We’re told in middle school drama, “There are no small parts… only small actors.”
There are small parts. And chances are that you will get one at some point. It can be deflating. The mental battle gets real.
- “Was I not good enough at auditions?”
- “Why did he get the part I wanted?”
- “Does the director just not like me?”
- “Will this even be worth my time?”
First of all, remember that the director didn’t have to cast you at all! But she saw something they liked and wanted you to be involved. It’s not a personal critique of your talent. It’s just a matter of the director’s vision, and that is her prerogative.
(Note: I believe that you can convince a director to sway her vision based on your audition, but we’ll talk about that another day!)
So, you’ve been cast in a small role. Now what? I’m going to put the next sentence up in a block quote because I think it’s just that important:
Small does not mean insignificant!
Seriously. I’ll say it again, this time in bold. Small does not mean insignificant! There is no such thing as a throw-away role. If your character was truly insignificant, it would have been edited out of the script long ago. You must believe this if you are going to enjoy this production at all.
Your character has an objective. Without exception. Study whatever lines or stage directions you have, and use those to determine what you want. Whatever you can’t surmise from the script, invent your objective while being true to the play. Ask yourself,
“If this is true of my character, what else is true?”
Answer and repeat several times. Before long, you’ll have a full profile of your character. And just like in any other role, pursue your objective. The audience will notice if you are or are not up there for a reason.
However, fight the temptation to get noticed. Support the scene without stealing it. You will probably have a sense if you are not actually being true to the script and to your character. Follow your gut and go back to basics.
“But Mike! You don’t understand! This is just a boring role!”
Does it have to be boring?
Harold Guskin, acting coach and author of one of my favorite books, How to Stop Acting, describes coaching Kevin Kline for his role in the Broadway musical On the Twentieth Century. Kevin was offered a small role as the leading lady’s lover. She was a big-time actress; Kevin’s character was a B-list actor always at her side. Kevin saw the part as a flat straight-man. There were very few lines from which to draw insight into the character. When Harold challenged Kevin that it didn’t have to be a boring role, Kevin caught inspiration. He asked himself, “If this is true [that my character is a small-time actor in the shadow of my A-list girlfriend], then what else is true?” He answers spurred him on to arm himself with new insights and new props, ready to make a fool of himself, and maybe lose his job, at the next rehearsal.
Kevin’s entrance was to follow the leading lady into a throng of photographers and media men. Kevin snatched one of the photographer’s cameras and turned it on himself. He threw a handful of confetti in the air and shamelessly self-promoted every chance he could. Later in the play, Kevin pulled out his very own full-sized headshot and taped it to the wall. Pictures of Kevin ended up everywhere! Kevin, though outwardly bold, secretly wondered if the director would think that he was going over-the-top, and that his attention-grabbing was actually Kevin trying to showboat a small part.
Fortunately for Kevin and for the play, the director loved the new interpretation, and this “small role” won Kevin Kline a Tony Award.
Small roles are still opportunities for big choices. Don’t resign yourself to being flat. Explore what is true, and the audience will be thrilled to come along with you.