Essay by

Introducing Holler

A Monthly Advice Column

Essay by

Holler is a monthly advice column for theatre artists trying to keep it all together. Email holler@howlround.com with your questions, life-changing or trivial, professional or personal, hilarious or depressing, or all of the above! Expect straight talk, tough love, and the occasional war story from someone in the know—a bona fide (albeit anonymous) theatre professional.

 

Thumbnail

Dear Holler,

I am both an actor and a writer trying to make it in New York. As an actor, I must go to fifty auditions a month, for everything from Off-Off-Broadway plays to mega-big television pilots. As a writer, I’m sending out my scripts constantly, to every director, agent, artistic director, and lit associate I meet. Plus, every spring I go through the mind-numbing Tour de Rejection of every writers group, MFA program, fellowship, and residency in the world (sometimes I think I get rejections from places I didn’t even apply to, just like, “Don’t even think about it.”) Now, hear me out, I’m not complaining about getting rejected. I know that it’s a competitive field. And I know my writing falls “outside of mainstream tastes.” And I know that by trying to write and act, I’m doubling up on potential for disappointment. I’m young (27) and I haven’t been in the city that long, and I know it takes time to gain traction. It’s not the rejection itself that gets me—it’s the feeling of shouting down a well. My question is this: why have none of these places or individuals ever offered me a bit of feedback on my application/audition/script? It leaves me feeling completely on my own here. I’m not talking about a detailed report, just a few lines of “Hey, the director thought you were good in the first side but not funny enough in the second side,” or “We like your play, but we thought the first act was weak.” Even if the area I fell short was out of my control (like literally falling short, I’m only five feet tall), then at least I would know I’m not a talentless hack!

How am I supposed to get better if no one will tell me what I’m doing wrong?

Sincerely, LOST IN A SEA OF REJECTIONS

***

Dear LIASOR,
Was it Groucho Marx or Woody Allen who had the line about not wanting to be a member of any club that would have him as a member? Let’s give it to Groucho. Woody’s had a pretty good year, and it’s hard to imagine a club he couldn’t gain access to anyway.

Your question is a good one, but I’d turn it back to you. Instead of demanding to know why lit managers and casting directors aren’t giving you feedback on your plays and auditions, I’d love to know why you really think you want it, need it, or would listen to it anyhow. I’m not blaming you for feeling lost and alone, but I think we could do well to examine some of the factors that contributed to that feeling, without calling for a national policy on mandatory feedback. You can probably guess why you’re not getting it, or enough of it. Time, resources, misguided politeness, even a fear of lawsuits may go into why you’re not getting detailed rejection letters or personal calls from the casting director. But I think the overall reason, and maybe the one that’s hardest to stomach, is that there is no reason. You just didn’t get the gig, because someone else did. They didn’t do your play, because they did someone else’s. We can analyze statistical data all we want, and try to use it to identify trends or patterns (i.e., last year, more people from this grad school landed agents than that grad school, etc.), but as anyone who’s taken Stats 101 can tell you, this data can be descriptive without necessarily being prescriptive, at least not on an individual level. In other words, our field is arbitrary to an extent. Once someone “pops,” we can come up with all kinds of reasons why or how they found success, but often that’s more hindsight bias than an actual causal relationship. Two dominant trends in our field (and perhaps many other fields) that dictate success oppose one another—the Success-begets-more-success trend on the one hand and the Everyone-wants-to-discover-the-next-big-thing trend on the other hand. You can’t claim to be both a newcomer and a veteran (unless you are running in the GOP primary), so in terms of a game plan, these trends cancel one another out.

 

How am I supposed to get better if no one will tell me what I’m doing wrong?

 

Feedback is a fickle mistress. We crave it, we get hurt or confused by it, we discredit it, we crave it again. For some of us, it’s part of the great shock our egos receive when we come out from behind the protective wing of a community theatre director, a speech team coach, or a generous high school or college teacher who may not have loved everything we did, but who always took the time to explain why we got a B- or only got cast as Lady Montague, when we really had our heart set on Juliet. Out there in the big, bad world, few people take that time. And I’d question your assertion that you’d find the feedback all that useful anyway. You say you want to improve, but by simply acting on the feedback you get, you’re not improving as much as making corrective adjustments. Improving is a lifelong process that involves a journey inwards not outwards. Let’s say you got this feedback you say you want. How long would it be before it starts contradicting itself? Let’s say you’re too short to play Curly at one theatre, but too tall to play him at another? What are you going to do? Prosthetics? I fear that by giving so much power to admissions panels, casting directors, or selection committees, you’re (a) assuming that they know how to articulate what you need to work on in a useful and constructive way (i.e., they may know you’re not their Juliet, but they may not know exactly why) and (b) assuming that if you went away and made that adjustment, and added some jokes to the first act, or worked on your upper head voice, you’d come back and the result would then be different. But by the time you came back, a different director is casting a different show, and she’ll have a different set of reasons not to cast you. We’re not cars or monogrammed towels; we don’t customize that well. We just can’t remake ourselves to spec every time a director or producer wants us in light red not dark red. The actors who have the greatest long-term success can make the role into themselves (to paraphrase Uta), not themselves into the role (just ask Sutton). It’s the same with writers. Sure, you can probably gain some short-term traction by writing stuff that you don’t care about just to satisfy an imagined market. But I think you’ll be better off in the long-term if you stick to your guns and write from your heart.

