How to Be Rejected
“My body kinda implodes. Like, all my energy swirls down and disappears as if it were flushed down a toilet.” Clara (not her real name), a sharp and accomplished fellow playwright and coaching client, sits across from me, talking about receiving yet another rejection email among dozens this year. “I want to reach through the computer and bitch-slap someone.” She mimes this. “But there’s no one there but me, so I do it to myself internally. I later compare myself to friends who did get it and feel even shittier. I wish I didn’t react this much, but I do. I think, what’s the point? I contemplate quitting theatre all the time.”
We playwrights, not to mention actors, musicians, directors, other writers, and artists of all kinds, have all been Clara. I most certainly have. The “wall of no” surrounding us can sometimes seem wider—and higher—than anything Donald Trump could dream. On the one hand, that speaks to the abundance of magnificent playwrights. On the other hand, the full-time side hustle of sending out work can invite a tsunami of rejection in our inboxes. Yet, amazingly, many of us find a way to keep writing and keep sharing. What do playwrights do to metabolize rejection (other than posting our sad face on sadplaywright.com) and stay with it?
This question comes up constantly in my work as a coach. I help people transform professional and emotional ruts so they can fully enjoy being alive; which, for my money, is why we are alive. It’s no surprise that many of my clients are, like Clara, other theatre people in pain: my career is hitting a wall, I’m super depressed and angry, what do I do?
I’d like to share with you what I share with my clients, so you can enjoy the tits off being a playwright (or any kind of artist). I’ve also reached out to a few playwrights who found their own recipe for happiness and a few “gatekeepers” in the profession to share advice from their side of the submission process.
First, About Power
There are certain things in our power as playwrights, and certain things that are not. Confusion about this—and about which of these things actually makes us happy—are what caused Clara’s pain.
And mine, too. Out of the hundreds of playwriting submissions I’ve made over my ten or so years of doing it, here is how many have gone all the way past finalist stage and returned a yes: one.
It was six years ago. And a very big yes. Paula Vogel liked my play about a depressed French intellectual who hopes to reclaim joy by moving to New York and watching the musical Oklahoma! as much as possible. She liked it—and me—enough to admit me into the MFA program she was then running at Yale School of Drama. I was elated. Finally, I thought, the spell is broken. The gates to the playwright Pure Lands are now going to open: an agent, commissions, development programs, and most important, productions.
I spent my years since my MFA pulling myself out of post-grad-school homelessness, writing, sending work out, watching my former colleagues scoop up all those things I thought I wanted, and, like Clara, feeling locked out and heartbroken.
That is, until I asked myself: how important are those things? Would they actually make my life better? My answer, and what I shared with Clara, was: A “successful” theatre career will not make you happy.
It’s a fat myth. It is a “success” that is 100 percent conditional on other people’s opinions, aka extrinsic factors. Doomed.
“Getting [gatekeepers] to say yes to your work is simply not in your power,” says Jackie Goldfinger, a genuinely happy playwright in Philadelphia. “At the end of the day, who knows what their criteria are and who is deciding. Sometimes this all changes midstream. There are so many factors. Their aesthetic taste. Their political taste. Their theatre culture. There’s always some catch. There is nothing you can do about that.”
Being Like a Happy Secretary
I made a little job description of a happy playwright and put it on my desk. It’s kind of like one you might imagine for a happy secretary, in which the division of labor with my executive (the universe) is very clear, so I can dutifully get to work.
- enjoy being you
- enjoy making your art
- share it with others
The universe’s job (or life’s, or God’s, or reality’s):
- your personal destiny
- the world’s destiny
- the destiny of your art
- what other people think of you and/or your art
- your voice as an artist
When we attempt to control the items that are not our responsibility, we and our art suffer (we could call it the artist misery list); when we stick to the items that are on the happiness list, we delight in our job and make daring, vital work. Like Lin-Manuel Miranda did.
Which brings me back to rejection. Happy playwrights are clear that other people’s rejections fall outside their list of responsibilities. If anything, they use noes to get more motivated.
Happy playwright Dipika Guha takes some advice from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic. “For every rejection that came in,” Dipika says, “Gilbert would send something out that day to ping something back into the universe. I like that.” Jackie Goldfinger also does this. “I get a lot of submissions done after a blow. I do something about the no. Being upset and bitter only holds me back.”
