Fear of Failure, Fear of Success
This week I had the pleasure of guesting on the brilliant Helen Bauer and Catherine Bohart’s podcast Trusty Hogs (you can listen to the episode here!) and a listener wrote in asking us to talk a little bit about what the Edinburgh Fringe actually is, because comedians talk about it a lot but to someone unfamiliar with it, it’s all a bit opaque from the outside. While discussing this, we each shared how we got involved with the Fringe in the first place, and Catherine and Helen were horrified that my first foray into discovering what the Fringe was involved my getting fed up of doing 5 minute spots within about six months of performing on the London open mic scene, and leaping straight to doing a full hour-long show at the Fringe, simply because I’d heard that was something comedians did. For those equally unfamiliar with the inner workings of what the Fringe is – this is very much not the recommended path to take. By far the most popular model for taking solo work to the Fringe involves going up for several years to build an understanding of what the Fringe is and how it functions, perhaps first just working for a venue or doing random guest spots, then perhaps splitting an hour with another comedian, then trying to do one of the showcase shows with a bigger venue, and so on, before finally presenting your debut show after spending the time learning how the business of it works, and also honing your craft as a comic.
As Catherine pointed out, the reason this model is encouraged is because these days, the Fringe is essentially a trade fair (and an increasingly expensive one) where you audition for another year’s worth of work, so taking the time to learn how to get the most out of it, and to build up your own ability, makes solid business sense. There’s no doubt that the route I pursued – doing a debut show that nobody saw, then spending another few years doing more solo shows that gradually built up my ability and my confidence until I finally managed to do something people took notice of in 2019 – was ill-advised in business terms. But what it did allow me to do was to place a crystal-clear focus over the years on figuring out what sort of work I wanted to make, and fostering a healthy attitude to creativity. The pressures of industry scrutiny or potential acclaim were completely removed, because the notion of doing a highly-anticipated or hotly-tipped debut had been thrown in the bin by my first naïve solo show, which meant there was little likelihood of any industry people taking notice of me until I had learned how to make something brilliant. That meant all I needed to do over the years was foster a spirit of playfulness and creativity within my work that slowly showed me the way towards creating good stuff. As Helen pointed out, although the three of us pursued very different, circuitous routes, we’ve all ended up now making work on similar platforms, so the only real decision to make is which route is the right one for you, and which fear it’s more important for you to conquer – the fear of failure or the fear of success.
I think that approaching the Fringe following something like the route I took fosters a really healthy acceptance of failure and of losing (Chris Gethard’s book Lose Well is an amazing treatise on this). When you’re focused not on what other people are going to make of what you’re doing, or what you’re going to get out of it, but instead on what you’re trying to express in yourself, what you are trying to learn or try out or see differently, then you’re in total control of the success or failure of that show. You can set boundaries that exist solely within your circle of influence, and end up progressing and growing with every show you make regardless of whether it was a success with audiences, critics, industry, whoever. I’ve no idea what it’s like to pursue a path closer to the one Catherine and Helen took – perhaps the idea of failing or things not working out exactly how you wanted becomes a far more worrying prospect because there’s so much more riding on the experience when you’ve spent years building up to it, but it almost certainly insulates you from the paralysing opposite fear that eventually settles in when you spend years focusing principally on doing things for yourself rather than in order to please anybody else.
To be clear, I’ve never made a show where I actively didn’t want the audience to enjoy it, that would be madness. But I certainly made shows where it was more important to me that I discovered things or learned things or expressed things for myself than it was for the audience to think what I was doing was great. After a while, this can lead to a sort of bunker mentality where you can hide inside your own fear as a defence mechanism for not working as hard as you could. “I don’t even care if they didn’t like it, I was just trying to explore this idea in the way I wanted” is all very well as a maxim when you first set out to make art (in fact I think it’s a great maxim for when you first set out), but at some point you have to reframe your approach and start doing the hard work required to elevate your art, to evolve it. I think this was the barrier I hit after 2017, when I had learned about as much as I could learn working solely by myself, but wasn’t yet ready to take the hard steps towards making something genuinely great that I actively wanted other people to enjoy. I took a year off from making shows, and then started inviting other people into my process to get their help with taking things further, making them better, trying to reach outside of the things I was exploring for myself, and reach towards the idea of making something that would genuinely connect with other people, and mean something to them.
The show I made ended up being popular, but still had a bit of a “take no prisoners” vibe – it was alienating and repetitive and annoying in many ways, and if an audience member wasn’t fully on board with it, it gave them very little opportunity to find their way in. This year, I’m trying really hard to maintain the strangeness and the exploratory quality of the shows I made before, but to really put the work into letting it be something that broader audiences can find their way into, and appreciate, without my holding them hostage in any way. It’s pretty much the first time I’ve ever found myself making a show and actively thinking “I’d really like it if people liked this show.” It’s a very odd feeling that, because of the route I took to get here, I almost feel guilty admitting to. It’s taken me the best part of a decade to learn how to make work from that mindset, which I now realise is actually a generous mindset, not a selfish one. I hope I can do it in a way that stays true to all the other lessons I learned in my years of figuring things out. Who knows what sort of pattern my shows would have fallen into if I’d worked in the opposite direction? Perhaps it would’ve ended up very similar, or perhaps it would be unrecognisable, but ultimately I think Helen’s right – you end up taking the path that’s right for you. The Fringe is a machine so vast that there really is no option open to you other than the one that feels like the right one. I’m looking forward to going back there! Huge thanks again to Catherine and Helen for having me on and giving me the opportunity to have that really interesting chat.
What do you guys reckon? Are you a Fringe performer who’d be happy to share their journey into making work up there, and what direction you moved in, and what fears it helped you overcome or lessons it helped you learn? I’d love to hear from you!
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – ARGComFest is this weekend! I love ARGComFest, it’s one of the very best comedy festivals in the calendar and I’m thrilled to be returning to it. There are so many shows I’m excited to see that it’s silly for me to list the ones I’m planning on watching, you should just browse through the schedule and put together your plan for the weekend, it’s gonna be great!
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – Pat Cahill is one of my favourite funny people in the entire world and whenever he makes a new thing, it’s always brilliant. This film, in which he plays a woodworker showing us how to carve a wooden eel spoon, had me in bits.
Book Of The Week – Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan. This is great, it’s a novel that starts as a mystery about a girl who runs away from her village in Tipperary, but the story really kicks off when she returns five years later and her family have to deal with the sudden filling of the gap that had become a part of their lives.
Album Of The Week – Home, Before And After by Regina Spektor. This is Spektor’s new album, and I think it’s her best since Begin To Hope in 2007. There’s a great song about incel softbois, a great song about humanism and academia’s inability to talk about love. Just lots of great tunes.
Film Of The Week – Lightyear. This isn’t a great film, certainly for Pixar. It’s definitely an unnecessary one. But it’s a fun little adventure, and there’s a genuinely interesting concept in there about how fixating on going back and correcting the mistakes you made in your life isn’t as important as learning to accept those mistakes and the lessons they taught you, and the unexpected consequences of them.
That’s all for this week! As ever, if you’d like to recommend this newsletter to a friend, or encourage others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it! Take care of yourselves until next time, and all the best,
PS Here are the Crystal Palace dinosaurs, aren’t they great?