I know what it’s like to have failed, baby

09.30.11 | 15 Comments

CATEGORIES actors, directors, playwrights, the process

“There are still many more days of failure ahead, whole seasons of failure, things will go terribly wrong, you will have huge disappointments, but you have to prepare for that, you have to expect it and be resolute and follow your own path.”
― Anton Chekhov

Over nearly twenty years of striving, struggling and occasionally thriving in the theatre, I have honed my strategic approach to rejection.  If it’s a biggie, I give myself 48 hours to pout, weep, question my fundamental decency as a human being and eat raw cookie dough with a large spoon, but then I have to get on with it.

I learned the other day that I didn’t get an amazing job for which I had been vying.  A ‘change everything’ job.  A ‘hello, ship, I didn’t see you come in’ sort of job.  I experienced a moment of quiet disappointed surprise, followed by some thoughtful consideration of whether I had made a misstep and what other factors might’ve gone into the theatre’s decision-making.  About an hour later, I burst into tears.

This got me thinking about the difference, if there is any, between the kinds of rejection I experience as a director and that experienced by my theatrical colleagues.

I am not looking to compete here; rejection is hard however one encounters it.  I am looking to observe the similarities and the differences, to draw the Venn diagram of our experiences, and to see what strategies we might offer one another about how to cope with this inevitable feature of our business (and, well, life).

Confidence is a little rusty

Actors probably get rejected more than anyone else in the theatre.  Not least because, if they are focused, diligent and determined actors, they are out there auditioning all the time.  Those rejections suck, and can be punctuated by flashes of cruelty or indifference.  But there will likely be another opportunity within a few days.

Playwrights get rejected sometimes through an odd sort of radio silence:  Did they get my script? Have they read my script?

As a freelance director, I rarely apply formally for a job.  So I cannot consciously get rejected for a directing project for which I didn’t know I was being considered.  Yet I write a lot of letters and invite a lot of producers and ADs to see my work; the profound silence of those non-replies can be painfully dissonant.  Once an artistic director invited me to his office so that he could tell me that I was nothing, that I never would be anything and that I was naive to think otherwise.  I stopped writing to him.  The rejection in competitions such as the NEA / TCG Directing Fellowship, which I collected over six consecutive years, was palpable.  Eventually, my failure to win the NEA / TCG grant was helpfully offset by winning a Fulbright on the first try.  I like to think that those TCG rejections helped me practice for the Fulbright.

In the past few years, my desire for a home base has grown along with my aptitude for strategic and artistic planning; I have been actively seeking out artistic director and artistic associate opportunities.  I’ve gotten close.  Very close a few times.  Down to me and the Other Guy.  Thus far, it’s zero to me and four to Other Guy.  (Who IS that guy?)

Because the decision is being taken by a Board of Directors or a search committee that doesn’t work together every day, one unique feature of contending for these institutional positions is that the search can take months.  Sometimes they say, “We’ll be in touch in a couple of weeks” and it turns out to be eight weeks before they call and say, “Can we fly you out on Tuesday?”  Sometimes they say, “We’ll be in touch in a couple of weeks” and they call the next day to set up the next round.

One gets invested in the process.  One has to consider.  Am I willing to move to Wherever, Planet Earth for this job?  Am I willing to ask my husband to move there?  What might it be like to live and work over there?  As the weeks tick by, I find myself trying to walk that strangely tight rope of ‘have they thrown me overboard or are they just busy with the opening?’  There is rarely any way to know until, eventually, the call or the email or the form letter comes.

Last year, I received one email unfortunately addressed to “Dead Applicant”.  I’m not dead yet.  I’m feeling better!  (My blog post on proofing your rejection letters will come later, theatre companies.)

One playwright friend and colleague tells me that “The hard part of rejection, for me, is that it forces you to revise the image you have of yourself.”  I understand what he means, but that is rarely a big feature of my experience, in part because of the kinds of rejections I myself mete out.  When I am casting, I often see more than one actor who is clearly capable of playing the role dynamically, dramatically, thrillingly.  I have to think about the chemistry between or among my leads, about the arc of the whole story, and which combination of actors best fits together to accomplish that.  I am happy when it is a tough call; I’m not thinking, “that guy we called back but didn’t cast blew it.”  Actors can be brilliant and not get the job because someone else was just a better fit for this particular production.

We go on, as is our (sad)  nature

I’m not where I want to be in my career.  I’m not where I thought I’d be.  But I’ve done some profoundly satisfying work, directed myself proud most of the time and built some wonderful collegial relationships.  I am a smart and talented cookie who has made my share of mistakes.  It is healthy to review, to assess in the wake of a setback, but you can also second-guess your way to madness with this stuff.  Even though it stings, I don’t see a rejection as a wholesale referendum on my abilities.

I get to re-choose to pursue this challenging, ephemeral, beautiful bitch goddess of a business every day.  So I try to remember that, and also remember the wise advice of the unflappable Katherine Hepburn, “Just keep going.”

Or in the words of Mr. Springsteen, I just might walk myself all the way home.

How do you navigate rejection?

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Kate Powers

Shakespeare girl, teller of good stories, fan of social justice, prison reform, mindfulness and all that is righteous on E Street

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  • LindaInPhoenix

    I received a fellowship rejection yesterday.  Every rejection hurts, but as you rightly point out, rejection is also a learning opportunity: “I like to think that those TCG rejections helped me practice for the Fulbright.”  Persisting not just despite *but because of* the many rejections (or failures) one endures is what separates the professional from the amateur, more so than a paycheck.  
    Great post!  Thanks for sharing.

    • Anonymous

      Sorry to hear about your fellowship rejection, Linda. 

      Fail. Fail again.  Fail better.  As the crazy absurdist playwright guy said.

