By Kelly Leonard – Executive Director, Insights and Applied Improvisation
Earlier this week I gave a talk for TEDx Broadway in New York City at the New World Stages – on the same stage where “Avenue Q” currently makes its home. Here’s the second part of the talk.
Some of our greatest successes at Second City were born of epic failures:
A few years back, the Opera Diva, Renee Fleming made reservations to see a Second City show through her hotel’s concierge who didn’t use her real name. That fact is important because had we known Renee Fleming was coming, we never would have booked her into the show where we were illegally sampling her voice. But instead of suing us, Renee leaned into the mistake and ended up becoming a champion for a collaboration between Second City and Lyric Opera Chicago. The resulting production, “The Second City Guide to the Opera,” was an award winning smash hit.
In the mid-Seventies, a new television show called started picking off our top talent – John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray – as a purely defensive move, Second City bosses Andrew Alexander and Len Stuart scrambled to launch our own television show in Canada called With an almost non-existent budget and no major network support, I’d suggest to you that captured a level of invention and risk taking that wouldn’t have been possible were it not for its inherent disadvantages.
In both cases, we didn’t push away from the negative. We embraced it as an opportunity.
Essentially, what we are talking about is improvisation – the ability to pivot in real time; to adapt and change on the fly.
Unfortunately, most of us are so consumed by our fear of failure that we don’t allow ourselves the time or energy to mindfullylinger inside a mistake. We crumple up the bad review and throw it in the garbage.
One of my favorite improv phrases was coined by the actor and teacher Rick Thomas who tells his students to “fall into the crack in the game.”
What Rick is saying is that to work at our highest creative potential, we need to reorient our instincts. We need to see every object in front of us, not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity.
And this might sound like a direction that applies only to artists – but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Everyone in this room, in some way, has their hand in bringing creative work into the world. It doesn’t matter if you’re not the writer or composer or director of it. Sometimes you’re publicizing it or marketing it; sometimes you’re managing the audience for it or helping to take it out on the road.
Creative artists need creative leaders – and creative leaders need creative employees.
You will never be able to unlock your true creative potential if you spend your time avoiding, hiding or ignoring your failures.
We all need to find the ways we can frame our hate mail; we need to plumb our disadvantages for possibilities – and the only way we can do that is through practical fearlessness.
My first big critical success as a theatrical producer was a show called Pinata Full of Bees. While the reviews were great, years later we realized that it was one of the worst selling shows in the history of Second City.
But the press was so good, the show got booked at The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Not only did we get panned by the critics in DC, the reviewers went out of their way to lament how Second City was clearly no longer the place to find the next generation of great comic talent.
This was the cast for that show.
Steve Carell, David Koechner, Tim Meadows, Adam McKay, Jon Glaser, Nancy Walls and Theresa Mulligan and musical director Mark Levenson.
I was talking to Adam McKay a few weeks ago and he told me that he got the idea for having celebrities describe financial jargon in his film from a technique that we used in In that show, Adam played Noam Chomsky who was substitute teaching a third grade class and telling them what the “real” America was all about.
During previews, we realized that more than half the audience didn’t know who Noam Chomsky was. So we froze the action on stage and had another actor pop out and give a brief biography of Chomsky.
The failure of our audience’s knowledge provided the opportunity for a creative theatrical technique.
was a critical hit in Chicago that bombed in Washington, DC; it was a financial miss that helped launch the careers of a bunch of hugely talented performers and influenced a film that is nominated for an Academy Award.
I truly think that it is our fear of failing that allows us to forget the thousands of tiny failures that helped pave the way every success we have.
Indeed, the opposite of failure is not success. The opposite of failure is not even trying.
When I was working on this talk, I googled the bad reviews we got for our show at the Kennedy Center. In one article, I came across this comment:
“Finally, someone posting the truth about Kelly Leonard’s systematic destruction of The Second City brand.”
Anyone know a good frame shop in the neighborhood?
Special Note: Hours before I gave this talk, we got the news that Second City co-owner Len Stuart had passed away, peacefully and with his family and friends around him. No one could possibly add up the amount of joy and transforming gifts that Len has given the millions of people who have been touched by the work at The Second City over so many decades. May he rest in peace and may he have the last laugh.