Fail Better: Robert Mark Morgan

‘Angels in America’ set designer refused to let savage review sideline his career

Set designer Robert Mark Morgan shares how he overcame self-doubt after a devastating review. (Video: Tom Malkowicz/Washington University) 

Listening to his voicemail, Robert Mark Morgan wondered if someone had died. Friends and colleagues had left a stream of messages offering condolences and pledging support.

“I had no idea what was going on, but I knew it was bad,” recalled Morgan, teaching professor of drama in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

Turns out, no one was dead. But his career had been seriously wounded. The San Francisco Chronicle had savaged his set design for the American Conservatory Theater’s 2004 production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Moon for the Misbegotten.” The critic called out Morgan by name, describing his creation as “dreadful,” “regrettable” and “a jumble of fussy, uncertain gestures and geometries.”

“I couldn’t believe what I was reading,” Morgan said. “I was crestfallen. I felt as if I had failed the entire creative team. And I was worried that I would never work in this field again.”

Morgan tells this story to first-year students in the class “Designing Creativity,” which he co-teaches with architect Bruce Lindsey, the E. Desmond Lee Professor for Community Collaboration at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. The popular course explores the study and practice of the creative process across disciplines, from neuroscience to engineering to the performing arts.

“There is no way to go through life without failure, so why don’t we hurry up and fail,” said Morgan, who devotes two full weeks to failure in the class. “That can be hard for our students who, in many cases, have never really failed. But by normalizing failure — even celebrating it — we demonstrate how failure is a key part of the learning process.”

Morgan, for his part, overcame his early setback to enjoy a busy career designing sets in theaters across the nation. His newest set debuts Friday, Feb. 22, when the Performing Arts Department stages “Angels in America: Part 1: Millennium Approaches” by Tony Kushner.

Directed by Henry Schvey, professor of drama and of comparative literature in Arts & Sciences, the Tony Award-winning play explores AIDS and homosexuality in America in the 1980s. An ambitious work, “Angels in America” demands a powerful set. To that end, Morgan places the audience on the stage. It’s a bold choice, one that Morgan believes will make the experience all the more immersive and intimate.

“I could have stopped taking risks after that one bad review,” Morgan said. “But then I wouldn’t have the career I have today.”

“Angels in America” performances are at 7 p.m. Feb. 22 and 23 and March 1 and 2 and at 2 p.m. Feb. 24 and March 3 at  Edison Theatre in the Mallinckrodt Center, 6465 Forsyth Blvd. Tickets are $20, $15 for faculty, staff, students and seniors and free for Washington University students.

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