Daniel Evans: Learning the art of saying ‘no’ gracefully

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Being an artistic director has its challenges, of course. But none occurs more frequently than the challenge of having to turn people down.

Whether it’s actors following auditions, writers who send unsolicited scripts, playwrights whose work we’ve solicited, producers who want to co-produce or even an invitation to attend a play – at some point or other, every artistic director has to learn the art of saying ‘no’.

Rejection can be a bitter pill. I remember the feeling after auditioning for acting parts, particularly after being heavily invested in a role, or if an audition had gone unexpectedly well.

Despite your determination not to raise your own expectations, when the ‘no’ comes, those faint remnants of hope come crashing down too. It can take a while before you can pick yourself up, lick your wounds and put yourself out there again.

I recall leaving an on-camera audition at the BBC where the producer and director cried at the end of the take and showered me with praise, only to reject me later that day. I’d made the fatal error of skipping home, presuming the part was in the bag, but all the while mistaking their hyperbole for a job offer.

I still experience it now, of course, when an actor or director turns us down, or when the rights for a particular play are granted to another venue or producer. It still makes me wince.

So, I try my best nowadays to say ‘no’ with grace. It’s the least I can do – though I’ll admit it takes some doing. For one thing, the volume of submissions from strangers can be overwhelming at times, necessitating some sort of standard, polite reply.

It’s tricky with acquaintances, trickier with colleagues and perhaps trickiest with friends. After all, you don’t want to hurt their feelings. Their work holds significant meaning for them and you want to recognise and honour that.

But you must be clear at all costs. For example, there’s no point sugaring the pill by leaving the door open for future possibilities if what you really want is to shut it tight.

There are times when an actor isn’t right for a role, or a play isn’t appropriate for your programming rationale. In these circumstances, finding the apposite, honest language is essential – and only a personal note will suffice.

After all, we’re incredibly fortunate to be in the position to choose our employees and collaborators. We are lucky to be able to say ‘yes’ – and, when all is said and done, to give is much better than to receive.