The Artist’s Life: How to keep going when the answer is “no”

by Brent Eickhoff

Rejection is a part of life, just as much as it is a part of theatre. In a world where so many of us must market ourselves and are personally invested in our work, rejection can sting even more. Geraldine Downey, PhD, whose research centers on rejection, explains in an article for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that rejection is synonymous with the feelings of not being wanted or valued. Especially in a community-driven medium such as theatre, these feelings of ostracization and denial can be detrimental to an artist’s outlook on the work. Despite theatre’s vast subjectivity, and the myriad reasons anyone may miss out on an opportunity, the person we blame the most in the face of rejection is our self. Guy Winch, PhD, a frequent blogger for Huffington Post, contends that in many cases, “we start with this high volume of negative self-talk and criticism that takes the rejection to another level.” Unfortunately, competition, criticism, and casting decisions will always be an element of making theatre.

In his book Emotional First Aid, Winch offers up several ways of understanding rejection. He claims that, as an emotion, rejection quickly clouds all reason and will even supersede logic in the most dire of circumstances. Winch details an experiment in which participants were randomly excluded from a computerized program and were unable to ease their pain, even when the scientists provided a host of reasons why each test subject had been excluded. The scientists explained that nobody had legitimately excluded participants, and the results were, in fact, rigged, but subjects were still upset and emotional for being rejected. Even when the scientists told a group that the group responsible for excluding them was comprised of members of the Ku Klux Klan, individuals were still hurt. Winch concludes “reason, logic, and common sense are usually ineffective when it comes to mitigating the pain we feel.” Clearly, rejection is a powerful emotion. These findings explain why even armed with the knowledge that a casting decision was completely subjective, an actor may still struggle to come to terms with the loss of a role.

Another element of rejection is the concept of “rejection sensitivity.” In a nutshell, this idea addresses an individual’s inclination to expect or overreact to rejection. While this principle primarily applies to social rejection, theatre is, in its essence, a social art form. From being “accepted” into the cast or production team, to finding your artistic home in a new city, or gaining favorable reviews from an audience or critics, theatre is arguably more communal than more individualized artistic practices. Rejection sensitivity can be particularly detrimental to actors expecting the worst from auditions. As Shurtleff explains in a later chapter in Audition, persistence and discipline may be the key factor in an actor’s success. He even goes so far as to explicitly state that an actor can fail because “they are victimized by their limitations and prejudices” or are “ruled by their negative side.” Both of these traits are inherent in someone with high rejection sensitivity and no positive outlet for tackling their mindset.


Understanding Rejection: The Artists’ View

One of the first places many of us confront rejection is in middle and high school. From cliques, to school dances, relationships, and spring play cast lists, the potential for rejection is at an all time high. When she discussed it with me, high school theatre teacher Carrie Reiberg said that rejection comes with the territory when casting a play. “I see rejection happen a lot when casting…it wouldn’t be realistic or honest of me to cast every actor every time they audition,” she says. She discusses that fairness is at the heart of her classroom, since if she doesn’t cast the best actor for the role at the time, “you are setting actors up to fail in the ‘real world’ when they try to make a living as working actors.” If the same actors get the leading roles throughout the formative years of their acting career, they may develop unhealthy expectations for what will happen post-graduation. 

Emerging playwright Justin Pierce describes his relationship with rejection as “tricky.” He explains that the hardest thing to deal with in terms of rejection is never knowing why something wasn’t chosen. “In all cases, it means that I have a lot more work to do—which I definitely do—but I think it also means that sometimes when the right doors aren’t being opened for you, you’re maybe supposed to open them yourself.” Pierce describes self-producing as a way to open yourself up to a broader range of feedback and “checking in” with yourself and your process. Even with this strategy, he explains that there are still questions he turns over and over in his head following rejection, such as “Did the play not speak to them the way it speaks to me?” and “If things are hitting the professional and me so differently, then what’s wrong with me?”

Brent Eickhoff

letting these feelings surface is natural and can prove useful. Even director David Cromer, who has had multiple hits on and off-Broadway, admitted in an interview with Michael Halberstam that when a critic highlights something negative about his productions, he immediately believes them and feels that they have discovered that his artistic prowess is a sham. Those who are more prone to rejection sensitivity may witness these feelings of self-deprecation amplified, and identifying how rejection individually affects you can be the first step in learning to better cope.

