Last November, the ESA’s Rosetta mission landed Philae, a craft the size of a domestic washing machine, on the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, over 500 million miles from Earth. That’s twice as far away as our average distance from Mars – a planet it’s taken us more than a few stabs to successfully land exploratory vehicles on – and a target 1653.66 times bigger than the comet.
Philae had harpoons in its feet that were supposed to trigger when it landed; anchoring it to the comet’s surface and preventing the loss of well over 10 years of work to that old bastard, Newton’s Third Law. But when Philae touched down, nothing happened. It bounced up off the surface and came down twice more, eventually settling in the giant shadow of a cliff where it has been playing an unsuccessful game of peek-a-boo with the orbiting Rosetta ever since.
The harpoons never fired. They had one job… They failed. Straightforward binary function; measurable outcome. Though ironically, it’s possible that this actually saved Philae from being permanently ejected back out into space.
I live-streamed the whole landing at work. It was so much better than Christmas. By the end, I knew who all the members of the mission team where – I had favourites (shout out to you, Andrea Accomazzo!) We laughed, we cried, we punched the air. Who needed Secret Theatre? I had mission specialists…
Plenty of things went wrong. Everyone spent 2 hours not knowing where the actual fuck Philae even was (NB: literally free floating in space at the time, as it turned out). These guys ended the day with their lander lying on its side in the dark, they didn’t even know where… But the mission wasn’t a failure because they’d made it to this unbelievably tiny speck out there and their instruments were, for the most part, working.
Failure is a word that royally fucks me off when it comes to theatre and I want to ban it. Not because of some participation medal type sentiment that disallows negativity about art b/c OMG feelings but because.. what does it actually mean? To be fair, I haven’t really seen it emerge in reviews, but it gets batted about in conversations on Twitter and Facebook all the time – “this failed as theatre.” Generally when I see that, my primary thought is “fucking hell, who woke up and put you in charge of everything?”, because, really, who is one person to say that a piece of art has failed? That’s a big word. That’s something that has, ultimately and completely, not fulfilled its function.
But a piece of art isn’t a harpoon (or I don’t know, maybe it is; there’s a lovely metaphor, someone run with it please) – it’s not a light switch. On. Off. On. Off. It’s Schrodinger’s bloody cat is what it is – it exists in multiple possible states until you open the box. Until you open the box.
So, who gets to say theatre has failed? Critics don’t; of that I’m sure. Do artists? If it’s about intent maybe it’s up to them, but I don’t reckon you get to tell an audience member who really enjoyed a show that it’s failed any more than you get to tell them something they hated was brilliant. Once you’ve made something, the way in which people react to it doesn’t really belong to you. You can only give them the work. I mean isn’t that what’s so great about what we do – that it’s experienced on such an individual level? And even if some elements do measurably fail – i.e the set accidentally falls down – I’m not sure we can equate that to failure as a whole. Surely something can only definitively fail to be theatre if not one single person ever witnesses it?
We talk about the right to fail a lot – it’s come up particularly with Caroline Horton’s Islands recently. If you went to the Bush to see a play that would inform you about tax havens, you could quite probably say that you failed to see a play that informed you about tax havens. But technically there was loads of meaty reading material in the cafe about tax avoidance if you wanted it and in failing to serve you, the performance has made Dan Rebellato and Stewart Pringle and plenty of other complete strangers whose tweets the Bush has eagerly punted into my feed fairly happy, so I wouldn’t say that Islands needed the right to fail, because I don’t think it did fail. It’s a piece of theatre that some people thought was shit and walked out of, and others enjoyed. (Though there is a way-nuanced conversation about framing and expectations that I don’t think I’ve quite grown into yet, but it’s coalescing…)
I’d argue that the idea of failure is best left outside the theatre – to equipment and policies and engines that either function or don’t function in a measurable way. There’s such an absoluteness to it. It sounds empirical. Final. Somewhat pointless. At least calling something good or bad, while not an inherently perfect system of response, carries a sense of opinion with it. Instead of the right to fail, let’s talk about the right to get it wrong. To miss our own intent. To be boring, or overlong, or just end up very far from where we meant to be. Let’s allow for gloriously succeeding at making shit pieces of theatre.
Plus, if a group of scientists can perform the international [/interplanetary], multi-million euro equivalent of driving your parents’ brand new car into a ditch and not call it a failure, we might be in need of a more creative approach to evaluating theatre.