Failure~. It’s a wonderful thing. I’m serious!
Ages ago I was listening to the TED Radio Hour on NPR and heard this particular episode which still resonates with me years later. In short, it talks about the importance of not only failure but embracing it.
Why the hell would anyone want that??
Because failure, more importantly being open to failure, means you’re not closing doors before even entering the house. How often do people decide, without even trying, that they know how things will turn out? All the time! How often do they shoot down ideas in the spitballing phase? ALL THE TIME! But trial and error–experimentation and brainstorming–are how solutions are found.
A willingness to sound silly and say it anyway, that takes guts. That’s something good thinkers do. What good actors do. They don’t care how it looks when they get down on the floor. Or make a weird face, or affect a limp. Because they know they need to get into character and sometimes it takes a different approach to find the best way in. Sometimes it’s figuring out what doesn’t work to whittle down what does. Sometimes it takes rereading the copy with a different speed or emotion or accent. Or pretending to eat a sandwich while delivering the line. Or pretending to be on a freezing mountaintop. Whatever it takes to understand what the writers really meant. Because writers love to hide meaning and symbolism in their work. I know this from over 15 years of experience. (Always honor the writers. Always.)
The thing about trying is, more often than not, when we stumble upon something that works we don’t always know why. At least not at first. And it may still need improvement. But we roll with it. Like the Unilever example in the TED Radio Hour post I reference above: When the company hired professionals to design the perfect soap dispensing nozzle for their factory the pros couldn’t do it. It was too complex for them to figure out. “Unilever actually did solve this problem - trial and error, variation and selection. You take a nozzle and you create 10 random variations on the nozzle. You try out all 10. You keep the one that works best. You create 10 variations on that one. You try out all 10. You keep the one that works best. And after 45 generations, you have this incredible nozzle, looks a bit like a chess piece, functions absolutely brilliantly. We have no idea why it works, no idea at all. But the moment you step back from the God complex and you say let's just try a bunch of stuff, let's have a systematic way of determining what's working and what's not, you can solve your problem.”
Like with penicillin, the microwave, and anesthesia, experimentation and a willingness to try something new can lead to some wild results. A simple change to lithium-sulfur batteries, which have been around since the 1960s, significantly increases their range of use and could be a boon to green energy while reducing harmful cobalt mining.The use of misoprostol–an ulcer medication–changed in the 1980s when women in Brazil, who were not allowed to legally abort pregnancies, noticed the drug may cause miscarriages. Someone dared to follow the rabbit-hole into the unknown and something fantastic or wonderful or wild or interesting or just very, very helpful was waiting for them on the other end.
So follow Alice’s lead and go down that rabbit hole. Just maybe don’t eat the mushrooms.
When I introduce myself to people, I always say, “Hi, I’m Virginia–like the state.”
I didn’t always say that. I used to say, “Hi, I’m Virginia–like the state but not after it.” I had a Great Aunt Virginia who was a sister to my paternal grandmother and, typically enough, I was named after her. Until I jokingly remarked to my dad how I would introduce myself like that:
“Oh, no, you’re named after the state.”
*record scratching sounds* “What.”
“Yeah, I like Civil War history and I liked the way Virginia Lee sounded so yeah you’re named after the state.”
For fucks sake. I should probably mention my father’s name is Robert. I don’t know what he, or my mom were thinking. We’re from the midwest and the great lakes region. Have been for generations.
Anyway! Growing up I didn’t hate my name but I couldn’t fathom why I wasn’t called Caitlin, or Kimberly, or Britney, or Kate, or any of the plethora of other, more popular, more 90s names. Virginia? I sounded like my own grandmother! As I got older, I liked more and more being the only Virginia under 60+. The name had a brief comeback in the late 2000s, but the name’s still pretty uncommon. Hooray for me!
Back to my introduction. After omitting the “but not after it” part of my standard intro, I learned about some of the techniques memory competitors use, such as the memory palace. Associating something you want to remember with something tangible is a useful trick to mastering recall. Turns out when I was introducing myself I was already doing this very thing for other people. I’ve had an extremely high rate of people who remember my name when I introduce myself as “like the state”. At worst, people called me Veronica or Victoria, which have the same first and last letters so that's in itself still a win.
When a friend sent me a t-shirt from Walmart with “VIRGINIA” emblazoned across the chest in colorful letters, I began to wear in in VO webinars to make me easier to identify (‘cause we all know by now zoom names do disappear after awhile if you don’t move the cursor).
