Creativity, Events, Giving Back

Failure:Lab brings Detroit an unblinking look at how people handle disaster — and survive

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Detroit’s reputation for taking risks – dramatic, improbable, beyond-reasonable risks – defines the city in the same way that cars and coneys do.

People are oddly attracted to this characteristic. That is what in part drew Austin Dean and the crew behind “Failure: Lab” to cross the state – and risk their own reputations – to bring their new storytelling event to Detroit.

3- jimmy king Thursday night, Failure:Lab will present in a soul-baring 180 minutes the stories of six Metro Detroiters and how they screwed up. The stories are pure and painful. They may evoke repressed memories and feelings of extreme unease, Dean told me. And that’s the point.

To rub it in even further, the audience at the Detroit Opera House will have 90 seconds between each story to wallow in what they just heard. You know that feeling when you cannot get away from something icky and uncomfortable? Yeah, that’s the sweet spot you’ll be in at Failure:Lab.

“It’s just pure, raw failures and then they walk off of the stage,” said Dean, whose favorite part of the night is agonizing silence between the speakers. “We want people to feel antsy in their seats.”

So what’s the point to this masochism? Well, Dean and Failure:Lab doesn’t quite see it that way. Rather, they love failure. It breeds intimacy. It creates bonds. It builds communities. It opens a conversation about what exactly is a failure. It helps people see that a single failure doesn’t mean a lifetime of despair. And it creates an environment where people try to find solutions so those who fail find help.

4 - jessica care mooreEverybody fails. No one is as cool as their Instragram filters or Facebook embellishments makes you believe. Admitting to failure is a trait most humans do not possess; we’d prefer to maintain a slick surface that protects our soft underbelly. Detroiters, to some degree, prefer this as well – no one actually likes to be compared to Mogadishu or Chernobyl.

Here’s the thing. There are plenty (PLENTY) of get-togethers where people tell stories. Moth. TEDxDetroit. Wicked Storytellers Society. Free Lunch Friday. Creative Mornings. You get the point. Detroiters, much like LeVar Burton, love to hear stories. But, sometimes, those stories kinda make you feel the wrong emotions. Jealousy. Self-doubt. Worst of all: Apathy.

The four Grand Rapids-based fellows who created Failure:Lab want the audience at their events to feel deeply. To sit in that same box of shame as the speaker and to experience the failure as it happens. Part of the evening is to come up with ways to get around a personal failure in each audience member’s lives. And then to create some plan, even if it is the tiniest of baby steps, to make a change.

2 - marsha musicIt is interesting that this event came out of Grand Rapids, Dean said, because that is a typically risk-adverse community. Although it’s a city that has a growing reputation for art and a recently revived downtown, its similarities to Detroit end there. (All four co-founders have full-time jobs in GR; the other three are Brian Dokter, Jonathan Williams and Jordan O’Neil.)

But putting the West side together with the East side of Michigan through this event just made sense. A weird, uneven sense. Future Failure:Lab events will take place in Mexico City, Los Angeles and New Orleans; most of these cities asked Failure:Lab to come to them. The organizers chose Detroit for its second stop, and they’re hoping for a good-sized crowd.

The first Failure:Lab happened in May. The Grand Rapids event, which room for 400, sold out completely. Now, the Detroit Opera House has seven times that many – but for the price of a couple plates of tapas or four cups of “Pure Evil Latte,” you can get a seat inside a beautiful building and up close with people who will you tell you some eye-opening stories.

So the night will go something like this: Each storyteller will have about nine minutes or so to tell their tale. Then the audience gets about 90 second to react, internalize and (natch) Tweet about what they learned. There is a musical performance to clear the palate, so to speak. Then the next speaker comes on. When it is all done, there is time to debrief, talk and drink.

5- charlieIn Grand Rapids, there were tales about divorce, homelessness and a failed record album. That last one came from Brian Vander Ark, the lead singer and principal songwriter for The Verve Pipe. You know that big hit song, “The Freshmen”? Well, that was the one and only. And, if you watch his video, Vander Ark admits to the audience that he is relieved to admit it in public – and to receive some pity because his band’s sucky second album got them booted from a Saturday Night Live performance.

Detroit’s speakers include businessman and former “Fab Five” basketball player Jimmy King; poet Jessica Care Moore; Curve Detroit troublemaker (and TEDxDetroit dude) Charlie Wollborg; Kresge Literary Arts Fellow and writer Marsha Music; Grand Rapids Community Foundation President Diana Sieger; and singer-songwriter Andwele Gardner (better known by his stage name Dwele).

Musical performers include: singer-songwriter-rapper Duke Greene, singer George Morris, musician and songwriter Ralston Bowles and singer Steffanie Christi’an (who cites as influences both Prince and Tori Amos. This I gotta see).

There’s a charitable aspect as well – a portion of your $20 ticket also goes back to the community through Failure:Lab’s partnership with Focus:Hope. I think it has something to do with the colon in both of their names. But I digress.

So you can go for the stories. You can go for the music. You could go just for the free drink afterward. But the best reason of all to Dean is to go and have an experience. Live through the performances. Then, think about what you would have done.

“There are people who fail and never get up again,” Dean said. “Let’s help them get up again.”

The idea behind Failure:Lab is simply this – failure happens. It’s what occurs afterward that truly counts. “Embrace it, learn from it, build on it,” the event website states. And isn’t what exactly what Detroit is trying to do on a daily basis?

For tickets, click here. You also can buy them the night of, but I’m hoping there will be a line out the door.

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