From the Empathy Gym

From the Empathy Gym | Never Good Enough

From the Empathy Gym | Never Good Enough

June 2016 Newsletter  


Bill English, Artistic Director

My father, William English, senior to my junior, had high hopes for me – his namesake. In his imagination, I would simultaneously play first base for the Cubs and sit first chair oboe in the Chicago Symphony. He was a dedicated father, and I was an ambitious kid who wanted more than anything to please him.

I walked miles into the North Shore wind to my oboe teacher who had played with the Chicago Symphony, sharpened my knife to the hair-splitting-level that could make oboe reeds, and practiced scales and arpeggios endlessly.  I chalked up a strike zone on the back of the First National Bank building behind our house and threw thousands of curves and batted thousands of tennis balls (they didn’t break windows) up over the houses on our street.


My dad had been the band director at our high school, and although he had moved on to teaching college by the time I arrived, he had high expectations for my oboist career in his former band. So, I approached my first audition as a high school freshman with apprehension and anxiety. I worried – no, I believed with certainty – that I would fail. That I would not make the orchestra cut and would be relegated to the junior varsity orchestra, an ignominious fate.

I was completely shocked when, after tryouts, on the list published outside the door of our practice hall, I read my name as the designated first chair!  And though I was elated for myself, I was even more overjoyed for my Dad, whom I assumed would be very pleased with my accomplishment. I had not failed him, after all.  I ran home and paced about the house with eager anticipation until he finally arrived, and I enthusiastically announced my appointment as first oboe chair.  “Well . . .”  he said with a portentous pause. “That’s all well and good.” Another pause. “But I think you should be careful not to be satisfied too easily. Simply being first chair in the high school orchestra will never be good enough to get you into the Chicago Symphony.”

His words crushed me. I had cut my fingers up making hundreds of reeds. I had practiced the oboe until my lips were raw and swollen, and my lungs were winded and hyperventilating from holding in so much air. But in my father’s estimation, I wasn’t good enough.  I feared I couldn’t do any better – that I would never be good enough in his eyes. To a child, even a teenager, a parent’s withholding of approval can feel like utter annihilation.  And on that day, despite having achieved the distinction of first chair as a mere freshman, I felt annihilated.


I was reminded of this moment from my youth recently when San Francisco Playhouse tackled an incredibly ambitious piece, Colossal – a play that required the improbable merging of football with modern dance. Described by its playwright as “unproduceable,” it required dance and fight choreographers, a drum corps and composer/musical director, marching band and football advisors, and a director who could integrate it all seamlessly and navigate this tricky terrain. We auditioned over forty young men to select an ensemble of six who could both play football and dance. We hired a team of brilliant videographers to create a scoreboard that appeared to flawlessly count down the minutes from 15:00 to 00:00 but could be slowed down or sped up so that each quarter of the play ended precisely at time 00:00, no matter how much time for the dialogue and action had actually elapsed.

We in the theatre pour our heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears into every show, but this one felt more like a Herculean undertaking than usual. And yet, despite all our creative efforts and hard work, Colossal received a mediocre review from an unimpressed critic in the major San Francisco newspaper, which, like the New York Times, is the most important factor affecting public opinion and ticket sales. Like my father had before him, the critic – a man whose opinion I respect and admire – had decreed that it was “not good enough.”

Sometimes, it only takes one failure in a long line of hits to trigger the never-good-enough insecurity. Fortunately, as adults, we have greater resources to overcome this than when we were children. We have all our collaborators, the forty or more people who poured their own souls into the show, who we can look in each other’s eyes and affirm that we did our best. And we also have our community – our theatre patrons, subscribers, and donors – who greet us in the lobby, who rise to their feet after each performance, who write notes of praise, who trust us and our taste and our dedication. Their very presence and encouragement reassures us that we are, in fact, “good enough.”

But I think our greatest power to defeat the “never good enough” voice is learning to accept that failure, inevitably, will happen. As one of my favorite theatre directors always said, “Fail big!” And so, what is it that we fear so much about failure? Are we annihilated by a theatrical failure? We are not putting a human into orbit. Our biological survival is not in question. I am not suggesting that we should be content with failure or that a bad review alone constitutes failure. Although, as many of my artistic director colleagues can attest, a “sitting man” review in the paper can deliver a blow to the gut that feels like crushing failure.

