A Heartless Guide to Theatrical Rejection
I love nerds. Nerd culture thrives on a specific subset of fandom finding one another and then pushing themselves and their fanaticism to new supportive, creative, and artistic ways. I am...a nerd. On top of the Star Wars, Marvel, Batman and other nerd culture I consume every day, I have been fortunate enough to have been living happily in the world of MUSICAL THEATRE nerdom; which itself is a subset of the non-musical theater nerd world. More recently, in the past year or so, I’ve found myself in an even smaller subset of the Bay Area Theater community. This group I like to call the theatrical pontificators. Friends and colleagues who delight in non-stop discussion craft, and experience. We can be found swapping stories and anecdotes about musical theater. As well as tips and tricks on how to become more knowledgeable and survive in the Bay Area Theatre world. This is one of the reasons I started “I’m B.A.T.man - Your Bay Area Theatre Podcast” (new episodes coming soon).
Many of my fellow pontificators have an online presence. People like fellow Podcasters Norman Gee and Reg Clay who host “The Yay w Norman Gee & Reg Clay”, and Joey McDaniel and his “Drunk Broadway” Podcast. There are also many blogs, like Marc Gonzalez and his “Road to 1000”, and Susan Tonkin and her “That Tall Blonde at the Callback” blog.
Tonkin’s blog is filled with honest editorials on the day-to-day life of auditioning in the community theater world. Its commentary is often very funny and insightful. Her latest post “6 Perfectly Valid Emotional Reactions to Not Getting the Part” discusses the stages of grief that can come with facing rejection after the audition and callback process. Auditioning is
never easy. But this got me thinking. Is it really that traumatic? Over the past decade of auditioning , I hadn’t felt many of the emotions she had referenced, at least not to the extent they were being outlined. I tend to have a more pragmatic way of viewing the world, which I feel gives me very different outlook on the topic. So here’s some of what I’ve found useful in my experience... here we go with my “Heartless Guide to Theatrical Rejection.”
Part 1 - Fantasy
First things first. Actors are dramatic. Onstage and off. Our capacity to feel and exercise our emotions is an essential tool for actors to be able to tell our stories. Equally important is the actors imagination and creativity. What isn’t useful is when the tools that we need, in order to exercise our craft, cripple us by kicking in to overdrive during the casting process. Not following? Imagine the following scenario...
You are an actor. You see that a company is producing a show you love, that you have been wanting to do for ages. You sign up. You are going for your dream role. You prepare. You can see yourself performing every line or singing every song. You imagine yourself standing onstage receiving a standing ovation for your efforts. You have imagined the success story of acting in this show. And then... you don’t get cast. Upset? Of course you are distraught after hearing the news of how the hard work and success you have imagined has been shot down before it could even take flight. Then the animosity creeps in. How dare anyone NOT recognize the brilliance and hard work that you know you would have brought to a certain role? Were they wrong for not casting you? Or were you incorrect in your assessment of your own skills? Does it matter? Where do you go from here?
It can be impossible to remain emotionally "at arms length" during an audition experience for many reasons. Actors need to be emotionally connected to their role, even just in an audition. It's a necessity of a truthful performance. Also, because actors are also independent contractors, auditions function as a job interview. Landing that job could result in a paycheck, benefits, and pension. With every audition there can be a lot at stake, financially and personally.
My suggestion for all actors is to be aware of the fantasies they are writing in their head. And not to dwell too much on “could have been” scenarios. It's easy to imagine yourself in a certain role. Not getting cast can feel like a personal attack. But why should it? If you have ideas for a role, do those ideas disappear? I don’t think so. You still have your unique outlook, and you may still get a chance to execute those ideas at a later time. So save them for later. Not being cast does not make that creativity any less valid. Also it’s important to remember That there are so many factors that go into casting, that (in most cases) rejection is not meant to be personal. Oft times the only person trying to make you feel bad... is you.
