Here we go! Five, six, seven, eight… Left, right, arms behind, left foot, snap... Again! Left, right, arms behind, left foot, snap.’
The opening sequence of the musical A Chorus Line encapsulates the cutthroat and competitive nature of auditioning. Based on verbatim interviews with performers of the 1970s discussing their attempts to make it on Broadway, the production shows a crowd of dancers – all tits, teeth and very tight-tights – get whittled down to just eight people by a director come drill sergeant, Zach. If someone can’t do a perfect 720-degree spin on one leg and look like they’re having a jolly nice time whilst doing it, he promptly asks them to leave.
Although acting auditions tend to involve a less counting, less shouting and, fortunately, less lycra, the potent binaries of this show are relevant to every professional working in theatre; ambition; rejection; passion; doubt; having guts and being completely petrified; it’s all there between the step ball-changes.
I was particularly struck by the battle between self-promotion and self-doubt, seeing parallels between these anxious lives danced on the stage before me, and the talented, yet worried, actors I meet on a daily basis. Whether in a rehearsal room or at Mono Box events actors shrink in front of me when recounting an audition tale. They say, “Everyone else was so much better than me,” or profess, “I knew I wouldn’t get a recall” and “I just didn’t “hit it” you know?”
Even our best-loved actors have admitted to being plagued by insecurities: theatre heavyweights such as Sir Simon Callow, Dame Judi Dench and Queen Helen Mirren have all admitted to feeling inadequate. Even lovely, pretty Meryl is-there-anything-she-can’t-do Streep has deemed herself a fraud saying, “You can have a perfectly horrible day where you doubt your talent… Or that you’re boring and they’re going to find out that you don’t know what you’re doing.” If Meryl feels like this, even with all the Oscars on her mantelpiece, how are the rest of us supposed to cope?
Whilst the public pressure to be brilliant might not be as big for us as it is for the celebs, the personal pressure to get jobs and prove to the world you made the right career choice we put on ourselves is pretty huge. Sustaining the momentum is hard, especially when your pleas to casting agents go unanswered, auditions pass by unsuccessfully and more often than not you’re being told “no.” When trying to keep afloat, the self-doubt demon manages to creep in.
When I was training I was told to expect to spend at least one day of every job crying in the toilets thinking, “I’m not good enough.” Sure enough I felt this when I was spread thinly across a number of low-paid productions with an impending empty diary and a broken shower (washing with a kettle and a watering can wasn’t exactly helping me see myself as a pillar of theatrical creativity.) I started acting weird at meetings. I worried about what to wear: I abandoned my practical rucksack and exchanged my usual elasticated joggers for jeans (my hips were like caged animals) and I nursed green tea instead of the full-fat mochas I really wanted. I nodded enthusiastically at directors and wrote down words like “space,” “rhythm,” “play…” because that’s what you’re meant to do in meetings, right? (In hindsight these words are wholly useless - I may as well have written down ‘frogspawn,’ ‘blamonge,’ and ‘Rumplestiltskin.’) And on one particularly awkward meeting I floated up and out of my body, looked down at myself, regretted ordering the tea because it tasted of soil, and thought, “You’re an idiot.”
Despite having clocked up some good credits and working solidly, I managed to doubt myself to such a degree that I became someone else. I believed this director was going to turn me away unless I sat prettily and professed I could do everything on the planet. And I think this happens a lot in this industry. People hold on to an old idea of themselves, imagine themselves as not worthy of working beyond a certain level and end up needing to impress people they deem as more established than themselves, more than believing they can do it naturally.
Since starting The Mono Box I have learned that in theatre, and indeed in life, there seems to be a tendency among actors to see one’s own aspirations as unattainable in relation to other people’s successes. But by seeing other people – directors, casting directors or indeed other actors – as bigger and better, more important or more worthy than you, you are instantly putting a limitation on what you are able to offer and ultimately what you can achieve. In a constantly inconsistent world, such ideas are self-perpetuating and false.
Ultimately, you have only yourself to keep you going so it’s probably best that you try and key into this negative thought pattern and investigate what it is that is blocking you from expressing yourself freely. What makes you think that another actor is “better” than you? Why did you really not get that last job? Is it because you’re genuinely rubbish at your chosen profession, or is it because you merely didn’t fit the aesthetic the director was going for? Cut yourself some slack – what are you good at? What do you have that no one else has? Why do people enjoy working with you? By developing a self-awareness, realising who you are not, you realise a little bit more who you are.
By the time of my next meeting, I wore my rucksack, tracksuit and trainers. I knew that right then I was enthusiastic and passionate about making exciting work. I knew that I would work hard and do the job well. And that, in that moment was why I was there in front of this new director, talking about what we both knew individually and how we could collaborate to bring those things together.
It takes a lot of courage to walk into a room to be judged, and walk out of it knowing you are being talked about. If, between these two moments, you have handed your confidence over to the hands of someone you think deserves it more than you, it’s incredibly difficult to ask for it back. Theatre is a dialogue and two people have got to start on an equal level for things to work. Be kind to yourself and invite the audition panel to your party, don’t always go to theirs. This way when you can release yourself from the perpetual internal rendition of “I hope I get it,” and save your big kick and triple pirouette to celebrate when you get a job that fits.
Polly Bennett is co-founder of The Mono Box and freelance Movement Director