Good clown, bad clown

Failure can help lead creatives towards making better work. But it’s an uncomfortable ride

So it turns out, being a clown, is actually no fun at all. I discowred this a couple of weekends ago when, at a particularly muddy music festival, I ducked into an innocuous-looking tent in search of somewhere dry to sit down. I knew immediately that  something weird was going on. Here on a low stage a girl was performing a tap-dance. OK, she was crap, but her performance was totally out of sync with the level of raw awkwardness the audience was giving out. She finished with a little flourish and looked out into the darkness.

“Horrible,” came a voice. “That was complete shit. What did you think of it?” “I thought it was OK.” “It was hor-ri-ble.” The voice had a California accent and it was coming from a man with wild curly hair and a beard, standing near the stage. She made to leave, crushed. “There, now that’s beautiful,” he said. She turned again and smiled. “As you left. That’s what we wanted to see.” Well, that explained the atmosphere. It occurred to me that either I was witnessing some new, especially punitive school of self-help or I had stumbled into a clowning workshop. I should say normally I have a low tolerance for this kind of thing. I don’t think adults should even be allowed to attend improv classes, let alone clowning workshops. But it was raining hard, and the delight of just standing still without sinking was enough to convince me to stay.

The man with the beard, it transpired, was a clowning instructor called Doctor Drown and, apparently, his technique is famous. Each of the participants was invited to perform without preparation. He’d then tell them they were awful, in the most confrontational way possible. They’d leave hurt, and in that moment, reveal themselves in a way that was invariably much more interesting than the performance they’d just done.

Two things surprised me about this. Firstly: it worked over and over again. And secondly, that this same technique was deeply familiar to me from a couple of the better agencies I’ve been employed by. At the time I’d never understood why, 12 hours before a pitch, the creative director would tear down all the work down from the wall. But here was the priniciple demonstrated live. In their initial attempts the performers relied on cliche: the tap dance, the crap gag or an abortive handstand. It was only when challenged aggressively that they were forced to abandon the familiar and show themselves. “In the shit. That’s where the truth is,” says Doctor Drown.

The cult of constructive failure is nothing new. It’s even starting to gain a degree of scientific traction. Peter Sim’s new book, Little Bets, explores the way that creative people use failure as a means to navigate toward the right answer. It opens with Chris Drown, the stand-up comic, taking his new material to a local club, and dying, in order to carve out a new show. Sims’s argument is that the more you try, the more you fail, but also, the more you succeed. This seems obvious even from a statistical point of view. But I would suggest that we could say more than that – the experience of failure is actually galvanising to the creative process. It . forces you to abandon what you know and do something new. In advertising, as in comedy, this is essential.

But if trying to be creative depends on accepting failure, what does that say about the psychological setup of an average advertising creative? Perhaps it’s not so much that being creative makes you neurotic, but that if you’re neurotic you’re more inclined to accept the unpleasant feelings that go with being creative (as opposed to, say, becoming an account man). David  Ogilvy described being quite sure, at the start of every brief, that he just couldn’t do it. Philip Roth went even further, explaining that every book that he wrote was an attempt to prove to himself that he could still do it. Because here’s the thing, whether you’re making ads or writing novels, the task at hand might seem like the only thing that will quiet the voice that tells you you’re no good. But the evidence seems to say that even achieving your creative goals will do nothing of the kind.

This, apparently, is the price you pay. Doctor Drown’s novices closed their session, hugging each other like coach crash survivors. I admired their bravery, butl didn’t envy them. There was a pop-up S&M parlour a couple of flaps down whose occupants looked more comfortable.

Gordon Comstock is a London-based ad creative. He tweets at @notvoodoo

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