Lessons on Rejection

Festival acceptances and rejections can be tricky on both ends. My local hometown festival just sent their notifications out and I can feel all the feels from our growing community. Trust me, I’ve had my fair share of rejection letters, or their equivalent, in my adult life: burlesque festivals, job and grant applications, dance competitions, to name just a few categories... There have been a few pieces of advice that have REALLY helped me through these experiences, and on the off-chance that they help you, feel free to continue reading XO

On the rejection side, obviously that’s not the answer any performer is hoping for. Who’s that knocking at the door? Oh hello, feelings of self-doubt and “not-enough-ness”, you’re back! There can be a sense of disenchantment and just plain sadness when a “not this year” email comes through. It can be hard to ignore feelings of jealousy or frustration that others got chosen instead of you. 

Back when I was competitive salsa dancing a few years ago, I lost a competition after my best performance, where I really thought I knocked it out of the park. My salsa coach (the amazing Anya in NYC) said a few things afterwards that have always stuck with me. She asked me if I danced for accolades and trophies, or if I danced because it was my calling and I loved it. She also asked if I needed that trophy to validate my experience. Finally, she asked me who those judges were, if I knew their body of work, and what their judgements said about their own experiences and opinions. It reminded me that I perform because I LOVE performing and no matter what the judges decided that day, it WAS the best performance I’d given, and I was damn proud. Also, Anya told me it was a winning performance: she was my chosen coach, and we had been working together for months and months on each routine: if I had to choose a shortlist of people whose opinions really mattered to me, her name would have been at the top of that list. It also reminded me that I could look at the situation with more curiosity and learn from it: who are the judges, and what are they looking for? How are they interpreting the judging criteria, or what even IS the judging criteria (a good thing to look up if you don’t know!)? Were these things I was willing or wanted to change (or could even change)? Being more curious about the situation proved enlightening on so many levels for me.

I can’t remember what coach, teacher or podcast told me this (thank you whoever you are!) but there is SO MUCH MORE to learn from a mistake or a loss than a win. A win is a great opportunity for affirmation about what you’re already doing, but a loss is an opportunity to learn and grow BEYOND what you already know. As artists, I think we need a healthy balance of both affirmations and challenges – and it wouldn’t be very challenging if you always got it right, first try, every time! In fact, I would argue that any art form that easy would not hold our creative interests for very long. It’s because burlesque is so varied, diverse, and complex that we can watch and perform it for YEARS and still be moved by it. The more I learn about any field, the more I realize how little I know, and this definitely holds true for my experience in burlesque.

I’ve never sat on a burlesque festival board or judged festival entries (at least, not yet!) but since starting to produce burlesque shows a few years ago, I’ve gathered a greater understanding and empathy for all the producing logistics of a show (which is, after all, what a festival is). Burlesque is showbiz, and we are here to entertain an audience. I want to build a show with a good flow, which will look different depending on the theme, submissions, length and location. Generally, I strive to balance moments of sadness and deep reflection with euphoric highs, and to create a great variety of visuals, moods and performative characters to keep the audience engaged and thrilled from act to act. Similar acts, concepts, songs or costumes is not only repetitive for the audience, it’s unfair to the second or third performer coming on stage to perform to “Fever” in a nurse costume (this is an iterative example, but you get my drift). You wouldn’t actually want to be that performer backstage hearing your song—or seeing your costume—on stage before you. The producer is often making really difficult setlist decisions that are practical and, yes, kind. They want to set their performers up for success. Speaking of which, putting an act or performer on stage before it’s ready isn’t doing anyone (performer or audience) any favours. As a performer, you only have to be on stage once in that ill-prepared state to know that it’s not a good situation! The flip side of this is that, if I do get a spot, I can trust 100% that the producer or festival team believes I’m ready for that stage. This helps with the tricky part of an acceptance email, which is Imposter Syndrome!

Another tool that I use often is the power of reframing. Instead of starting with a negative, I try and make my first question focus on something positive, like “What am I grateful for in this situation?”. For example: I’m thankful for festival boards, which are often run by volunteers (read that again: volunteers!) who have been building that festival for years. Without them there wouldn’t even be a festival to apply or aspire to! I’m thankful that there’s a vibrant burlesque scene with amazing, talented performers who inspire and challenge me to continually up my game. I’m grateful for a deadline that forced me to get my shit together (I know I’m not the only one who benefits from a deadline to build my art, lol). Also, the gap in your schedule? That’s an opportunity to do something else! Now you have the space (and funds) to take a class, take part in another show, or go out and watch a play or some live music. As James taught me, there is some serious JOMO (Joy of Missing Out) to be had. 

I hope some of these thoughts are useful! I was going to write about the other tricky side of festivals, and all the complicated feelings that go along with getting accepted, but this post is getting too long, so maybe I’ll save it for another day.

Love you all and I’m so glad you’re making art and entertaining people!