On Losing (or, why art competitions suck)

I teach Drama, and we’ve just wrapped up our first production of the year. Wrapping a show is sort of an emotional roller coaster in its own right, but this show in particular was a competition piece, which carries its own unique set of pressures and baggage. And being the new guy in the building and in the program, there was a sort of excitement and uncertainty hanging over the whole thing.

Well, we lost. So now there’s this big ol’ empty feeling hanging around the end of this show. I didn’t want that to be the last thing in my mind, or in the minds of my students, so I wanted to say something to them to sort of tie all this up. And while I could have ad-libbed it, there were a few things I wanted to make sure that I got right, so I decided to write down what I’m going to say to them.

And when I started doing that, I realized, hey howdy, it fits right in with what I’m doing here in my own life, trying to write novels and tell stories and all that. So I’m posting it here.

Maybe my fellow arters will find something useful here.


So we’ve been working on this play for the better part of two months. For some of you, it’s your first foray into the arts. For others — my seniors — this may be your last bite at the apple.

We all thought we had a chance. I wasn’t exempt. As much as I know to temper expectations in a situation like this, I still held out hope, down in the soft underbelly of my heart, that we might win. We took this weird little show and this weird bunch of actors and spun it like spider silk into a web of quirky jokes, bizarre moments, and puzzling profundities; we knew we had something special.

It wasn’t easy. We got on each others’ nerves. We struggled to keep our lives in order while it was all going on, and some of us succeeded better than others. You suffered car accidents, illnesses to yourselves and your families, arguments and fights and breakups, and I don’t even want to know what else. And despite all that, everything came together at the perfect moment, and you gave a performance I didn’t even know we were capable of.

But hanging over all this was the competition, and that means that at the end of the day, there are winners and losers. And we didn’t win. Didn’t place. Didn’t even merit an honorable mention.

We can’t mitigate that. That sucks. It feels like a great big thumbs-down from the heavens, like the disembodied voice of God asking, “why did you even bother?”

And it might leave you thinking, why did I sink so much time into this? Why did I give up my afternoons and evenings, all that free time, all that mental energy — to merit not even a mention when it’s all said and done?

This is the problem with competitions in art. With awards and plaques and trophies, with comparing the fruit of your labor to the fruit of somebody else’s. This isn’t like football, where the better prepared, better organized, stronger, faster team wins within the margin of error for luck. This is art, and art is subjective. It means different things to different people. For better or worse — and it’s usually for worse — winning an art competition is about appealing to the right person in the right way at the right time.

And we didn’t.

And again, that sucks.

I can’t sugarcoat it. Even though I was totally prepared for it, it still burns me up. I spent most of the ride home muttering to myself, gritting my teeth, trying to swallow the lump in my throat. I know what this means to you. I’ve been there. And my heart goes out to you, not because we “lost,” but because this feels like a rejection and a nullification of not only the performance, but of everything we all did to make the performance happen. It feels like we did something wrong, something that wasn’t “good enough.”

And if we focus on the trophy — on the “winning” and “losing” and the honorable mentions, then it’s easy to read this situation that way.

But that’s not how I choose to read it. And I hope it’s not how you’ll choose to read it.

Art is not about winning awards. It’s about making connections. It’s about finding those people in your audience who are ready to hear the story you have to tell them. It’s about the ring of the applause in your ears, the accolades from people you don’t know but for this momentary connection, the conversations people have on the way to their cars afterward. Art isn’t the trophy that gets locked in a case to gather dust. Art is the experience that lives in your heart, that warm, giddy glow that you’ll remember when you get down on yourself, that knowledge that you did something that made a difference, that you changed the way somebody thought about you, about the world, about life, even if only for a little while.

That’s what art is about.

We don’t take home a trophy, but they can’t take away the standing ovation you got (and let’s not forget, we were the only group to get one of those).

We don’t go on to the next round, but we delighted our audience. We made them laugh and smile and cheer when heavy and emotional was the flavor of the day; we gave them an afternoon rainstorm in the dead of a hot, stifling summer.

Sometimes audiences applaud out of politeness. Because they’re supposed to do it, because it’s what you do to pay a tribute, however small. But when somebody stands up and applauds? They do that because they have to. Not because they’re forced to, or expected to, but because they have no other choice: something you did moved them to the core. The art got into them, stirred up their insides, and had to be expelled before it tore them apart.

Art is visceral. Art is emotional. Art isn’t about tallying points on a sheet, it’s about scratching marks on your audience’s soul.

You went into this show with claws out. You affected that audience. And that means a hell of a lot more to me than any trophy.

Could we have done some things differently? Sure. Could we have done things better, scored a few more points, fenagled a better ranking? Maybe.

But that show wouldn’t have been this show, and this show is one that I will never forget. And that’s because of you, and the performance that you gave, and because of what we all felt in that auditorium when the curtain came down.

Never forget that feeling. Because that’s what art is all about.


8 thoughts on “On Losing (or, why art competitions suck)

  1. This sums up how I’m feeling at the end of my son’s cross country season. It’s his senior year, there was a new high school coach and I coached the middle school team. It’s a smaller school so much of the team stuff was done together. I feel like I had a part in coaching these high schoolers too. We had high hopes for a couple runners making it to states and maybe, just maybe, the high school boys team too. They had a shot. It was a long one but it was definitely there.
    Well, their regional meet was this past weekend. My son and one of the other seniors, the two fastest on the team, were both academically ineligible. The team stuttered without their leaders pushing them. No one PRd. No one. It felt like falling flat on your face, a giant thumbs down for sure….
    But everything, well, much of what you wrote about art could be said for running too and especially this team experience. Even though you didn’t win, you accomplished something. Something valuable happened here. You did and created something and it was worthwhile.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pretty much. Awards are nice and all, but you can’t take them with you. All we have is our experiences, so if it was meaningful for you, that’s really kind of all that matters.

      My perhaps not so humble opinion.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I completely stopped taking my students to theatre competitions three years ago! The theatre department is so different now, better than it has ever been! Our shows have improved so much and I have students who are successfully working after high school in film and television, as well as on tours of shows. I say, never again will I participate in a theatre competition!

    Liked by 1 person

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