An actor's life for me
Being a performer can be hard. Here's one way to make it easier.
Photo by Barrie Kreinik: Lincoln Center, NYC
“Sorry, we’re not looking for any doctors of your type.”
“Unfortunately, we felt you were a bit too tall for this law firm.”
“You know, you’ll probably get a lot more marketing work when you’re in your 40s.”
Those statements might sound ludicrous to you. Offensive, even. If you heard them after a job interview, you might even have cause to complain to the HR department. But I’ve been on the receiving end of similar statements, directly and indirectly, dozens of times.
They look like this:
“Sorry, we’re not looking for any performers of your type.”
“Unfortunately, we felt you were a bit too tall for this production.”
“You know, you’ll probably get a lot more acting work when you’re in your 40s.”
It’s a commonly spouted cliché that the life of an actor is a hard-knock one. I chose my career path at the age of eight, and since then I’ve watched countless people shake their heads, lower their voices funereally, and say to me: “That’s a really hard profession.” As a teenager, I grew to hate this admonition. A lot of jobs are hard! I wanted to stay. That doesn’t stop people from doing them! But I had no idea, at the time, what “hard” really meant in the context of an acting career. And most of the people warning me didn’t know either. “All that rejection,” they’d murmur, punctuating their pessimism with another head shake. “It’s such a tough business. Are you sure that’s what you want to do?”
Of course, none of these comments came from people with arts careers. They were doctors and lawyers, bankers and businessfolk, people whose jobs came with salaries and health insurance and at least two weeks of paid vacation every year. People who couldn’t imagine enduring the uncertainty and instability of a life as a freelance artist. “Why would you put yourself through that? A smart girl like you? Wouldn’t you rather be an attorney?”
Throughout high school and college, I dismissed these warnings. I didn’t care if it was going to be hard: I was a theatre artist, and nothing was going to stop me.
Then I graduated. And I learned, in a few short years, what “hard” really means when you’re a professional actor.
First of all: there’s actually not much rejection. Seldom, if ever, do the people in power call you up and say We don’t want you. They simply don’t call. As a performer, you spend hours preparing for a three-minute audition, then more hours preparing for a ten-minute callback—or two, or five—until finally the process is over, and you get to…
You wait for your agent to call. You wait for the offer to come in. You wait to find out if your friend got the job instead of you. You wait for a day, a few days, a week, sometimes a few weeks, occasionally more than a month. And more often than not, you never hear anything more about it.
That’s not rejection. It’s silence. And there is so much silence in the life of an actor, it can make one feel positively invisible.
Unlike many professionals, actors never get to stop having job interviews. The average white-collar worker interviews for several jobs, gets one, and stays in it for at least a year or two, sometimes forever. The average actor auditions for multiple jobs every week, books a job every now and then, and is already out looking for the next job before the current one ends. Actors can go years without booking an acting gig, pursuing parallel careers in order to pay the bills. When this relentless cycle of auditioning and unemployment is accompanied by radio silence from the people with hiring power, it can start to feel as if nobody knows you’re alive—and nobody cares.
There are few other professions that so frequently deny their employees the opportunity to work. But then, there are few other professions in which there are so many more workers than there are jobs. In the 2018-19 season, Actors’ Equity had almost 52,000 active members. Fewer than 20,000 of them worked under union contracts that year. That’s an unemployment rate of over 60%. (Not to mention the fact that most theatres still don’t pay their performers a living wage.) Of course, it’s not that none of those actors worked at all—many of them will have had jobs in TV, film, music, voiceover, and other media. But a job in the theatre—which is what most Equity members went into the profession to get—can sometimes feel as elusive as the proverbial unicorn.
When you reach the final round of auditions for such a job, it’s natural to become emotionally invested in the outcome. Acting is more than just a career, it’s an art form, and theatre artists want to be able to create their art. So it’s bad enough not to be cast in a show after putting your heart and soul into the audition process. The fact that said process often has no resolution—that actors are left hanging for days or weeks, uncertain of the outcome—just adds insult to injury.
It all comes down to one decisive element: communication.
Last spring, I was called in to audition for a regional production of a play I had originally seen on Broadway. I loved this play. I wanted passionately to perform in a production of this play. But I’d just been through a tumultuous year of personal tragedy and emotional upheaval, and I’d reached a breaking point. So I’d decided to leave New York for a month, planning to depart at the end of July. I had carved out the time and saved up the money and I was about to buy my plane tickets…when the audition came along.
The production was due to run from July to October.
I knew I had to take the audition. It was a great opportunity, and I wanted at least to make a good impression on the creative team. So I went in with a low-stakes, devil-may-care approach: Either I’ll book the job and travel afterward, or I won’t book the job and I’ll travel as planned. Simple, right? What a fortunate position to be in.