Ryan Campbell, another happy playwright and author of his own gorgeous essay on the application game, encourages being honest when it stings. “It takes more energy to deny pain than to let it happen. Talk to a friend about it. ‘Hey, this happened today and it hurts.’ But then focus on writing. Being a playwright is a lifelong calling, not a sprint, a fad. If you’re putting the clock on things you're fucked." Dipika also encourages having faith in the long game. “You either choose to believe in the wonder of the universe or you don't. You don't know what things will ping other things. It’s never a straight road in. It's super wonky. I sent sixty to sixty-five applications one year and got only one yes, but it led to a meeting that lead to a commission.”
Myself, I like to use rejections like a mirror for whatever my mind is doing. Do I take it personally? Do I use it to encourage me, to remind me how hard I’m working, that I’m still in the game? Do I beat myself up with it? Do I laugh? Do I care at all? Lisa Carrillo, a friend and fellow coach, challenged me to catalogue them. “You could create Justin’s 132 flavors of rejection.”
Jackie says she often uses them to remind herself of “what I do have, which is a life in which I get to write weird little plays about weird little people in weird little corners of the world. That is a blessed life. Plus, any rejection leaves room for something better to take its place, something unforeseen. This idea that we know for sure what’s best for our careers and our lives is really questionable.” Ryan agrees, “When you submit honest work, a no could be saving you from a bad artistic relationship.”
For Clara, though, none of this comforted her. “I’m sorry but I haven’t had a yes in four years,” she says, face getting flush.
“I can see that’s not fun to share,” I tell her. It’s rough when we are constantly told no and we still need others to complete our art. Upon further investigation, she revealed some plays were rejected after making semi-finalist. Those are yeses. Even four years of noes translates to only a handful of people saying no.
“PlayPenn got 750 plays this year,” Paul Meshejian, PlayPenn’s co-artistic director, tells me. “Ten to twenty pages of each play got read by two people and about 125 to 150 plays moved on to full consideration.” That’s 600 plays that are told no by one or two people based on ten to twenty pages. One to two people. Ten to twenty pages. That’s a very light no. Anne Morgan, the literary manager of the National Playwrights’ Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, describes a similar process. “This year, we attracted nearly 1,500 plays and each was read by one of our 200 readers, sometimes by two, and about 300 plays went on to the semi-final round.” Again, that’s nearly 1,200 plays told no by only one, maybe two people.
And, as Jackie pointed out earlier, who knows what motivated those noes anyway? “At one point, everyone thought the pet rock was good idea,” she says. “Humans have bad taste in spades sometimes. Look at the list of Pulitzer winners—some are great and eternal, some are terrible, most are in the middle and respond to what’s in the cultural zeitgeist.”
Taste is only one factor in a gazillion factors that can sway a reader’s opinion, which we could sum up as bias. “Bias is real,” says Sarah Rose Leonard, the literary manager of Berkeley Rep and a reader for its development program Ground Floor. “Some bias is conscious and some isn’t, and I do my best to accommodate for both. Joy Meads, Literary Manager/Artistic Engagement Strategist at Center Theatre Group and cofounder of the Kilroys, talks brilliantly about this. Something as simple as the time of day I read a play—at the end of the day, or after lunch, for example—can have an effect. On top of that, I try to read with many different hats: Madeleine Oldham’s (Ground Floor director), Tony Taccones’s (artistic director), our audience, Berkeley, California, and the US. Then, at the core, do I like it? Or am I just being an asshole today? It’s a little crazy making.”
Anne Morgan concurs,
bias is super real and super hard. It’s why I am working to have all our plays read by two readers. I do check every reader review to see if a reader is dissing a play based on personal taste. There are truly great plays that found success that we passed on. There is no foolproof way to stop it. August Wilson was rejected twice before being accepted [with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom] and Christopher Durang was rejected four times before being accepted [with A History of American Film].
Most important, Clara was relying on the submission track to find production—yikes. Jackie encourages targeting your tribe.
Is it really Broadway, or big regional theatres? Their aesthetics are super narrow. Be realistic about the type of work you like to write and ask—where does it thrive? There’s a huge theatre scene all over the country. I’ve seen audiences from Austin to Philadelphia, from Omaha to Denver go crazy for inspiring, experimental work featuring robots, aliens, pot farmers, and naked dancing. When you go scratching, you’ll find that your voice, your stories, your passions and your obsessions have a home out there.
