Navigating Rejection - Theatre Bay Area

"Anybody with brains in this business knows rejection is going to be a big part of it," says Marco Barricelli, artistic director for Shakespeare Santa Cruz and longtime actor. "It shouldn't be a surprise when it happens." Truer words were never uttered. And yet, no matter how readily we as actors accept this fact, that moment of rejection still bruises--slightly for some, more heavily for others, depending on their approach to dealing with it.

This month, Theatre Bay Area talks to a handful of actors and directors from Monterey to San Francisco to get a pulse on how they handle rejection. We look at the subject from both sides of the table and compare notes from men, women, veterans and newcomers, with the goal of sharing coping mechanisms and stories and finding solidarity in the painful truth that exempts no actor.

"We're sorry, we've gone with someone else."

What actor has not heard those words? Sometimes they're no surprise. Other times, they're akin to a kick in the stomach. So how good are Bay Area actors at dusting themselves off and moving on? Following the initial blow, most actors reported allowing themselves a period of time to grieve the part they wanted. There was consensus around the importance of acknowledging the hurt and processing it, rather than trying to pretend it didn't matter. All agreed it gets easier with time and experience, and that nothing erases a rejection like getting cast.

"Performers need to have a method for dealing with rejection," says Broadway veteran, director and San Jose State University professor Janie Scott. "It is the biggest killer of drive and motivation." According to Scott, methods run the gamut. "Some people are religious and let these views inform how they see the world. Others find that building a positive support system helps."

For 21 years Scott has run a musical theatre performing and training company at SJSU, where she teaches her students what she calls the "24-hour rule." "When you work your butt off for an audition and go into the room for two minutes, do your thing, and don't even get a callback, you have 24 hours to do whatever you need to go through it. Bitch for two hours to a friend, fling yourself on the floor and cry, whatever. Then, after 24 hours, pick yourself up and say, 'Now what?' You have to move through it because you can't take it into the next audition."

It's a Business

Carmen, the producer character in Kander and Ebb's Curtains, states frankly in her song, "Green's my favorite color and I don't mean on the grass--it's a business." Most actors know intellectually that casting decisions are business-based and not personal. Yet many can't help but take rejection personally--particularly if it's a role they sorely wanted. "As an actor, it can't not feel personal," says Monterey Bay educator and director Gary Bolen, who has spent 40 years in TV, film and theatre. "We are our instrument. We develop our talent and invest it with our own personality. When someone says no, it feels awful. But maybe you were too blonde or there was an indefinable chemistry between two other actors. That has nothing to do with you."

In his international bestseller, Reject Me--I Love It, author John Fuhrman advises, "Don't take rejection as a personal affront. If all you're willing to believe is that you're being personally rejected, then that's what's true for you. It's just your perception. It's more likely to be a misunderstanding on your part of what other people need."

Bay Area actor and acting instructor Damon Sperber believes, "The key to dealing with rejection is to not get yourself rejected by failing to prepare. You can't fall back on tricks and assume your talent will emerge. Coach John Wooden of UCLA said, 'Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.' Even if you're prepared, there's no guarantee you'll get the role, but at least you can feel good about your work. Don't ever let anyone tell you that you can't do this--that you don't have enough talent to be an actor. You have to decide if you have the stamina, the belief, the skills. If the answer is yes, no one can tell you no."

In addition to viewing casting as a business, several interviewees also talked about the system of auditioning and casting. Bay Area director and teacher Victoria Rue believes it's important to look at rejection from that standpoint. "There is a system that exists within the performing arts regarding how you put together a play, and how you audition people. It has been in place for hundreds of years. No one has come up with a better system, so to understand rejection inside the system is important."

An ordained priest, Rue views performing and rejection through a lens of spirituality. "I think of human beings as stained glass windows with many colors. As actors, certain colors will come forth depending on how the light shines through. In the audition, it's not a rejection of your window, but simply that you're not fitting into the system of that play as envisioned by the director. If you understand this, you understand it isn't personal."

The Other Side of the Table

Regarding a director's vision, many actors who also direct concur that getting onto the other side of the audition table changed their perspective. "With crystal clarity, I saw the things I was doing once I started directing," says Bolen. "The most fatal thing I see actors do today is make excuses. 'I have a cold, I just got the music, I had car trouble.' Excuses build up a reason to fail. Why plant the idea that you're going to be anything less than wonderful?"

When asked the key reasons for casting one person over another, most directors agreed that talent was at the top of the list, but that ultimately, myriad factors including fit, references and prior working relationship come into play. "Certainly talent is number one," says Barricelli. "I'm more inclined to cast the person who can act the role even if they're not the right type."

Cabrillo Stage artistic director Jon Nordgren adds, "Casting is based on a vision of what the production is going to be. Most people [when not cast] assume they're deficient in some way--singing, dancing, acting. They may be right--some people will never get a role until they get their chops. But if you've done your work, there's no reason to feel bad if you're rejected. If you're good, buck up and stop taking it personally. Your job is to come up with your concept of the role. If you can sell it to the director, you're in."