I got more Virginia shirts. Then I started wearing them to conferences. “Like the state!” people would exclaim when they saw me. “See! It works!”
Works indeed. That’s why my website is VirginiaLikeTheState.com and my business card has a watercolor image of the state printed on it.
The funniest moments were at the most recent VO Atlanta when I wore my “Virginia is for Lovers” t-shirt and had about a half dozen different VOs come up to me saying “Where are you from?” and I would sort of blink dumbly at them, realize what they meant, and clarify, “Michigan. My name is Virginia–like the state.” Then we would laugh about it.
On the flip side of introductions I have a technique as well. When I meet someone new, I repeat the person’s name back to them. I do this to be sure I’m hearing it right and for some reason repeating helps me to remember it a little easier. Often, after hearing my spiel, they will give me an association back. “Jake, like rake but with a J” for example. Sometimes they would start to find something to associate, flounder a bit, and I would jump in and we’d figure it out together. A quick little bonding moment between strangers. I love that kind of thing!
Here’s a little tip from me to you: if you say the other person’s name once in a while in a positive way while talking to them, it makes you *really* likable. Think about it: How often do we hear our own names? It feels nice to be acknowledged, to be recognized, and hearing our names in a positive tone is lovely.
So how does this tie into branding?
I’m no master, but I like to think people find me likable and likable people tend to be remembered. Want to know a secret? Here it is: be candid af. Genuinely be interested in other people and they will pick up on it. And they will like you! This is especially handy in an industry (like VO, for example) where relationships are perhaps just as important as your skill.
As Lester Bangs (played by the incomparable Philip Seymour Hoffman) said in Almost Famous: “I used to do speed. You know, and sometimes a little cough syrup. I’d stay up all night, just writin’ and writin’. I mean, like 25 pages of dribble. You know, about The Faces or Coltrane. You know, just to fuckin’ write.”
I can relate. Not about the cough syrup. I’ve always been decidedly square and I'm at peace with that. But about the writing. When I write, it’s like dipping a ladle into a deep well. And the more I write the deeper I can reach, to bring up the good stuff that runs deep like Stillwater (see what I did there?).
I think that’s where the magic lies in art. In exploration.
I’ve spent many hours watching recordings of other actors. Breaking down their scenes and mimicking them. Their movements and expressions and cadences. My personal favorite was during the pandemic watching Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as the creature in National Theatre’s 2011 production of Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle. Which ALSO had a fantastic version where he and Jonny Lee Miller switch roles with Miller as the creature and Cumberbatch as the doctor . It's pretty cool, check it out!
It’s truly breathtaking to watch a master, which Cumberbatch is on the stage. There’s a wholeness to a masterful performance. A complete immersion. Like how children play. Most immersion is very good but is still missing something, some unnamable element that I think has to do with the ego and an unwillingness to release the self completely. To me, a truly excellent performance gives me tunnel vision: All I see is what’s happening in front of me. Like when I get sucked into a writing project. I resurface for air and dimly realize time has somehow passed.
On the flip side of that, a full embrace of technique can be magnificent. The documentary Sing, Dance, Act: Kabuki featuring Toma Ikuta is a gorgeous example of this. Kabuki (a classical Japanese style of theater originating in the early 17th century, for you non-history nerds) is highly stylized, with specific expressions and movements, where even just walking into a scene takes ages of practice to get it just right. It takes years to train at this specialized form of storytelling where every tiny movement must be perfectly executed to just the right order or it pulls the viewer right out. It’s a sort of mechanical immersion, a very different plan of attack from the raw, instinctive style I’m accustomed to. There' s something poetic about taking a thing and breaking it down to the smallest, most basic elements. Refining them. Crafting them together again in a pure form. Japanese culture does this a lot, with the language, the food. Everything lovely is a ceremony. Focused. Built upon experience and skills and technique to make it look seamless and simple when it’s anything but. Japan is full of artisans.
Many masters of art do this. It’s so very, beautifully human.
I think the way to really embrace this immersion in one’s own life and art is to find pleasure in the world around them. In the small things, the elements and atoms. In repetition and refinement. In movement and the poetry of time. To step out of oneself and focus so wholly on something else–whether in watching or in doing–that the rest of the world falls away. That’s why I started this blog. To get myself more into the habit of stepping back and viewing and cogitating. I’m reminded of a lovely French novel I’ve reread several times that does just that.
This is the (artist’s) way. Keep it real.
Va the Vo
Actor, Vocal Pro, and Writer Extraordinaire!