When I was a kid, I always wanted to be “on the TV.” Small Wonder was one of my favorite shows and I dreamed of playing Harriet’s adopted sister. My older cousin quickly pointed out that would be stupid since there was already an adopted sister on the show and there wouldn’t be room for two. That was my first disappointing moment in my career, even though I didn’t even have a career yet.
I knew for sure I wanted to be an actor when I was 12, but my mom told me to finish school first. My parents didn’t have a favorable opinion towards an arts career. Money equals success and arts don’t make money.
Jokes on them, I did it anyway.
Jokes on me, I didn’t get what I wanted.
My list of dream roles keeps changing as I grow older, and part of aging is mourning the characters I would never get to play ever, or play again.
Logically, I knew that I would never play all the roles on my list (but I really thought I’d get the chance at Eponine, dammit). The reality of this industry is that not every actor will ever get to play their dream roles. I was lucky to play one of them, even if it was only that one time.
As disheartened as I am, I’m learning to find peace with it. Going down the list, crossing them off…it makes me sad. But I’m adding new ones and getting really excited about the possibilities! Think about the following points on your own journey to acceptance.
“Show Business is a Hideous Bitch Goddess” – Bart Simpson
One of my favorite Bart Simpson / George Burns / Tennessee Williams quotes is “Show business is a hideous bitch goddess.” I’d mutter it to myself after a hard day of auditioning. There is some (okay, a lot) of truth to it. This industry is fiercely competitive, unpredictable and unforgivable. Genuine relationships can be difficult to form. In short, it is pain. Casting decisions are influenced by factors completely out of your control. Artistic vision, market demand, your age, budget, competition – noneof these are things you can do anything about, and sometimes/all the time, people just cast their friends. Many talented actors spend their entire careers never playing their dream roles. Understanding the realities of this industry is essential to accepting that not every dream will materialize.
Expand Your Horizons
When I was nineteen, I began to seriously pursue theatre. I began taking voice lessons and building my resume in local theatre. My voice teacher was on the national tour of Miss Saigon. I had a mentor who looked like me. One day after our lesson, she told me the show was closing. It had been on Broadway for almost 10 years at that point, but I really thought I would get there. I thought the show would be open forever. I went home, put the soundtrack on, curled up on my bed with a blanket, and cried all afternoon.
A few years, a handful of shows and half a theatre degree later, I booked the North American Tour of Miss Saigon. I finished that contract playing in the ensemble and understudying the roles of both Gigi and Kim. I thought I would have played Kim more often in my career, but alas, it was not to be. I did, however, play a plethora of roles I never would have thought I’d get. Roles more suited to my personality. Feisty, snarky, funny.
What am I getting at? Dreams change or get crushed. Types evolve. Disappointment is inevitable.
Rather than dwell on specific dream roles, broaden your perspective and look for character traits and journeys that you’re interested in exploring and breathing life into. Find the stories you want to bring to life, things you connect to on a visceral level. Look for roles completely outside your comfort zone. Explore different genres and give yourself a chance to expand your range. I never thought I’d ever be the rough and tumble type but one day I found myself flying around onstage as Peter Pan. More of that, please! By embracing versatility, you will find fulfillment in roles that you never thought you’d play.
Lean Into Your Evolution
People are in a state of constant evolution. Personal and physical growth happens whether or not we are aware of it, whether or not we like it, and whether or not we want it. Our artistic sensibilities evolve and age right along with the crows feet creeping towards our hairlines. The dream roles we had pre-parenthood were based on who we were at that moment in time. The day I realized I was too old to play Eponine was particularly difficult. Not only was I too old to play Eponine, but I was now too old to play Kim, Belle, Ariel, Luisa…all the ingenues with the pretty songs. WHAT DO I DO NOW?!
I needed to find a way to accept that the career I had going forward was not going to be the one I had imagined for myself when I was younger. By accepting new desires and aspirations, I opened myself to new and exciting possibilities and a new career path. Forget Eponine, I want to play Mme. Thenardier!
Focus on the Craft
God, that sounds so corny and douchey. But I’ll lean into it. You should, too. Instead of fixating on the end result, find your joy in the process of creating a character. Redirect your focus on the art of creation and that will free you from the limitations of your unfulfilled dreams. Explore new classes, new techniques. One thing I’ve been meaning to get into is exploring new works through New Play Exchange, especially pieces that don’t really have performances on record. This way they are completely raw, a blank slate, your imagination is free to go (almost) anywhere! At a subscription rate of $10/year (TEN DOLLARS!!) you can’t go wrong!
I’ve written about this before, but gratitude is such a powerful practice capable of transforming your perspective. Instead of dwelling on our broken dreams and roles never to play, we can shift our attention to what we have accomplished in life, onstage and as parents. Celebrating good reviews, amazing casts, and memorable performances allows you to appreciate your artistic journey for everything it is and can be. And what you are doing now? Raising your family? That is the greatest achievement of all. Be glad for it all, even when it’s difficult.
Recognize Your Impact
Little do we realize the impact and influence we have, sometimes. Theatre isn’t just about fulfilling your personal desires and crossing off names on your dream roles bucket list. It’s about the impact we have on others. Anyone who has performed theatre for children will tell you this. I remember one contract I had touring TYA to underprivileged schools in the Deep South. These kids had never seen a live performance before. We had minimal sets, a couple of flats and a table on wheels. Our costumes were pretty basic, too. Everything fit into two minivans, including 8 actors. But to these kids it may as well have been a full fledged Broadway production. They way they cheered and hollered and screamed for us. We were bawling backstage from all the love. The faculty was so thankful to us that they packed lunches for us to take home. I will never forget the sounds of those children’s laughter.
A couple weeks later we did the same show for a private school in an affluent area for kids of the same age and they couldn’t care less. They couldn’t appreciate us because they’ve probably seen bigger and brighter shows because likely most of their parents’ could afford it. Was it their fault? No. It just made me realize the impact the arts can have, especially to people who don’t have the resources to experience them. Impact is why organizations like Sing for Your Seniors, Arts in Prison and giveArts exist. By shifting your focus from your personal goals to create meaningful experiences for others, you will find a deeper sense of purpose.
It’s going to be okay.
Listen, coming to peace with never playing our dream roles as actors isn’t easy. It took me years. I’m still dealing with it, but it’s not as painful as before. It takes self-reflection, acceptance and a willingness to evolve artistically, physically and emotionally. By expanding your horizons, practicing gratitude and recognizing the impact you as an artist can have on other people, you will find joy, meaning and fulfillment in the roles you do play. Remember, the joy is in the journey.
Have you ever faced disappointment when not landing a dream role? How did you navigate through that experience?