I’m currently reading H Is For Hawk by Helen MacDonald, which is wonderful. There’s a bit about the writer T.H. White, who was a sort of perennial failure who got pretty much everything wrong and tried to become good at falconry, and was dreadful at it for months, then suddenly started being quite good and described this change as “actually a horrible surprise at being good at anything having been so bad at living for 30 years.” I won’t lie, it struck a chord.
I first took a show to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012, a short run of a character show about an aspiring comedian trying to put on a Fringe show and hopelessly out of touch with how ill-equipped he was to do it. The venue was in the middle of nowhere and the show was on at midnight. I sort of built the idea of failure into what I was doing, so that I couldn’t feel too disappointed in myself if things went wrong. “The whole point was that it was supposed to fail,” I could tell myself.
I started doing the Fringe with zero awareness of the fact that it’s often treated more as an industry showcase than a creative playground – people spend years building up to it and acquiring the plaudits and accolades to eventually use it as the launchpad for their career. I didn’t know that, and stumbled into it with an ill-prepared show that had as many bad ideas in it as inspired ones, and I found the whole experience so exhilarating that I knew this was going to become what I did – I would go back every year and continue to try, and play, and explore, and quite possibly fail.
I don’t think I even started making shows that I think were objectively good until I started working with Heroes of Fringe in 2015, because they managed to screen out all the noise and ego and hustle of the Fringe and prioritise making a creative space where performers could focus on what they wanted to be making, rather than on how they wanted to be perceived. And the shows kept getting better, and the failures became slightly less extreme and less embarrassing.
By the time I got to this year’s show, the idea of one day making something that actually achieved a measure of success had been pushed so far to the back of my head that I’d forgotten it was originally the goal. I was just making another show, and again it was a study in failure and pointlessness and how hard it is to make sense of anything. And, like 2012, it was about a character trying to make a show who was hopelessly out of touch with how ill-equipped he was to do it.
But this time I’d played and explored and failed enough times to know how to do that in a way that really expressed something. I think it was about a third of the way through the Fringe that I started to notice that things felt different this year, and by the end of the month it turned out that by continuing to do what I’d always been doing, I had accidentally made a show that really meant something to a lot of people. I didn’t know what to do with that feeling.
There’s the temptation to keep it alive for longer than you need to, to try and tour it or release it online or whatever. But I’m a creature of habit and my brain’s already looking for new things, and it’s nearly time for me to do with this show what I did with all the others, and throw it away. It’s on for two final performances at the Soho Theatre on October 4 & 5 after a (more-or-less) sold-out run a couple of weeks ago, and I’d love people to come and see it before I say goodbye to it. May as well try to send it off on a high, because who knows if the next one will even be any good? You can’t plan these things, and if you tried to I don’t think it would be very fun.
Joz Norris is at the Soho Theatre on October 4 & 5 with his latest show Joz Norris Is Dead. Long Live Mr Fruit Salad. Buy tickets here.