I smashed the initial audition. Felt great. Left it behind.
The next day, I got a callback. Smashed that too. Left it behind. (Sorta.)
Then I got another callback. A final one. It was down to just one or two other actresses and me.
By this time, my devil-may-care attitude had morphed into one of caring-very-much. I’d grown to love the material. I had rapport with the director. I could imagine myself in the role. I began to want the job a lot more than I originally had. Travel? I could travel anytime. This was a unique opportunity. I wanted to book it.
I left the final callback feeling great—and almost certain that the job was in the bag.
Then I waited.
I typically wait for a week after a final callback. That’s about as long as I can keep my hopes up. Sometimes it takes a few days for a director to make up her mind, sometimes a few more days for the theatre to sort out a contract offer, sometimes the first offer will be turned down and they’ll start calling second choices—all of these things can delay the casting process. But the actor never finds out what’s happening. She just waits.
You get used to this over time, until it starts to feel okay. You find ways to move on while leaving things open just in case. But sometimes a person wants to be able to plan her life. And I don’t actually think that’s too much to ask.
My own plans were paralyzed: I didn’t want to move ahead with them and then find out I’d booked the job. So, after waiting the requisite week, I emailed my agent to see if he’d heard anything. Three days later, he finally got back to me.
“Looks like it didn’t go your way this time,” he said kindly, and shared the feedback he’d received from the casting director: they thought I did a “great job,” she said, they just felt I was a little too like this, and they wanted someone a little more like that, and “hope that’s helpful.”
It wasn’t helpful. It was totally subjective. In fact, I hadn’t really wanted feedback in the first place. What I wanted, believe it or not, was rejection. I wanted a hard no, not a lingering maybe. I wanted to have been told as soon as possible that I hadn’t been cast, so I could leave that final callback in the room where it happened and get on with my life. But I couldn’t do that until I knew for sure that I hadn’t gotten the job. And I work in a business in which it’s standard practice not to communicate with actors after a final callback unless they’ve been hired—which by all professional standards is bad practice.
I thanked my agent for his help. Then I booked my plane tickets.
Leaving New York that summer was the best thing I could have done for myself—an experience for which I’m deeply grateful to this day. If you believe in the synchronicity of the universe, it would appear that I wasn’t meant to perform in that production. I was meant to escape, to retreat, to heal, to do everything I’d known I needed to do, everything that prompted me to plan the trip in the first place. So why did I have to go through the emotional roller coaster of three rounds of auditions for a job I didn’t want, then realized I did want, then didn’t even get?
I’ll never know. But I do know that the experience would have been less stressful if there had been more communication at its end.
When I submit my writing for publication, I can expect to be notified as to whether or not it’s been accepted. The same goes for teaching jobs, audiobook gigs, singing competitions, and most of the other things I do that require applications, interviews, or pitches. There may be disappointment involved, but at least there are definitive answers instead of a liminal infinity of waiting.
So here’s a thought. What if we could create a new model for the end of the casting process? What if instead of treating actors like they’re invisible, we let them know that they’ve been seen and heard?
Here’s an example. Once all offers for a show have been made and accepted, what if the casting office sent an email to all of the actors who got to the final round but weren’t cast? “Thank you so much for attending the final callbacks for this production,” it might read. “Although we are not able to offer you a role at this time, we appreciate your hard work and commitment. We hope to see you again at future auditions.”
This task could be completed by a casting assistant in less than an hour. Then at least the actors would know that their work had been recognized and valued, instead of wondering if and when they might ever hear the phone ring.
An actor’s life will always be filled with uncertainty. It doesn’t have to be filled with silence too.
So why, you might ask yourself, am I still pursuing this career if it’s so goshdarn difficult? That’s a question that many performers ask themselves every day—and that many more are asking themselves right now, when an already sparse set of opportunities has gone up in smoke. The only answer I’ve got is: Because I have to. As Harriet Walter writes in her book Other People’s Shoes: “Acting is what I do with who I am.”
Nothing stopped me before I knew how “hard” my career could be. Nothing has stopped me since I found out. Even now, nothing will.
I believe in the power of the theatre—and the performing arts in general—to transform lives. I want to be a part of that transformation. But the theatre itself needs to transform the way it treats its workforce—and communication is just the tip of the iceberg. With the entire industry now shut down indefinitely, theatre artists are beginning to publicly examine issues that have only been whispered about behind hands. We’re pulling back the curtain on the defects in our business, including racism, sexism, and unequal opportunity. We’re trying to figure out how we can improve a system that’s been deeply flawed for far too long.
I look forward to being a part of that transformation.