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  • Stephanie Fuller

Silly woman: failure and femininity in the work of Lucy McCormick [Essays, 2018]


During a week of workshops, Lucy McCormick engaged us in tasks that were doomed to fail. Despite being fully aware of the ill-fated nature of the task above, we as audience members were gripped, as the monotonous task gave rise to new material and questioned the gendered power dynamics. Through failure, McCormick was able to facilitate both the birth of new work and prompt questions regarding the relationship between failure and femininity and it is these two aspects of her work that I shall investigate through this essay.

[Fig.1] A man throws single sheets of toilet roll at a woman sitting three metres away.

We watch as minute after minute he hurls with all his might. One sheet gets near, we gasp, but it floats away.

[Fig.2] A chase begins. The man is told her can edge closer to his target, but she simply moves further away. He resorts to going back to his original task, but the contract has changed, his character has changed.

Failure within the context of theatre has been much discussed and could be described as something that falls short of a specific intention (Bailes 2011:4) or recognised as the inability to complete or succeed in fundamental tasks (Bailes 2011:12). The man described in the activity above could never throw hard enough for the tissue to make landing, regardless of the task’s apparent simplicity, it was impossible, and failure was inevitable. Although he did not succeed in this simple task, the failing action created a multitude of new pathways of performance opportunities. There were palpable shifts in mood and meaning and the simple act of throwing and failing actually created content, characters and narrative. This made me wonder, what can failure offer to a theatre maker? Halberstam describes failure as a ‘loss’, ‘unmaking’ or ‘undoing’ (2011:2) and in the case of McCormick’s work, there is most definitely an undoing of rules and contracts with the audience, for example McCormick instructed the man described above to edge closer towards his target only to then watch her move her chair further away. This change in contract not only created new narrative but interestingly shifted the power dynamic in favour of the woman. McCormick explained that as an artist she enjoys changing the unspoken contracts made with audiences and as I sat there watching I noticed that by do so it challenges our existence within rules, systems and structures. Bailes likens theatre to an economy that ‘trades in politics, identity, and ideology’ (2011:15), so where does failure in performance sit within our current capitalist ideologies or within discussions of gender identity? And how can it create new work? These are some of questions that McCormick’s practice raised within me. Therefore, I will move forward by contextualising the place of failure within theatre-making but also within the wider position of our capitalist structures and desires for success. I will also examine the role of failure with regards to gender, specifically femininity and ways it could impact my work in the future.

Critical Context

[Fig.3] A woman sings Carmen’s ‘All by Myself’ as three others recreate the classic music video adages of snow (toilet tissue), tears (a bottle of Evian) and a wind machine (fanning a newspaper). The music runs out, the scene seems to die, it becomes awkward. She dies. We are told not to applaud. Her ghost emerges. A new scene begins

This example examines ways in which failure may not be an end, but actually a beginning. Bailes states; ‘failure is intrinsically bound up with artistic production’ (2011:1) and in this instance, as I noted in my journal, had we applauded too early the dramatic tension would have been broken and the opportunity for something else to happen would have been stunted. Her awkward failure allowed new work to emerge, to quote McCormick, ‘It’s about questioning whether it is actually a failure or whether you can find success’ (Winner 2017). So how does failure relate to success? Bailes theorises that failure finds itself in opposition to the fundamental ideas of victory and progress that dominate the narratives of history and explains; ‘It undermines the perceived stability of mainstream capitalist ideology’s preferred aspiration to achieve, succeed, or win’ (2011:2). Indeed, Halberstam argues that failure goes hand in hand with capitalism because the market economy relies on losers just as much as it does winners (2011:88); history is littered with stories of victory and focuses very little on the losers. By shining a light on the losses, however, failure could function as a learning tool, a move towards progress and a way to counter hegemonic forms of common sense. To return to my example, as the music ran out and the woman struggled with what to do next, my instinct was to clap, to cut the awkwardness short, to save her from failure. Upon reflection I realise that these capitalist ideologies may have permeated my instincts and almost inhibited potential progress. Once we allowed failure to happen and new work emerge, I was able to look upon the work with a broader perspective, it was here that the learning really begun for me.

A young woman is dragged on stage, screaming. She must perform. She greets the audience as if we are at a party. She tries to drum up a party spirit, her captors look away, bored.