In terms of not feeling like you can improve without feedback, I’d suggest that what you may be lacking is a community of fellow artists, not an explanation about why X or Y opportunity didn’t work out. If you’re not getting into the “fancy” writers’ groups, grab a couple of friends you respect and start your own. If you want some audition coaching, sign up for a class. There are resources out there, pretty much no matter where you are, that can help you overcome the isolation.

Bottom line: You have to be your own compass in this business—no external feedback is as useful as your own inner sense of progress and improvement.

With love and admiration,
Holler

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark
Thoughts from the curator

A monthly advice column to help advice the many conundrums theatre artists can find themselves in.

Holler Advice Column

Interested in following this conversation in real time? Receive email alerting you to new threads and the continuation of current threads.

subscribe

Comments

4
Add Comment
Newest First

This is a vexing and frustrating dilemma for every actor (and writer, musician, director, dancer) at some point in their careers (and not always early in their careers). It's often a difficult transition from the world of actor/writer training, where the focus is on helping you develop your talents, to the professional world. In the big and intimidating outside world, it is no one's job to help you improve as an artist. The focus is on finding the play, finding the director, finding the actors who will serve immediate needs. There is no time to critique every audition, portfolio or interview that doesn't succeed and even if you did back a casting director into a corner to ask for feedback it's unlikely you'll get honesty. They don't now how you'll react to negative criticism and it's much easier to just say "We went in another direction" than "We thought you were boring/ wooden/unhygienic/crazy."

In my career there was one audition in which I did get unsolicited feedback that hurt at the time but was invaluable long-term. Recently out of grad school, I had a first-time audition for a director I had long admired. The play was written in iambic pentameter and the director worked with me for 20 minutes past my 10 minute appointment. I felt this attention surely meant I was on the fast track to getting cast. Finally, the director said with great warmth and empathy, "We need to stop. You have wonderful instincts as an actor but i'm not going to cast you because you can't handle the language and I don't have time to teach you. If you can learn how to speak verse, I think you'll do very well." "Where can I learn? I asked. "I don't know," he replied, "that's your problem, figure it out. Good luck." I walked out of the studio in tears. But I did find resources to practice verse speaking and 21 years later I auditioned for this director again. He didn't remember me, but I got the part and we've done three plays together, ALL in verse (it wasn't until the opening of the third play that I ginned up the courage to remind him of our first meeting). What I remember most is "I don't have time to teach you." That's when I twigged that I wasn't in school anymore, the rules had drastically changed and so must my perspective if I'm going to get on.

There are 10,000 reasons why an actor is told "No." And every actor, at every point in their career, is told "no" (with the possible exception of Meryl Streep). You are: Too short. Too tall. Too young/old, to blonde/dark, slim/fat, reminding me of my ex girl/boyfriend. All of those and thousands more over which you have no control whatsoever.

In an audition, here's what you DO control: 1. How you look. 2. How you behave. 3. Your hygiene (don't sneer, it matters). 4. Your picture/resume. 5. Your material (if it's a general) 6. What you do with it.

That's 6 out of 10,000 and a manageable number. I believe that successful actors (or writer/directors/choreographers/dancers/singers are those for whom, if they are going to be told no (and everybody is told no), IT IS NEVER FOR A REASON THEY CONTROL. Focus on those 6 items and let the rest go. You can't control other people's reactions to you so don't-that way madness lies. A successful audition is not one where you get the part, it's the one where you walk out of the room knowing you did your best what you had (your body, your state of mind, your CV, your personality and talent) THAT DAY. Learning to do that with consistency is the best way I know of finding fulfillment as an artist.

Best of luck to you. Coraggio!

Interesting but for future columns you might want to use more paragraph returns. Type is really hard to read when it's in a big chunk like this. As theater artists, you know the importance of presentation!