Your voice as an artist is not on your list of responsibilities. Like your singing voice, your voice as an artist is given. You cannot choose it. Conversely, it is our responsibility to discover it, embrace its unique sound, set it free and share it with those who go gaga for it.
That is why I claim that your voice as an artist is not on your list of responsibilities. Like your singing voice, your voice as an artist is given. You cannot choose it. Conversely, it is our responsibility to discover it, embrace its unique sound, set it free and share it with those who go gaga for it.
What if no one is producing the theatre that you want?
Produce It Yourself
“The odds are stacked so high against a writer making headway in the submission track.” Paul Meshejian says. “It comes down to how clever you can be to get your stuff up. The best teacher is failure. I respect writers who put up their own stuff. It’s the hardest form of writing there is.” Sarah Rose Leonard thinks every playwright should self-produce “once or twice. It’s hard and so that’s theatre. When I see a writer’s production I know what they want and who they are. It’s so freeing to see and experience it and it opens way more doors than sending a script. If I had to put my advice on a t-shirt it would read ‘Meet people. Produce your own shit. Don’t be annoying.’”
I love this t-shirt. If I could add one more thing, it would be “write what you fucking want.”
Statistically speaking, the gatekeepers are going to reject your work anyway, so, for the love of all things sacred, write what you fucking want. I remember in grad school there was much talk about writing the “calling card play.” It was that one play you wrote to win competitions and get noticed. It had to be very producible (small casts) and formally recognizable—easy for readers to imagine on their stages. Paula Vogel herself told me I should have a play like that to open the conversation with American literary managers and ADs. Once they’d read that, she argued, then I can open “the crazy drawer” of plays like the one I submitted to her program. I totally bought this idea and tried to write one more than once. Like squeezing water from stone. Others in my program did embrace this approach and it attracted all kinds of goodies for them. For me, though, it changed nothing, except leaving me feeling more dejected.
Artists ascend horizontally, not vertically. We thrive when we are entrepreneurs, which literally translates from French as ‘takers from between.’ Our careers grow by working with who is beside us, not who is above us.
What is clear to me since then is that artists ascend horizontally, not vertically. We thrive when we are entrepreneurs, which literally translates from French as “takers from between.” Our careers grow by working with who is beside us, not who is above us. Put your time and energy into the people who say yes to your work already. Make a list. Get to 100. (You’d be amazed how fast you can get to 100 in one go). Put it on your fridge. Read it every day. Star the ones you want to work with, especially directors. Arrange theatre love affairs—match specific directors you adore to specific plays you think they’d line up to lick off the pavement. Call them. Make a plan for your dream project. Reach out to theatres together, theatres also dying for a play (and a director) like yours. Go to their shows. Ask for info coffees. Take your career into your own hands. Of course, we can’t get the competitive opportunities we want if we don’t apply for them, but if we build our careers solely on submitting to select gatekeepers, we are essentially letting those very few people decide if we have a career or not. What a needless waste of your glistening talent that would be.
When I saw this for myself, I got busy manifesting everything I wanted the established theatre world to give me. I hired a business coach to teach me how to make money being self-employed. (Why on earth MFA theatre programs don’t teach this essential skill boggles me.) I picked a play I deeply wanted to work on with a composer. We ran a successful crowd-funding campaign and, through his connection to a family foundation, landed a nice writing grant. With all that, I produced four readings in NYC and San Francisco over six months, took time off to write, and got the script to a very strong place I’m proud of; it’s probably the strongest work of my life. Production hasn’t happened yet, but good work takes time. It will surely come.
Clara, I’m delighted to report, has stopped waiting for that yes to come in the mail and said yes to herself: she launched her own readings with excited colleagues—and is so much happier. Isn’t that feeling why you got into playwriting in the first place? Submit to that. Submit to your heart’s wildest pleasures. Make love to your imagination. Don’t stop. Do another play submitting to another wild desire. And another. Share them with the folks who get you rather than strangers you wish might get you. I will speak for the world and say it doesn’t need any more “successful” playwrights. What it needs—what it’s screaming for—is your fearless, original art.