Transcending Medium

The Practice of Failure

Transcending Medium Emily Bate. Photo by Kristin Goehring

Right now the world is in dire need of a lot of different things, but in my opinion one of them is for more women’s voices to be heard in the public. When I heard that musician Emily Bate has a theatrical choral project with a women’s chorus I got so excited! She’s a killer singer-songwriter, composer and “harmony fanatic” whose ethos I really connect with. If that weren’t enough, Emily’s choral arrangements really remind me of some of my all-time favorite vocal groups like Kate and Anna McGarrigle and The Roches. Both of these bands are comprised of sisters whose voices just blend together naturally. One of Emily’s current projects includes Going Down Mount Moriah, a theater piece based around a 9-voice women’s choir. As far as I know Emily doesn’t have any sisters in this choir, but combined the women’s voices come out sounding like they’re siblings who’ve been making noise together for many years. I’m delighted that Emily has opened up about her experience going from singing and songwriting to leading a hybrid theatre project.

-Mira Treatman, curator

So I want to say a few things about working between, amongst, around, and in the thick of different disciplines, and to talk about my little explorations in that regard.

My background is music—specifically, the DIY singer-songwriter scene. I put out my first album on home-duplicated cassette tape at age 15, and for years after that I made records in my bedroom, played house shows, and went on tour. By my late 20s, I’d run through that cycle so many times that boredom had set in hard. I was rewriting the same songs and singing them with less and less conviction.

I found my work so stale I’d slink off to play shows in secret, not even bothering to tell my friends. Then I’d play very boring sets to a bunch of nice people who deserved to see art that at least one person in the room gave a fuck about, and hurry home as fast I as I could to groan on my couch.

All sorts of things drive an artist to make work. In the deep throes of musical ennui, surprising myself became the only measure of success I cared about. I started writing little short stories, micro-short, just trying to make myself laugh or dazzle myself by revealing something true I hadn’t considered before. If a sentence made me shake my head and say “Emily, you are a complete freak,” I kept working on it. I didn’t consider myself a “writer”; I was just tinkering around, playing with little sentences with casual absorption, like a kid would play with toy trains.

I put some of these shorty short stories into a zine, my favorite amateur-driven form. Actually it was a zingle (a zine + a music single). You download the music, and then read the writing that goes with. The word “zingle,” which I invented, was so delightful I immediately wanted to make another one. And performing the zingle live, by interspersing the songs and the stories, was my first big, exciting, interdisciplinary “aha!” It was nerve-wracking to read stories out loud, but then I’d retreat to the safer territory of songs. The experiment had an exciting result: the quality of the audience’s attention was palpably different when I mixed writing and music. The quality of my attention was different, too. The ideas in both elements leapt out into the room, buzzing with possible connections, like a performance collage.

At that point, the floodgates kinda flew open. In a year, that zingle transformed into a 9-person choral theater piece.

Here’s the bridge between a little xeroxed pamphlet and a big staged show with choral arrangements. I got from A to Z, basically, by witnessing and participating in art of other disciplines and learning little bits about how different people make work. I went to see dance, theater, visual art, and performance art, instead of just folk shows. And I became a collaborator on other people’s projects. When I started creating music for theater, for instance, I got to shed the idea (very prevalent and annoying in the singer-songwriter world) that a song is primarily a personal statement of feeling. The songs I wrote for the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz were freer and wilder than the things I’d been writing before, since I was concerned only with being a frightening green villainess.

I gained so much by experiencing artistic process in other disciplines. It wasn’t always easy – in theater it’s completely normal to perform a work-in-progress that’s so egregiously unfinished you might stop mid-sentence and say “Now skipping ahead two scenes . . .” I co-wrote a musical, and every time we had a work-in-progress showing, I felt like I had peed my pants onstage and was pointing to the stain the entire time. Eventually it sunk in that these showings are a convention in theater, and everybody in the audience knows that. But nobody ever did that in the music world. Surviving that process, and seeing the positive effect it had on what we were making, was a big mental shift for me.

I think we’re all familiar with anxiety around being bad at something. But circling back to the writing I did for my “zingles,” creating something outside your discipline is an exciting chance to play in that anxiety and push through. Since I’m not an actor, I’m not devastated if I don’t act well. If somebody asks me to act, I say “fuck it” and see what happens, without feeling overly exposed. It is an opportunity to safely practice failure, since I will certainly fail many times in my primary discipline.

The failure practice allowed me to be creatively ambitious again. I wanted to create a theater piece with music and movement, and I didn’t know what I was doing. It wasn’t a painless process—the giant roiling knot of out-of-my-league anxiety was a big thing—but the fresh air I’d gulped in as a collaborator had helped me cultivate bravery. I plunged forward in some combination of curiosity-plus-anxiety, and it produced lots of work. I think my ideal creative state is a tightrope walk between the two. If, inside of a challenging and high-stakes moment, you can become really present and interested in the outcome, whatever it might be, you’re onto something.

Plus, here’s the great part: nothing’s wasted! Whatever didn’t work out as planned is information to use next time.

Which brings me to how I’ve started to evaluate the creating process, once I’ve finished something. After I make something new, I’m really interested in 1) how the piece worked out in the world and 2) how it felt to make it. When combatting self-doubt, encouraging yourself out of a creative slump, or battling other creative demons, how it feels is a really important consideration. For instance: I created a really rich piece of theater that connected with the collaborators and the audience. It entailed emptying my bank account, not sleeping for 3 weeks, and walking around with the sensation that my head was clamped in a vice. After my show ended, I spent some analyzing how those sacrifices felt as I was making them. It was important not to trick myself into giving a particular answer, or judge myself for what I actually want. It’s all information I can use to change or commit to my process, and keep myself working for the long haul.

I know that a major criteria for my sense of success will always be chasing the spark of surprise. I can’t think of any reason to create something otherwise. The surest way I know to find that surprise is by stretching myself sideways, into other artistic worlds, and playing in the spaces in-between.

Catch Emily Bate and collaborator Erin Markey at L’Etage on August 24th, in a buddy comedy performance project masquerading as a night of duets. The show, called “Hey Girl! That’s My Girl!” features a full band. For tickets & info visit emilybate.com.

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