Here there are direct challenges to ideas of power, successes and expectations. A performer who does not want to perform. A party that lacks life. A main character who bores those around her. The multiple failures and undoing of perceived expectations prompts investigation into how McCormick challenges societal norms. I believe Halberstam articulates this idea well when stating ‘We can also recognise failure as a way of refusing to acquiesce to dominant logics of power and discipline and as a form of critique’ (2011:88). By screaming and crying, the performer challenges an audience to examine who really has control in this situation; she is dragged in by a man, she fails to happily perform for us, she fails to entertain her co-stars. We don’t know the rules anymore and this change in contract puts her strangely in control. Rather than watching a perky, slick performance full of positivity I am forced to watch a darkly comic, negative portrayal of expectations and success. Halberstam states ‘From the perspective of feminism, failure has often been a better bet than success’ (2011:4) and puts forward a ‘shadow feminism’ that is not haunted by capitalist ‘positivity’ but instead operates as ‘shady, murky, undoing and unbecoming’ (2011:4). As I move forward on MA ATP, and in this essay I am interested in how I could incorporate failure in relation to performing the female body and to feminist perspectives. Although this is not necessarily the place to reach any firm conclusions here, I hope to explain how I will incorporate this investigation within my own practice.

Personal Practice

[Fig.4] Still at the party, Little Mix’s Power inspires cheesy dancing until she leads them, flanked by her side, in a full blown choreographed sexualised routine, complete with twerking, shimmying and bum grabbing.

During the session in which we learnt this routine, McCormick explained her song choice was deliberately problematic. Performed by a young all-girl pop group, whose music videos are overtly sexual, her choice of ‘Little Mix’ did not sit with me comfortably. In an interview, McCormick described herself as a feminist and stated: ‘Capitalism is not feminist, so of course it’s a constant fight’ (Woo 2017). I had to question, how McCormick’s openly sexualised dance did anything to oppose patriarchal and capitalist structures? How could any of this influence my future personal practice? Ballou discusses a concept of ‘feminist twerking’, one that parodies ‘the unrelenting twerking bottoms’ in popular culture (2016:8) and upon reflection I recognised an element of parody within McCormick’s work . In ‘A Fool’s Discourse’ Schutzman examines the role of the clown within hegemony and the place of hyper-femininity as a way of exposing contradictions in society. When I discuss femininity I employ McCann’s definition that alludes to make-up, clothing, hairstyle (2017: 1) but who also states that we can; ‘recognise failure in terms of “too much”. This is the realm of the “hyper”, the “fake”, the “excessive”’ (2017:1). As a performer, McCormick embraces the hyper, with big hair and excessive make-up that drips down her face much like that of a clown. Schutzmann remarks that in the ‘overstated assumption of the mask of femininity, she [the female performer] indicts the very power politics that her body economy suffers. She plays the clown.’ (2011:132). Through her sexualised dance, McCormick actually employs failure through excess, she plays to the hetero-male imagination but goes too far; she wears make up, but it is grotesque, she ‘twerks’ erotically but screams and whines afterwards. I am keen to explore this idea in more depth throughout the course of MA ATP. How could the idea of failure permeate into practices of hyper-femininity and parodies that could challenge societal norms?

We’re taught the dance routine. I have broken my foot and I am unable to twerk. I leave the room in tears.

I left because I felt I had failed, I was unable to play the ‘sexy’ female dancer whilst on crutches. However, by walking out I had stopped further opportunities for learning, progression and the discovery of something new. As I move forward in my practice I aim to welcome the notion of failure more readily, to resist the temptation to ‘save the day’ for fear of a loss, and to find ways in which I can explore this notion in relation to myself as a female performer, specifically the relationship between failure, excess and the way I use my body.

[Fig. 5] The next day, we create something that reflects our learning. I attempt the dance with my crutches and moonboot, embracing the failure to follow. I ‘twerk’. People laugh and clap.


Bailes, S.J. (2011) Performance Theatre and the Poetics of Failure: Forced Entertainment, Goat Island, Elevator Repair Service, [ebook] London, Routeledge

Ballou, H. (2016) hoo:ha - Illuminating and exploiting a dissonance between funniness and sexiness with the female comic body in performance, London, RCSSD. (Thesis (PhD) - Royal Central School of Speech & Drama 2016).

Halberstam, J. (2011) Queer Art of Failure, Durham, Duke University Press.

McCann, H. (2017) Queering Femininity: Sexuality, Feminism and the Politics of Presentation, London, Routledge

Schutzman, M. (1998) ‘A Fool’s Discourse: The Buffoonery Syndrome’ in Phelan, P. & Lane, J. (eds.) The Ends of Performance, London and New York, New York University Press: 131-148

Winner, J. (2017) ‘Interview with Lucy McCormick – Lucy McCormick: Triple Threat’ (accessed on 05.01.2018)

Woo, J. (2017) ‘Jonny Woo in conversation with… Lucy McCormick’ (accessed 05.01.2018)


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