Our capacity to tolerate error depends upon our capacity to tolerate emotion.
In 1974 I moved to New York City with the dream of making a life in the theater but first I had to find gainful employment to support my passions. Here are some of my many day jobs: Collecting overdue payments from the clients of a bottled water company, teaching theater to adolescents at the United Nations International School after-school program, analyzing expenses for a Wall Street brokerage firm and leading theater workshops in a halfway house for schizophrenics. Each job provided a window into a particular social, political or economic world. Each window taught me valuable lessons about how to be a better theater director. I mostly learned through my own errors. After many mistakes of presumption and conjecture, I eventually learned to abandon my own carefully premeditated plans, slow down and listen, really listen to what was happening, and then adjust. I learned the necessity of giving up control in order to ride the wave that was already in motion.
Hired to lead theater workshops at the Postgraduate Center For Mental Health, a halfway house in midtown Manhattan, my initial plan was to guide the clients, as the mental health patients were called, through my own brand of rigorous physical theater. The Postgraduate Center For Mental Health served a community generally not dysfunctional enough to be hospitalized but also not well enough to be out on the streets. My workshop was part of panoply of daily activities offered to them, including group therapy, book clubs and cooking classes. Thinking that it would be useful and therapeutic for the participants to sweat, I carefully devised rigorous movement and trust exercises that would demand extroversion and attention to one another. On the very first day of the workshop, eight clients showed up eager to participate. I introduced the exercises I had so carefully prepared only to discover that they absolutely hated them. Sweating for no apparent reason was of no interest whatsoever to any of them. By the next week only four people showed up for the class and the following week, two. In despair, I finally asked the two remaining participants to help me out. “What do you want to do?” I asked, to which they replied without hesitation: “Musical comedy” “Well, OK” I said. “I do not know anything about musical comedy, but why not show me what musical comedy is.” The two remaining participants stood up and performed a few bits of songs and comic dialogue. Word got around the Center quickly. The following week six participants materialized, excited about doing musical comedy improvisations, and I continued to follow their lead. A week later word had spread further about the musical comedy workshop and fifteen participants showed up. The escalation continued and more and more clients arrived every week. When the workshop surpassed fifty participants, we had to move into a much larger space.
The room into which I walked for each workshop was a perfect description of chaos and beyond anything I could imagine or, much less, control. Leading the workshop became an exercise in juggling countless diverse bits information and stimuli simultaneously and keeping things moving. The vision before me as I entered the room was always arresting: Someone playing Gershwin or Chopin on an upright piano, others lying on gymnastic mats fast asleep, someone reading aloud while rocking back and forth, a reckless tango rehearsal, a spitting argument, a budding romance and so on. Anything was possible. Once the session got underway, I never knew from moment to moment who might walk onstage and sing an aria or launch into a monologue or introduce a new character or sing a duet. Clients wandered in and out of the room and into and out of the improvisations fluidly. My job was to pilot the rollercoaster. It was I who sweat during these sessions. Every ounce of my attention, quick thinking and responsiveness were required. At each and every moment I had to be able to either stop someone from getting hurt, encourage a shy participant to participate, laugh, shout, applaud or jump into the fray myself. I needed to be able to adjust, at any millisecond, to the constantly altering environment.
Working at the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health was probably the best director training imaginable. None of my carefully crafted plans could ever be sufficient to deal with the pandemonium unleashed during each session. Eventually I learned to welcome moments that seemed out of my control, too chaotic or outside the range of my experience and accept that this is precisely when the world opens outwards to reveal a reality far larger and richer than anything that I could imagine or premeditate.
Chaos should be regarded as extremely good news.
Errors, accidents and chaos can be creative partners, even guides, informing and assisting the artistic process. In an interview about his working process, the American film director Robert Altman said, “Think about five of your favorite moments in any of my films and I can guarantee that they were accidents.” His method was to gather a crew, invite his favorite actors on location, and allow the errors and disorder to commence.
The question is, how to relax in the face of trouble and strife and remain capable of seeing what is happening and then what happens after that? Perhaps start by recognizing the precise moment when your resistance to the unfamiliar arises. Where exactly does your tolerance break down? Where are your boundaries? In that moment, rather than stop or withdraw, open up, feel and then move. Keep moving.
Chaos, in biblical usage, is a chasm or abyss. For an artist it feels like confusion, disorder, unpredictability or confusion. We all have our boundaries and our limits of tolerance. But in order to be engaged in the artistic process, which is a form of action in the world, it is necessary to allow some degree of chaos and error into the process and into one’s perception. Can you tease out the limits of what is tolerable? Can you allow chance into the process? Can you back off controlling everything?