This is one of the toughest things for working actors. Our skill is one of “emotion and imagination”, but the auditioning process should be mostly business for us. So try not to get to attached to something that (frankly) isn’t yours yet. Part 2 - Context
The other issue with imagining and investing yourself too deeply in a role, is one of context. Mainly, how your skill functions within the context of rest of the company. Theatre is a deeply collaborative art. So, where do you, as an actor truly fit in with the surrounding artists, and designers working on a project. Not to mention the director whose vision has been selected to be the primary source of translating a story to the stage. When you audition for a role, even a starring one, you are a very small piece in a much larger puzzle. Plus, there are many different complications that actors are unaware of that come into play when it comes to the casting process. These considerations could be type, age, physicality, budget, personal reputation, experience, chemistry, audience demographics and more. Quite possibly, you may have been the best, actor, dancer, singer, whatever. But perhaps you were too tall to fit in with the rest of the ensemble without it being a distraction to the story. Or, someone else auditioned who has a more established working rapport with the team.
This may seem unfair. But, take notice, that “wanting it really bad” is not a priority to most directors when it comes to casting. And it shouldn’t be. They’ve got bigger fish to fry. And since the directors vision trumps all, “actors are entitled to nothing” until cast. So try not to take it personally. It may actually be a good thing you weren’t cast.
I like to think of it like this. None of us are mind readers. None of us are privy to what a directors vision of a story is, or what limitations they may have in order to execute it. If you were not cast in a role, simply put, the director didn’t see you fitting in with their vision. So would you really want to be part of a show if the director had a conflicting view of the character you are responsible for? Part 3 - Reality
I’ve been a member of actors equity (the Professional Union of Stage Actors) since 2016. Being a member has given me a very different outlook than I had when I was doing only community theatre. In my experience, if you are only acting professionally (i.e. no day job to supplement your income) your livelihood, and health coverage comes primarily from your acting gigs. All of this could be at stake each time you walk into an audition room. With so much to lose and so little control in your own hands, I find it best to dwell only on what IS in your control. Here are some brief observations I've had when it comes to the audition process. These aren’t notes on audition technique, but rather ideas or concepts that may help you deal with a rejection, or avoid it.
For many, auditioning is a numbers game. The more times you are seen, the greater the odds that something will pan out. This strategy isn't for everyone but it could be a useful tool if you want to boost your odds.
It is important to emotionally invest in each audition, but only to the point that it is useful for your performance. For the sake of your professional well-being, be ready to detach and move on quickly.
Make yourself versatile in the room. Don’t be so attached to your own ideas that it limits how you collaborate with others.
Don’t try to audition for your own vanity, or only for a certain stories or projects. Try to audition for the opportunities to collaborate with artists you respect and admire.
Keep training. Take classes, and make sure you are working to bring new skills to the table, as well as keeping/perfecting the ones you already have.
Seek out honest critique of your work. None of us are perfect, and none of us can impartially view our own work; that’s why we have to trust directors to be our eyes in the audience. It is not easy, but getting such direction is helpful to try and understand how an audience views the skills you have onstage. Listening to the critiques of others can help us see beyond our own ego and perception of ourselves. The more we can understand how a random theatergoer might view our performance the better we can hone our own skill. Know what you’re good at but get better at what you’re not. Don’t delude yourself.
“Thicken your skin” THEATRE is an art. But THEATER is business. Know the difference.
Keep your personal drama offstage. Be Professional, you’ll get more work that way.
We all got into this business because theatre makes us feel something. It’s an emotionally charged career-path I’ve found myself in. So, it may seem counterintuitive or straight up heretical to have such a pragmatic view of things. So be it. I’m not trying to offend. I know we all have different ways in operating and I’m not saying my view is the only right way. But maybe this will help you. It’s done wonders for me.
But, I want to hear more. Let’s get nerdy. What works for you? I’d love to hear from fellow theatre pontificators and her what helps them cope. Comment below with any advice! Disagree with me? Let me know why. I'm sure your advice might help someone else. It can be a pretty rough business so let’s get honest and help each other out. Let’s collaborate to make ourselves better artists!
P.S. If you do disagree with me in the comment section, please try and keep it civil. I love debate, but I want everyone to feel heard.