Tom Keegan is a BAFTA-nominated director and writer who works in games, theatre, and film. He is the author of the upcoming book Place, Time, and Action: Performance Directing for Video Games.
“Walk fast, but don’t run,” I tell myself. “Don’t look like you are fleeing.” It’s a lovely day in North London. Sunny, with a light breeze. Exactly the opposite of my mood. The truth is, Iamfleeing. Fleeing the theatre. Fleeing the uncertainty, fleeing the pressure, fleeing the crushing rejection of my messy, fledgling production. Is this what I signed on for? I can’t do this. I’m not strong enough. I’m stepping out for a bit of air and never returning. And then my words come back to haunt me: “Permission to fail.”
When Samara Neely-Cohen and Joshua Collins of Co Co Ma Productions approached me in the spring of 2023 about working on an original theatre piece at the Park Theatre in London, I bit down hard. After years of creating at a computer or directing in short bursts encased in a mask, it felt like it was time to explore with something new, in person, in London, the beating heart of English-speaking theatre. I was excited to find a company that valued the development of a new project and was willing to put the resources into an experimental production without the need to sell tickets.
The early part of my career, decades ago, had been primarily concerned with creating and presenting original queer-themed performance-theatre pieces around the US and Europe. In recent years, I’ve had a successful career directing performance capture for video games, earning a BAFTA nomination along the way. When Covid shut all production down, I’d had the time and opportunity to return to theatre and explore how it could serve audiences during the pandemic. Samara and I workshopped her solo showSnatchedentirely long-distance over Zoom. As the pandemic eased and audiences were warily creeping out of their PPE cocoons, Co Co Ma mounted a production of9 Circlesat the Park Theatre and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
When they invited me to collaborate on a new piece I couldn’t resist. I just had one stipulation: we had to work under the umbrella of “permission to fail.”
What exactly is permission to fail? It’s everything it sounds like and more. It means having the courage to try out an idea with a willingness to release the need for approval from others. To re-examine the measuring stick that determines where a piece falls on the scale of success. Accepting that a beloved concept isn’t working and needs to be scrapped. Exploring a text, an action, or a character for its own sake and not for how it will be reviewed, awarded, or lauded. The creative freedom “permission to fail’ conjures up is dangerous. In an age of funding constraints and a cost-of living crisis, the freedom to crash-and-burn is the opposite of everything that contemporary arts organisations require for survival. And yet no truly fresh theatrical experience can be born without stripping away past successes and commercial considerations.
The Co Co Ma team and I put aside those commercial considerations and plunged into work onYou Dream in Motion,born as a workshop production over three weeks in July. We’d dared to leave behind what we knew worked — the bounty ofSnatchedand9 Circlesand countless highly successful video games — to take on the risk, and hope, that something fresh and authentic would emerge.
The piece was inspired by a thought to mountA Midsummer Night’s Dreamas a reality show about a group of young people cloistered in a country house. The idea evolved when we discovered the work of Charles L. Mee, an award-winning playwright who establishedThe (Re)making Projectonline as source material for original works and to encourage experimentation.
Our concept forYou Dream in Motionbecame a dreamscape set in a summer house where a group of friends come together to explore connection, love, and the fragility of life in a natural setting on the heels of a pandemic. We put together a group of actors and invited them to explore Mee’s material and their own stories. Our intent was to create an original piece in the workshop with a possible eye to a future production.
The importance of this kind of research and development for the theatre industry cannot be overstated. A staged-reading with actors is a critical first step in getting the words off the page. Workshop productions enable the creative team to test a piece in front of a live audience – usually an invited one. Rehearsal is the critical final phase of development, but under current economic conditions and time pressures, rehearsal is usually about finding the gold with the final cast and quickly polishing it into a shine. By the time a show is in rehearsal, permission to fail is usually on its way to the morgue.
The ecosystem of theatre, and all arts for that matter, is fertilised from the bottom up. New spunky art forms — often coming into being out of protest or as a middle-finger to current styles — eventually get co-opted and absorbed into the mainstream. But the austere post-pandemic climate, characterised by reduced seasons and dark theatres, short-circuits this flow. Without risks and experimentation, creativity dries up. We see it on Broadway and the West End in the sheer number of revivals and new shows based on movies. In such a climate, companies may skip or shorten the development process, resulting in productions that lack depth, nuance, and emotional resonance. It compromises the very essence of theatre, leaving audiences with a diminished artistic experience.
The vitality of theatre production is not the only thing at stake. Workshops and developmental productions are often an entry portal for new talent into the industry. With a short-circuited development process, an entire generation of actors, writers, directors and designers is at risk. They are “fleeing” the theatre. Yet theatre, like nature, is always alive. Stand on a street corner and bang a drum, like the street performers in Kolkata, India, who spread health messages about HIV prevention. You will have an audience in moments.
Which brings me back to my flight from the workshop room at the Park Theatre. At the end of the development period, we’d planned a private showing forYou Dream in Motion,a sort of trial run for a work in progress. But at the 11thhour, there was a suggestion that we cancel the performance. Flustered and humiliated, I took a walk.
As I contemplated packing my bags, “permission to fail” was ringing in my head. Was I going to live by my principles? Was I going to forsake the “dream?” Is “permission to fail” big enough to overcome “not good enough?” It had to be.
So I put on my big boy pants and headed back on that sunny afternoon to rally the troops and insist that the show go on. It wasn’t hard — everyone just truly neededrealpermission to fail. And it was my place as a leader to reinforce that permission. It is leaders who create the environment for creative development.
After the showing, I received the following message from an audience member:
“Thank you so much for this afternoon. I’m still feeling quite emotionally raw after it. Such an interesting collage of humanness. I’m still sorting out how it worked and the openness of the actors and their effect on us as the audience. I feel lucky to have been invited in.”
These words reinforced my personal conviction that when we step into the unknown and take a creative risk, a fresh experience of theatre can be born.