Yet, despite all of our efforts, some of our plays will not succeed. They will suffer not only mediocre reviews, but also poor attendance. But will we perish as a result? No. Despite our childhood programming to the contrary, we will survive to try again, learning from our mistakes. We will move on and pour our hearts and souls into the next project.

Children might equate disapproval with annihilation. They are defenseless against the power of well-meaning parental approval.  We carry that programming with us into adulthood.  But as adults in the theatre, we can look failure square in the eye and, in a way, welcome him in.  Let him sit beside us in rehearsal, make him our friend, invite him to tea. And he can talk us down from the annihilation complex.  So that when the “never good enough” voice whispers in our ear, we can simply smile and dismiss it as a invaluable reminder to force ourselves to rely on our own sense of worth and our understanding that there is life beyond bad reviews. Our mantra can become, “Yes, I am good enough” despite the certainty that I will fail big, again and again.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please feel free to leave your comments below.


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Dennis Erokan - 03. Jun, 2016 - Reply

You are an extremely successful Artistic Director and an excellent writer. Your Dad would be so proud of you.

Sue Trowbridge - 03. Jun, 2016 - Reply

Every play you produce will be — no matter what the critics say — somebody’s favorite show. “Dogfight” also got a kind of mediocre review, but it was my #1 favorite production of 2015 (and I saw over 50!). Every play will speak to someone. That’s why I think it’s important to take chances, to keep doing the “unproduceable” plays, the ones that don’t necessarily have a pre-sold, built-in audience. Someone will walk into your theater every single night and just be wowed, the work onstage being exactly what they needed at that particular moment.

For a while, the Broadway production of “Mamma Mia!” was using the slogan, “You already know you’re gonna love it!” That, to me, is the least enticing sales pitch. I want to go in not knowing in advance if I’m going to love it or hate it or feel somewhere in between.

Douglas Konecky - 03. Jun, 2016 - Reply

Yes, about insecurity and never feeling comfortable when you put yourself on the line in front of people, no matter how many successes you have had. But how will you every know? Sadly, I, too, was not crazy about “Colossal,” because I think with all the obstacles you all had to overcome, the basic issue was never discussed — no football player would ever do what that football player did, to protect his boyfriend or even to prove himself to his father. It just made no sense. But as you know, I love your company, so I agonized over this too. Did I miss something? It got a standing ovation, after all.

Ah well. Oboe is a tough instrument. I thought you were a piano player.

patty wilkerson - 03. Jun, 2016 - Reply

why is it necessary to even read the review before you are certain and secure that what they say one way or the other truly doesn’t matter to you… then no matter what we can simply be with ourselves and know where we were aligned with ourselves and where we were not….we are no longer subjected to external conditions….just ourselves….what a reliefbill….the journey there is well worth the trip….a fellow traveler

Janet standen - 03. Jun, 2016 - Reply

I loved Colossal. I thought it was challenging, exciting, enjoyable and an incredible feat of production! Critics aren’t always right. I trust it was not in any way considered a failure by your regular audiences!! I always love your productions! Keep up the great work. I’m excited about the new season!!

Emily Odza - 03. Jun, 2016 - Reply

You are right that, despite that one discouraging review, it was just one person that the play did not speak to, whereas you had the support of many audiences that were thrilled by the production, and moved….Colossal did an amazing thing – knit together several interesting themes (art vs sports; friendship/betrayal/homophobia in sports; father-son relationship) and created such a unique framework to tell a story. I think it spoke to a lot of people. For me, especially….I had a mother who was a modern dancer who discouraged me from doing sports. For her, dance was the ultimate art knitting together the body as a perfect machine, the soul, expressiveness, and creativity, etc. Why bother getting hurt in track or soccer or chasing after useless wins…it wasn’t art. I never had such a blow as you describe from a parent. Instead, it was an all encompassing feeling that I could never attain their heights of perfectionism, that it would take too much talent and work to achieve what they achieved. But at the same time, if it wasn’t art, perhaps it wasn’t really a worthwhile pursuit. I admire that you can feel truly how worthwhile it was, despite the sitting man setback. And pursue theater to the heights of virtuosity, as you have done. PS I loved hearing about the casting, as I marveled how difficult it must have been to find the right actors/players…