  • there is no one I would rather be rejected by then you. 🙂  But as a rule, and somewhat ironically, my personal response to rejection doesn’t happen until I get the job. That is when the bundled rejections of auditions past creep back into line, standing on each others shoulders until they are a Goliath that then attacks me somewhere about the second week of rehearsal. I call this moment (as you know my friend) “the postal moment” wherein all those rejections seem to be valid and ABSOLUTELY TRUE as I can not seem to navigate my way through a difficult rehearsal moment. At that point I fantasize that I can still get a pension through the US Gov’t as a postal worker…delivering the mail and at least getting in a healthy walk every day. And it took several years for me to understand just what that cauldron of emotion was made up of and how it did, inexorably, lead back to the intervening rejections from one show to the next. Now I recognize it when it happens and I just let it happen, knowing that in 24-36 hours I will have cracked the nut that is causing me angst and the Goliath of those rejections reverts to the insignificant fleas that they really are.

    • Anonymous

      Ah, that’s so interesting that the effect is cumulative and manifests when you are wrestling with the prize!  Good discovery, especially since that whole Post Office option doesn’t look as reliable as it once did.

  • Mspowers

    Allowing for a simple audience member to chime in, the failure was not yours but theirs.

    • Anonymous

      You’re kind to say so.  But it may not be so: hopefully for the theatre’s sake, they picked someone who is somehow a better fit for their needs.  As one Board chair said to me last year, when it was down to just two candidates, “We know you can both do the job.  Now we have to determine who’s the best next step for our company.”

      I keep hearing that guy from Joe vs. the Volcano: “I know he can GET the job, but can he DO the job?  I’m not arguing that with you, Harry.”

  • Marisela Treviño Orta

    It was a rejection email that tangentially inspired the Playwrights Best Practices blog post here on 2amt. I tried to take my rejection on the chin at first, but then felt a bit low because as you said, rejection makes you reassess your idea of yourself. I began to question where I am in my career and wondered: am I doing everything I can to move it along. So I guess that particular rejection shone up a spotlight on a part of my writing life I hadn’t considered nurturing and it got me to refocus.

    As a poet I have a really thick skin when it comes to rejections. If they didn’t accept my poem for publication, I know that there are all sorts of considerations that go into that decision: Did the poem fit with the other poems in the journal? What was the meta narrative arc the journal was trying to tell with the poems?–some of these things have nothing to do with the merit of my writing.

    With playwriting, it does feel a bit more personal. What I mean is, I spend so much more time with a play, inhabiting its world, falling in love with my characters, spending time with other artists to develop it–you (I mean, “I”) can’t help but become emotionally invested in your (my) work. So rejection can damper your spirits. But I’m lately turning to my peers for advice, trying to just keep my nose to the grindstone and work, work, work, work. And I try to remember: my career will be my own. It doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s and expecting it to will only set me up for some other form of disappointment, meanwhile, I could be missing out on the adventure it currently is.

    • Anonymous

      Yes, to turning to our peers for advice.  Yes, to keep your nose to the grindstone.  Yes, to work, work, work.  Yes, above all, to your career will be your own, Marisela!

  • Kate: FFirst of all, a huge cyber-hug to you.
    Would that the world were were not so unfair.

    I know Second: what I know for
    sure is that you are now one step closercloser to getting the ‘change everything’
    job, as you describe it. Check out the comments to my recent blog: Occupational
    Hazard: REJECTION! http://theatricalintelligence.com/occupational-hazard-rejection/#comments

    Finally, if you haven’t read “The Other Side of Sadness”, by George Bonanno, I
    highly recommend it.http://www.theothersideofsadness.com


    • Anonymous

      Aw, thanks, Ann!

      I had already read your post; I’m off to survey the comments.

  • Jacob Juntunen

    You rightfully point out that for playwrights much of the rejection process is spent in radio silence, especially that “have they even read the script?” part. I’d simply add that this nail-biting can become even worse when you know they’ve read the script. When a company says something like, “Yeah, it’s on a short list for next season.” I can’t keep asking every five minutes if they’ve decided yet, but, especially in the small theatre world, you see people regularly socially and still can’t ask. You get invites to the theatre’s other events and can’t reply, “Yeah, cool, I’d like to come to that, but what about my play?” It’s egocentric, and I hope it’s not just my egocentrism I’m displaying here, but for me the hardest part of rejection is the moments of hopefulness when I know someone is seriously considering a script. The actual rejection stings, but it is, for me, the expected outcome, so easier to deal with than the unexpected ray of light of possible production. Hope may be a thing with feathers, but its constant singing can be far more distracting to the work I’m trying to accomplish than a solid rejection.

    But, theatres out there, keep considering my work! I’ll deal with the hope! I promise!

  • I enjoy the below quote in regards to rejection:

    “The brick walls are there for a reason.
    The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are
    there to let us prove how badly we want things. The brick walls are
    there to stop people who don’t want it badly enough.” – Raundy Pausch,
    The Last Lecture

  • Dayna

    I landed a job at a university at the end of August, and consider myself one of the lucky ones. Yet, I still wrestle with the “Can I do this? I CAN do this.” inner monologue. I keep a little bulletin baord above my computer monitor with reminders and encouragements. Every time I look up, I forget about the rejections and remember all the great things. It keeps my chin up (literally and figuratively) and reminds me that not only can I do this, I know what I’m doing and will rock it. 
    …Especially on a Monday morning. 

  • Here is how I deal with rejection. I always remember that rejection means ACTION. If I am not being rejected, then I am not out there doing what I need to do. Rejection is a path to success. There is no other path, for there is no one in this world who achieve success without having had to deal with rejection.

    Rejection is the ying (or the yang depending on your perspective) to success!

    Yeah it still hurts, rejection that is. But the hurt stings less, and lasts half as long.