If you’re involved in theatre in any way, then you’ve definitely heard the phrase “there’s no small parts, only small actors” at least once– and probably far more than that. When I was younger, I figured this was just untrue. There are small parts, I thought, that’s just a fact. Some parts are on stage less, or have less lines. They’re small, but that’s not the actor’s fault.
Clearly I wasn’t alone in this sentiment and clearly I’m still not, because I constantly hear stories about actors quitting shows because they didn’t get a “good” part.
This idea among young theatre students– that there is indeed a “small part”— feeds into multiple bad behaviors that not only makes their acting worse but can make entire shows worse. In fact, I’d say that dispelling this myth is one of the most important things a director can do right off the bat to make sure their show has all the power it can have.
So let’s establish something right now– there is no such thing as a small part.
Yes, some have less stage time than others, and some have less lines. But that’s a terrible way of gauging importance to a show. There’s plenty of characters that aren’t in a show for long but are lastingly memorable and extremely important. Brenda is only in the second act of Catch Me If You Can, but she’s still a great role. Grizabella is only in a few scenes of Cats, but she’s by far the most memorable. The characters in Godspell pretty much only have a song each, but some of these songs are extremely recognizable even outside of theatre. Madame Morrible changes the trajectory of the entire plot of Wicked, and she’s only got a handful of lines in the whole show.
My point is this: just because a role doesn’t have many lines or isn’t on stage much doesn’t mean it’s unimportant.
But let’s say you’re no Brenda or Madame Morrible. What if you have an ensemble part? What if you don’t have a single line? What if you don’t even have a name?
You already know what I’m going to say about that, but you probably don’t understand why.
Yes, even the nameless ensemble character is important. In fact, nameless ensemble can make or break a show. They can still be just as recognizable as the characters above. At the beginning of Beauty and the Beast, nameless ensemble become incredibly iconic characters. In Catch Me if You Can, the Jet Set and the nurses are nameless ensemble members that are very important, and also loads of fun to play. Even when the characters aren’t iconic, they’re still important– imagine Wicked without “Dancing Through Life” or “One Short Day.” These songs couldn’t exist without a large cast of ensemble members. Maybe you don’t know who these munchkins are, but you still appreciate them being there! Furthermore, the ensemble parts have the incredibly difficult task of establishing the world or situation, or effecting tone or mood without having any lines. A good, fully-engaged ensemble makes a show fun or heavy- a bored ensemble makes a show boring and non-impactful.
I think I’ve established the first part of this maxim well- There’s absolutely no such thing as a small part and everyone on the stage has a very important task to be fulfilling.
So on to the second part- the “small actors”.
I mentioned a bored ensemble above. That would be a group of small actors. Someone who is cast as an important role but plays it bored and limp because they’re upset they don’t have a bigger part is a small actor. Anyone who shirks their responsibility to the show they auditioned for just because they aren’t the lead is a very, very small actor.
In part this is because of their failure to or lack of willingness to learn. Someone who shirks their responsibility to a show because they don’t like their part isn’t learning anything. Contrary, apparently, to popular belief, you can learn a ton from acting in the ensemble: how to make every line meaningful, how to use body language to convey a character without lines, how to stay on and engaged on stage at all times, so on. Someone who stays angry and lazy as a result won’t hone these skills. They won’t learn how to perform their role better, they won’t learn how to make more of an impact with less to work with- they’ll just say their piece and get off the stage to sulk. Anyone who does this will not become a good actor, and they should never get a larger part.
Like I mentioned before, even parts with one or two lines can become iconic and recognizable. Lurch from The Addams Family doesn’t speak a word until the very last song, but he’s still iconic and you can bet that a really great actor can make it a fantastic, hysterical role. A “small actor” would just be mad to be a side character and phone it in. No one would appreciate his presence. The role would effectively be wasted.
If you treat any given role this way, you shouldn’t be in the show at all. You’re wasting a vacancy of cast space that could be used to make the show better. A cast is only as strong as its weakest link and the moment someone isn’t all-in is the moment a show falters. Being a small actor will make the shows you’re in worse. You will be dragging down your friends and castmates.
So what can you do to avoid that?
You can learn. You can learn not to be upset and you can learn how to play your “small” part to the best of your ability. You can come out of the show having improved your acting abilities and impressed an audience.
Or you can just be mad. That’s what makes you a small actor. Being a small actor is a choice– and if you’d choose to do that, I’d prefer you not join any show of mine.