Tales from the Trenches

Every actor has rejection stories. Generous interviewees were willing to share some of theirs. Bay Area actor and teacher Bobby Weinapple recounts a particularly vexatious audition rejection. "I walked into the audition, said hello, and they asked me if I liked to be called Bobby or Robert. I responded 'I'm Robert until I get the job. After that, you can call me Bobby.' I sang my song. Upon my finishing, they said coolly, and without any humor, 'Thank you, Robert.'"

Sperber recounts a life-altering rejection. "I was going out for a big company in San Francisco having had recent success in bigger houses. The part was a strong lead, I'd prepped hard, and had a strong relationship with the director and AD. I'd rehearsed with my scene partner and felt good going in. I felt the part was mine. But they went with someone else. Upon hearing I didn't get the part, I bought a ticket to New York and moved, deciding I needed more opportunities. The director later told me that he should have cast me in the role. While it got me to New York, the experience was still bittersweet."

In his book Audition, casting director Michael Shurtleff discusses the stunning audition Bette Midler gave for the role of Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway. He recalls her singing "I Don't Know How to Love Him" like no one else and yet saw that her mature, voluptuous, womanly interpretation of the role wouldn't fit in with his cast of flower children. He says she wasn't cast because it would disrupt the casting of the rest of the show. He shares this tale to emphasize "that actors must not worry about why they don't get a role; they should only concern themselves with doing the best damn audition they know how to do."

Scott recounts a similar, poignant rejection story in New York when she was auditioning for Luisa in The Fantasticks. She had just come off Broadway playing the role of Wendy in Peter Pan and went into the next audition well prepared. It went very well. The next day, her agent called to tell her she didn't get the part but that the casting people said she was the best audition they'd ever seen. Because the experience was so impacting, Scott tries to pay it forward today when she runs into actors who give a great audition but for whom she doesn't have a role.

Grieving and Moving On

Theatre educator and actress Bevin Bell-Hall relates the following to the children she teaches. "Somebody told me that if you get emotional every time you get rejected, you shouldn't be in this business. This is the worst advice I've ever heard. If you're not passionate and don't invest yourself, why do you want to be an actor? Emotions are natural. Don't get down on yourself about them. But don't take them to the next audition either."

With regard to grieving a desired part and moving on, Weinapple says, "I allow myself to grieve over the fact that I really wanted it. Sometimes you'll try to rationalize it saying you didn't really want it or that your life is good in other ways. I think it's healthy to feel bad when you don't get something you want."

"How we view and handle rejection has to do with how secure we felt growing up," says marriage and family therapist Joyce Michaelson, who has been acting for the past 11 years. "Did we feel seen as a child? Did we feel loved for who we were? People fall into roles in childhood which we call the false self--the mask. The purpose of the mask is to protect the vulnerable, true self and to avoid rejection. Problems arise when we think the false self is who we are. If you only have a false self, you will feel terrified and angry when you hit a bump. People who are crushed when they don't get a part feel awful because that's all they have."

A Little Easy Rejection Goes a Long Way

Most actors concurred that casting teams can do a lot toward easing the blow of rejection simply in how they handle the rejection process. The gratitude of actors who were notified after a callback that they weren't cast was palpable compared to those who heard nothing for days or weeks and then found out via Facebook who was or wasn't cast.

"We're taught the courtesy of thanking the team for the audition even if we don't get the part," says Bay Area actress Monica Cappuccini. "But when you audition and learn material for the callbacks and only the people who were cast get a phone call, it's very disappointing."

Director, actor and City Lights executive artistic director Lisa Mallette has policies in place in her organization to address that very complaint. "I'm a firm believer in making the audition process as friendly and comfortable as possible. We try to create a positive, safe, open environment for auditions as well as rehearsals because I believe you get good results from people if they feel safe. You're going to get better, nicer, people who put forth their best work if you're nice to them. I'm always concerned with people's feelings and it has served me well. Most actors make very little money, so this is one way to keep them coming back and get the best work out of them."

Bay Area Theatre Climate

Being an actor in the Bay Area isn't the same as being an actor in Los Angeles or New York, where you can go on several auditions per week (or day) and theoretically develop a thicker skin around rejection. "Here, you have to be willing to commute within a fairly wide radius to be working consistently in the parts you want to be playing. With fewer audition opportunities, it can be devastating to not get cast because it means you don't get to act," says Bell-Hall.

Sperber offers an interesting juxtaposition between working as an actor in New York versus San Francisco. "In New York, auditions happen much more frequently. The downside of the process in New York is that you can't prepare the same way you can here. Here, auditions come fewer and farther between, but the upside is that you can prepare fully. When I go into an audition having done due diligence and prepared fully, it goes out of my hands. That maximizes my creative output."

So what to do with time on your hands if you've been rejected by a Bay Area theatre and the next opportunity isn't right around the corner? "Go to class," says Scott. "Dance class, voice class, workshops. If you can't afford to do that, get together with your performer friends and do cold reads, monologues, try out new songs. Hold each other up to a standard and keep it alive until the next audition."

"There's nothing about this business that's in any way fair," says Barricelli. "People can be treated civilly and courteously, but that doesn't mean it's fair. Keep that in mind and go with the flow." Adds Weinapple, "Acting [and auditioning] lets you experience being out of control. In life we don't have control. Control is an illusion. Acting strips it away. It can be a great teacher."