When it comes to rejection sensitivity, this mindset can prove particularly high during major transitions in an individual’s life. While artists’ lives can be particularly transitory, many recent theatre graduates experience the highest amount of anxiety about rejection their first few years out of college. This is to be expected, and mirrors Downey’s conclusions after a study of 600 incoming Columbia students that during “times of transitions where people are going into new social situations…sensitivity to rejection goes up. And then the average decreases for people over time.” Simply experiencing rejection in a similar social situation (such as auditioning multiple times in the same city or for the some company) repeatedly is typically enough to reduce rejection sensitivity. Rejection sensitivity, particularly for early-career actors, directors, playwrights, and designers is to be expected at a time when concerns of finding a day job or affordable apartment conflate with the need to prove yourself to family members, friends, and professors. Many recently graduated or neophyte theatremakers may find that time is their best friend when it comes to decreasing rejection sensitivity and finding one’s place in a new theatre community.

Time may prove helpful in combating the feelings of anxiety connected with rejection, but rejection itself can still be bruising, even to the most seasoned actors, playwrights, and directors. Even accomplished artists may feel anxiety the farther they progress in the selection process. While many actors try to protect themselves from rejection by telling themselves they won’t get the part anyway, this ideology is actually less effective than it may seem. In fact, Downey suggests that “people who are good at self-regulation—who can delay their response until they’ve processed something, and who can think about how there might be alternative explanations for how someone is reacting to them—can think about how there might be different ways to handle a potentially difficult situation or even be able to turn it around.” Self-control can be a great way to avoid the negative repercussions of rejection sensitivity, and is imperative when it comes to maintaining a balanced perspective. Winch, too, provides some strategies for coping with rejection. At the heart of his recommendations is the act of identifying the negative feelings rejection evokes in us. Winch recommends combatting these in a variety of ways: from creating counterarguments to your self-criticisms to connecting with friends. These two suggestions are particularly useful for theatrical artists, as many have friends or colleagues who have dealt with similar rejections and can provide support from a place of understanding. Additionally, both of these solutions battle avoidance, which can lead to unhealthy emotional cycles in our art and personal lives.

Illustrated silhouette of a man sitting with his head in his hand

Dealing with Rejection: The Artists’ View

In the arena of high school, Reiberg has perfected discussions surrounding the casting process down to a science. She says that she talks to students “constantly about being a strong actor versus being the right actor in the right place at the right time.” She also practices transparency when it comes to expectations for rehearsals, academic standing, and commitment. Reiberg believes that communication is essential when working with students in an educational theatre setting, although she also believes that it’s important that younger actors recognize the differences between scholastic theatre and the industry. Overall, she encourages students not to let rejection define who they are.

Pierce is a proponent of self-producing not only to learn more about yourself as a playwright, but also as a way of protecting yourself from the feelings of inadequacy associated with rejection. He believes that “putting on a show is just good for the soul. It’ll pick you up in the moments you aren’t exactly thriving, help you keep moving, striving to be better.” In terms of what he’s learned from rejection, Pierce believes that one major lesson he’s gained is the knowledge that he can still do the work, even if he has a lot of work to do to get to the level he wants to be.

Upon reflection, I recognized that I often find myself comparing myself to others my age, especially those from my graduating class. Unfollowing some of these individuals on social media has allowed me to decrease my competitive nature—which, unlike drive, I have realized, isn’t very useful in art. Even so, each time I don’t get something I submit to, I compartmentalize instead of dealing with the rejection. I fall back on apathy, attempting to convince myself that “it’s not that deep,” or “it wasn’t that great of an opportunity in the first place.” This is, of course, stupid. Indifference isn’t strength. If I didn’t care about the opportunity, I wouldn’t have submitted to it in the first place. And if I didn’t care about making theatre, I’d be doing something else.

Once More, Unto the Breach!

ActorStage-300x200Understanding and embracing rejection can be challenging, but is necessary if we are to continue making art. Allowing for time to be upset and process the rejection seems to be a key component in coping, and can ultimately decrease our rejection sensitivity. Find a community of friends or artists with shoulders to cry on that are willing to listen to you vent, and do the same for them. We shouldn’t fear rejection; we should accept its place in our lives and art.

Art is personal. Rejection is personal. Is there a way to separate self from artmaking; self-worth from society? And, if we could separate our ego from the act of creating, would our work still approach universality in depicting the personal? Or would it depict something else? Would we stay motivated with nothing on the line, no skin in the game? Rejection sensitivity may be the root of sleepless nights, tearful train rides, and that nauseating feeling opening night as we count the scenes until curtain call, but could it also be the root of our demand for quality artistic experiences? Rejection, and the feelings associated with it, may remain entangled with the act of art for the rest of our lives. While we may find strategies for coping with rejection, we should never let our fear prevent us from daring to take risks. Rejection sensitivity shouldn’t rule our art, but it should have a place in our practice.

Brent Eickhoff is a director, writer, and educator based in Chicago, IL. This post originally appeared in HowlRound. 

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