Who’s the imposter in the room? A look at beliefs & belonging in the world of theatre

In London theatre, Musicals, Native, Opinion by Florence Andrews

You wait within a circle of tense, hopeful actors. Some visibly scared, others looking disconcertingly cool and calm. They’re practising their lines, others are sirening or redoing their make up. Someone new walks into the room. Ah, they all know each other. They always seem to know each other.

You’re doing your best at an inner fake smile at the whole situation…as Ross in Friends so succinctly put it soon after holding a scalding hot dish with no oven gloves: I’m fine! I’m totally fine!

A young man with a clipboard enters and your name is called. You stand and follow him up the stairs, trying not to walk too fast as the last thing you need on top of these nerves is to enter the room out of breath and reveal your real age. Why are there always so many stairs in audition venues?

Then the dreaded, ‘just wait a minute while I let them know you’re here’.

This is the worst bit. Have you ever wondered whether they’re all in there giggling and counting down a minute just to screw with you a bit more?

It’s time to enter the den… I mean, room. You take one big, full breath and smile, and you see the panel. They look human and they look friendly, but some part of you has a sudden and strong sense that they have superhuman powers that can blast through this façade of a professional you have had the audacity to take on and see every little bad thing you ever did or thought.

Nope, you haven’t fooled them, you think. They realise immediately that every job on your CV must be a total fluke. You feel naked. Overly aware of yourself, you wonder if you can remember how a normal person would walk from a door to a different spot in the room.

Whilst giving the speed to the pianist you linger just a few extra seconds next to them, trying to delay the inevitable. You daren’t risk exposing your big, best self now just in case it all goes wrong, just in case you fall flat on your face, just in case that money note doesn’t come out like EVERY TIME YOU EVER PRACTISED IT, so you don’t risk at all.

You play small. You play not worthy. Your body language one big cringe-worthy apology. You get through your piece, flustered. And you leave, totally confused as to why your brain has done this to you yet again, and desperate for another shot.

You go buy a bumper gift pack from Hotel Chocolat and Google retraining grants and nutrition diplomas whilst you binge-eat on a doorstep somewhere until the adrenaline surge has left your legs… You know the deal.

Any of this resonate?

You may have just finished at drama school, or you may have been the lead in several West End shows… but either way, unless you’re one of those extremely frustrating and curious creatures that can blast into an audition room with genuine swagger and cool, confident calm; most of us it seems, will often be standing outside the audition room, or even in the rehearsal room, wondering, ‘when will I be found out?’

Who gets imposter syndrome?

Who gets imposter syndrome?

According to research, imposter syndrome affects a whopping 70% of us, and that is based on people from all professions, so I would argue it’s likely to be even higher than that in an industry where you need to be able to really put yourself out there.

Simply put, statistics show that most of us feel like a fraud, much of the time.

For many of us, it’s a bit of a weird schizophrenic experience. Part of you knows how shit hot you are, what you’re capable of. If you didn’t truly believe you could have success, then why would you be bothering to continue down this road, right?

But then there’s the other bit. The little voice that internalised your parents telling you to stop showing off, or believed your teacher at primary school when they shouted at you for being useless, or let that one horrendous audition or freeze on stage define you for far too long… that bit of you is stuck in primal land and has taken that information and made what it believes is a very sensible decision.

It wants to keep you safe, stop you walking into the proverbial lion’s den, and is screaming at you to not. risk. failure. It’s like a tiny little caveman you on speed, who likes to make everything a you-drama, screams when the microwave pings, and shouts ‘unsafe! Unsafe!’ when you walk into an audition room.

Akin to our appendix, or tail bone, it wants to help you, it likes to think it’s still useful, but it ain’t helping. It’s pure self-sabotage and we need to thank it kindly for trying to protect us, and then tell it, kindly, to fuck off now, please… we got this. After all, refusing to risk failure, is failing by default, is it not? All good things are just outside of our comfort zones. And, as we’ve already established… you know deep down how shit hot you truly are.

So what is this about, and how can we stop eating this particular shit sandwich?

As someone who has suffered this in the past, and still does from time to time, discovering the answers to these questions is a journey that I have been on for a while. Because, like I’m sure most of you were or are, I got to the point where I was SO over it! And, to put it bluntly, no one cares about your dramatic caveman you, it’s boring… he has to go.

Life is just too short, and too many talented people are falling through the gaps. If we haven’t bought into the truth that we belong there, we can’t expect a casting panel to.

You ARE worthy

You ARE worthy

3 tips for dealing with imposter syndrome

So, I have whittled down some of the things that have helped me over the years into three main points in the hope that it might help you too:

1. Comparison is the enemy and is frickin’ pointless.

I used to find it so hard waiting before a meeting and seeing other people around me looking beautiful, young, just right for the part, hearing them sing before me… But at the end of the day, it is the most ridiculous and expensive waste of brain space, because you are who you are, and you’re not going to be able to be ‘them’ as well as them, just like ‘they’ can’t be you as well as you can. You are unique. This is a good thing, in fact it will always be one of the best things going for you. There is something you have to bring to the table, and can deliver, that no one else can. They either will want that for this particular role or they won’t, but trying to second guess what a panel wants, or attempting to sound or look like someone else, is denying the panel the main strength you have, your distinctiveness.

As Martha Graham said:

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with another expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.”

Find out what it is that YOU do particularly well, and focus on that. Is it riffing the hell out of that tune? Is it acting through song and connecting with the audience? Whatever your strength is, nurture it, learn to love it, and accept that you can never be everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s ok.

