by ERIK ORTON
I would like to share one of my biggest failures. I’ve never told this story in writing before. The full story is not in our book, Seven at Sea. I talked about some of it in a recent magazine interview. Now that the magazine and book are in the world, I feel freed-up to tell it myself. Maybe I’ve just built up a tolerance for over-sharing.
In 2005 I was trying to go big. I was working on the Broadway musical Wicked, helping manage the first two tours that went out. I was making good money, had some clout and caché, but I also had a prior commitment. When they hired me for WickedI had a producing project I was working on. It was called The Ark and was a musical about Noah and his family. It was a delightful, fun, insightful show. We budgeted the show at $1.5 million and the plan was to open it Off-Broadway that fall. I was partnering with my mentor and friend, Karen.
As we got deeper into the process, Karen—who was twenty-plus years my senior—was lagging behind on her half of the fundraising. She also lived out of town. I decided if this show was going to happen, I had to fully commit. I quit my job on Wicked, set to fundraising and producing full-time and we raised the capital needed to open the show.
The show was indeed delightful, fun and insightful. We opened the show and threw a big party at a restaurant down the block from the theatre. Emily was pregnant with Eli. He was due that day. He patiently waited until after the party. The next day Emily went into labor. I told Karen, “I’m going off-radar for twenty-four hours.” That evening Eli was born. He was healthy and perfect. Emily was amazing and strong. I brought them home from the hospital the next day. After my twenty-four hours were up, I checked in with Karen.
“I have some bad news,” she said. “The reviews were mixed and we did not get any lift in ticket sales. We posted a closing notice. We can always take it down, but we posted it as a precaution.”
I was stunned. This couldn’t be happening. Everything I had was riding on this show. This was happening too soon, too fast. Why would she and our management team make this kind of decision without me? I know I said I was going off radar, but I never expected they would post a closing notice.
The next night I went to the theatre to check in with the cast. Emily came with me, walking tenderly. She had Eli wrapped in a thick blanket as we stepped in out of the cold November air.
I was upset the closing notice had gone up. We had until Friday to take it down, but news of that kind spreads like wildfire and kills any buzz or positive word of mouth that may be struggling to survive. But it couldn’t be undone.
I went into blitz mode creating marketing partnerships and advertising that would avert the need to close. But there was not enough time. It was too late. We would run out of money before those could have their effect. We limped along for a couple extra weeks then pulled the plug. It was a complete financial loss and I was pretty sure a lot of people were mad at me.
The whole thing sent me into a tailspin. I became reclusive, embarrassed and ashamed. A week or so later I got a phone call from a magazine asking if I would talk about why the Off-Broadway business model was broken. I had nothing else to do, so I agreed to the interview. After speaking with them, they asked if they could take my picture in front of the theatre. I agreed. The next week I was on the cover of Crains Business New York; literally the poster boy for failure. After a couple months, what we had left in savings was gone and I had to do something. I got a temp job working 4pm-midnight Tuesday through Saturday downtown in the banking industry. I didn’t want anyone to know where I was or what I was doing. I didn’t talk to anyone and no one knew how to find me.
Eventually, I noticed a sailing school downstairs from where I worked. I didn’t know how to sail, but I thought sailing looked peaceful and soothing. I needed some of that in my life. Emily encouraged me. I got up the nerve and walked in.
This week, as our book Seven at Seais launching, I read this story in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic about the Australian writer, poet, and critic Clive James.
Paint Your Bicycle
After an enormous failure (a play that he wrote for the London stage, which not only bombed critically, but also ruined his family financially and cost him several dear friends), James fell into a dark morass of depression and shame. After the play closed, he did nothing but sit on the couch and stare at the wall, mortified and humiliated, while his wife somehow held the family together. He couldn’t imagine how he would get up the courage to write anything else ever again.
After a long spell of this funk, however, James’s young daughters finally interrupted his grieving process with a request for a mundane favor. They asked him if he could please do something to make their shabby old secondhand bicycles look a bit nicer. Dutifully (but not joyfully), James obeyed. He hauled himself up off the couch and took on the project.
First he carefully painted the girls’ bikes in vivid shades of red. Then he frosted the wheel spokes with silver and striped the seat posts to look like barbers’ poles. But he didn’t stop there. When the paint dried, he began to add hundreds of tiny silver and gold stars—a field of exquisitely detailed constellations—all over the bicycles. The girls grew impatient for him to finish, but James found that he simply could not stop painting stars (“four-pointed stars, six-pointed stars, and the very rare eight-pointed stars with peripheral dots”). It was incredibly satisfying work. When at last he was done, his daughters pedaled off on their magical new bikes, thrilled with the effect, wile the great man sat there wondering what on earth he was going to do with himself next.
The next day, his daughters brought home another little girl from the neighborhood, who asked if Mr. James might please paint stars on her bicycle too. He did it. He trusted in the request. He followed the clue. When he was done, another child showed up, and another, and another. Soon there was a line of children, all waiting for their humble bicycles to be transformed into stellar objects d’art.
And so it came to pass that one of the most important writers of his generation spent several weeks sitting in his driveway, painting thousands and thousands of tiny stars on the bicycles of every child in the area. As he did so, he came to a slow discovery. He realized that “failure has a function. It asks you whether you really want to go on making things.” To his surprise, James realized that the answer was yes. He really did want to go on making things. For the moment all he wanted to make were beautiful stars on children’s bicycles. But as he did so, something was healing within him. Something was coming back to life. Because when the last bike had been decorated, and every star in his personal cosmos had been diligently painted back into place, Clive James at last had this thought: I will write about this one day.
And in that moment, he was free.
I am not one of the most important writers of my generation, but I could relate to James. It didn’t occur to me until this week, that sailing became for me, a kind of therapy, a way toward healing and reviving my creative soul. Something was coming back to life. As I started sailing, I took a stab at trying to produce my first Broadway show. I wrote a new play. I got commissioned to write a new musical. Things started to tumble out of me again. Many years later I look back with wonder at all the things that have happened in my life since that dark, sad time. I have compassion on my younger, former self. I don’t think I would take it as hard now. It was just a show. Just some money. Nobody died. But I was younger then, barely out of my twenties. I was less experienced and didn’t know any better.
So now I’m on the threshold again. Emily and I have sent something new and fledgling out into the world. The reviews are not in yet. We don’t know if people will love it or hate it, but regardless, I’m glad we wrote it. I’m proud we wrote it and I’m happy it exists in the world, if only for us and our children.
So I thought I’d give some advice to my former self in case it might be helpful to anyone else: Dear Erik, you’re taking a risk and doing something that feels vulnerable and scary. It may work out. It may not. But either way you’re going to be fine. Don’t let it trip you up. Don’t let it get you down. A creative life comes with no guarantees of acceptance or success. Whether people love it or hate it, you’re a better person for having created it. Whatever happens in the end, you’re going to be okay. You’ve already received the reward for your effort: it exists.