The dress run for King Lear has happened, and we are all called in for notes. This is when the director - Gregory Doran – pointed out that there are parts of the play we need to work on. He looked up from his notepad, a wry smile on his face, and said: “All of these notes are for James Cooney.”
By the kind gods!
It was rather tongue in cheek (I hope!), and I replied in kind with a quip to accept my pretty poor performance that day - but here's just a few of the voices that ran through my head:
- You've ruined the play James
- You'll never get a job again
- Greg hates you
- What were you thinking?
- You don't deserve to be here
- You've messed up what little you have
- They've finally found you out
- You are a failure.
Melodramatic? Maybe. But absolutely true.
In my years at drama school and acting, notes' sessions were always filled with dread. I'm a bit of a perfectionist - cue laughter from my closest friends. Okay. I’m a HUGE perfectionist. I got straight As at school, I hate losing at Mario Kart and I have never been satisfied with my body. As a child, I remember crying because I spelt a word wrong when practising for the weekly school spelling test. My mum marked it with a red cross. A giant red cross that slashed my soul like Wolverine. The pain only a child can feel. A child whose whole seven years of life had led only to this moment. And I failed! "Yes mummy, I know it’s wrong, but you could have put a circle or something! Why an X?"
So at 26, here I was again, faced with a big red Wolverine X. And this time, I laughed it off.
The biggest thing I have learnt over the last eight years, helped enormously by Max Rubin a teacher of mine at LIPA (to whom I am eternally grateful), is to stop beating myself up for 'mistakes'. Take the note and go home. That's my ethos. Thankfully, it seems to be Gregory Doran’s as well.
"Things will go wrong in front of audience. Don't put that baggage on yourself. Otherwise by the end of the first half you'll be on your knees." He's bang on. It seems to me that we have created a world where failing is seen as intolerable. Just ask the England football team. You know the ones. The ones not fit to wear the shirt. The overpaid wastes of space. The ones no better than my grandma at what they have spent years dedicating themselves to - or at least that's what they consistently hear.
I read an article recently by a graduating actor recommending that you should never be willing to fail. I couldn't think of anything more damaging. You are going to fail. No matter how much you try, you are never going to be at your best 100% of the time. And believe me, I've tried. Perfectionism is like armour. I have worn it and worn it until I was worn out.
Think of your favourite role models. Maybe someone you saw at the Olympics nailing it? That actor you love who never gives a bad performance, or that writer whose talent astounds you. All extraordinary people. But do you think they'd ever even try if they weren't willing to mess up? Weren't willing to look stupid? The reason for their extraordinary talent? They failed. Then they got better. They learnt. They evolved.
Whatever you are out there doing, I really hope you fail.