The Power of Perception

You nailed that audition to that ground.  Your spirits are in orbit.  There’s no way you’re not going to get that role.  And then you get a form letter thanking you for your time, but you could not be included in this particular production.

“What did I do wrong?” you think to yourself.

Odds are you did nothing wrong.  Consider the following quotations:

“I know you can play formal.”

“As soon as Jonathan Crane showed up on screen, Mat and I looked at each other and said, ‘Couldn’t you see Chris in that role?’”

“You remind me of a young Jimmy Stewart.  You play decent people, finding their way in the world, with a strong, moral center.”

“My perception is that you primarily fall into the category of Character Actor. . . As a character actor, you can come across as likable, but also stiff and a little repressed.  You also seem very controlled, and I don’t sense a lot of spontaneity. You seem most appropriate for someone who gets caught up in the events swirling around them rather than causing the swirling.  You can play both comic and serious, but I suspect that you’re a little stronger at the comic.  You do have the ability to play an “everyman” sort of character, though, and that is helpful.  And you are capable of projecting a certain sense of passion. “

Would it surprise you to learn that the previous quotations were about the same person?

That, in a nutshell, is the power of perception which is probably one of the most critical elements in being cast in a show.  It’s also the element over which you exert the least amount of control.

As auditioners, we all make choices about the characters we’re interested in and/or are asked to play.  Based on those choices and the uncontrollable factors I’ve often mentioned help dictate whether or not you get cast in a play.  But the biggest key to getting cast is how the choices you make and the uncontrollable factors cause the director to perceive you.

You could do the same audition for ten different people and each of those ten people will see something just a little bit different.  Some may think you are just perfect for the role.  Others may think you’re giving a terrible read.  Some may perceive something completely different from what you’re trying to project.  That’s the amazing thing about this business.  The possibilities are absolutely endless.

A few paragraphs back, you read 4 different observations about my own acting.  Not one of those people saw me in exactly the same way.  Each observation is colored not only by what these people have seen me do, but by their knowledge of me as a person.  That is a vital reality to keep in mind.

The first time you audition for a director is the only time you’ll be a tabula rasa (blank slate).  Even then, that might not be the case if you’ve developed a reputation of any kind in the theatre community.  From that first audition any number of things could happen.

Some directors will not cast you.  A few may decide that you fit a certain mold of character and will consider you if, and only if, that type of character is present in the story.  Others will like what they see, but believe you won’t work for this particular show.  There might even be a percentage of people who think you are the greatest thing since sliced bread and want to use you in every show she or he directs.  Heck, as you grow to know them personally, how your real self is perceived may play a heavy part in being included in future projects.

It’s very possible some reading this have grown or will grow frustrated with how they perceive they’re being perceived.  Don’t feel bad about that.  But don’t let the frustration control you either.  As the great writer, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, said, “We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing while others judge us by what we have done.”  Just be true to yourself and your visions and, sooner or later, you may change someone’s mind or you’ll find someone who sees things the way that you do.

As I was preparing this article, a friend told me that changing a perception can be a very difficult task.  I completely agree with that sentiment.  I also don’t think it’s something you can consciously set out to do.  What you can do is focus on becoming the best actor that YOU can be.  Get out and audition.  Take a class.  When you watch a play, study it.  Discover what works and doesn’t work and why.  Most importantly, don’t give up.

Self-perception is just as crucial a component because we often become what we perceive, for good or for ill.  Feed yourself with positive thoughts and remember those good thoughts when things seem difficult.  That’s a lesson that’s good for life, not just for the theatre.

The best story I’ve ever heard about the power of positive self-perception was about a man who decided in his thirties to become a professional actor.  In this business, that’s an old age to begin making a go of this line of work.  He enrolled in the Pasadena Playhouse and flunked out with the worst scores in school history.

Determined to succeed, he moved to New York.  One of the jobs he took to make ends meet was as a doorman for a Howard Johnson hotel.  One day one of his teachers from the Pasadena Playhouse passed him as he worked the door.  The teacher recognized him and said, “See.  I said you would never amount to anything.”  The struggling actor later said that incident made him feel about one inch tall.

While he could have quit there and then, he soldiered on.  Ten years later he was the most bankable star in Hollywood.  That man was Gene Hackman.

At the end of the day, be happy.  Sometimes the power of perception will be a great asset and sometimes it will seem like a fierce opponent.  What ultimately matters is how you perceive yourself.  And when you perceive yourself well, you will always win, even if you lose.

Be good to yourself and God bless.

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