I stumbled across a quote today from a famous playwright, Samuel Beckett, which essentially sums up my acting career in six words. “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Shall I tell you where I discovered this gem? I shall.
I found Beckett’s words scrawled in tiny print along the bottom of a page in my high-school-level physics textbook. You can imagine my surprise. I sat for a minute, genuinely puzzled as to why a playwright’s quote was in a science textbook. At first I got irrationally territorial, which, in retrospect, was probably an inappropriate reaction. Everyone knows scientists don’t like artists – they might as well be different species. So how could a playwright’s words be applicable to a scientist?
And then, right there in the middle of my physics class, I had a revelation: Everyone fails; we are all failures. I am a failure, the person next to me is a failure and, quite frankly, we both probably failed the physics quiz.
I’m only half-kidding. Failure is a real thing in any profession, and everyone experiences failure at some point in their lives, some people more than others. But Beckett has a point. Life is a cycle of trying and failing, and hopefully people learn to fail better and deal with failure better than the last time.
In theater, there is a temptation to judge one’s success or failure as an actor by the amount of times one has been cast. The “I’m a no-good, talentless wretch unless I’m cast in the lead role of the main stage show” mindset is killer. Talent and worth are not measured by cast lists. In fact, some people go through their entire undergraduate career without being cast in a single main-stage show. Are these people failures? Are they the lepers of the department? Are they bad actors?
Of course not.
I am 23 years old and I’ve been at Temple for longer than I’d care to admit and I’ve been in a whopping one main stage show where I played a 60-something-year-old woman with a Scottish accent, and I was only in Act I. Does that make me a bad actor? Don’t answer that.
But my experience working on that show was one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve ever had at Temple, and it just reaffirmed my beliefs that theater is a collaborative art, and there is no such thing as a “small” role. Playwrights waste neither words nor characters; each one is vital.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of discouragement every time you’re not cast, especially if you’re never cast throughout all of your undergraduate years. But actors just simply have to learn how to fail better – as do scientists, apparently.
Senior musical theater major Danielle Mitola is one of the many talented actors who never had the opportunity to grace a Temple theater’s main stage production with her powerful presence.
“The biggest factor in my acting life right now is my confidence, and that’s the one thing people say I have to have to work on,” Mitola said. “And I do have confidence. But when you’re getting cast a lot, obviously your confidence grows. But when you’re constantly the ‘underdog’ and when you’re never getting cast, it’s hard to build up confidence. I don’t know anyone who’s super psyched about never getting cast.”
Mitola, like most actors who have the bitter taste of rejection in their mouths, has considered even dropping out of theater all together. That thought has crossed my mind 10,000 times. But in theater, failure makes you just as strong, if not stronger, than success. But instead of wallowing in self-pity or self-deprecation, Mitola finds strength and opportunities for growth from these rejections.
“I think my confidence is stronger now coming out of undergrad, because I’ve had to deal with a lot of blows and failures and rejections and I’m still standing, so I think that’s gotta mean something. That’s probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned from Temple, how to take the knocks in stride,” Mitola said before bursting out into song with “It Gets Better.”
The first thing Mitola recalled about her experience at Temple was a “rumor,” as she put it, of some cruel speaker that came and told the department that if people were never cast in a main-stage show, they should probably find another major. Funnily enough, Justina Ercole, Temple theater department alumna, recalled the very same thing, except that she was present for this ill-informed speaker.
“I remember once a professor getting up in front of 1087 and confronting the student complaint regarding lack of performance opportunities, especially in main stage productions. And this person’s response was, ‘If you graduate and have never been cast in a main-stage, you should probably look into something other than performing.’ And my response to that is, absolutely not,” Ercole said.
Ercole certainly proved that speaker wrong.
“In my time at Temple, I was only cast in one main-stage. It was my last semester and I was in the ensemble. To my luck, a cast member dropped out a week before rehearsals, and I was bumped up to a comedic bit part that I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever play in the real world. But I was immensely grateful for the opportunity and still learned a great deal in the production. And after college, I have continued to work in professional regional theaters thanks to my training at Temple.”
Ercole is an example of someone who is always, and I’m not exaggerating, working. I follow her on Instagram and she constantly has pictures of new projects she’s working on. Networking and a good work ethic can take someone a very long way, and that is exactly what Ercole vouches for. College is for learning the necessary tools to be successful post graduation. As Ercole so beautifully put it, “There is nothing quite like performing in a well-developed role after weeks of rehearsal for a packed house in Tomlinson or Randall; you should never underestimate what you can learn in your acting classes. I saw so many people brush off their scenes or monologues because they focused more on their many main-stage roles. I am constantly using monologues and techniques I perfected in classes. If you’re constantly getting called back but not getting cast, just ask why.”
Work hard, try hard and learn hard – these efforts will not go unnoticed by the faculty, who also are working professionals in the theater world.
Don’t allow failure to make you lazy, apathetic or, worse, a diva.
Just fail better.
Thank you, Samuel Beckett. We actors salute you.
Marcie Anker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.