I have tended to write about two things on this blog over the years. Theater, which has become the primary subject lately, and “Negotiating My Life”, which I haven’t really addressed very directly much in recent months. I think that talking about “Failure” is a pretty good intersection of the two ideas.

Some months ago, I insisted to a group of my friends that we have to go see bad theater. There is too much noise about how “I want my two hours back” and all that, as if a bad night of theater actually cancels itself out, that it will erase a different good night of theater. I know for me, the last truly awful bit of theater I saw, I was supposed to go to another show afterwards, but I was so enervated that I limped out of the space and took a taxi home. I think I got a cheeseburger – I was so depressed by how awful the show was that I had to eat something indulgent from my youth…

But the fact is, I went. And that terrible show has given me some tools about what it is I like and don’t like. It took me some time to figure out what exactly I hated about it, and it turns out that the offensive thing to me was the disrespect the theaterfolks had toward their audience. Once I had realized that, it clarified my opinion about a lot of the other shows I’ve seen, and it has led me to make better decisions about what I want to produce in the future.

Now, I have a lot of experience with failure. I failed a LOT of classes in high school and college. I was that enormously frustrating student who simply either got As or Fs. If I found a teacher compelling or liked a subject, I sailed through, and often these were my math or science classes, and if I hated the teacher or the subject, then I failed. Weirdly, these were often the more “liberal arts” subjects, like “English”. And “Gym”.

And when you produce a theatrical failure, it feels a lot like failing a class. Yes, you got an F, and now, maybe, you have to take the class again to get credit. I’ve produced a terrible, terrible show that utterly flopped, and I’ve had to produce a whole stack of good shows to feel like my theatrical GPA (to extend the metaphor) has recovered to a respectable level.

It’s an interesting life-view, that your world can be measured in semesters or productions. Each year is a season, each season has shows and each show opens and then closes. Your company gets seen as a measure of all that it has done. It’s different from school because you never graduate, so you really can aim for a better and better GPA as you go.

As a father, things are quite a bit different. As a husband as well. Yes, things do eventually settle into an average over the years, and you can be a good father or a good husband, but there are no semesters, no seasons, no closings. And very often, you can do the work, you can put in the hours, but it’s not that simple. You can do great work, you can put in enormous hours… and still fail.

Especially as a father. That little brain is so maddeningly incoherent, it’s so full of variables and nonsense that it’s impossible to guess what your kid may be responding to. And the very thing that you are doing to improve their lives, or to negotiate your own, may be the actual problem, but you don’t know that until the damage is done.

When you’re an actor, you can’t be TOO off-book. You have to put in the hours, then you have your lines memorized, and if they are memorized perfectly, you’ve done the work. When you’re disciplining your kid… where’s the line? Can you hug your kid too much? Can you give your kid too much freedom, too many rules, too much credit? Can you spend TOO MUCH TIME?

In the end, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done, as a father or a husband. It doesn’t matter how hard you work. In the end, it’s your happiness and your family’s happiness that matters. You can sit somewhere and convince yourself that you did all you could do, but if everyone is unhappy, then, simply, you didn’t.

It’s a horrible realization, but it’s liberating. Your children and your spouse are either happy or they’re not, they wake up with nightmares or they don’t, they want to be in your home or they hate it. It’s that simple. And you can pat your own back about how much work you do, but if it comes to nothing, then you’re doing the wrong work.

And this is where it *does* apply to theater. If an audience doesn’t respond to one of your pieces, then it doesn’t work. They either want to be in the theater watching your play, or they don’t. You can say that you did everything you needed to, in terms of marketing or writing or costumes or whatever, but if it didn’t work, then it didn’t work.

I’ve been in so many rehearsal processes where the director wanted to make sure we were sweating blood, and in the end we simply didn’t know our blocking very well, or even the given circumstances. We wanted to, at the end of the day, be able to tell ourselves that we had worked very, very hard to make this piece of theater – and yet some of our biggest successes were a pure joy to work on, from beginning to end.

And maybe that’s part of the problem. Failure comes not from a lack of hard work, but a lack of smart work. And that applies to fatherhood as well as theater production.