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TBA Online: News & Features: December 2012

The Business of Show Biz: Burning Bridges

Friday, December 21, 2012   (0 Comments)
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By Velina Brown

Q: I was recently at a musical theatre audition where the director brought her dog into the audition room. The dog proceeded to howl and yelp during mine and everyone else's audition song. I find it extremely irksome that auditors are frequently not held to the same expectations of professionalism and etiquette as performers are constantly told to have. When auditors "behave badly," is there room in the audition situation to respectfully draw boundaries without burning bridges?

Actor and career consultant Velina Brown.

A: This is a question about power. This is the question for anyone who works for a living: "When I am in the presence of someone who has the power to hire me or fire me, and that person does something that creates an unprofessional or in some way hurtful environment for me, what can I do to take care of myself in the moment that will not jeopardize my opportunities to work and thrive in the future?"

Actors are constantly threatened with statements like: "Don't burn a bridge." "Actors are a dime a dozen." "Don't make waves or you'll never work in this town again." So when faced with a situation that is toxic or hurtful or ridiculous, like being asked to sing with a howling dog, we are given pause. There is our natural impulse to say, "I would prefer not to audition with a howling dog." And then the fearful thought, "Don't burn a bridge!," pops up and we're stuck.

So this is also a question about mindset. If you believe you are small and powerless, then when you are faced with an unjust or unpleasant situation you will believe there is nothing you can do. The big people have all the options and the small people can do nothing. On the other hand, if you believe that you as a fellow human being and professional in the field are as important as anyone else and that the same rules of ethics and professionalism apply to everyone, then you will believe that there is room for you to "respectfully draw boundaries" and there's less of a concern about burning bridges.  

Because here's the radical point: When you are auditioning for a director, the director is also auditioning for you. In the audition, you are demonstrating what it might be like to work with you, and the director is doing the same. If the director creates an untenable audition environment, they'll likely create a similar rehearsal environment.

For example, one friend who is sensitive to smoke auditioned for a musical at a big theatre, and the visiting director asked if my friend minded if the director smoked during the audition. My friend said, "Yes." Later the casting director told my friend, "As soon as you said you minded if he smoked, he wasn't going to cast you." Perhaps my friend burned a bridge with that director. But my friend has since worked at the theatre several times. And Heir Smokestack? He smoked continuously in the room all through the rehearsal process, which would have been miserable for my friend.

Another friend who has a pretty booming national and international career shared the following experience: One day he walked into an audition and the first thing the director said was, "So, what are you doing for me today, fat boy? " Shocked, my friend said, "Nothing," and walked out. Did he burn a bridge? Maybe. But who cares? He didn't want to work with that guy. Someone who is abusive from the moment you walk in the door is likely to be a nightmare during rehearsals. Life is too short.

Fortunately, especially in our lovely community, most people are great and would never knowingly mistreat a fellow artist. Even the director with the howling dog was more likely in a tight spot because her sitter got sick than someone arrogantly abusing her power. We really don't know what the deal was there. 

But in any case, yes, there is room to speak up if that is your choice. Will it burn a bridge? Perhaps. You cannot control how others react. But if you were to say, "I am in a dilemma here. I really want to show you how well I can sing. But I don't feel I can show you my best work while your dog, albeit adorable, is howling. Is there any way we can ask someone to take your dog for a while?" and the director becomes outraged and never wants to work with you again, my question is, do you want to work with them? Just sayin'. 

Finally, pick your battles. You don't want to be constantly complaining. But if someone truly crosses a line, you have every right, and indeed a responsibility, to take care of yourself and draw those boundaries.


Velina Brown is an actor and career consultant. Send her your questions at