How Do You Define Success?

Polly Carl

Polly Carl

by Polly Carl

I’d like to save more money this year. Too much of my budget is going toward J.Crew. But part of how I justify this spending comes from how I identify success for myself. When I can get up in the morning and put on the exact right clothes to express my self, I feel like me all day and my ability to navigate the world goes up exponentially.

This feels shallow and perhaps not something to admit publicly, but it’s as true as anything else about me.

And I think this idea of digging deep or in my case, not so deep, and sorting out “success” for ourselves is perhaps the most important task any of us will face in the coming year—coming to terms with what success looks like both at the surface and down deep.

Success in Theater
I think the idea of what defines success in our field has become significantly more narrow over time, like a uniform you wear day in, day out with no allowance for personal style or taste. In fact, I might argue that what defines success has become so tedious and tiresome that new definitions of success are coming out of the closet to challenge a version that is just serving as a cover-up from my vantage point.

Tired Trajectory to Success:
Theater artist gets trained > Theater artist emerges > Theater artist gets small gigs in small theaters > Theater artist gets big gigs in small theaters > Theater artist gets small gigs in big theaters Theater artist gets big gigs in big theaters.

I realize when theater artists at the front end of that trajectory ask me for advice, I can no longer under any circumstances continue to support the tired trends of the past, hence my recent piece on the MFA question.

This journey toward success suggests many things that I find problematic for any art form:

  1. That success is linear—that becoming a successful theater artist starts at point A and moves its way down the alphabet.
  2. That the definition of success is predetermined.
  3. That success in the theater is realized by simply counting the number of people sitting in the theater who see your writing or your performance or your design—the bigger the house, the bigger the paycheck, the bigger the impact, the bigger the success.

These problems beg the question: Why? Why do we love theater? Why do we make it? Because if in fact we make it to achieve success, and success is a linear and predetermined trajectory decided by theater size, then our definition of success is the same as Wall Street’s. We are training theater artists in the same frame of success as we’re training our future “successful” business leaders—to go down a path of acquisition toward predetermined markers.

NarniaWhy Theater?
Recently, I flew to Minneapolis to see my ten-year-old nephew perform in the musical Narnia. He was one of the youngest performers, played a small bird, and had only two lines. But in talking with him after about the play, about why he loved doing it I heard about the preperformance exercises they do together, about the bonding between the older and more experienced performers and the newbies. I heard about how much he loves to sing. And I watched him after. The entire cast stood in a line in their costumes in the lobby and greeted the audience. Many young fans approached my nephew for his autograph.

I’ve paid pretty close attention to my nephew over the years, held him in my arms as a baby, was the primary babysitter for awhile, hosted him for “Aunt Camp” for a week in the summer and went to museums and ate copious amounts of ice cream with him. And I saw a transformation in him, standing in that line, greeting his audience. He had gravitas. Through several weeks of rehearsal and performance he had gone from a precocious, typically self-centered, I-want-what-I-want kid, to a gracious and more mature ten-year-old.

Fifteen years in, I keep redefining success for myself. I have been thinking since returning from Minneapolis about the immense privilege my nephew has to explore his interests and desires with the support of family and resources. And I keep thinking about what I want theater to mean for myself, my community, my family, and my world.

Success for me might just mean creating theater with more gravitas—a profession that has more weight and bearing in the world—by making theater in whatever way we do it, we succeed when we become more gracious and generous people.

The problem with predetermined paths to success is that for better or worse, the paths are well trodden, and the deep grooves cause us to try and find a way to make ourselves fit into something that has become ossified and unoriginal. And the truth is that not many theater artists, because they are such creative people, can make it down that predetermined road with any regularity.

And strangely, many artists who do find success on these terms don’t recognize it when they get there. I’ve met very few theater artists who will acknowledge that they’ve “made it” even though from the vantage point of those success markers, they clearly have.

Why is that? Is it because they had to make so many compromises along the way? Is it because like for those who go down the Wall Street road, there’s never enough? Never enough money? Accolades? Positive reviews? Awards? Standing Os? Like the billionaires, they’ve spent so much time in acquisition mode, they can’t stop wanting more, they can’t stop and see that at some point there is enough for them, and perhaps in a more generous world, for everyone?

Playwrights' Center

Playwrights’ Center

Clothes Can Never Make the Man
On that same trip to Minneapolis a couple of weeks ago, I stopped in at my favorite Minneapolis hangout, the Playwrights’ Center. I love that organization so much because it’s a true home for so many theater artists. I sat around with a bunch of those artists and we talked about this very issue, about how they define success for themselves. I fell into that preachy mode that I can sometimes fall into (sorry) and implored them:

  1. Spend this next year imagining your own definition of success as if it was as important as the next play you write or show you perform in. This will be your most creative endeavor, trust me.
  2. Commit to the success of at least one or two other theater artists you care about. Imagine, in the most creative way, how you can support that artist’s career. Make this part of your workday. You will learn so much about your own definition of success this way.
  3. If you haven’t created a personal ethics statement for how you will achieve your definition of success, do it. If your success is achieved on the backs of your collaborators or by breaking the backs of others, I promise you it won’t feel like success when you get there.

I’m old enough to know that clothes don’t make the man. I know that no matter how many orders I make to J.Crew, the clothes can never tell the whole story and that the surface can never stand in for the depth. If I can hold this thought long enough I might just save some money this year.

Polly Carl is the director of the Center for the Theater Commons at Emerson College, and the editor of the online journal HowlRound.

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