David Herskovits explains “The Dead Hand of Mastery”

I just saw this post which blew me away. I’ve been thinking a lot about the trouble that expectation can get us in (more on that specifically later, I’m sure), and it seems that expectation is always a decision on the agent’s part in favor of their own sense of control. Expectation is a sense of mastery. It is confidence in our own predictive powers. And in this sense mastery is also an incubator of expectations.

But how do we escape that loop of creative fulfillment? The loop where we know what we want and we strive to get it? The loop that is frustrated when things go wrong, and where our aim was possibly not as good as we thought? Or where we simply didn’t know all there was to know about a situation?

Part of the issue is that the more masterful we are the more we seem to trade out the creative process for its products. We know what we want, and we are not confused as to how to get there. The finished version is prefigured in our minds. It already exists in this formative space, and now only has to become realized. Its not an argument for process. It is not something open to surprise. Rather, it has its eye steadily on the prize. It gets exactly what it wants.

Only when things go wrong is it apparent that we’ve often become intolerant of difference, and that this intolerance has the force of an ethical stance. The more perfectly we are used to aiming, the tighter the bullseye, the less we are able to accept stray shots that miss the mark. And maybe you can see why this is dangerous, that not being open to inconsistency and difference is shaky ground in a world where so many things are beyond our control and which is abundantly filled with surprise.

The world seems to consistently strive to spoil our aim. Not with the purposeful intent of some trickster god, but simply because that is the way human ambition fits in the universe. Even our most accomplished schemes are vulnerable to the hidden nuance and “acts of god” that pepper our experience. Human creativity, like life, is not an all embracing calculus of matched expectations. The edges are rough. Each turn around the corner of where Present street meets Future avenue brings the unknown squarely face to face with us. Often its a stranger we never thought we’d meet…..

The question is, how do we embrace this seeming chaos? How do we unhitch ourselves from our rigid sense of control? How do we loosen the reins of our mastery to where the serendipity of our experience is not only valued but cherished? How do we encourage surprises? How do we make a home for them in our lives and our creative practice? How do we turn ourselves from the sometimes stale products of our own superlative control? How do we move beyond the comforting known to the unfamiliar footing that truly surrounds us on all sides? Do we only step where we can clearly see where our feet will land? Do we only head out on paths that lead to places we already know? What sort of process can free us from our addiction to control? Without at the same time giving in to total random chaos?

David Herskovits seems to know. This is what he had to say in his post for the Theatre Communications Group’s 2013 national conference in Dallas:


Post image for Against Mastery

(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

Over the past many years I have developed a variety of techniques in what I have come to call “forced failure.” Essentially these are strategies that force the performer to fail by setting an impossible task, and the failure itself generates the material that I really prize: the by-product is the product, to put it in a target/margin way, and we succeed through failure. I should add that the practice might involve not only performers, but other partners: designers, technicians, dramaturgs, producers, musicians, assistants, really anyone invested in the work.

This can be done in endless ways. Typically, there is a speech, or a scene, or a passage of dialogue, or a part of a story that needs to be expressed. I demand that the people involved express it but then limit the process such that they are doomed to fail, and they have to re-invent whatever the thing may be. In these cases there is a pre-text of some kind, a play usually, although it could also be a scenario or a fable, historical sources, non-dramatic literature, or just an idea we develop together. Usually the outcome of this first step is recorded in some way. Inevitably that recording itself fails (it is distorted, flawed, wrong), and it in turn sponsors another iteration. For example: demand that the performer learn a speech, but give them insufficient time, then as they attempt to say the speech record that; so all the little glitches and passages—“ohhhh, (long pause) totally blank….or not, or not, that’s it or not to be!”—are captured; then transcribe that and commit to it with exact fidelity. It becomes the new score. Or the speech could be transcribed by another actor by hand, without stopping or explanation; that transcription must be read by another person who of course cannot decipher the handwriting and has to supply gaps as best she or he can. Two or more people could be given some time to read and work on a scene, which I demand they stage, by which I mean create a movement score that is precise and repeatable, and then of course they must perform it exactly and without stopping. This yields a physical failure, as the movement is garbled, elided, and re-improvised while retaining nonetheless some memory of its non-existent original (you could call that “original” an intention). Phases of recording, either by hand or audio recording or even video recording are usually an important part of the process, as capturing what happens (“the music of what happens” in Seamus Heaney’s lovely phrase) is so important.

The point of course is to create things we could never have dreamed or envisioned if we had planned them. The point is to sidestep trying to envision the work, to let go of interpretive ideas, and above all to stop thinking. The point is to break the dead hand of mastery.

