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. Continue reading