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

“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?

  • September 30, 2011
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