The theatre world is filled with some of the most insecure people I have ever met in my life. It doesn’t make sense, does it? These people go out in front of anywhere from dozens to thousands of strangers and bare their souls and talents on a stage! But it’s true, at least in my limited experience.
Some people are obvious about it, and in an obnoxious way. I swear if I hear one more 5’9” dancer who weighs 110 lbs soaking wet say, “God my thighs are huge,” while standing in front of the mirror, I will take off my one of my character shoes and aim it forcefully at her protruding rib cage. Others aren’t quite as obvious about their insecurities, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist – it just means they’ve learned to hide them or, at the very least, shut up about them in social settings.
Why, as performers, do we do this? Do we honestly just need the constant validation from others? Is it because the industry really is that cutthroat and we feel like we need reassurance or, in worst cases, to go to extreme measures to ensure future casting and hiring? Or have we just gotten into the habit of obnoxiously fishing out compliments and waving away the ones that are volunteered with a sarcastic or self-deprecating comment?
I was speaking with a friend today (we’ll call her Josephine to protect the innocence) about upcoming auditions and what we hope to do this spring and summer. We marveled at our completely opposite audition fears: she quakes at the singing part and flies through cold-readings with ease; I will sing my heart out confidently, but I break into hives at the thought of cold readings.
Then the conversation took a turn when Josephine said, “You know what’s sad? I’d audition for a lot more if I weren’t so insecure. For example, I almost auditioned for _______, but the most age-appropriate character’s description said: ‘a beautiful woman.’ So I didn’t go.” Of course, as her friend, I chided her and told her she’s nuts. But the truth is I’m just as guilty of doing the same type of thing.
No matter what my talent level is, no matter how interesting or lovely the timbre of my singing voice, no matter how energetic I feel my stage presence may be, the reality is the same: I am a dime a dozen in the theatre world, and I’m very aware of it. It’s my job to find a certain something about myself that will make me stand out at a cattle call or open audition, yes, but sometimes the director wants a certain look/height/type/voice/weight. Or the script just calls for it and that’s just the way it is. Let me give an example.
(Okay, so this blog ended up going in a totally different direction than what I originally intended, but I’m okay with that. I’m just gonna go with it.)
Recently I was in a production of Chicago, and I played Matron “Mama” Morton. Any female who auditions for that show will naturally want to play Roxie, Velma, or one of the six Merry Murderesses. At first glance, they’re the obvious choices. They’re lead or featured roles, and they get to dance their butts off and have a lot of fun, right? Of course! However, the reality is, if you line up ten equally talented singers and actresses and dancers, eventually you have to narrow it down and be true to the style of the piece and the nature of beast that is Fosse choreography. Even if I can do some fierce [insert difficult dance move here], if I’m 5’3” and weigh….what I weigh…I’m not going to be chosen for one of these roles.
I actually spoke to my director of Chicago about this on a break one evening during rehearsal. There was a very large (no pun intended) turnout at auditions for this production. It turns out that many women turned down callbacks or roles offered because they only wanted to play one of the two leads. I asked him how they narrowed it down, and he was kind enough to be completely honest with me. He said something akin to (and I’m paraphrasing), “As someone who has struggled with weight issues, I would never automatically rule out a talented woman based on her size. However. The Fosse style of dance requires certain lines and angles of the body can only be affectively achieved by certain body types.” There you go. Like it or not, sometimes body type is a major factor.
Sometimes it’s not only about weight. If I’m 5’3” and can belt my face off or float a soaring high B-flat with ease and the director thinks I’m adorable? Great! But…none of that will matter if the very best option for a leading man is 6’3”, and that role carries the weight of the show (again…no pun intended).
What I’m trying to say is this: while I know there are exceptions all over the place to this rule, the fact of the matter is that not being hired or cast is not a reflection of your talent, or lack thereof. It’s a sad truth that looks do matter, but does that mean you should stop auditioning? No, of course not. It just means that you have to find your strengths, broaden your horizons, and stretch your abilities. But for Pete’s sake (and the sake of others around you), stop complaining or making excuses or fishing for compliments when things aren’t going the way you want them to.
Also, learn to find the fun in featured roles. I played three in 2009, and they were more fun than any leading role I’ve had. Stop thinking that you only matter if you’re playing a leading role.
Finally, whatever you do, do not change yourself for auditions by losing or gaining drastic amounts of weight, dyeing or cutting your hair, etc. in the hopes that this will increase your chances of being cast. Be you and go into the audition room as yourself. Trust that, if you come prepared, your abilities will shine and the director or choreographer or producer will be able to see what he or she needs to see. Trust that the production team knows what is best for the production, and don’t be so sensitive or blame “theatre politics” if that doesn’t include you this time.