Holler is a monthly advice column for theater artists trying to keep it all together. Email holler (at) howlround (dot) 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) theater professional.
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
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.
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 theater 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 theater, 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,