‘I felt almost ashamed’. The questions this raises for her – ‘Is this pressure really necessary? Is success measured only by high marks at school?’ – are ones that she will carry into her years of parenting to come. Shergill also considers Wigan itself, the contrast between it being a place ‘often seen to have “failed”’ and the ‘journey of positive change’ that she can see, first-hand, the town is on.

Alliyah Dawud in Stoke takes a more philosophical approach, meditating on the negative definition of failure that keeps people in the ‘comfort zone of familiarity’, too afraid of being judged to try something new. Echoing the arguments of the FailSpace research, Dawud believes it is necessary to reconsider who is defining failure, and on what terms. She writes about failure with the authority of having herself been branded one, when her marriage ended in separation: moving past these definitions in directions of her own choosing – not least towards writing – ‘has been exhilarating’.

Similarly, Jennifer Ramm in Peterborough reflects on the positive turns her life has taken since she left sixth form, unable to take her A-Levels as planned. ‘School often teaches us that life is a linear path,’ she reflects, before sharing a number of other suggestions for what could be taught: the skill of assessing so-called failures for the learning they offer; an understanding that life is full of options and ‘second chances’.

The school in Llanrumney, east Cardiff, where Epic Fail was performed, itself experienced a second chance, writes Sophie Lindsey, after campaigning to prevent its closure in 2018. Watching Epic Fail, Lindsey gives particular attention to a closing scene in which the children singing on stage are joined by other children, filmed in different schools performing the same song. This overlap ‘united the schools in the moment,’ she acknowledges, but it also provokes questions about what is meant by co-creation. ‘How much did each production vary from school to school? What was taken into account and what was left out? And how much was decided before setting foot in each location?’

A community of mutual support

Similar questions will be addressed by each organisation as they evaluate Epic Fail as a project, and one of the advantages of Moving Roots is that this evaluation happens within a community of mutual support. But the structure of evaluation is industry-focused: any dialogue with audiences is extractive, involving questionnaires, structured interviews and editing. The interest in the Moving Roots writing project is in encouraging local people to be their own authors, and to speak in their own voices – not the voices imposed on them.

This can be a daunting task: reflecting on their experience in the project, the writers confessed to feeling an initial sense of overwhelm, uncertainty as to whether they were expected to conform to any particular agenda, and even imposter syndrome. Shergill wonders whether it’s even possible for anyone in such a project genuinely to speak in their own voice: ‘If I’d never read a review,’ she wonders, ‘how would I write differently?’ Faced with such a query, I always point to a similar writing project run by Theatre Bristol in 2014, inviting local people to review shows and build up dialogue around them: in particular, a review by a man known only as Dave the Electrician, who described one show as taking place ‘in an alternate world where Starsky & Hutch do meals on wheels in a fiat punto for retired actors suffering from agoraphobia’ and Frank Sidebottom does bikram yoga, dabbles in black magic and covers himself in honey, in a bid ‘to be taken seriously as an artist’. It’s a glorious review, full of energy and invention, from one voice among many that are too little heard in the narrow culture of reviews.

This was my second year running a writing project within Moving Roots, and in the spirit of Epic Fail I’ll confess, the first year was a very broad mix of success and absolute failure! I had wanted the four writers to feel absolutely free to follow their own interests and choose their own styles; instead, all of them felt constricted by the responsibility that comes with writing about community work: not least, the possibility that participants might read the writing and feel hurt. This, too, might be one of the reasons community work is so little written about. And yet, as theatre writer Lyn Gardner wrote a decade ago, in words that still ring true, ‘expertise is every bit as important as funding’ in participatory settings, to ensure that the work is ‘genuinely welcomed by the community, is run along ethical lines and leaves a valuable legacy’. Expertise is built through practice, failing, learning – and sharing. And who better to test expertise, speak to failure, be part of the learning and take charge of the sharing, than people in the community themselves?