When to Say No: Navigating Politics, Ethics and Artistry

4909363Actors, and especially those that are new to the industry or lack connections, are often counseled to say yes to everything. The more projects you take on, the more you learn, the more exposure you get, and the more you exercise your acting muscles, right?


Often that is the case. But in acting, as in any career, there is a time to say “no.” Declining a project can be a risky career move. Certainly, you might risk burning bridges, annoying your agent, or missing out on valuable opportunities. Which is why it should be approached with careful consideration. However, in order to cultivate a sustainable, artistically fulfilling career that protects the rights of the actor and the integrity of the work, we must all learn how to say no. Here are some times you should consider fighting every panicked instinct in your body and saying no to acting work:


  1. When You Feel Unsafe. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, this idea is gaining more public validation than ever before. Advocate for yourself by taking the time to assess when you feel genuinely unsafe. Whether it be working with a predatory colleague, attempting non-union or ill-conceived choreography or stunt work, or signing a contract you don’t feel protects your interests, you are allowed to say no when you feel unsafe. No career gain is worth truly risking your health and welfare, and professionals shouldn’t ask you to do so. Identify your allies and resources early on. Saying no to situations and people that truly make you feel unsafe shouldn’t cost you work.
  2. When the Compensation Is Unfair. The sad truth of a career in the arts is that people will expect you to do it for the love of it. They will expect you to accept poor working conditions, little to no pay, and in return offer your utmost loyalty. Some of these low-paying projects are worth it. When you need something for your reel early in your career, a student film can do. When you’re between projects and feeling rusty, a passion project with artists you trust can help lift you out of the artistic doldrums. Showcases can help get important eyes on your work. But be judicious. Value yourself and your product. If the pay isn’t worth it, the people won’t make you a better artist or the project isn’t one that inspires you, it might be time to take a pass. The projects you take on should add to your life in some way: whether it be by paying the bills, concretely furthering your career, or artistically satisfying you. If it is only draining your time, money and spirit, it’s a no.
  3. When the Part Isn’t for You. Even the most chameleonic of actors can’t play every part. Or rather, they shouldn’t. Develop a keen ear for when a part isn’t written for you. For example, in recent years the industry has become more aware of our shameful historic tendency to whitewash roles, casting white actors in roles written specifically for non-white actors. Happily, Hollywood and Broadway are now seeing some backlash to this trend, and are slowly (so slowly) beginning to be more conscious of accurate representation. You will have to learn for yourself where you are comfortable drawing the line. This is obviously not to say you cannot play a part that with a background, or views different from your own. But do approach the roles for which you submit with respect and attention. Some of them just weren’t written for you. And when someone else asks you to play them, you should have your answer ready.
  4. When You are Morally Opposed to the Material. This is a tricky one. Sometimes you will play a character that is morally repugnant, that cherishes political or religious views opposite to yours, that does things you would never do. That, for the most part, is just part of the gig. As actors we are often called upon to reflect the worst of humanity, or even just the range of humanity, and there is value to that. However, at the end of the day, you are in charge of your career and the body of work you produce. If the work itself, not just the character, is promoting ideals you find morally reprehensible, it might be a time to decline. Choose wisely.


“Yes” is one of the most powerful tools an actor possesses. Taking on projects that challenge, that provoke, that require risk can enrich your career and refine your artistry. Saying “no” as an actor should be approached with consideration, surely, but long term it is every bit as valuable a skill. Learn it early and protect yourself in the long run.


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Rachel Rachel Frawley is an actor living in Atlanta. She holds a B.F.A. in Theatre from Michigan State University (with cognates in Music and Professional Writing) and is an Apprentice Company graduate from the Atlanta Shakespeare Co. She also works as an education artist for local theatres, which have included the Shakespeare Tavern and Aurora Theatre. For more information, visit her website at www.rachelfrawley.com

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