Has a theatre instructor ever preached the importance of saying “yes, and” to you? How about “well, the show must go on!” in response to a problem? Or perhaps someone has urged you to “say yes to everything” as career advice? Although a lot of these fundamental teachings are intended to be helpful to aspiring performers and other theatre practitioners, they tend to combine into two, all-encompassing ideas: that the work is more important than the people involved, and “yes” is the only acceptable answer.
There’s definitely some truth to these teachings, and it’s understandable why they’ve been upheld for so many generations. It’s generally well-advised to stay open-minded to opportunities, and accepting them is a great way to build up a network. And as a performer, it can be helpful to be reminded that the artform is bigger than us, and we have a certain level of responsibility to our teammates and the audience.
But what happens when one ventures out to begin their acting career, and things become complicated? Maybe you’re up for a role that involves nudity, but you’re not comfortable with the way that it’s being handled. Or maybe you’ve been offered a contract that should have gone to a member of a marginalized community you are not a part of. Suddenly, “yes, and,” and all the similar philosophies you’ve spent years repeating don’t hold up as well.
Why Saying No is Hard
Why is saying no difficult in the first place? It could have something to do with the way performers are conditioned. A big part of theatre education is not only about the craft, but also about creating an artist that is malleable. The language commonly used in theatre education urges the importance of saying yes and pushing through, as exemplified by “yes, and.” Another example is how learning to take direction is upheld as one of the best skills a performer can acquire, especially when it’s done on the spot without question.
What happens when someone spends formative years of their life in an environment that conditions them to solve most problems by bending and stretching to fit different molds?
This makes sense on a surface level—after all, isn’t taking direction and transforming literally what the job entails? This applies to the craft of acting onstage, but also the politics of casting and networking behind the scenes. It’s normalized for performers to adapt to fit different projects both onstage and off, and it’s easy to see why. It can be wise for artists to embrace versatility so they can be available for a wide variety of work.
But how does that mentality affect someone psychologically over time? What happens when someone spends formative years of their life in an environment that conditions them to solve most problems by bending and stretching to fit different molds? It becomes easy to be seduced by the idea that changing oneself to fit the project is the ideal solution, instead of accepting when something just isn’t working. The act of pushing the limits has been so heavily romanticized that we forget that some limits have the right to exist.
There is also the social pressure to say yes. Theatre is a very tight knit community: if you’re pursuing a career in theatre, odds are most of the people you associate with are also part of the community. Maybe you attend long, daily rehearsals where you work closely with theatre folk, and then come home to roommates who are also performers. In your spare time, you might attend classes to better your craft and support your friend’s projects. Maybe you even live in a city where every server and bartender you encounter when you go out is also involved in the industry.
It becomes even more difficult to say no when those around you have also been conditioned against it as well. This environment provides many opportunities for peer pressure to subtly sneak in—it could look like a dance instructor insisting that concerning dieting habits are normal, or your actor roommate saying they’d kill to book that job that you’re on the fence about. The constant biased input from colleagues, advisors, and those who exist within the theatre bubble can heavily influence what a performer deems as acceptable or not.
There are several other reasons why saying no can feel intimidating as a performer: there’s the competitive nature of the theatre industry, and the fear that if you don’t take a gig, you’ll be replaced and forgotten. There’s also a deep-rooted anxiety about burning bridges in such a well-connected industry, where everyone seemingly knows everyone else. It’s very easy to develop a scarcity mindset, since booking in general is quite difficult and time-consuming. If you turn down this one opportunity, who knows if or when another one will come along? And of course, there’s the dire financial reality of pursuing a career as a performer, and the urge to take just about anything that offers money. When faced with all of this, it’s simple to see why some performers might struggle to consider no as an option.