2. Root out your limiting beliefs and throw them away!

You can do all the life coaching, affirmations, practice and preparation you want, but if your subconscious believes that you don’t deserve success, or that you’re not worthy of being in the room then it’s going to keep pulling you back and dragging you down.

These beliefs can come from anywhere, often from way back in our childhoods, and it doesn’t need to be from experiences relating to performing. If something happened that made us unsure of our own self-worth or belonging, then your ego will do all it can to keep you safe from it happening again. It also loves to be right. We like to confirm our own sob stories and excuses because, being humans, when it comes to it, we would often rather be right, than happy. ‘I KNEW I shouldn’t have gone for that part!’, ‘See? What was I thinking?’

Having these beliefs will continue to sabotage attempts at moving forward, which in turn will create results that help confirm that the limiting belief is true, and so it goes on and on in one big crappy cycle that can last for years.

So have a think about what those beliefs might be, where you might have picked them up, and journal, meditate, chat to your friends about it, whatever’s your bag…and then rip them up and throw them away. Just being aware of what they are and looking at them in the plain light of day can often be enough to see that it’s all bullshit and make it lose its hold. Then you can be free to move on and up, which leads me to…

3. Progress not perfection.

I once read that there is a big difference between perfectionists and those that just have high standards for themselves. Those with high standards have a certain level of self-respect, a want and need to produce results they know they are capable of, and have a strong work ethic to achieve that. Perfectionism is usually less to do with desiring high standards for oneself, as much as it might parade as that, and more about fear. Fear of failure.

This is why perfectionists often never write that book they talk about, or put on that solo cabaret. It’s a defence mechanism. The risk is too high. They’ve always got the perfect excuse, it’s never quite ready, they don’t have the time yet, they want to wait until it’s the best it can be.

When I learnt this, so much made sense to me. A lot of us performers are perfectionists, I know I certainly am, and the pressure we often put on ourselves us insane. The fear of making a fool out of ourselves is ironically often enough to paralyse us from taking action on our dreams and stop us from reaching the potential we know is within us.

As female entrepreneur bad-ass Marie Forleo put it:

‘The key to success is to start before you’re ready’

Starting before you are ready helps you to develop a habit of taking action, and of proving to yourself that these situations are never as scary as they are in your head. It also will give you hard solid evidence of the fact that you can frickin smash it, even with legs of jelly and your heart in your throat.

What do you know?

What do you know?

And hey, if you do fall on your face… you can still be proud. The very best have fallen, many a time. As cliché as it is, it is the ones who pick themselves back up that have the grit to stay in it for the long haul. Not many people are ever brave enough to put themselves in such an openly vulnerable position as publicly following their dreams, and that is reason enough to feel pretty damn good about yourself.

“A lot of cheap seats in the arena are filled with people who never venture onto the floor…For me, if you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.” – Brene Brown

At the end of the day, if you often wonder when you will be found out, and when people will realise you’re faking it, just know that you are in good company. Meryl Streep, Chris Martin, Amy Adams, Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Lady Gaga, Stephen Fry, and I could go on… have all spoken of their struggle with feeling like a fraud on a regular basis. Amy Poehler summed it up when she said:

‘Most people I know struggle with that complicated soup of feeling slighted on one hand and like a total fraud on the other’

At the end of the day, you belong. We all belong. The people on that panel have likely felt like imposters too, many times. They, also, were once kids in the audience of a show, being blown away and inspired by the magic, and it all seems too good to be true…

So take up your rightful place in the world, shine your unique light, and tell those old limiting beliefs where to get off!

Florence Andrews on Twitter
Florence Andrews
Florence Andrews trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Royal Academy of Music, where she won the Cameron Mackintosh Award, before being lucky enough to graduate straight into Trevor Nunn's production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music' at the Menier Chocolate Factory, and then at the West End’s Garrick Theatre. Since then, Florence’s credits, mainly in the West End, have included Annie Get Your Gun, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Wizard of Oz, Dandy Dick, Wicked, Once, Miss Atomic Bomb, and originating the role of Rosalie Mullins in School Of Rock.
Florence has also appeared as a soloist both internationally and at venues closer to home such as the Royal Festival Hall and Royal Albert Hall, and is a seasoned session singer when she's not camping it up on the stage. She is a mother of two little'uns, and exploring different mixes of tonic and spirit in order to support her new, somewhat challenging, side hustle as a home educator during lockdown. You can also #GetSocial with Florence on our sister site StageFaves.com.

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Florence Andrews on Twitter
Florence Andrews
Florence Andrews trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Royal Academy of Music, where she won the Cameron Mackintosh Award, before being lucky enough to graduate straight into Trevor Nunn's production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music' at the Menier Chocolate Factory, and then at the West End’s Garrick Theatre. Since then, Florence’s credits, mainly in the West End, have included Annie Get Your Gun, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Wizard of Oz, Dandy Dick, Wicked, Once, Miss Atomic Bomb, and originating the role of Rosalie Mullins in School Of Rock.
Florence has also appeared as a soloist both internationally and at venues closer to home such as the Royal Festival Hall and Royal Albert Hall, and is a seasoned session singer when she's not camping it up on the stage. She is a mother of two little'uns, and exploring different mixes of tonic and spirit in order to support her new, somewhat challenging, side hustle as a home educator during lockdown. You can also #GetSocial with Florence on our sister site StageFaves.com.