There’s a tension inherent in artistic pursuits. On the one hand, you have to be indomitable in the face of rejection and failure. After all, most great artists have faced major setbacks and discouragement. There are lots of stories of writers and actors who were one rejection away from quitting altogether, only to land the starring role on Mad Men and transform their entire careers (metaphorically, except for Jon Hamm).
On the other hand, there has to be a threshold, a point at which you recognize that you aren’t going to make it, so that you can pursue other things. Not everyone has what it takes, whether that’s talent, charisma, perseverance, connections, or dumb luck.
The question is, how far do you go? How much failure can you take before it stops being “paying your dues” and just becomes “wasting your life”?
No movie made me grapple with this question more than Mike Birbiglia’s new film, Don’t Think Twice.
The new film, written by, directed by, and starring renaissance man Mike Birbiglia, follows a New York City based improv troupe called The Commune. The 6 writers and performers that comprise The Commune have various levels of talent, but share a love for improv and the goal of someday getting a chance to perform or write for Weekend Live (a comedically unveiled stand-in for Saturday Night Live).
As the film begins, several stories kick off at once. The group finds out that the theater they perform in is shutting down. Bill’s (Chris Gethard) father has a stroke and is confined to a hospital room. Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) and Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) finally get their shot to audition for Weekend Live.
Sam bails on her audition at the last minute, but Jack gets the job at Weekend Live. As could be expected, jealousy and resentment mingle with genuine excitement in his friends’ reactions to the news. Jack’s sudden material success, combined with the closing of their theater, forces the group to confront the reality of their own lives. Miles is bitter that success has come for his friends, but has passed him by. Sam tries to understand her own sudden decision to skip her audition. The others deal with the oncoming dissolution of the group, and begin looking for other opportunities. They start to ask themselves some hard questions: Am I where I want to be? Am I ever going to get there? How much more time can I really devote to this dream?
Each character has a different answer to this question. Allison (Kate Micucci) decides to fully commit to writing her graphic novel. Miles decides that he has given enough of his life to pursuing Weekend Live. He sacrifices the freedom to pursue that dream in order to marry the woman he loves and be a father to her child. Bill’s father dies, leaving Bill to take care of his considerable real estate holdings. One of his buildings turns out to be perfect spot to open a new improv theater and train a new generation of dreamers. Sam joins Bill at his theater, pursuing her new dream of training actors and improvisors, and building that community.
The movie doesn’t judge any of these decisions one way or another. Jack is successful because he achieved his dreams, but Miles is also successful for realizing that it was time to move on to something new. Lindsay (Tami Sagher) is a success for scoring a new writing gig, and Sam is a success for instilling creativity and passion in young performers. None of these people are shown as sellouts or failures, they just followed different paths, paths that they could have missed if they’d continued chasing “the dream,” and a singular definition of success.
Catherynne M. Valente puts this idea beautifully in her book, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making:
The wishes of one’s old life wither and shrivel like old leaves if they are not replaced with new ones when the world changes. And the world always changes.
Wishes get slimy, and their colors fade, and soon they are just mud, like all the rest of the mud, and not wishes at all, but regrets. The trouble is, not everyone can tell when they ought to launder their wishes.
So keep your dreams fresh. Chasing dreams just because you used to want them, or because people have told you to, only leads to frustration and burnout. Wash your dreams carefully, and set them before your eyes daily.
Then show the world what you can do.