Krystyna Finlayson - 03. Jun, 2016 - Reply

Your June letter has resonated with me incredibly for many reasons. The first one was the mention of that pesky review by Mr. Hurwitt I had read after your show’s opening that left me wondering how I was going to disagree with him, yet again, after I would have actually seen “Colossal.” I had a feeling I would, since I rarely was influenced by him, one way or another. The theatre critic yields too much power to make or crush plays, which is especially evident on Broadway. Funny this subject comes up in “Red Velvet” we saw yesterday in which the cruelty of the racist reviewers crashes a lot more than a play.

So for whatever it is worth to you; rest assured that I am most likely not the only one audience member who will see the plays in your theatre whether the reviewers fall off the chair or fall asleep in it. It’s not that I know how much is at stake here, but I am also curious how I can sharpen my critical faculties on my own. I never was (and never will be) a football player, nor even the aficionado of the sport, but I gained an enormous appreciation of it after your show, much more so than after the Berkeley Rep’s “Xs and Os (A Football Love Story) which left me wanting more. “Colossal” grabbed me from the beginning and kept me interested and wondering on quite a few levels, so yes, I disagreed with Mr. Hurwitt in the end and was happy I brought my family to see it at your amazing Empathy Gym.

You and Susi have created an oasis for so many of us where we never know how we are going to be delighted, entertained, and challenged. And with your whole crew on board, it certainly feels like a home away from home.

Benito - 03. Jun, 2016 - Reply

I really appreciate your determination to push the boundaries in your theater productions. I’ve not seen a play from SF Playhouse that was mediocre in either theme or execution. Please don’t allow critics to hold back your vision and imagination.

Tina Marzell - 03. Jun, 2016 - Reply

Bill: touched by your openness and vulnerability. Those of us who happen to find ourselves auditioning for example can suffer from equating being cast with being approved of. Failing is something that is almost taboo in our culture and it’s as normal as breathing. All part of this being alive thing. Thanks.

GC - 03. Jun, 2016 - Reply

I found the experience you shared about your dad infinitely relatable as many Asian parents of the older generation, like mine, similarly withhold praise. I’ve learned to accept it for what it is. An “ok” from my mother is high praise indeed.

Frank T. Lossy - 03. Jun, 2016 - Reply

My condolences!

As a father and a grandfather I know:


but we both soldier on anyway…..

Charles P Miller - 04. Jun, 2016 - Reply

I loved Colossal. Good job Playhouse. Neither football or dance mean much to me ordinarily but the play and production did make its mark.

Lynn Linhares - 05. Jun, 2016 - Reply

I was disappointed to hear your reaction to the Colossal performance. This play was outstanding and very well done. You have to realize that not all of your audiences take the time to comment on your productions. I for one. I experienced this production with two other friends and we all spoke very highly of this play. It was cleaver, innovative, well casted and the musical score kept our attention all the way through.

The only other comment I want to say to you is that each and every play you put on will have personal opinions ranging from high to low. I work with the public and have found that over all these years there is no pleasing everybody all of the time. Please don’t take this personal as it relates to your plays. I understand the scars your Dad may have left with you to strive to be the best but you ARE the BEST! Your passion comes through with each and every play produced and we (2 buds and myself) are thoroughly enjoying the last two seasons of your productions. Keep on keeping on and don’t be discouraged by the silence of your audiences!

See you at the next one!

Severin Teufel - 06. Jun, 2016 - Reply

Hi Bill. yes you are good enough; we all get bad reviews & move on but also continue your proven outstanding accompleshments.
I did not know you played the oboe! I play the clarinet perhaps we can do a gig together?


Jessica Powell - 17. Jun, 2016 - Reply

Wow — and we thought “Colossal” was so fantastic!