The Mental Life Cycle of an Audition
If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed in the past 20-some years of acting, it’s the twisted, complex labyrinth of psychological grief I embark upon each time I lock down an audition.
Step one: What a cool opportunity, I’m not going to get hooked on the idea of getting the role, it’s just great to go. Yay me.
Step two (approximately an hour later): Great! I have officially figured out all the logistics of how to schedule/travel for this role if I get in the show, but totally won’t count my chickens before they hatch. If I don’t get it, that’s cool too.
Step three: Irrational confidence/justification stage: It’s a small theatre in a small town so I bet they won’t get that many women and I know that guy through that lady who I think is stage managing so I feel really good about this one. Also, I’m now obsessed with the character.
Step four (the night before): Maybe I shouldn’t go, maybe this is dumb and it would stress me out to go anyway. They have other people who would be perfect for it, and I’m really not feeling prepared. Also, I’m totally getting sick.
Step five: The audition waiting room: Everyone knows each other but me. They’ve all apparently been working constantly. I’m gonna sit here and stress over the weird shoes I’m wearing.
Step six: The audition: I have no memory of this stage.
Step seven: Post-audition: The adrenaline is wearing off and I feel a mix of regret and tentative excitement. Strangely, I wish I had another audition soon so I could get back on the roller coaster. I circle between self doubt and self-aggrandisement until I hear or don’t hear about the role.
Since the majority of our careers are made up of auditioning, a cycle like this will eventually–sooner than later–lead to artistic burnout. And so finding a method of self care is not just about becoming a caring person who can eventually help other actors, but also about maintaining the ability to create in the way we know best.
Charlotte Joko Beck, an American Zen teacher, talked about the important differences between concepts and reality. One of our greatest sources of suffering comes from the angles and lenses we use, and are given, to view the world. The ideas and opinions that arise from these lenses are what often complicate true reality, and the true nature of what’s actually happening. Throughout my entire audition process, I am altering the idea of “I have an audition” into future ideas that are based on past experiences, build-up judgements of myself, imagined judgements of those I’m auditioning for, and assumptions of actors around me. So instead of a group of people sitting in a room seeking an actor to fit a role, I have created an epic, emotionally exhausting storyline about the process. And this emotional baggage keeps me from being present in the actual moment of the audition, the whole point of this adventure.
But what if, as experienced artists that have learned some ins and outs of the business, we get caught up in what we believe we know about these situations? Some judgments on how to approach an audition are of course helpful, but there has to be a distinguishable balance. Beck says, “Intellectual people are particularly prone to this error: they think that the rational world of concepts is the real world. The rational world of concepts is not the real world but simply a description of it, a finger pointing at the moon.” We can point at an audition and say it’s tipped in our favor (or out of out favor), but that’s us pointing, that’s not what it actually is. That’s only the reality within our personal minds, or the circle that we live in–but often we mistake these opinions with truth.
And on top of this, since auditions can be particularly personal and emotional experiences, our emotional rationale often kicks in as well, bringing up rationalizations for not getting a role. When in reality, we are not in control of the casting of the show. We prepared a certain amount, have certain skills yet to develop, and we were in a particular state that day of the audition. These are the facts, they are not good or bad or lazy or unfair. They just are. An audition is one moment in time, and not necessarily an indicator of anything else.
If that makes any sense, that’s step one.
Hanging out with your neurosis
Don’t get me wrong, auditions can feel really terrible, whether we’re looking at them honestly or not. After seeing things for what they are, it’s just as important to pause for a moment and recognize everything that emotionally and physically occurs throughout the roller coaster. Pema Chödrön has written extensively about the opportunities that arise from feeling groundless. Lucky for us artists, we have a life chock-full of groundlessness. So hooray us. She said, “The three classic styles of looking for relief in the wrong places are pleasure seeking, numbing out, and using aggression: we either zone out or we grasp.” This is exactly what happens when the audition cycle is in full swing. We take our false view of reality and either latch on, attack it, or try to make it go away. And though we’re aware that self care is crucial to maintaining this painful career, the advice I’ve received–and taken–often points toward numbing our feelings, or distracting from them, opposed to pausing and accepting them. I used to get a donut after every audition to try and Pavlov-Dog myself into believing that auditions lead to Krispy Kreme. But I never felt better afterwards.
I recently came across the lovely phrasing of Tara Brach, a psychologist and Buddhist leader in D.C., who speaks about sitting with, and even welcoming, everything that occurs in moments of vulnerability. In this way, you act as a researcher, an outside observer of your own emotional path. My chest tightens, I judge other women because I’m intimidated by them, I get exhausted, I crave donuts. With kindness, and maybe a little humor, you look at these blooming reactions as separate from yourself. They are not you, they’re just a thought and physical habit that sit on top of you like a funny hat you’re trying on but have no intention of buying (I recently visited a really cool hat store, hence the hat reference). Brach recommends pausing for moment, breathing into these feelings and even thinking how much you care about this suffering, opposed to battling it or stuffing it away. Sit with it patiently as you would if your closest friend came to you with a problem. Sometimes it’s easier to invoke compassion when thinking of someone else. Here you are, just chillin’, hanging out with your neurosis instead of telling it to shut up or go back in the closet. This act of pausing, of letting it be, is contradictory to our Western nature to push down the negative, “choose to be happy,” and other BS platitudes we throw around. It’s just there, and as you curiously examine it, it has the room to leave when it’s ready.
Quite often, the phrase “face your fears” infers that simply doing something scary will make the fear go away. We battle it! We show it how tough we are! But does that every happen? It can get easier, but does it go away? Fear is an intrinsic part of who we are, a survival tool, like many of our emotions. Working with our fear is key for getting through fight or flight situations–like a room of people staring at you and waiting for you to prove something in exchange for a job.
Tara Brach says this a little more gracefully, “If you resist [fear] or push it aside, you miss a powerful opportunity for healing and freedom. When you face your fears with mindfulness and compassion, you begin to realize the loving and luminous awareness that, like the ocean, can hold the moving waves. This boundless presence is your true refuge–you are coming home to the vastness of your own awakened heart.”
I plan to try put this to the test the next audition that comes up, and would love feedback on your experience. Most importantly, this difficult act of coming to terms with the pain we so often work to eliminate from our lives is a process, most likely a slow process. But in the long run, we hope to reach a place of true self knowledge that extends out to the uncertain situations we face as artists. This way, we can see the beauty of the simple truth of it all, and make greater room for the art and fabulous artistic community that inspired us to go down this road in the first place.