The day I got called about making my Broadway debut with The Book of Mormon was one day after I was rejected by three non-equity touring productions I had really wanted. Almost four years later, looking back, I learned more from those rejections than I ever did from that debut.
Just this month, a newborn Twitter hashtag emerged from the birthing canal of the internet. Despite my yearning, #bringbackBringBackBirdie still has no traction, but #shareyourrejections does. It’s used to inspire artists to strive for dreams in the face of rejection from directors, agencies, publishers, etc. “I auditioned for Oh, Calcutta! at the Theatre by the Round Square Sea and got typed out. Last June, I won an honorary Tony. #shareyourrejections”
Maybe my winter heart has been suppressed by summer too long, but I find this problematic. Success isn’t necessarily dependent on diligence and persevering, as these tweets would have you believe. It can be beyond our control. Yes, I can work on my singing/work on flexibility/take acting classes. No, I can’t get taller/change the build of my leprechaun stature/grow a beard/adjust my Mickey Mouse speaking range.
“It gets better” messages of encouragement are tantamount to “I’ve made it so why can’t you?” which, although used with the best of intentions, are dangerous. They generalize that anyone can be professionally successful in this field, as if we all start from even, equally-privileged ground. We do not.
Personally, my body isn’t right for every show. It’s done me well, but it can impede my cast-ability regardless of talent. I can’t begin to comprehend the greater struggles I would face in theatre were I not born white and cis-gendered. Not only physicality and ability, but money can be instrumental to professional success in performing. While I can’t live out Scrooge McDuck fantasies and swim in a pool of gold coins, I did have parents who made sacrifices to help me financially when they could, a privilege not all are afforded. I would not have been able to wait through years of rejections, in an exceedingly expensive city, for my break had it come any later. That takes an exemplary, honorable brand of lunacy (of which I’m jealous).
My break came from being a young, white, quirky, tap-dancer when that type was more en vogue than ever. I auditioned for The Book of Mormon having already worked with two associates in other capacities.
Overcoming adversity did not get me my job. Luck and connections did.
Yes, my mother and I both think I have a great deal of talent. But a lot of people do. Just because I got here doesn’t mean everyone can if they persevere and have enough chutzpah. I had privileges that allowed obtaining this job to be a smooth process.
On paper, this show is the highlight of my success. But success can’t mean money or getting in a Playbill of note. If we measure success like that, then most people reading #shareyourrejections tweets by Broadway actors will never be “successful” because most Broadway dreams don’t take root. There’s no need to include the mostly unattainable “happy ending” in these tweets. The “and then I showed them all” self-congratulatory ending about our proceeding victory.
It’s important to note and learn that not all rejection gets vindicated. We fail. We get rejected. It’s the personal growth afterward that counts, not the tangible success.
But isn’t it nice to hear that it worked out for the better?
It is nice, using the Sondheimian definition of the word. If you’re an actor working within the Broadway community, we already know it worked out for you. Perhaps that’s the root of my qualm. It seems a way for artistic professionals, with good intentions, to celebrate their successes while claiming rejections shouldn’t get in anyone else’s way of reaching the level of estimation they were lucky to achieve.
We have an obligation to be honest to those entering this business about realities of life in theatre. It isn’t always fulfilling. Stardom seldom occurs.
Most choose a different path and find happiness in a new field. It’s what I was prepared to do before my debut phone call, and it’s most likely what I’ll consider again after this job inevitably ends. If that happens, it doesn’t mean I let rejection, or the possibility thereof, get the better of me. A “nice” story of overcoming rejection doesn’t need a Broadway ending. It can end in a barn doing Damn Yankees for half a hot dog a week. It can end in discovering that you love nurturing others’ gifts and move into teaching. It can end any way you choose.
Rejection is natural and, mostly, never ending. You never have an obligation to come back from rejection and show anyone how wrong they were. Find a constructive way to cope. Most don’t get their name on a marquee. That’s what makes those people so extraordinary and the likelihood of replicating their success so minimal; there are only a few.
Instead of seeing that reality as pessimistic, I choose to see it as part of the wonder of this globe-spanning theatrical community. On the same night someone is above the title at the Nederlander, someone else is starring at the JCC. Both can be successful story tellers. Often times, only circumstances truly differentiate them.
Some will experience rejection and never feel they have succeeded, but validation cannot be synonymous with success. Success can be whatever you deem it. For me, it is happiness. Learning to appropriately deal with rejection, and not blow it off as an obstacle on my way to the top of the Broadway ladder, has made my life a great deal more joyful.
Published in collaboration with The Ensemblist