Performing to fail: perspective on failure in performance and philosophy

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The notion of “failure” in performance is currently an area of growing concern within the field and will be a key theme in the forthcoming PSi conference in 2009. Theatre ensembles such as Sheffield based Forced Entertainment and Goat Island of Chicago, create performances which seem premised on the notion that the act of performance is infiltrated by failure, or even that performance itself is the enactment of failure. Both Tim Etchells and Matthew Goulish, founder members of Forced Entertainment and Goat Island respectively, have pointed to the importance of failure or the consideration of failures, as a key way in which they generate work. Etchells and Goulish also happen to be the two directors of the Institute of Failure, an online project that ‘dedicates itself to the documentation, study, and theorisation of failure as it occurs in all aspects of human endeavour’ ( – However, failure in the sense that I wish to develop the idea, is one of the most important and distinctive attributes of performance. I am exploring the possibility of failure as a positive value for performance work – or certain kinds of performance work. There are circumstances in which failure, used in the usual negative sense, is always recognisable. If the actor fluffs a line, drops a prop or neglects to die appropriately (or at all) during the sword fighting scene: we can all recognise here some tell-tale signs that a performance has “failed”. I wish to approach the concept of failure from a different perspective. “Failure,” in the sense that I will use the term, does not involve a value judgement as whether a performance has gone well or badly, and it is not directly about how competently or otherwise the performance has been executed or how favourable or otherwise the audience’s response may be. What I want to propose is that failure is integral to performance in general, but more specifically that some performance work is also concerned with its own failure, raising important questions about contemporary performance aesthetics and spectatorship.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEthical Encounters: boundaries of theatre, performance and philosophy
EditorsDaniel Watt, Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe
Place of PublicationNewcastle-upon-Tyne
PublisherCambridge Scholars
Number of pages10
ISBN (Print)978-1443816953
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2010

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