We work so hard to feel mastery of our métier; we trumpet our competence and artistry and importance loud in the noisy uncaring amphitheater of American culture because no one else gives a damn and if anything their disregard reminds us how trivial our own work is in the scheme of things. We crown ourselves. No one else will. But for me mastery is the greatest enemy. In an institutional setting one manifestation of this is the pressure to make things “work.” (What we mean by “that works” of course is an endlessly variable and generally unexamined question which energizes me to jolt us all into a more mindful awareness of our own work, and you may notice me invoking a value in tension with this essay’s “above all to stop thinking.” But that is for some other blog post.) Rehearsal exists, in this case, to ensure that what we put on stage “works”; we triple check, we consult with outsiders and audiences, Artistic Directors invigilate the process energetically. Guaranteeing artistic quality is a crucial, perhaps the core, responsibility of their job. This of course leads us to value mastery. We want people in the theater who can reliably deliver a product with a consistent level of quality. So that is what we get: a stream of production that back-flips away from any possibility of chaos, confusion, or not-working. It is often highly competent, even very good, but that is just the problem. Its goodness (its quality in the strict sense) is of a kind we know in advance we will be comfortable with.

It seems to me that people talk about risk a great deal in non-profit theater, and I am never quite sure what they mean. For me the thing worth risking artistically is that a choice or a gesture or an entire production really might fail. We have a hunch that something could be really exciting in a new way. Yes, a stern examination would probably reject such an impulse: that won’t work! But what if we try and find out. What if we risk the possibility—no, the certainty—that some people in the audience won’t respond favorably to the choice, in pursuit of the possibility of creating something truly surprising, new. In other words, it is an experiment, a calculated reasoned experiment, but one which nonetheless entails a higher degree of risk than our customary sense of control might admit. Even if the experiment we are testing fails spectacularly, we will enjoy a rare artistic adventure and enrich the culture with possibility. A special beauty of experiments is that when they fail, they succeed. When I say mastery is the enemy, one thing I mean is that I’d rather get an F than a C.

Yes, there are certain technical skills I have acquired, but they too easily become deadly habit. Yes, I sometimes feel the need to proclaim the legitimacy of my work (for funders, for the press, for TCG, for my ego), but sinking too much into that turn of mind leads to complacent self-regard. Yes, I am proud of my own work. But in my experience, no one made anything really important while they were thinking “god I’m good!” Maybe they thought that and some other things less pleasant. Restless dissatisfaction with self and its accompanying anguish make great things happen. So if I am thinking I can handle a theatrical challenge I lose interest. I am driven to do things I do not know how to do and I strive to create situations precisely where I do not know what’s happening or going to happen. Which brings us back to forced failure.

I am not saying that failure is the final goal. I do not want to get an F; I want an A. Failure as an integral stage of the creative process has an incomparable value. Directors in particular tend to favor control and articulation: they tell people what to do, and they are good at explaining. Although these are important skills, I am not wholly convinced that they lead to the most exciting work on stage; they guarantee the competent work I discuss above. Painters who have achieved a high level of technical excellence will speak of their desire to “break their hand.” Brice Marden was driven to give up using brushes and paint with sticks; Francis Bacon used to throw paint at the canvas. So I strive to give up control. Forced failure is an important tool for this, but there are many others. The collaborative nature of theater and the severe material restrictions of the profession perpetually thwart our control. Unexpected or irrational events surprise me and force me to adjust my own approach to the work every hour. I embrace them. I also tend to resist explanation. If the production I create is wholly explicable in words, if directing means staging an account of a text that is translatable into language, then something very dear has been lost. That thing is my goal.

Of course I am lying. This whole embrace of randomness, chaos, and failure, is built on my own strong sense of mastery. I do not mean that I am some great artistic master; I just mean I am competent to create a production and I know it. If we need to stage the play and tech it and open it by Wednesday, I can do it. If someone needs to be told what to do, or if they need an explanation, I can provide it. I just find it much more interesting to let go. And if failure is a stage of the process, it bears fruit because I then subject the work to intense and sustained editing and shaping. I try to keep all the random failures in the mix, but only some of them actually survive into the final production. In the end the struggle between mastery and failure is where the action is. That tension creates a particular kind of awkward beauty. All those stutters and sputters create their own surprising music. Call it the poetry of the inarticulate. We confront odd and mysterious creations, what Hopkins calls “counter, original, spare, strange; whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)” We don’t know how! We may touch on deep truths and ineffable feelings in ways we could never explain. That at least is my hope and my belief.

David Herskovits is the Founder and Artistic Director of Target Margin Theater in New York City. He has directed plays and operas at Lincoln Center Festival, The Spoleto Festival USA, Theatre for A New Audience, Institut Internationale de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mezieres, France, The Kitchen, Mass MoCA, and The Cleveland Public Theater, among others. David was a 2011 Fellow of The American Academy in Jerusalem; he has written essays and articles for numerous publications and taught at a wide range of institutions.

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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